From Bella Bella to Broadway

From Bella Bella to Broadway

The Heiltsuk First Nation of Canada visits New York students.


“We are totally intertwined with our environment in Bella Bella. We know that by protecting our resources and taking care of our environment, we are protecting our own lives.”

-William Housty, Heiltsuk Leader


By Phil Hoose

Seven weary travelers spill out of taxis in front of the High School for Environmental Studies, a red-bricked former television studio in Manhattan’s theatre district. These young people from the Heiltsuk First Nation of Canada are jet-lagged, having flown just two nights before from their remote Pacific Coastal community of Bella Bella, within the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia.

The Heiltsuks have come to meet the students of HSES, one of nine environmentally themed schools in New York City, and the first to be established in the United States.

This visit is intended to initiate what may become an environmental exchange program between First Nation students of the British Columbia rainforest and students in New York City.

The effort is part of a Nature Conservancy-supported outreach and education program called SEAS (Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards) Community Initiative, which seeks to empower youth of coastal First Nation communities to be stewards of their land and natural resources by building educational capacity, creating opportunities for hands-on experience and supporting youth in achieving their educational and career goals.

The day before the school visit, the Heiltsuks visited the American Museum of Natural History, which houses several hundred Heiltsuk-made artifacts.

The delegation, seeing these objects for the first time, were greatly moved: They spent much of the day singing to the pieces, talking to them and touching them. Portions of eagle feathers clung to one object. A mask had traces of human skin, transmitted by paint and sweat.

“They’ve slept for a long time,” said one member of the delegation, Jessie Housty, about the artifacts. “We woke them up. They remember us now. And something of that long, collective history of our people has been reawakened in us as well.”

Meeting New York Students

The next day, it was the New York students’ turn to be in awe. Forty freshmen tromped into the classroom, dropped their backpacks and slid into their seats.

Standing at the front of the classroom were the Heiltsuks: William Housty, a Heiltsuk leader with a great knowledge of stories, names and genealogy; Ian Reid, a master carver and artist; Terry Reid, a gifted linguist who speaks Heiltsuk fluently and teaches it to children; Collin Reid a powerful dancer; Jessie Housty, an accomplished dancer and cultural leader; Rory Housty, who has a proficient knowledge of sacred ceremonies and Kevin Starr, lead singer of Heiltsuk songs.

William Housty, the group’s main spokesperson, began by introducing his brothers, and sister, in the Heiltsuk language. He reminded the students, “We are speaking in a foreign language here today–English.” He tells them that the word Heiltsuk means “to act and speak properly.”

The students were rapt as William spoke. He is a large young man with rounded shoulders, a level voice and a relaxed, straightforward way of speaking that commands attention.

“The Canadians made a map of our territory,” William explains. “It had the names of shipwrecks and explorers. But we had our own names, and we kept them. Those are the ones we use.”

He told of the smallpox epidemic that swept through their village after European contact, reducing the population from 11,000 people to 700. He, and his companions, offered stories—some mythical, others about day-to-day experiences—of contact with bears and eagles, whales, wolves, salmon and the mighty western red cedar tree that sustains the community. There is pin-drop silence as he tells of grizzlies he and two other researchers have encountered during a multi-year census of the bears along the Koeye River.

Carver Ian Reid holds up a boldly-painted mask he fashioned from a cedar tree. He explains its meaning, and talks about the importance of the western red cedar tree to Heiltsuk life. He carefully hands it to a student to pass around. “This is how I make my living,” he says. “My carvings are all over the world.”

Then the Heiltsuk visitors brought out hand-fashioned drums, covered with tautly-stretched deer hide, with vivid paintings that tell stories. The Heiltsuks formed a circle and began to sing as three men struck the drums in slow, steady patterns. The sound thundered through the hallways. Faces appeared in the windows of the classroom door. A bell rang. Nobody budged. A crowd swelled outside the classroom. The performance ended with a single sharp drumbeat—and hearty applause. William asked if the students had any questions. Shy silence gave way to curiosity:

  • “Have you ever been attacked by a bear?”
  • “Did you make your necklace?”
  • “Is the hair on that mask human hair?”
  • “Do you live in regular houses?”

William explains that not only do Bella Bella’s students live in regular houses—though it wasn’t always so—but that Heiltsuk youth have Gameboys® and iPhones®.

“Our people walk around texting too,” he says. “But for a little while each summer we take them away, and bring them outside to a camp to remind them of who they are.”

When the teacher tells the class they really do have to move on to the next period, William leaves the students—the Big Apple’s greenest—with a final thought: “We are totally intertwined with our environment in Bella Bella. We know that by protecting our resources and taking care of our environment, we are protecting our own lives.”

Students in New York City and First Nation students will have more opportunities to learn about each other through a growing partnership between the SEAS Community Initiative, the High School for Environmental Studies and The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF Program. During this next school year, SMART boards will be used to provide a forum for virtual exchanges between these schools, focused on discussions of biodiversity, environmental conservation and monitoring. The program even hopes to host an exchange of students for summer internships during the summer of 2012.


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