In 2012, a handful of students at Bella Bella Community School embarked on a project that spurred their interest in both the latest watersports craze and the traditions of their remote community.
On Campbell Island in British Columbia, Canada—land of the native Heiltsuk Nation—students in Chris Williamson’s woodworking class built 16 stand-up paddleboards using locally sourced and milled western red cedar.
Williamson was inspired to develop the project after professional stand-up paddleboarder Norm Hann paddled about 362 kilometers (225 miles) from Kitimat, a coastal city in British Columbia, to the community of Bella Bella. Hann’s trip was designed to raise awareness about the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project, a proposed oil pipeline stretching from Bruderheim, Alberta, to Kitimat. Critics say the pipeline would contribute to oil tanker traffic in British Columbia’s waters.
For Williamson, building stand-up paddleboards seemed like an ideal project for his woodworking class.
“The Heiltsuk people have an incredible history of working with the most abundant resource in their territory: cedar,” Williamson says by email. “From massive canoes carved from a single tree to water-tight bentwood boxes, their relationship to woodworking goes back many millennia. Coming to the Heiltsuk community with the goal of teaching about woodworking was challenging for me because of this long history of knowledge. While carving a canoe was not feasible since I didn’t have the skills, I wanted to have the students complete a project that would include a cultural connection with the ocean and utilize the incredible local wood supply.”
Williamson says building the stand-up paddleboards was a real challenge. Some students worked weekends and evenings to finish the project. All the hard work, however, was worth it.
“When the last coat of epoxy resin was put on, and the boards touched water for the first time, the excitement in the students was incredible to watch, and that experience has been the highlight of my teaching career,” Williamson says.
One student’s excursion was particularly gratifying, Williamson says.
“The experience that made me feel like the project was a success was when a student paddled about half an hour south of Bella Bella on his board with his fishing pole and began casting for salmon at the mouth of a river. When he hooked into one, the salmon fought so hard that it pulled him around on his board for about 15 minutes before he was able to reel it in. It felt like we had succeeded in melding an ancient tradition of traveling on the water in hand-built, wooden craft and harvesting food from the sea with the fastest-growing watersport on the planet, stand-up paddleboarding.”
Bella Bella Community School Principal Fred Schaub believes the paddleboard project caused the students to have a stronger connection to the area’s waters.
“It’s a symbolic thing to give the youth access to the water, because not everybody can afford a boat,” he says.
The project had a profound impact on native students, Schaub says. “For aboriginal students, there is that feeling of being second-grade just from their whole history. For us, it’s really all about building self-esteem and self-worth and showing those kids the value of where they live and the value of tradition and culture.”
Building stand-up paddleboards is not the only unique project at the K-12 school. In 2009, the senior woodworking class began building 60 traditional bentwood boxes. After Williamson’s class created the boxes, they were painted by Tom Kero’s art class.
Bentwood projects involve steaming pieces of wood, bending them into shape, and allowing them to harden. Many First Nations people of the west coast of Canada have created intricate bentwood boxes for centuries.
Creating Bella Bella’s bentwood boxes was no typical art project. The boxes were built to hold ancient Heiltsuk remains excavated in an archaeological dig in the 1970s. The remains were to be repatriated to Heiltsuk land and buried in the student-made boxes.
“[Bella Bella students] took it very seriously, and they took it reverently,” Kero says.
The project took two and a half years. One year was spent building the boxes, which were about the size of a small crate, and another year was spent painting traditional designs on them—symbols of a wolf, a killer whale, an eagle, and a raven. In 2011, the remains were returned to Namu, an ancestral Heiltsuk site, and buried in the students’ boxes during a special ceremony.
Another unusual aspect of Bella Bella Community School is the Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Students (SEAS) program. SEAS puts students in contact with regional experts from a variety of careers, from fishermen to visiting scientists.
“My role is to make science curriculum and classes in general more locally relevant,” says Johanna Gordon-Walker, Bella Bella’s SEAS coordinator.
Sixth-graders at Bella Bella learn about beach and forest ecology, for instance, by visiting the Hakai Beach Institute, which conducts research and educational programs on nearby Calvert Island.
“There are a lot of what we call migrating scientists here,” Principal Schaub says. “They come up and study a whole lot of things. Most of the time to be allowed to come to the territory they have to provide students and the school with some sort of presentation or invite.”
Along with the paddleboard and bentwood box projects, SEAS is just another way Bella Bella Community School links the modern and traditional worlds of the Heiltsuk.
“That’s really to connect the students to the traditional ways of life,” Schaub says. “We have a strong focus on science and math and, of course, literacy as well. [SEAS is designed] to get kids ready and interested in what is around them up here and possible career choices if they want to live here. All our school programs are very, very much connected to what is around here, so kids are out a lot. The local culture and language plays a big part.”