The Nuu-Chah-Nulth People live along the southern side of Vancouver Island, which is open ocean facing. The Makah, at the tip of Washington Peninsula, are closely related and sometimes considered to be of this family. The name for the People is not traditional, however. The explorer James Cook encountered them in 1778 and, what they initially spoke to him, which was actually directions they gave him with regard to where his ship could go. This was mistakenly interpreted and applied by his party. Nootak was the misrepresentation for the name of the People that lasted until 1978, when the People finally adopted the name Nuu-Chah-Nulth, which means “All Along the Mountains.”
Originally, the People were not so much of a ‘big’ tribe as they were a group of smaller tribes and families that shared a mostly similar language, culturally similar ways, and were mostly cooperative. Today, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth are recognized as 14 distinct tribes. For the Westerner to understand, it is like the Provinces and Territories that make up Canada or the 50 States that make up the USA.
The Nuu-Chah-Nulth share many of the same cultural characteristics with other Northwest Coastal Peoples—the Potlatch ceremonial and economical system, the forest material resources for masks and boats, the family and clan systems for social organization. However, the People were also some of the most successful indigenous/ aboriginal whalers to be found anywhere. Whales and ‘the hunt’ are part of their culture and spirituality, it is an important part of their identity, like having farms, farmers, and farming is to the American Society. However, many other marine resources figured importantly into the lifestyle, to most certainly including seasonal runs of salmon. The rainforest along the coast also provided deer and waterfowl.
Their relationships with other Coastal Peoples varied. In general, they had friendly relations with the Kwakwaka’wka on the other side of Vancouver Island but somewhat guarded or even hostile relations with the Coastal Salish Peoples to the east. Contact with the Western world—British and Spanish began in the late 1700’s and brought the devastating diseases smallpox and influenza. Trading with Westerners brought in firearms, which some tribes used against others and fairly much devastated them. Where there were probably 30 to 40 thousand of the People at first contact, today, there are under 5000 on the homelands.
It is accurate to say that though there are two areas of reserves today on the Southern Coast of Vancouver Island, their lands are mostly gone. Though there are still speakers of the language, it is in danger of being lost within 100 years, except perhaps on recordings. Though the people are still allowed to undertake some hunting and fishing, the restrictions are so great that it significantly impacts the cultural traditions. And though the beliefs are still told to the young, the beliefs of the Western World are at least as well-known to the youth. The People still are and still do, but now they must endeavor to be, to remain Nuu-Chah-Nulth, and that takes something out of the People that should not be removed. But that is how it is.