The Nuxalk community of Q’umk’uts (Komkotes) was located at the mouth of the Bella Coola River just across from the present day town of Bella Coola.

The Bella Coola Valley is composed of a number of rivers and tributaries, high mountain peaks and an abundance of fish and wildlife. At one time villages were located throughout the valley and on the outer coast. These included villages along the waterways leading into and on the Bella Coola River, South Bentinick Arm, the Dean Channel, and Kwatna Inlet.

Villages were located along the riverbanks and river mouths in order to give ready access to the abundance of fish and other natural resources. Sputc, a small smelt like fish known in English as eulachon, were caught by the thousands from the Bella Coola River. Unfortunately, this fishery has drastically declined in the past few decades.

During 1862 and 1863 the villages in the Bella Coola valley were decimated by a smallpox epidemic. It is estimated that the population was reduced by 70 to 90 percent. The terrible loss of life led to the eventual congregation of all the area’s villages at one location, Q’umk'uts. Today the descendents form the villages live at Bella Coola as part of the Nuxalk First Nation.

Rare picture of the eulachon nets in use with their mouths staked open for the fish to enter, and men emptying them on either side of the tail. Unknown Photographer and year.

Q’umk’uts is well known for the highly stylized house front paintings and unique totem poles and entry poles that once stood there. A number of photographers were able to capture scenes of the village before the majority of its inhabitants moved to Bella Coola.

The earliest photographic image of the area was captured by Richard Maynard in 1873 during a “tour of inspection” by the Superintendent of Indian affairs Dr. Israel Wood Powell. This image does not show any exterior poles in the village but displays a well established tradition of house front painting. 

Q'umk'uts Village. Photo by Richard Maynard, 1873.
1987 Qu'umk'uts Painting based on Maynard Photo. Courtesy of Gordon Miller.

Harlan I. Smith, a self-­‐trained archaeologist, a prolific photographer and one of Canada’s earliest ethnographic film makers took a vast number of images during field work in the Bella Coola Valley. Smith began ethnographic fieldwork in the Bella Coola Valley in 1920 and was joined by Thomas McIlwraith in 1922. Between 1922 and 1924 Smith primarily worked with the Dakelh (Carrier) and Chilcotin communities, but continued to search for archeological sites in the Bella Coola valley. During this time he continued to create an extensive photographic record both for himself and McIlwraith. Smith’s collection of photographs also contains copies of photographs held by local resident Iver Fougner, who was the local Indian agent between 1909-­‐1939.

Jim Pollard showing the dance of Saiutl (thunder) of which he has the prerogative to display. From the top of the mask project a number of small twigs over which eagle down has been scattered. Photo and description by H.I. Smith, 1922.
Captain Schooner's costume. Displayed here in the daytime as a special favour to the National Museum of Canada. Photo by H.I. Smith, 1923.
Mask representing the part Heiltsuk story of Captain (Reuben) Schooner. The hat represents (Qomoqwa) the chief of the undersea world) and the mask represents an eagle. Photo and description by H.I. Smith, 1923.
People standing in front of Nusmata's house. Smith notes that this image was taken some years before 1920. Photo by Iver Fougner, ca. 1894.

T.F. McIlwraith, one of the pioneers of Canadian anthropology, conducted fieldwork among the Nuxalk. His 1948 published work, The Bella Coola Indians, is held up as one of the finest and most coherent ethnographies ever written about a Northwest Coast people. That being said, the ethnography is a product of its time, and is a work of “salvage anthropology”, meaning that it aimed to describe Nuxalk traditions, as they may have existed before the arrival of Whites. The Bella Coola Indians neglected the contemporary conditions under which the people actually lived and denies them a role as active agents who shaped their own destinies within the confines of colonialism (Cole and Barke 2003).  

McIlwraith conducted his fieldwork between 1922 and 1924, the twilight years of the old culture, when only a handful of elders lived in the longhouses of their ancestors. Smith’s pictures from roughly the same time provide a valuable visual component to the ethnography.