Heiltsuk ancestors return home to rest in Namu
Roy Carlson and Catherine D’Andrea, SFU Archaeology, 604.817.0212 (cell)
Harvey Humchitt, Heiltsuk First Nation, 250.957.7516 (cell)
Dixon Tam, SFU PAMR, firstname.lastname@example.org
(Note: Roy, Catherine and Dixon are in Bella Bella and have limited access via the Internet and cell phone. If you can’t reach Roy or Catherine via cell, send email to Dixon. Catherine and Dixon will be flying home to Vancouver Sept. 4, while Roy will be back in the Lower Mainland late on Sept. 5.)
It took 34 years but the journey home for the ancestral remains of the Heiltsuk First Nation finally ended Friday in Namu, B.C. Retired Simon Fraser University archaeologist Roy Carlson, who started the excavation in 1977 at the site near Bella Bella, helped supervise the reburial of the remains.
“I feel very privileged to participate in the return of the ancestors,” says Carlson, who joined others in shoveling dirt on the gravesite. “This has been a marvellous experience … I simply felt everything had come full circle. We’ve had these burials for quite awhile – they’ve been thoroughly studied and now they can go back into the ground.
“The Heiltsuk are a very forward-looking First Nation but they are also very much concerned with their past, particularly having their young people learn their traditions. One of their traditions is their ancestors belong at home.”
SFU signed an agreement last week to give the remains back to the Heiltsuk. During a special ceremony last Thursday, the remains were blessed and transferred to cedar bentwood boxes handmade by Aboriginal youths for burial.
The next day, members of the community gathered to sing and pray before the remains of 142 people – some dating back 4,500 years – were loaded onto boats and transported to Namu.
About 100 people from Bella Bella made the 50-minute boat ride to witness the reburial. After songs and prayers, Heiltsuk chiefs spread down feathers from an eagle – considered a symbol of peace – into the 7’x8’ burial pit, which was six feet deep and lined with cedar planks.
Gravediggers, who spent three days digging the pit, then nailed down cedar planks to cover the bentwood boxes before people in attendance took turns shoveling dirt onto the grave.
Analyzing the ancestral remains may field important information for the Heiltsuk, says Carlson.
“(The Heiltsuk are) very proud of the fact that the archaeology indicates their ancestors have been here for a very, very long period of time. Once the DNA analyses are complete, they will show what other peoples in the world that they are related to,” says Carlson. “Also, the isotopic analyses will show what resources were used in the past, and they should be able to tell us how much salmon people were eating. And since there have been no treaties between the Heiltsuk and the Canadian government, all of this is evidence for their claims, which one day will be settled.”
But for Heiltsuk First Nation chief Harvey Humchitt, treaties are not the most important matter at the moment.
“A lot of times we talk about how archaeology will be answers to treaties, but when I look at our ancestors this is way beyond treaties,” says Humchitt, who wiped away a tear when the first shovel of dirt was thrown on the grave. “When you look at our ancestors 4,500 years ago, this was a different place. It felt good to repatriate them and return them to the place they were taken them.”
The Heiltsuk plan to cover the gravesite with a concrete slab and create a plaque describing what happened to their ancestors and the journey they took back to their original resting place.