Nuu-chah-nulth


Approximate 19th-century territory of the Nuu-chah-nulth. Adapted from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of Handbook of North American Indians. View Nuu-Chah-Nulth in a larger map

Territory:

Known historically as the Nootka people, a name applied erroneously by the famed British explorer James Cook, the Nuu-chah-nulth’s traditional homeland encompasses roughly 400 kilometers of the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island, from Cape Cook in the north to Point No Point in the south. The name Nuu-chah-nulth, which means “All Along the Mountains and Sea”, was adopted in the late 1970s to encompass all of the groups that identify as  Nuu-chah-nulth, something the former title did not accomplish.

Language:

Nuu-chah-nulth is a division of the Southern Wakashan language family along with Makah and Ditidaht. There are twelve different dialects of the Nuu-chah-nulth language: Ahousat, Clayoquot, Ehattesaht, Hesquiat, Kyuquot, Mowachaht, Nuchatlaht, Ohiaht, Toquaht, Tseshaht, Uchuklesaht, and Ucluelet.

Painting of a village scene at Nootka Sound by John Webber, 1778.

Architecture:

Nuu-chah-nulth people traditionally lived in large multi-family structures with permanent log frames and removable wall planks that could be brought to seasonal occupational sites. House posts and ridge beams were often carved and painted with hereditary designs as the framework of a Nuu-chah-nulth house held great symbolic importance. No matter what other parts of the house were replaced or fixed, the frame would remain the same, symbolizing the house that the ancestors had originally built. The interiors of the structures were divided by the placement of boards and firepits, which partitioned the house into areas that belonged to individual families or social groups. The house of a Chief was usually far superior in size and ornamentation to other dwellings.

Unlike most groups along the Northwest Coast, traditional Nuu-chah-nulth houses were rectangular shaped with low flat roofs and did not face the beach. In the late 19th-century people began to settle more permanently in summer villages and houses began to be erected facing the water with permanent vertical siding.

Monumental Art:

The Nuu-chah-nulth people are noted to be esteemed woodworkers. The Cedar, or “Tree of Life”, provided the people with a source to make their canoes, paddles, poles and masks. Nuu-chah-nulth people were one of the few Northwest Coast groups to hunt whales, and as such, canoes were of great importance to them. Their ocean-going canoes were noted to have a low stern, rounded sides and a flat bottom allowing them to remain stable in the ocean waves and making them very valuable trade item with other First Nations groups along the coast.

Nuu-chah-nulth dugout canoes. Photographer and year unknown.

Textual information for this page: Curtis, 1930; McMillan, 2000; Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Organization; Joyce & Gillespie, 2000.