A new men’s wellness group in remote Bella Bella, off the northwest coast of B.C., is filling a void for people in the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) community — who are learning to heal through land-based, ancestral teachings.
Jefferson Brown was hired by the Heiltsuk Káxḷá Society as a men’s wellness worker in April. He says he’s ready to share his own life lessons with others, while learning also from the other men.
Although there are existing land-based programs for families, children, and youth in the community, Brown says this is the first group offered as a safe space specifically for men to gather together.
Each week, he leads a group of men in activities that have included walks, excursions on the water to ancestral village sites, hunting and gathering for traditional foods, and learning from archaeologists.
“It’s all based on physical activity, we’re walking in and getting reconnected to the land,” he explains.
“We don’t push healing on people in the sense that they’re forced to share with us whenever they want to come. Sometimes it’s just a place to hang out.”
Being Haíɫzaqv men
Brown speaks about recent hunting and gathering excursions, where the group harvested seaweed, and how it has forged a sense of belonging and purpose.
“This coming week, we’re going to go and pick some clams,” he says.
“These guys can bring this home and put food, not only on their own family’s table, but help disperse to some of the Elders.”
Brown touches on how the group addresses the expectations imposed on Indigenous men through a colonial lens. It provides an opportunity for men to reimagine and reclaim their versions of strength.
“For myself personally, it opens up a space where there’s no judgment,” he says.
“Men don’t have to come and be so-called stoic or a tough guy. I don’t believe that as First Nations men, that’s what symbolizes strength. If there’s no crying, no showing people if there’s any hurt or anger, shared pain in your life — I don’t believe that’s the way forward.”
Due to COVID-19, it’s been hard to include Elders in the gatherings without putting them at risk, Brown says, but there are plans to include them as soon as it’s safely possible.
“As soon as we can get into the big house, we’re going to definitely have at least one Elder there with us at all times to do singing and dancing practices,” he says.
“We don’t do any of our cultural practices without the guidance of Elders.”
Brown says the gatherings have already had a positive impact on men of all ages in the community.
“Now, we have guys in their early forties coming out with young men in their early twenties,” he says.
“We had the one child come with his father out on the boat, he got to experience some jigging and we got off at old village sites — so he got to walk on that ground.”
When international travel is allowed, Brown says he would love to expand the group as a cultural exchange with Indigenous men in other communities, such as Māori peoples in New Zealand.
“I think it’s important to start showing the men here that Indigenous men from other communities go through the same struggles on the other side of the world — and that they’re rising up above years and years of oppression,” he says.
Brown is inspired by She is Not Your Rehab, an Indigenous initiative from New Zealand that has sparked a global anti-violence movement.
“We are a matriarchal society, and I firmly believe that when we start lifting our women up and putting them first, our communities are going to take off,” he says.
“That means being able to take care of them and not expecting them to heal your journey. Taking more responsibility as a man for your own. Your wife can’t be your counsellor, your wife can’t be your therapist. And she’s not your doormat.”
The most important thing is for people to share their stories — no matter how small — says Brown.
“I share my story as ugly as it gets, or ugly as it has been in the past, I share it. And that’s what resonates with people when you’re real,” he says.
“If you’re in a leadership position or if there’s children that look up to you, share your story, people need to know the real truth of how you got to where you are.”