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Doctrine of Discovery: A Linchpin of Heiltsuk Cultural Genocide 

Beach rocks in the foreground make way to a sandy coastline and light waves. A sunset colours the sky. The Heiltsuk sigil is overlaid.

by Pauline Hilistis Waterfall, OBC, Heiltsuk First Nation Elder, educator, artist, and author.

This reflection was prepared as part of the Art of City Building, 2022, to offer context for some of the discussion.

My ancestral name is Hilistis, which I inherited from my paternal grandmother. It is a name that comes from an origin story and translated it means: “starting on a journey and staying on course until coming full circle and returning home.” I was born into the Heiltsuk Nation 78 years ago. Heiltsuk history and experiences, including my own, frame what I share, beginning from our origins and how the colonial noose impacted and untethered our Heiltsuk world and life. I share traditional teachings and beliefs to better understand the magnitude of this immense injustice.  

It is my hope that my reflections will cast light on the truth with my position that the Doctrine of Discovery has been the etiology of racial pathology. It was a means to exert the notion of colonial supremacy and subjugation of the First Peoples of these lands, resulting in the cultural genocide of my Heiltsuk world. 

The essence of the Doctrine of Discovery gave rise to the prohibition of our culture from 1885-1951. The rationale was that attempts to Christianize and civilize us were compromised by practicing our cultural beliefs and ways. Speaking my Heiltsuk language was prohibited with the English language being viewed as superior to my mother tongue. Our educational ways were subjugated by mandatory attendance in residential school institutes as tools of indoctrination into a perceived superior education system. The traditional laws and governance systems were outlawed and replaced by an English system viewed as paramount of higher rank. 

In brief, the impetus of the Doctrine of Discovery was more than simple land vacancy waiting to be controlled by the Crown. Most detrimentally, it enabled the Crown to claim sovereignty over Indigenous Peoples and lands by holding that Indigenous Peoples cannot claim ownership of land. It became entrenched in every facet of our Heiltsuk world, chipping away a once vibrant, independent, functional, sustainable and proud nation – reducing us to poverty and dependence. 

The Heiltsuk Nation is in the heart of what is known as the Great Bear Rainforest. Our village of Bella Bella is located on an isolated island nestled in a pristine natural environment surrounded by ocean. Our traditional ways and customs evolved over millennia and are now blended with modern conveniences as we adapt to changing circumstances –just as our ancestors did. For example, our nearly extinct Hailzhaqv language is taught through a variety of ways including an app available on our gadgets. Our salmon is preserved naturally as well as with dehydrators. We wear brand-name shoes or moccasins depending on the occasion. In brief, we continue to adapt, grow and survive. 

Nu’yem is the Heiltsuk word to describe oral history stemming from the time of creation. U’gami refers to our Creator. Y’maskas ai’ga-xai means the Highest Chief who dwells in the heavens. Both describe the essence or  power which formed all creation and breathed life into it.  

The following are excerpts of a nu’yem told by Heiltsuk historian, Willie Gladstone, a descendant of the Go’kwa-aitxv tribe at the Gale Creek area within our homelands. At the beginning of time, U’gami made the w̓áxv:w̓uís – the universe including the earth we call home. When all was completed, U’gami made the first human, who became alive and found himself lying on a beach with nothing around him except rocks and stones. He went to sleep and heard a voice telling him to wake up. The man could not see where the voice was coming from – it was in the air. After he woke up, he saw trees all around him. He went back to sleep… The origin story goes on to relate how humans, plants, animals, creeks, ocean etc. were formed, including salmon as the main food source for the first generation of Heiltsuk people in their homeland at Gale Creek. 

Fast forward to 14,000 years ago. Archeological evidence corroborates our nu’yem that our ancestors survived the ice age that occurred about 12,000 years ago. Scientific research identified a post-glacial sea hinge balanced by tectonic and glacial forces to form a stable landform on the outer coastline of Heiltsuk homelands. This is where our ancestors migrated and survived the ice age. Furthermore, our oral history is corroborated by Western science with the unearthing of an ancient village in this same area. A set of three fossilized human footprints were found and carbon dated to be about 14,000 years old. Seven hundred generations ago our ancestors walked on that sandy shoreline. We have a flood story of how two local mountains provided refuge for our ancestors as the waters were rising. Collaborative research continues to forge a model of mutual benefit that supports western and traditional knowledge and findings. 

Laxvai is a Heiltsuk word that describes the sources from which we derive our resilience and strength. These include: family, language, nationhood, food, history, customs, ceremonies, identity, values, and beliefs. Nu’yem teaches about reciprocal relationships with our natural world including land and marine animals and plants. It teaches about responsibility to maintain balance and harmony with each other and our environment as the keystone principle to sustain our existence and wellbeing. 

Over eons, Heiltsuk people became astute traders and fishers based on their ancient coexistence within their world and they welcomed opportunities for economic growth. Initial contact with newcomers was mutually beneficial in the establishment of trading and fishing economies.  This was altered with the onset of permanent settlers requiring land bases eventually leading to the establishment of Indian reserves. What was once an extensive area of Heiltsuk homelands and water access is now reduced to small postage sized plots of land with regulated limitations to harvesting salmon and other food sources that sustain our Heiltsuk way of life.  

In general, Indigenous-settler relationships changed over time – sometimes for better but other times for worse, depending on what was needed. For example, during the War of 1812, a military alliance was formed between the British and Indigenous people but this changed significantly after the war. British notions of superiority took hold and were reinforced by the convergence of missionary efforts to Christianize the original peoples. The relationship was further eroded and imbalanced by implementation of the “Gradual Civilization Act” in 1857. This act entrenched attempts to assimilate the original peoples at the behest of Christianity and politics. The legislated Indian Act in 1876 led to the displacement of our ancient sustainable governance, cultural, socioeconomic, judicial and other systems. Through all of its iterations, the Indian Act defined legislated dominance and control over most aspects of Heiltsuk life and continues to do so today. It defines our Indian status, land allocation, resource access and use, administrative perimeters, education, and so on. 


Heiltsuk Vocabulary:

Nu’yem describes oral history stemming from the time of creation.

U’gami refers to our Creator.

Y’maskas ai’ga-xai means the Highest Chief who dwells in the heavens.

Laxvai describes the sources from which we derive our resilience and strength.

Gvi’I;las are traditional laws.

w̓áxv:w̓uís is the universe including the earth we call home


I believe that the pathological relationship between the state, church and Indigenous people became rooted in the racist notion that Indigenous people were considered to be savages devoid of any spiritual beliefs, values, ethics or tenets. In fact, the opposite was true with the moral and ethical fabric of our society intact and reinforced through our Gvi’I;las (traditional laws) and governance systems.  

The documentation of impacts upon Indigenous children forcibly legislated to attend Indian residential school institutes took place between 2007-2015 with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. After the TRC’s release of 94 recommendations, Prime Minister Trudeau visited Italy to urge Pope Francis to visit Canada to apologize for the Catholic Church’s treatment of Indigenous children who attended the institutes which were run by Catholic churches. Of note, I refuse to call these institutes “schools” because to do so would imply a wonderful, safe and inspiring place of learning. We know now that they were anything but this. 

Canadian societal indifference or denial seemed to prevail until May 2021 with the discovery of 215 unmarked graves of children in the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School institute that was in operation for 79 years until 1969. As of May 2022, a total of 2,207 unmarked graves have been identified across Canada and this is expected to increase with the use of ground penetrating radar in former Indian residential school locations. The papal visit occurred from July 24-29, 2022 in Canada with Pope Francis’ visit being regarded as an apology tour. How this unfolds, remains to be seen. 

There have been ongoing calls to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery advocating that it informs and influences policies and practices entrenched in legislation and procedures. It is viewed as a doctrine of superiority that impinges on reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and Canada in general. By dismantling it, reconciliation can be advanced to interface with Canadian law with the International Human Rights Law that repudiates the doctrine. It requires acknowledgement of pre-existing self-determining sovereignty as the key to healing a traumatic past that continues to haunt us today. As such, I call upon the Catholic Church to denounce and dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery as the first step in being true partners of healing and reconciliation. 

My reflections stem from lived experiences of efforts by the Canadian state to mold indoctrinate and acculturate me through religious, political and educational policies of assimilation. Academic impositions to educate me were in complete juxtaposition to my cultural inheritance of natural learning through organic and experiential teachings. Until the age of 12 years, I was immersed in mastery skills acquisition through age-appropriate learning and growing within a safe network of support to guide and nurture me. Positive reinforcement was the flagship for my development as a young Heiltsuk citizen. My mind was enriched by relational learning rooted in values of caring, nurturing, supporting and encouraging without judgment. As with other Heiltsuk children, I was viewed to have inherited traits or characteristics to be developed and enriched in order to grow my sense of place and responsibility within my community. It was never about myself. Rather, it was always about how to benefit and enhance the whole. I grew with confidence and assurance that I had a rightful place and responsibility within my world; that I was worthy and that I mattered. 

This all changed when I was forced into a rigid educational world with its goal to expunge the “Indian” from me and indoctrinate me into a perceived superior world. I was forced to learn an alien language that didn’t reflect my Heiltsuk history, beliefs or values. Whereas, my Heiltsuk language embodied the principles that gave me a sense of place, identity and worth. Every time I spoke my language I was threatened, punished and shamed into silence, fear and confusion. I no longer felt safe, nor would I fit in unless I conformed to the imposition of an external educational system that eclipsed and overshadowed my Heiltsukness for at least five decades. 

Academia reinforces the scientific method of proof to support a theory or thesis validated by published evidence. This is reinforced through judgement of perceived validity defended in a collegial court. This perpetuates a bureaucracy with perceived intellectual supremacy where Indigenous wisdom or knowledge doesn’t fit. Within this milieu, I experienced intellectual alienation because my wisdom and knowledge are oral-based with no published bases to defend authenticity or relevance. I struggle to find a way for my Heiltsuk knowledge to be accepted, acknowledged and affirmed as having equal worth and validity. Practical applications continue to be minimized or questioned. 

For example, in 2015 an American-owned fuel barge and tug hit the beach at Gale Creek, contaminating a vibrant ecosystem that was a main source of our food. Heiltsuk first responders, who are local experts, clashed with outside first responders because their formal training was deemed more applicable. As predicted by Heiltsuk experts, mitigation efforts were compromised by outsider attempts that didn’t account for tidal currents, wind direction and so on. This experience was replicated when Heiltsuk experts were discounted when they informed the Northern Gateway project on why oil shouldn’t be transported through treacherous marine routes that would result in environmental fuel spill disasters. 

I have served as an Indigenous knowledge keeper to advise various research and other projects which required Indigenous partnership or collaboration. In most situations, Indigenous knowledge was pitted against Western academic or scientific preconceptions and inclusive knowledge creation was tokenistic at best. Indigenous knowledge was being grafted onto a body of work like an organ transplant. It became untenable to participate in some projects because I experienced distrust and disillusion as I tried to push an Indigenous knowledge boulder up an academic hill and it became too onerous. 

The Doctrine of Discovery justified the claim of terra nullius (land legally deemed to be unoccupied or uninhabited) to enforce colonial sovereignty over Indigenous Peoples and lands by holding that Indigenous Peoples cannot claim ownership of land. I dare to say that this Doctrine of Discovery has been applied by academia over my intelligence as a human being with a perceived “mental vacancy,” waiting to be indoctrinated into foreign academic thinking. It requires me to conform and maintain status quo, echoing colonial rhetoric that pays lip service to supporting reconciliation. This is restricted and defined by a long-established academic order of perceived intellectual supremacy. In turn, this entrenched perception continues to compromise or inhibit the meaningful engagement between Indigenous and Western knowledge systems. 

Nature’s way of drawing our attention to imbalance is evident in the global rise of human-caused climate change. As well, societal degradation is clear with food sovereignty loss, poverty explosion, mental illness escalation, death rate epidemics from drug overdose and other signatures of societal demise. This is further compromised by the COVID pandemic that has exacerbated underlying imbalances and illnesses. Our natural world is frayed and we must work together to braid together the threads of wellness, healing and balance. 

There are no short or cookie cutter answers on how to work together as true partners to collaborate and find solutions for the healing of our world’s problems. Our global home is being levelled to ground zero because of deteriorating environmental conditions. We must now draw upon each other’s skills, talents and experiences to heal our broken world. This is the ethos of my early life when natural talents and interests were honed and developed to be used for the greater good. 

Writing my reflections make me feel vulnerable and naked but I need to be true to myself and my ancestors in how I am able to relate to my world and the work I have left to do. I have been taught to contribute to an inheritance for my future generations that is as good as, or better than, what I inherited. In the last trimester of my life, I am working toward that goal and releasing that boulder, knowing that my strength and determination is diminishing and that proving my intellectual worth is no longer needed. I am an eternal optimist and know that should the light shine from a crack that allows healing to begin, I will continue to have hope. To give up, mute my voice and shelf my wisdom would be akin to leaving an inheritance of a home that is deficient, defective and inhabitable. I could never abandon my descendants and am committed to doing all I can to pursue the quest for a better life and a healthier environment in which future generations can thrive and grow. After all, we are one big human family whose time is important but transitory in the whole scheme of the universe 

Was the Doctrine of Discovery a catalyst resulting in Heiltsuk cultural genocide?  In my lived personal experience, I was subjected to rigorous attempts to alienate and eliminate every part of my Heiltsuk self and world. However, my genetic resilience, courage and strength fought against this and I now embrace the fullness of my Heiltsukness. I have returned home.


Photo in header by James Wheeler, Heiltsuk emblem added.

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