Do you remember the movie, The Neverending Story? It was an epic film, and if you haven’t seen it, you should go watch it then come back to this blog, because we don’t want to talk to you anymore until you’ve seen it. I mention it, because my impression of Bella Bella leads me to believe that it may be a tangible representation of Fantasia, the mystical world created with movie magic. Go ahead. Watch the movie. We’ll wait.
Welcome back. Did you love it? Do you have any idea what name Bastian screams at the end? Me either, but it’s still a great movie. Okay, now we can talk about Bella Bella.
Bella Bella is our second way point along the inside passage (yes, we’re going to make it that far). It is home to approximately 1450 residents. 90% of them are the Heiltsuk First Nation, 5% are other First Nationals and only the other 5% are non-First Nation. I would say that their story is much like the too uncommon, unfortunate story of many First Nationals worldwide, where they are forced off their land, which is taken over by progress and commerce. They lose their resources to survive and fall into poverty, depression, alcoholism, and hard times. But I already told you that isn’t their story. Their’s is the never-ending story and their land is Fantasia.
The Heiltsuk traditionally inhabit 13,000 square miles of the island and surrounding waters. Bella Bella is Indian Reserve #1 and the largest on Campbell Island. There is far more land than people, but plenty of creatures. The Great Bear Rainforest is home to the most dense concentration of grizzly bears on the continent. It also houses sea lions, otters, dolphins and whales. You may not have a chat with the Rockbiter. (If you don’t know what that is, you haven’t seen the movie and are terrible at following directions. That’s okay. We still like you because we don’t like directions either. I once attempted to put together a coffee table from Ikea without reading the instructions. There were seven pieces left over. The table is still standing.) On the other hand, you may spot the elusive Kermode (spirit) bear, which exists nowhere else in the world.
The Heiltsuk made their life and their living off forestry and fisheries for centuries, before dramatic changes to their fishery took much of their livelihood. It wasn’t helped at all by the American tug that ran aground last year, spilling thousands of liters of oil and sludge into their waters and shutting down the local clam harvest. Industry and progress were coming for the Heiltsuk. The oil slick representing The Nothing, as the Heltsuik stood their ground, because it is their ground and this is Fantasia, and they have already saved it.
See, some 30 years ago, Bella Bella started succumbing to The Nothing, especially their youth. 98% of students did not graduate and they faced the highest suicide rate in the country with a staggering average of one suicide per month. Families moved their children away for fear that they would be drawn into this Swamp of Sadness. Since then, the community has reconnected with it’s land in many ways. They built cabins and youth spent time fending for themselves rather than in detention centers. Camps were created for connecting youth with science, culture, marine life and wilderness. Reconnecting with their land gave them something to care about. In just 30 years, the graduation rate increased to over 85% and no one could recall a young person taking their life for at least 15 years. They believed in their land, and when they turned to it, it brought them back from the brink of destruction.
The Heiltsuk are not afraid of change, they are in control of it. Heiltsuk Economic Development Corporation still finds value in its fisheries and forestry, and is adding ecotourism to its focus. It plans to harness the power created by a nearby hydrostation to create an ocean ranch or possibly serve as a greenhouse for growing and exporting medicinal marijuana. The greatest past-time was inspired by building a large indoor basketball gym, allowing for year-round games and tournaments. They are building accommodations and trails for adventurists, including a recent visit from Prince William and Kate, and soon to include the intrepid crew of Freddy, Michael and Sandy. We are hoping to challenge them to a game of Horse. We couldn’t figure out how to spell horse in their native Wakashan language, but maybe we can play a game of Artax. Either way, we can’t wait to visit Bella Bella and meet its amazing, strong, and independent people.