The Nuu-chah-nulth are indigenous peoples in Canada. Their traditional home is in the Pacific Northwest on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

In pre-contact and early post-contact times, the number of Nuu-chah-nulth nations was much greater, but as in the rest of the region, smallpox and other consequences of contact resulted in the disappearance of some groups, and the absorption of others into neighbouring groups.

The Nuu-chah-nulth speak a Southern Wakashan language and are closely related to the Makah and Ditidaht.

Nuu-chah-nulth History

When James Cook first encountered the villagers at Yuquot in 1778, they directed him to “come around” (Nuu-chah-nulth nuutkaa is “to circle around”) with his ship to the harbour. Cook interpreted this as the native’s name for the inlet—now called Nootka Sound. The term was also applied to the indigenous inhabitants of the area.

In 1978 the tribes of western Vancouver Island chose the term Nuu-chah-nulth (nuučaan̓uł, meaning “all along the mountains”), as a collective term of identification.

This was the culmination of the 1967 alliance forged among these tribes in order to present a unified political voice to the levels of government and European-Canadian society. The Makah of northwest Washington, located on the Olympic Peninsula in their own reservation, are closely related to the Nuu-chah-nulth.

The Nuu-chah-nulth were among the first Pacific peoples north of California to encounter Europeans, who sailed into their area for trade.

Competition between Spain and the United Kingdom over control of Nootka Sound led to a bitter international dispute around 1790, called the Nootka Crisis.

It was settled under the Nootka Conventions of the 1790s, when Spain agreed to abandon its exclusive claims to the North Pacific coast.

Negotiations to settle the dispute were handled under the aegis and hospitality of Maquinna, a powerful chief of the Mowachaht Nuu-chah-nulth.

A few years later, Maquinna and his warriors captured the American trading ship Boston in March 1803. He and his men killed the captain and all the crew but two, whom they kept as slaves.

After gaining release, John R. Jewitt wrote a classic captivity narrative about his nearly 3 years with the Nuu-chah-nulth and his reluctant assimilation to their society.

This 1815 book is entitled Narrative Of The Adventures And Sufferings Of John R Jewitt Only Survivor Of The Crew Of The Ship Boston During A Captivity Of Nearly Three Years Among The Savages Of Nootka Sound With An Account Of The Manners Mode Of Living And Religious Opinions.

In 1811 the trading ship Tonquin was blown up in Clayoquot Sound. Tla-o-qui-aht and his warriors had attacked the ship in revenge for an insult by the ship’s captain. The captain and almost all the crew were killed and the ship abandoned.

The next day warriors reboarded the empty ship to salvage it. However, a hiding crew member set fire to the ship’s magazine and the resulting explosion killed many natives.

Only one crew member, a pilot / interpreter hired from the nearby Quinault Nation, escaped to tell the tale.

From earliest contact with European explorers up until 1830, more than 90% of the Nuu-chah-nulth died as a result of infectious disease epidemics, particularly malaria and smallpox. 

The high rate of deaths added to the social disruption and cultural turmoil resulting from contact with Westerners. In the early 20th century, the population was estimated at 3,500.

Nuu-chah-nulth Culture

The Nuu-chah-nulth were one of the few indigenous peoples on the Pacific Coast who hunted whales. Whaling is essential to Nuu-chah-nulth culture and spirituality.

It is reflected in stories, songs, names, family lines, and numerous place names throughout the Nuu-chah-nulth territories.

Perhaps the most famous Nuu-chah-nulth artifact is the Yuquot Whalers’ Shrine, a ritual house-like structure used in the spiritual preparations for whale hunts.

Composed of a series of memorial posts depicting spirit figures and the bones of whaling ancestors, it is stored at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, having been taken there by European Americans.

It was the subject of the film The Washing of Tears, directed by Hugh Brody. It recounts the rediscovery of the bones and other artifacts at the museum and the efforts by the Mowachaht First Nation, the shrine’s original owners, who have been seeking to regain these sacred artifacts.

Salmon has always been an important part of Nuu-chah-nulth people’s diet. They also traditionally ate various land animals, waterfowl and seafoods.

The women gathered edible plants, nuts, fruits such as berries and other resources.

The Nuu-chah-nulth and other Pacific Northwest cultures are famous for their potlatch ceremonies, in which the host honours guests with generous gifts.

The term ‘potlatch’ is ultimately a word of Nuu-chah-nulth origin. The purpose of the potlatch is manifold: redistribution of wealth, maintenance and recognition of social status, cementing alliances, the celebration and solemnization of marriage, and commemoration of important events.

Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations Today:

Ahousaht First Nation

Ehattesaht First Nation

Hesquiaht First Nation

Kyuquot/Cheklesahht First Nation

Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations (formerly the Nootka band)

Nuchatlaht First NationHuu-ay-aht First Nation (formerly Ohiaht)

Hupacasath First Nation (formerly Opetchesaht)

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations (formerly Clayoquot)Toquaht First Nation

Tseshaht First Nation

Uchucklesaht First Nation

Ucluelet First Nation