Bella Coola (Native Americans of the Northwest Coast)

Bella Coola is an Anglicization of a Heiltsuk word for the speakers of the Bella Coola language. The native word for the people of the Bella Coola valley was Nuxalkmx. They consisted of four or five subgroups linked linguistically, territorially, and culturally, although not politically. These people are known today as the Nuxalt Nation.

Location Traditionally, several permanent villages existed south and east of the Bella Bella and the Haisla, east of the Queen Charlotte Sound coast in British Columbia. These people may also have occupied territory east of the Coastal Range. Beginning around 1800, they consolidated their villages at the mouth of the Bella Coola River. In 1936, a flood forced them to move from the north to the south shore of the river’s mouth. Their traditional territory is rugged, with mountains, estuaries, and forests. The climate is cool and wet.

Population Perhaps 1,400 Bella Coolas lived in their villages in 1780. In the 1970s, roughly 600 lived on their reserves and in Northwest cities.

Language Bella Coola is a Salishan language.

Historical Information

History The Bella Coola were latecomers to the region, probably arriving around 1400. In 1793 they encountered the explorers George Vancouver and Alexander Mackenzie; the Indians traded fish and skins to them for iron, copper, knives, and other items. As the fur trade developed, Hudson’s Bay Company maintained a local fort/post from 1833 to 1843. During this period, the Bella Coola prevented furs from the Carrier Indians (an eastern group) from reaching the coast, thus maintaining a trade monopoly with the whites.

Shortly after gold was discovered in their area (1851), disease, alcohol, and hunger combined to weaken and kill many Indians. A severe smallpox epidemic in 1863 forced the abandonment of numerous villages. Hudson’s Bay Company operated another local trading post from 1869 to 1882, and Protestant missionaries penetrated the Bella Coola territory in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1885, nine Bella Coolas journeyed to Germany for 13 months, dancing and singing for European audiences and inspiring the anthropologist Franz Boas to begin his lifelong study of Northwest Coast Indians. A Norwegian colony, the first local non-Indian settlement, was established in the Bella Coola Valley in 1894.

These changes, combined with the gradual transition to a commercial (fishing and logging) economy and the replacement of traditional housing with single-family structures, weakened descent groups and led to the gradual consolidation of ceremonials and the abandonment of songs. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the people relearned the old songs, using recordings made by anthropologists. In the 1970s, the revival of traditional culture also included new masks and dances.

Religion The Bella Coola recognized four or five worlds, including a center, or human, world. A supernatural being kept this flat center world level and balanced. There were many deities and a supreme female deity, all of whom resided in the sky. All things had spirits that could intervene in the lives of people. Favorable intervention might be gained through prayer and ritual sexual intercourse.

Their extremely rich ceremonialism was dominated by two secret societies as well as the potlatch. Membership in one such society, Sisaok, was restricted to the children and relatives of certain chiefs. An extended period of seclusion accompanied initiation, as did songs and the display of carved masks with crests. The ceremony dramatized various kin-related legends. The other society, Kusiut, was based on contact with the supernaturals. Its dances, such as cannibal, scratcher, breaker, and fungus, included songs and masks representing supernatural beings. These dances dominated the ceremonial period, which lasted from November through March.

All people had the potential to become shamans; the event occurred when a supernatural being conferred power through a visit, a name, and songs.

Some such power could cure sickness. Some shamans received power through ghosts and could see dead people; they cured disease caused by ghosts.

Government Aboriginally, the Bella Coola inhabited between 30 and 60 autonomous villages, each consisting of from 2 to 30 houses arranged in a row along a river or creek bank. Each village had a chief, whose status derived from his ancestral name, prerogatives, and wealth. Chiefs had little direct ruling power. A woman who had been "rebought" several times, and had thus helped her husband accumulate status, was also recognized as a chief.

Customs Descent groups probably owned fish weirs in aboriginal times. Hunting, too, could only occur in an area claimed by a descent group. Hunters, some of whose ancestral prerogatives allowed them to be known as professionals, underwent ritual preparation.

The units of social organization included the household, village, and descent group, or all those with a common ancestral mythology. A child could inherit both parents’ descent groups, but residence with the father’s family tended to reinforce the patrilineal line. Social status was important and clearly delineated. The ability (and obligation) to give away gifts on ceremonial occasions (potlatches) was a key component of social status. Social mobility was possible, and even slaves might obtain dance prerogatives and thus achieve some status.

Babies were born with the assistance of midwives in a birth hut in the woods. Their heads were flattened and their bodies massaged daily. Wealthy parents gave naming potlatches. Infanticide and abortion were occasionally practiced. The Bella Coola pierced the nasal septa of high-status children, both boys and girls; the occasion was accompanied by potlatches. Upon reaching puberty, girls were secluded, and their activity and diet were restricted for a year. There were no boys’ puberty rituals, although their first hunted game was distributed and eaten ritually as were the first berries gathered by girls.

Although the "ancestral family" was an important source of Bella Coola identity, they did intermarry extensively with other peoples. Parents and elderly relatives arranged marriages, around which there were many rituals and opportunities to increase status. The relatives of high-status brides were expected to "rebuy" the woman (donate goods) every time her husband gave a potlatch. Cruelty, neglect, and infidelity were considered grounds for divorce.

Corpses were buried squatting in a wooden box. Twins’ coffins were placed in trees. Coffins may also have been placed in caves, on scaffolds, or on top of memorial poles. They may also have been wrapped in bearskins and left on tree stumps in the forest. Property was also buried at the funeral.

Music could be both sacred and secular. The former was sung by a choir, who used sticks and drums for a beat, and three main performers. Various wind instruments were also used to symbolize the supernaturals.

Dwellings Permanent houses were large, planked structures. They were constructed of red cedar and often built on stilts against floods and enemies. Housefronts were decorated with the owner’s crest. Houses were inhabited by extended families. Entrance was through carved house posts. Some winter houses were excavated, with only the roofs showing.

Diet The Bella Coola enjoyed a fairly regular food supply. Fish were the staple, including five types of salmon plus steelhead trout, rainbow and cutthroat trout, eulachon, Pacific herring, and others. All fish was boiled, roasted, or smoke dried. Eulachon was very valuable, perhaps more for its grease than as food. The first chinook salmon and eulachon of the season were eaten ritually.

Other important foods included shellfish; seals, sea lions, and beached whales; land mammals, such as mountain goat, bear, lynx, hare, beaver, marmot, and deer; and fowl. More than 135 plants were used for foods, medicines, and raw materials. Important plant foods included berries and the cambium layer of the western hemlock (steamed with skunk cabbage leaves, pounded, dried, and mixed with eulachon grease).

Key Technology Fish were taken in weirs and also with harpoons, dip nets, rakes, and hook and line. Hunting technology included snares, traps, deadfalls, spears, and bow and arrow. General raw materials included wood and stone (dishes, containers, boxes, spoons), sheep horn (spoons), and cedar-bark (mats, clothing, baskets, rope, fishing line). Men built canoes for water transportation, and women made burden and storage cedar-bark baskets.

Trade The Bella Coola received herring eggs from the Bella Bella as well as some canoes from the Bella Bella and other Kwakiutl groups. They also traded with some Plateau Indians.

Notable Arts Wood carving was probably the preeminent Bella Coola art. Masks, entry poles, house frontal poles (with entrance through a gaping mouth), and carved posts were often painted and decorated with crest figures. They had no fully developed totem pole. They also made pictographs and petroglyphs.

Transportation The Bella Coola used several types of canoes, including long, narrow canoes of a single red cedar log for rivers (most common), plus four types of seagoing canoes. Canoes were decorated with crest designs or painted black. Hunters also wore two types of snowshoes in winter.

Dress Blankets and moccasins came from seal, sea lion, and caribou skin (although the Bella Coola usually went barefoot). They also made mountain goat wool blankets and fur robes and capes and wore long hair and shell and bone ornaments. Tattooing was common.

War and Weapons The people engaged in irregular conflict with neighbors such as the Carrier, Chilcotin, and Kwakiutl. Their lack of political centralization made retaliating against raiding parties difficult. The Bella Coola raided too, attacking at dawn, burning a village, killing all the men, and taking women and children as slaves. Weapons included moose-hide shields, wood armor, the bow and arrow, clubs, and spears.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Nuxalt Nation (known before about 1980 as the Bella Coola Band) has seven reserves on 2,024 hectares at the mouth of the Bella Coola River in British Columbia, Canada. Their population in 1995 was 1,140, of whom 718 people lived on the reserve. They are governed according to the provisions of the Indian Act and are affiliated with the Oowekeeno/Kitasoo Tribal Council.

Economy Economic activities and resources include a sawmill smoker plant, commercial fishing, and tree farm license registration.

Legal Status The Nuxalt Nation is a federally and provincially recognized entity.

Daily Life Nuxalt people retain some ceremonies and make wood carvings for sale to tourists. Children attend both band and provincial schools. The reserve contains two fire houses, a community hall, two administration buildings, a seniors’ home, and a clinic. Beginning in the 1970s there was a revival of traditional culture, including new masks, songs, and dances. Their dancers perform throughout British Columbia.

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