Nuxalk Architecture

Nuxalk territory is located about 120 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean in an area which is extremely rugged, with high mountains rising steeply from the shores of the inlets and along both sides of the Bella Coola Valley. It is on these lands that the Nuxalk chose to build their original villages. Captain George Vancouver, in his exploration of the area in 1793, discovered that these villages were usually deliberately situated in hard-to-reach, inaccessible places which took full advantage of alluvial waterfront features, steep riverbanks and rocky terrain, and cliffside sites. 

For this reason, many of the villages were built on wooden pilings ranging from a few feet up to 25 feet above the ground. This was partly for defense from raids, but more often to avoid the ravages of flooding. The villages were strung out along riverbanks with the narrow, gabled end of the houses facing onto a plank walkway that ran the length of the village.  Usually there was just one row of houses, with the chief’s located in the middle of the village. Each dwelling housed as many as six related couples with their children, who supported each other in potlatching and economic activities

The houses themselves were typical Northwest Coast rectangular plank houses, with a gabled roof supported on two roof beams and a central firepit. The houses of nobles and hereditary chiefs were larger than those of commoners, ranging from 40 feet by 60 feet and upwards, compared to around 15 feet by 30 feet for lower ranking households.

"Bella Coola - Circa 1873" Painting by Gordon Miller of the Nuxalk village of Komkotes. © Gordon Miller

Besides usually being built on pilings, one unique characteristic of the Nuxalk house is that the two central roof beams are situated in such a way that the façade and interior space of the house are divided into three equal sections. The other unique feature of a Nuxalk house is that the central section of the façade is often sheathed with vertical planks rising in a false front above the gable of the house, while the two side sections are sheathed horizontally.

Extreme enlargement of a house front at Komkotes village. Photo by R. Maynard, 1873. This is the house seen at the far end of the house row in Gordon Miller's painting above.

These tri-partite sections of the façade are then decorated individually with crest paintings or guardian figures. The back and sidewalls are planked horizontally, and the interior of the rear wall is usually painted. House posts are also carved and painted. In some cases there is a frontal pole through which the entrance is cut, but more often than not, the entrance is just a simple doorway.

Possibly because of their contact with the peoples of the Interior, a few Nuxalk winter houses were completely excavated pit houses, with no exterior walls and only the roofs visible above ground level. These roofs were caulked with river grasses tamped between the roof boards, with dirt and root systems exposed above, on top of which a thick layer of soil was spread.  Steps led up from the interior to the entrance at ground level.

Textual information for this page: Kennedy and Bouchard, 1990; Nabakov and Easton, 1989.