Bella Bella prepares for spotlight with royal visit

By  Monica Lamb-Yorski – Williams Lake Tribune

Imagine children’s voices singing a traditional Heiltsuk song as waves from the Pacific Ocean lap against a breakwater.

That will be one of the scenes greeting the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on Monday when an excited Heiltsuk Nation welcomes the royals to Bella Bella.

“A couple of days ago I was sitting in my office and I could hear one of our songs,” Heiltsuk Chief Marilyn Slett told the Tribune. “It’s called The Herring Song. I heard it and wondered if someone was playing it and got up and walked around to see where it was coming from.”

Slett discovered it was the children’s cultural group singing down by the breakwater where the Duke and Duchess will arrive.

“They were down there practicing and it was actually spectacular. We have such a strong group of young people that are strong in our Heiltsuk culture and values. To hear their voices travel up from the water to my office was beautiful.”

Monday’s first-ever royal visit to Bella Bella will be a great way to showcase the community to the rest of the world, Slett said.

“We are hoping the world will see our beautiful Heiltsuk community and learn more about us in terms of our people and our culture,” Slett said. “It is a great opportunity for the Duke and Duchess to learn more about Heiltsuk people and Indigenous people too.”

All 1,700 people living in the community will be part of the celebration.

A traditional welcoming ceremony will take place outside when the royal couple arrive and a community cultural sharing is planned for inside the large community recreation hall, with drumming and dancing.

It is definitely a community visit, Slett said.

Community members have been preparing some traditional gifts to present to the royal couple as well, she said.

“We learned they were coming in late August and have been busy ever since,” she said chuckling. “It will be great and we are just really happy.”

When asked about her view of the Royal Family and the history of colonialism in Canada, Slett said her community has reflected on that as Indigenous people.

“We are on a path of reconciliation in our community and have been part of the reconciliation tables with Canada that started after the Liberal government was elected,” Slett said.

“Certainly we do look at that, but we also look at this in the sense of what better way for the Duke and Duchess to learn about our community than by getting to visit us and our beautiful homeland.”

It will be the first time any members of the Royal Family have visited the community, Slett confirmed.

The Heiltsuk are a very strong and progressive First Nations community, deeply rooted in their culture, progressive in their governance, and everything they do is tied to their title and rights, Slett said.

“We have definitely looked at colonialism through many different lenses and we also look at this visit as a way of our community building relations.”

During the visit, Prince William will present a plaque to dedicate the Great Bear Rainforest as part of the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy initiative.

The initiative, and the Great Bear Rainforest Order that was established on Jan. 28, 2016 by the B.C. government, are giving new names to work her people have always done, Slett said.

“We have been able to align the order with our values around the protection of our traditional territories.”

Archeological evidence indicates 14,000 years of occupation in the area by First Nations, she added.

“We have been living here as a people for a long time. Archeological digs go back showing thousands of years of occupation in Heiltsuk territory. It’s where our hearts are.”

Slett was born in the community, raised in Richmond and Delta B.C., and moved back to Bella Bella 25 years ago. She has been the chief for eight years.

In October 2015, her community signed its Heiltsuk Title and Rights Declaration.

“It’s a declaration that affirms our community’s position on our title and rights and strategy going forward. We are one of four exploratory tables in B.C. and one of 20 across Canada,” she said.