Grade 7 students working on the bent boxes. To see some more images, please see the image gallery on this site.
Bella Bella Repatriation of remains
In the 1970s and 80s, the archeology department at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC excavated a first nations site located at the village of Namu, BC. While Namu is now pretty much a ghost town, it has been a habitation site for around 10,000 years. In the last century, it was the location of a fish processing plant that employed many coastal people, including many from Bella Bella, presently the largest community on the central coast, and current home to around 1400 members of the Heiltsuk Nation.
A few years ago, the Heiltsuk began negotiations with SFU to have the remains returned to the village site. As the date grew closer, the repatriation committee asked the school to assist in the process. The remains were to be returned to Bella Bella, at which time they were to be placed in decorated bent boxes, taken to Namu and buried. This was a monumental project. It required the creation of sixty bent boxes, each 12"x12"x24", and an additional few smaller boxes. Each box needed to be decorated with one of the four clan crests of the Heiltsuk Nation: Eagle, Bear, Killer Whale and Raven. The crest designs, which were created for the occasion by local Heiltsuk artist, Larry Campbell, were to be comprised of a black outline, with areas filled in with red, blue and green.
Chris Williamson, the woodwork teacher at the time, was in charge of building the bent boxes. Traditional bent boxes are made by taking one board, kerfing it with a knife (in this case a router was used), steaming the wood to soften it, and bending until the two ends meet. The ends are joined, and the bottom and lid are added. I recall being amazed by the huge planks of clear red cedar rolling into the school from the local mill. Chris researched and created cutting and steaming system. He, several of his woodwork students spent much of 2010 cutting, milling and bending cedar into boxes.
Next, the boxes (without lids and bottoms) came to the art room. I screen printed the black image onto each box. This was interesting to me, as I had never attempted printing on anything other than paper or fabric. It wasn't too hard to do, after creating a jig to hold the screen in place. One challenge was that the sides of the boxes are not quite flat. Because the corners are bent, not assembled, the corners gently round back. Also , because they are individually hand made, they are not always identical to one another, so I had to make adjustments on the fly, so to speak.
After the boxes were outined, students and community members traced Larry's drawings onto both sides of tracing paper. The tracing paper was placed on the wooden boxes and each line was gone over with a pencil. Because the paper was traced on both sides, the pencil imprinted onto the wood. Each traced area was filled in with colour. Bella Bella Community School students from grade 5 up to grade 12, as well as about 15 or 20 volunteers spent around a month doing the painting. The boxes then went back to the wood shop to have the bases and lids put on. We finished this project in June of 2011.
Once completed, I did not see the boxes again until September when many of those involved took a two hour boat ride down to Namu. It was a spectacularly warm late summer day (a rare treat for the central coast) when we headed down for the ceremony. Approaching Namu is, in itself a strange experience. It is one of the many abandoned places in BC that make me marvel at the fact that, for a short time, this decaying place was the center of people's lives. Of course comparitively, the white settlement was short lived. The fish that sustained the Heiltsuk people for 10,000 years were gone after less than a century of industrial fishing.
The ceremony itself was solemn and moving; thirty or forty people including chiefs, elders, students, community members and archeologists stood in clearing in the forest above the town. The sound of drumming, singing and shovels were all that could be heard as the boxes containing Heiltsuk ancestors were lowered into a cedar lined chamber. Oncethe chamber was full, planks were laid on top and finally shovels full of dirt.
It was a rare privilage to be a small part of this project, in which the Heiltsuk people demonstrated their strength and resolve in regaining this important part of their history and heritage.