Canadian History/The People of the Lands/Nootka
The name, Nuu-chah-nulth, means: “All along the mountains”.
When Captain Cook first met these people, he referred to them as the Nootka, a mistaken name that has stuck with them for years. He grouped a bunch of tribes together all under the Nootka, yet they were different people. They all spoke the Wakashan Language with different variations from their own culture. (See language) Today, each Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation includes several chiefly families, and most include what were once considered several separate local groups.
Fourteen Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations are divided into three regions:
- Southern Region:Ditidaht, Huu-ay-aht, Hupacasath, Tse-shaht, and Uchucklesaht
- Central Region:Ahousaht, Hesquiaht, Tla-o-qui-aht, Toquaht, and Ucluelet
- Northern Region:Ehattesaht, Kyuquot/Cheklesahht, Mowachat/Muchalaht, and Nuchatlaht
Nuu-Chah-Nulth houses could be as long as 30 metres and were built with cedar beams and hand-split boards according to the same principles as Coast Salish houses. An example Nuu-Chah-Nulth house belonged to the head chief of the Tsesha'ath people who live near the present-day town of Port Alberni, at the head of Barkley Sound. The house stood in the 1800s. Although Nuu-Chah-Nulth houses were often set broadside to the beach, this house faced the beach. Below its large round doorway are ten round holes, representing ten moons. Above the entrance, two Thunderbirds face each other, and above each Thunderbird is the figure of a Lightning Snake, the supernatural servant of the Thunderbird. Above the Lightning Snake are two supernatural Codfish, facing each other.
Wakashan is one of the eleven native language families in Canada. The Wakashan language family is one of the six found in British Columbia alone. Wakashan has two main branches, Kwakiutl and Nuu-chah-nulth. Nuu-chah-nulth itself is divided into three languages. The northern and central Nuu-chah-nulth groups speak dialects of one language, while the southern group (Ditidaht and Makah) speak separate but closely related languages.
The social organization of the Nuu chah nulth people was based on a stratified local group or lineage. The chief was at the top and his oldest son was to inherit everything, including becoming the title. The chief title was hereditary, and only men could be chiefs. Primogeniture. That's what it was. The Chief's younger sons and their families made the middle class and the other families were the commoners. They also kept slaves. No slave or commoner could ever become a chief. Families were grouped and within those families, there was a recognized head of the family. Families were very important. Also, there was status within the families.
Leadership and Government
The house chief, as the central authority figure, had charge of resources within his territory, and was entitled to receive a share of everything harvested in them. Although he was powerful, maintaining his high standing was heavily dependent on the support the chief and his family obtained in the community. The chief had to provide adequate protection for his people, and if he did not, they could leave him for a better chief. Also, since he would get a share of everyone's crops and gatherings, he could live well and have big potlatches (parties). Protection and these parties appealed to the people the most. The relationship between a chief and his group can thus be referred to as a total social relationship: the chief relies on the members of his group to harvest the resources within his territory, and they rely upon him for his ability to provide them with ritual and economic security.
Although whaling was more of a hunting ritual than a religion, it was part of their religion nevertheless. The whale harpooner was a person of high rank, and families passed down the magical and practical secrets that made for successful hunting. There was also a whale ritualist using ceremonial procedures, caused whales that had died of natural causes to drift ashore. Many features of this whaling complex suggest ancient ties with Eskimo and Aleut cultures. Their religion centred on shamanism and animism. The most important Nuu-chah-nulth ceremony was the shamans’ dance, a re-enactment of the kidnapping of an ancestor by supernatural beings who later gave him supernatural gifts and released him. The ceremony served to define each individual’s place in the social order. The public performance ended with a potlatch.
With the principle of "hish-shuk-ish-tsawak" which means "All things are one or everything is connected", everything was important. Singing and dancing was part of their way of life. Story telling was important and community and family gatherings were important. Feasts and Potlatches were important.
Both genders wore cedar-bark or fur robes pinned together at the right side, and women had in addition bark aprons extending from the waist to the knees.
The bulk of their food came from the sea: clams and urchins collected near the shorelines; salmon caught from the canoes as well as in and around spawning streams in fall; halibut fished in deep water far offshore; and sea mammals such as whales, seals and porpoises, all hunted from the canoes.
Dugout canoes, sturdy and heavy because they went hunting and traveling on the sea, where the waves were much bigger than in rivers and lakes. Also, they had to be strong enough to take some of the weight of whales, because they drag the whale back, tied to a team of canoes, to the village after hunting.
Keeping track of time
They actually had names for each month of the year. The moon, especially was useful in keeping track of the time of year. Obviously, the four seasons also had names. For example, summer was "tluu-piich". Knowing the four seasons served to keep one aware of one's age. Also, a coming of age for a female was very important and was marked by teachings for women delivered prior to a ceremony which marks one's coming of age (ready for womanhood). There was also a coming of age for manhood.
Prior to contact, the communities were fully self-contained, which means that most tribes wanted for almost nothing. If there was a need, then trade was conducted with tribes who were better able to provide. Each member of the tribe were trained to perform their specified tasks. In some cases, special training took place for river keepers and for speakers, as an example.
In the old days, very little ceremony was conducted, when someone passed away, except for Ha'wiih (hereditary chiefs) or people of stature.
The Nuu-Chah-Nulth: Interview with Clifford Atleo Sr., President of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal council, a member of the Ahousaht.