Since the late 1970s the Bella Coola have called themselves the "Nuxalk Nation," derived from the native term that in earlier times referred exclusively to the people of the Bella Coola Valley. They speak a Coast Salish language known as Bella Coola that is isolated from the other Salish languages of the coast and forms a linguistic island surrounded by Athapaskan and Wakashan languages. Culturally the Bella Coola are most similar to their Wakashan neighbours, the HEILTSUK (Bella Bella).
Villages traditionally consisted of descent groups who traced their lineage to a group of mythical first ancestors. Each group of ancestors, equipped with tools and ceremonial knowledge, descended from a mountaintop and established a village at its base. Through marriage, a network of descent groups developed that linked the villages. Most people chose to live in their fathers' villages. However, they were also related to their mothers' descent groups, if different. The multiple-family cedar-plank dwellings were large enough to house as many as 6 couples and their children. Members of the household, which included elderly relatives, supported one another in potlatching and economic pursuits.
The most prominent characteristic of Bella Coola life was its extremely rich and complex ceremonialism dominated by the POTLATCH and 2 secret societies, the sisaok and the kusiut. Membership in the sisaok was limited to the children and certain relatives of chiefs. Initiation included a period of seclusion, followed by a public display of a masked figure representing the initiate's crest. Members performed at potlatches and funerals and occasionally at less important ceremonials.
Bella Coola winter ceremonials were dominated by the kusiut. Each member possessed a special kusiut name and had a supernatural patron whose dance he or she imitated.
The Bella Coola were a fishing, hunting and gathering society. Salmon and eulachon ("candlefish") fishing in the Bella Coola River continues to be important. Each year, eulachons are netted, rendered into grease and traded. The fish are smoke-dried in the traditional manner, canned and frozen. Band administration, a band-operated commercial ice plant, forestry, commercial fishing and salmon-enhancement programs provide employment.
The first recorded encounter with the Bella Coola occurred briefly in the summer of 1793 when Captain George VANCOUVER entered their waters. He was followed only weeks later by an overland exploration team headed by Alexander MACKENZIE. This historic occasion became incorporated into Bella Coola oral tradition and the story of the welcome they gave Mackenzie is still a source of Bella Coola pride.
See also NATIVE PEOPLE: NORTHWEST COAST.
Author DOROTHY KENNEDY AND RANDY BOUCHARD
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
Languages of Canada
A comprehensive online database of languages currently in use in Canada. Also provides details about extinct languages. Check out the "language maps" for more information. Based on "Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth edition." From SIL International, a US website.
An information page about the Nuxalk Nation, located in Bella Coola, British Columbia.
The Bella Coola Valley
A visitor’s guide to the Bella Coola Valley in British Columbia.
Central Coast community profile: The town of Bella Coola
Scroll down the page for a brief community profile of the Town of Bella Coola. From the website for the “Coast Forest Conservation Initiative.” A PDF file.
A selection of distinctive works of art produced by Nuxalk Nation artists. Click on the images to see the names of the artists.
The Bill Reid Centre For Northwest Coast Art Studies
Part of the Department of First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University, this centre is devoted to "the study of First Nations art of the Northwest Coast as the visual embodiment of a broad cultural development since the end of the last Ice Age." Click the links on the right side of the page to view an illustrated profile of the history and heritage of featured language groups and villages.