animated gold thunderbird
The Nootka Indians

Adam Parsons
Anthropology 1370
American Indian Cultures
Fall 1998


The Nootka (nut'-kah), also known as the Nuu-chah-nulth, were North American Indians who lived along the seaward coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state. Along with the Kwakiutl, these two tribes formed the Wakashan language family. The name Nootka was first applied as a tribal name by the explorer Captain James Cook, who mistakenly thought that since they were in Nootka Sound, that they were the "Nootka." Today, however, the term "Nootka" refers to all speakers of the Wakashan language, including the Nootkan, Nitinat, and Makah tribes. Extreme differences, including obvious social organization and attitudes toward individual status, separated not only the Nootka, but all Indians of the Pacific Northwest coast from other North American tribes.


Vancouver Island, Canada is a large island, roughly 345 miles long and 180 miles wide at its widest point. The Nootka stretched their civilization all along the west coast (indicated by the letter "K" and the shaded area surrounding it). The warm Japan current, similar to that of the Gulf Stream current in the Eastern United Sates, keeps the temperatures relatively warm for a latitude so far north. Temperatures average between 41°F and 58°F along the coast, and the mountains act as a barrier, cutting the Nootka's area off from the interior continental winds. The mountain range also causes the warm, moisture-loaded winds from the ocean to linger overhead and drop most of their rain on this narrow region - as much as 100 inches annually.


Results of the comparatively warm climate and abundant rainfall, include forests of fir, cedar, hemlock, and plenty of elk, deer, bear, and a variety of large waterfowl. The abundance of fauna and megafauna in this region is amazing when compared to the resources of tribes in other North American regions. The Nootka's staple diet included salmon, crabapples, nuts, roots (camas), ferns, lupine, and berries. Whatever grew naturally in this area, they would gather, and most of it was dried for winter use. Salmon would usually be trapped with innovate nets and weirs at the mouth of rivers or streams during the fall, while they were trying to make their way upstream to the spawning grouds. However, in the summer months, several villages would move down to the open beaches and engage in sea fishing as well as sea-mammal hunting. In the aftermath, an entire year's worth of fish crop could be harvested within a few weeks. Fish oil would serve 3 purposes: signify wealth, act as a valuable trade item, and a 'dip' for every morsel of food before being consumed. Shellfish within the shore waters were easy pickings and could be gathered in large quantities with very little exertion. Aquatic fish including halibut, herring, and cod were also hunted. Whaling was also a common form of hunting in the early summer months. Other tribes that would often partake in these amazing events included the Quilleutte, Klallam, and, of course, the Makah.

Whale cry


Nuu-Chah-Nulth houses were gargantuan. Ranging from 40 to 100 feet in length and 30 to 40 feet in width, they each sheltered several patrilineally related families. These massive houses were built broadside to the beach and out of cedar beams and hand-split boards. The houses were constructed with removable plank roofing and siding and were occupied all winter and all summer and served as the most important fishing stations. In the fall and spring, they would often be transported from village to village in the seasonal shifting of residence.

Standing in the doorway, looking into the house, the chief of each lineage would occupy the right rear corner of the house, then the next in lineage, usually a younger brother, would occupy the opposite rear corner. The two front corners were next in importance and would be marked off by storage boxes stacked at the boundaries. Early traverlers were disgusted with the Nootkan households' uncleanness. Their complaints included "bladders of oil and bundles of greasy fish dangling from overhead at just the height to smear one's face as he so much as blinked while walking through with his smoke-irritated eyes. The foreigners were also appalled by the items scattered about the floor: baskets, boxes, dishes, mats, and tools, all mixed in masses of trash, fish guts, shell fish, and other garbage.


The Nootka's dress was quite homely most of the time. During favorable climatic conditions, the men would usually wear nothing except for a few ornaments, and women would wear skirts made of shredded cedar bark. In cooler or rainy weather, both sexes would wear cedar bark robes as well as a cone-shaped hat that would provide at least some protection. In the coldest times, the wealthier people would wear sea otter and bear skins, while the poorer would wear wildcat, racoon and other small animals. Men would wear their hair short - no longer than the shoulders, while the women would have long hair with two braids, the two tied at the ends. Although sometimes moccasins were worn, the Nootka usually went barefoot because their feet were wet most of the time anyway. Ceremonial attire was much more elaborate with prized robes and many different types of complicated masks and headdresses that would represent the heads of various animals.


The Nootka society was extremely elitist and has been characterized as divided into fuedal-like social classes. There was only one foundational division of the Nootkan Society, and that was between slaves and freemen. Slaves were war captives from another Northwest Coastal tribe and not kinfolk of the Nootka, and weren't looked upon as a part of their society. Each slave was the property of its captor and would perform drudge labor or humiliating work around the camp.

Every individual was ranked different from all the others. This proves that this couldn't have been a society with a system built around social classes. If it were, everyone would be in a class by themself. Every Nootka was ranked by the principle of primogeniture (birthright of eldest son). Furthermore, every person, from the highest ranking person to the lowest ranking person, was considered kinsmen. Social status rights were expressed economically. The multitudinous ranks of chiefs had different amounts of territory over which they acted as the administrator of their inferior kinfolk. Those who used the natural resources solemnly, would acknowledge their chief by paying tribute to him. This would be achieved by giving the chief the first fruits of the salmon catch or certain choice parts of either land or sea mammals. Then it should be noted that the chief did not demand this of his lower-ranking kin, nor did these givings function as a means of increasing personal wealth. This was understood by all because the chief would later give away a parallel amount of goods in a great feast or a potlatch.


The potlatch was the great ceremony of the Northwest Coastal Indians and focused mainly on two aspects: 1) validation and updating of individual's rank via heredity, and 2) distribution of gifts. Each individual that was to receive a gift at the potlatch would sit in an arranged seating order based on social status and hereditary right and accordingly, the gifts were distributed in an appropriate order once the soon-to-be accepter of a gift was seated. Constituent members of the social groups of the various chiefs would sit in the rest of the long house wherever they wanted, as long as they stayed with their fellow gender (men on the right, women on the left).

Many members of the Nootka tribe felt the reason for the potlatch was to either validate or bestow hereditary privileges rather than to economically exchange unwanted or excess surplus. Another common facet of the potlatch was the conformation of inheriting the responsibility of a deceased heir. Sometimes this included the acquisition of the ownership of supernatural songs and dances through a ritual called the Shaman's Dance. Potlatches were considered the best times for social groups, but they also served a extremely important purpose in Nootkan society in that potlatches were how the evolution of an eldest son from the ascending of being born, to full maturity, was observed. Everything from his first tooth, to the first solid food he ate, to the first bird he shot, were all noted and observed with focused attention.


Childbirth was an extremely special event for the Nootka Indians. The birth of a child would always take place in the seclusion of a little hut made of bush that was meant for the sole purpose of childbirth. Customs such as the mother and child being secluded in a hut for the first four days after giving birth and the baby having to wear a shredded-bark cap tightly fit to its head in order to form the appropriate long and narrow-shaped head were mandatory. If the newborn is female, her ears would be pierced and a potlatch would be given to observe the event. In the rare occurence of twin births, special observances would be necessary because the Nootka believed that supernaturals intervened to cause these unusual births and gave them luck.

The Nootka were very loving and lenient towards their children. Never were children spanked or slapped, only would they be corrected by being talked to. The parents always gave great attention and taught their children well and often regarding the rights and wrongs of their society.


When two individuals were to get married, not only was it a ceremonial conjuction of the man and the woman, but also an alliance between the two families. Marriages would be arranged by the parents just after their children reached puberty. The marriage proposal itself would be performed by the boy's parents during a visit to the girl's home. While at the home of the girl and her parents, the boy's parents would present gifts and explain both the groom's ancestry and also recite all previous marriages between the two family lines. The girl's parents would never accept a first visit invitation of marriage. It would always take two or more visits to convince the girl's parents that the boy and his family were worthy of their daughter, and their own, marriage. After the boy and his family were accepted, a ceremony would be conducted to welcome the bride and her family to the house of the groom and his family. At the time of the marriage, the dowry was presented to the now son-in-law, by the bride's family. Included in the dowry were some of the bride's father's priveleged names, special dances, potlatch seats, and even territorial rights. If at any time during the marriage no son was born, the dowries would be given back to the original donor.

Only important chiefs could practice polygyny (having several wives), and this was a sign of wealth. However, polyandry (women having several husbands) wasn't permitted - a man wouldn't stand for that. The relatively high divorce rate could be expected when children got married and weren't anywhere near their full maturity level - as was the case with the Nootka. Surprisingly, the main reason for divorce, however, was childlessness. When death occurred to a husband, one of his brothers was expected to marry the widow wife; and correspondingly, if a wife died, the husband would marry one of his widows' sisters. If a sister or brother of the widow, respectively, wasn't single, another close relative of the deceased would be the secondary option.


When Juan Pérez set sail from the Port San Blas on the Baja Peninsula on the 25th day of January in 1774 on orders from Spain to explore the area that is known today as Northwestern Washington and extreme southwestern Canada. Seven months after he left Port San Blas, Pérez and his crew anchored briefly at Nootka Sound. The intrigued and brave Nootka immediatly canoed out to Pérez's ship and climbed aboard to offer gifts. Eventually Pérez and his crew sighted land which turned out to be the Queen Charlotte Islands, the land of the Haida. Here is where he was continually invted onshore, but Pérez saw this as a trap and sailed back to Baja California without ever setting foot on the Queen Charlotte Islands. For the Nootka, the meeting of Pérez was too brief to be enjoyed, and it wasn't until March 30, 1778, that the Nootka saw British explorers, with the arrival of 50 year-old English navigator, Captain James Cook. Cook and his crew of the Discovery spent one month at Nootka Sound in 1778. The arrival of the Discovery put the Nootka in a mental state of unusually extreme anxiousness. However, Nootka Chief Maquinna sent several warriors into canoes to investigate "to go out ... and try to understand what these people wanted and what they are after." Upon doing so, the warriors noted certain similarities in appearance between fish and Cook's crew.

Following the awkward meeting, trading quickly began and a friendly acceptance of Cook and his party soon followed. Cook continiously wrote in his journal and was especially amazed at the Nootka's evolved culture and cleverness. Cook wrote that the Nootka were "very keen traders, getting as much as they could for everything they had; always asking for more give than what you would". Trading between the two was very brief as the Indians no longer wanted the beads the white man had to offer and this was the end of Cook's tenure with the Nootka Indians. The next encounter with foreigners would be from the Spanish. Between the years of 1789-1796, the Spainiards built a military post near the Nootka and observed them closely, but were careful not to encroach too close as to unsettle the Nootka. Anger from the outsiders' sloth-paced invasion was building up inside the Nootka, and the strangers had no idea. Seven years after the Spainiards left, the ship Boston was attacked just off Vancouver Island by the Nootka. Twenty-five of the twenty-seven crew members were killed. The two survivors were kept as slaves and faced death daily.


The Nootka were similar to the seafaring Polynesians in that they both had very little interest in the heavenly bodies. There was absolutely no worship of a "god" within the Nootka tribe, however beliefs in supernaturals were present - some took the form of violence, while others were more pacific. Essentially the Nootka had three main rituals - 1) ensuring good luck in all the numerous extensions that nature has to be coped with by man, 2) rights and privelages, and 3) curing of the ill.

Sources for this site include:

1) "The Nootka of British Columbia" by Service (Service II). Assigned reading for Professor Nunley's American Indian Studies course at Richland College in Dallas, Texas.





**********Richland College Anthropology**********