Nuu-chah-nulth Architecture

The Southern Nuu-chah-nulth lived closest to the Coast Salish, so it is not surprising that they also built shed-roof houses, while the Northern Nuu-chah-nulth built single-ridgepole gable houses. The gable roof was supported either by a central ridgepole resting on cross beams, or by a single house post at each end of the beam. The ridgepole sometimes extended beyond the front and rear façade walls, in which case it was probably carved to represent a mythical spirit guardian of the household’s leader. The house also had four corner posts supporting two beams which ran the length of the eaves. Although the Nuu-chah-nulth house had no exterior decoration, on the interior iconography of supernatural beings from the mythic lineage of the house were often carved and painted.

An example of shed roof houses from a village at Nitnat Narrows. From the London Illustrated Times, 1866.
Decorated ridge beam on a house with a gabled roof. Yuquot (Friendly Cove). Photo by E. Fleming, 1896. B.C. Archives.

Nuu-chah-nulth architecture is known for its massive scale. Houses were rectangular in shape and, like the Coast Salish, set broadside to the beach. Roof beams were up to 100 feet in length, and many roofs rose to 14 or 15 feet at the peak. The floors of Nuu-chah-nulth houses were excavated to a depth of only 1-2 feet below grade, and sleeping benches were created around the fire pit with retaining walls of logs or planks. The exterior cladding of the houses could be either horizontal or vertical cedar planking which was tied with withes to the structure. However, these planks were also easily detachable, and could be removed quickly for transport to summer fishing camps and foraging grounds.

Nuu-chah-nulth houses at Yuquot, broadside to the beach. Photo by E. Fleming, 1896. B.C. Archives.

The Nuu-chah-nulth, like the Makah on the Olympic Peninsula to the south, hunted whales as part of their food supply. This caused them to develop a unique style of canoe, as well as to create elaborate shrines and ceremonies to whale hunting. These shrines were mini-versions of the Nuu-chah-nulth house, but with no exterior walls. They contained masks, skulls, and carved effigies of past whalers, successful hunters, and babies in cradles, as well as carved wooden images of whales. The shamans used these items in their rituals to try to entice the migrating behemoths up to the beach to be killed.   

Textual information for this page: Nabakov and Easton, 1989