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ETHNONYM: Westcoast People


Identification. The Nootka are an American Indian group located mainly on Vancouver Island. The term nootka is not a native one, but seems to refer to Captain Cook's rendering of what he thought the native people were calling themselves or their territory. Nootka people are customarily divided into three groups known as the Northern, Central, and Southern Nootkan tribes. Today, the Nootka people as a group prefer to call themselves Westcoast People.

Location. Aboriginally, the Nootka lived on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, from Cape Cook in the north to Sheringham Point in the south and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Cape Flattery on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. Today, some Nootkans still live on Westcoast reserves for native people, but many Nootkans have moved to Vancouver Island's urban areas to find employment. For many years, scholars at the Provincial Museum in Victoria, British Columbia, have been assisting local Nootkan groups in their effort to preserve native cultural and language traditions.

Demography. Aboriginally, there were approximately ten thousand Nootkans. Today, there are probably about five thousand.

Linguistic Affiliation. Nootka is the language of the Northern, Central, and Southern Nootkan tribes. Numerous geographic dialects correspond to the two hundred-mile or so cultural distribution of Nootkan people on Vancouver Island. The language of the Nitinat, a Southern Nootkan tribe, is sometimes, but not always, distinguished from Nootkan dialects as a separate language. The Makah are Nootkans living on the Olympic Peninsula at Neah Bay, Washington; they spoke a language separate from Nootka and Nitinat. Together, the languages Nootka, Nitinat, and Makah are called Nootkan; they are related to Kwakiutl, the Nootkans' Neighbors to the north, and belong to the Wakashan language famfly.

History and Cultural Relations

A small party of Russian sailors, the earliest European explorers in Nootka territory, arrived on July 17, 1741, but weren't heard from again. On March 29, 1778, Captain James Cook was the first European to walk through a Nootka village at Nootka Bay. In 1803, John Jewitt, a sailor aboard the English ship Boston, was captured by Chief Maquinna at Nootka Sound and lived there for more than two years, working as Maquinna's slave. Beginning around 1800 the Nootka were drawn into the fur trade, first with the British and later with the European-Americans. Shaker and Presbyterian Missionaries came to Neah Bay in about 1903 and some from the Apostolic Church arrived in the 1930s. Presbyterian missionaries also lived among other Nootka groups.


The primary Nootkan settlement was a social unit known as a local group (also called a band). Each local group had one or more clusters of cedar-plank houses (called longhouses), which were as large as forty by one hundred feet. Nootkans moved between winter and summer settlements, with each local group having at least one longhouse for use in the Summer at one site and another longhouse for winter use at another site. Up to thirty-five related people (a house-group) lived in a longhouse. Within the longhouse, each housegroup family had its own cooking hearth and living area. In the winter, several local groups formed a larger winter village. There, each local group had its own important ceremonial art. The focal point of each was a family of chiefs who owned the houses as well as the territorial rights to exploit local resources. The local group took its name from the place it was located, such as a fishing site; sometimes it was named after a chief. Villages were situated near sources of firewood and fresh water, as well as for shelter from surprise raids. Today there are numerous Nootka reserves dotting Vancouver Island's west coast. The physical isolation of most of these Reserves makes year-round living there impractical. Victoria, British Columbia, and Vancouver Island towns are now home for many Nootka. The Makah, who live on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, live year-round at coastal Neah Bay, which is connected by road to the rest of the peninsula.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Nootka were fishermen and whalers. Salmon was the most stable food source and was obtained in large numbers in the fall and stored for the winter months; herring and salmon roe, cod, halibut, sardines, and herring complemented salmon supplies. Wooden fishing weirs were placed in rivers, and tidal fish traps were used in the sea; nets, hooks, lines, herring rakes, gigs, fishing spears, and harpoons, as well as dip nets for smaller fish, such as smelt, were also used. Seals, sea lions, whales, and porpoises were also important food sources; whales were valued for their ceremonial use as well. Land animals, such as deer, bear, and elk, were hunted or occasionally trapped. Wild plants and roots added to the Nootkan diet. Reliable food preservation techniques were vital to maintain adequate food supplies during winter months as well as in lean periods. Herring and sardines, for example, were eaten fresh as well as dried and smoked. Many Nootka return to their aboriginal coastal villages during the summer months to enjoy the pleasure of "going home" to fish, commercially or privately, and to hunt and gather plant and sea foods. Neah Bay is a well-known sport-fishing port and for decades was a prospering commercial fishing port.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, the Nootka were master wood carvers. Houses, furniture, canoes, containers, masks, headdresses, and many similar objects were made of wood. Wooden boxes of various sizes, for example, were used by house-group families to store food and possessions. Wood in another form was used for clothing. In cold weather, men wore robes woven out of shredded cedar bark; women's robes were similar to men's, and they always wore an apron of shredded cedar bark. Highly prized ceremonial robes had mountain-goat wool woven into the shredded cedar bark. Over the past fifteen years, many Nootka carvers and silkscreen artists have become well-known Indian artists and have drawn critical acclaim for their work.

Trade. Principal trading relations with outsiders, established on Captain Cook's third expedition to Vancouver Island, took place at Nootka Sound. Sea otter pelts were in demand by Chinese merchants at Canton and were bartered at Nootka Sound. British and American vessels in Nootka Territory became frequent sights as the fur trade expanded. As traders bartered for valuable native goods, the Nootka began to acquire firearms and ammunition, and hostilities Eventually broke out between the Nootka and British and American traders. Trade dwindled progressively in the nineteenth Century, as sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction.

Division of Labor. Men fished and hunted for land and sea animals and did the wood carving. Women gathered plant foods, such as elderberries, gooseberries, and currants, and sea food, such as sea urchins and mussels. They usually did the everyday cooking, although young men often prepared food at feasts. Women cured fish such as sardines and salmon. They wove garments, using simple frames, out of yellow cedar bark, which was stripped off of trees with an adze. Pine tree bark was used for clothing, too. Women also wove baskets using grasses.

Land Tenure. Inheritance was the basis of ownership, which in Nootka society went well beyond control of land. Chiefs inherited their right to own and control all economic and ceremonial property as well as the privilege of using those properties. Economic privileges included the ownership of habitation sites, as well as places to fish, hunt, and gather roots and berries; longhouses and living spots within them; and the salvage rights to beached whales. Chiefs' ceremonial privileges included the right to conduct certain rituals and to perform particular dances or songs, the ownership of dances and songs, and the ritual names that accompanied each privilege. A chief's most important property was his salmon streams. Chiefs not only gave the right to set salmon traps in particular locations; they also had the right to claim the Fishermen's entire first salmon catch. By accepting the privilege to fish at certain places, a local-group member publicly acknowledged the chief's right of ownership of those places, and a chief exercised his right to collect a "tribute" during the fishing season. The chief held a feast with his tributes, during which time he announced his hereditary right to collect it.


Kin Groups and Descent. Kinship groups were based on ambilineal descent: a person could choose one or more lines of descent on his or her mother's or father's side of the family, or both. Descent was the basis for social as well as political rank, which was determined by birth order; the descent line of the first-born child was ranked highest, and the lowest rank went to the last-born in a family. Economic rights were also accorded to individuals based on their birth order.

Kinship Terminology. Nootka kinship terminology follows the Hawaiian system. Relative age was distinguished among individuals in one's generation as well as between older and younger siblings.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. A boy's preferred marriage partner was a distant relative in his tribe. Marriage was a formai alliance between a bride's and groom's social group and was initiated by the groom's parents. Marriages, particularly those between high-ranking families, were carefully arranged by a group's elders, since significant privileges were passed from parents to children.

Domestic Unit. A nuclear family's right to reside in a house-group was determined by tracing their kinship connections back to an ancestor of the group that controlled the house. Once that social link was made, a family was allowed to reside within a house-group, but had to participate in that group's social and economic activities during its residency there. Families changed house-groups by following the same procedure.

Inheritance. Access to economic property, such as fishing and hunting grounds, as well as ceremonial rights and privileges were inherited through ambilineal kinship lines. Ceremonial names were one of the most important inherited properties.

Socialization. Childbirth was a private matter; dietary restrictions were observed by both parents. Magic was used to ensure a child's healthy development. Infants were placed on a cradle board and wrapped in shredded cedar-bark cloth. As a mark of beauty, young children had their foreheads slightly flattened by a cedar-bark pad attached to the cradle board. The Nootka were affectionate and indulgent parents. Shame, not slapping or spanking, was a common method used to modify children's behavior.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Nootka political organization was integrally tied to economics, kinship, and descent. In Nootka society, each person had an inherited social rank, and all Nootka were rank-ordered in relation to each other. Most generally, communities were divided into nobles and Commoners. In the noble families, rank was inherited by the rule of primogeniture, or primacy of the first-born. The first-born son of a high-ranking chief not only succeeded his father in their community's sociopolitical organization but also inherited his most important and prestigious rights and privileges. Social rank was visible in numerous ways. For example, each house-group had four ranked chiefs, who were brothers or close kinsmen. Living places within a longhouse were determined by social rank. The highest ranking house-group chief owned and lived in his house's right rear corner; other corners were not owned, even though chiefs of lesser rank lived in them. Commoners lived between the corners. Nootka chiefs kept slaves (war captives) and every village had slaves who performed its heavy labor. Slaves had no rights or privileges.

Political Organization. The Nootka did not constitute a single political entity; however, their cultural patterns as well as the intensity of social interactions between local groups made them a definable social unit. Anthropologists customarily divide Nootka society into a hierarchy of sociopolitical units. The basic political unit was the local group. A tribe was a larger social unit composed of local groups that shared a common winter settlement; the chiefs of a tribe were rank-ordered. Tribes that united to share a common summer Village site at which to hunt and fish formed a confederacy, which took the name of one of its tribes. Sometimes confederacies were formed as the result of tribes coming together for warfare. Confederacies correspond to the Nootka's major geographic divisions.

Social Control. There was no formal Nootka legal system. Everyday social control was a face-to-face matter, as kinsmen and friends within a local group or house-group informally settled minor interpersonal problems. On the other hand, a local group protected its members from outside aggressors. The assurance of local-group retaliation acted as an informal deterrent to external attack. When that failed, social control between local groups was based on blood revenge and property settlements (the aggressor's relatives paid valuables and wealth to the victim's family). In a case of death by black magic (witchcraft), the witch was killed, and the death went unavenged.

Conflict. Wars and feuds were distinguished by their scale and motivation. Feuds were small-scale events that occurred to settle minor problems or to punish an offense. Wars, on the other hand, secured slaves or booty, or both. Slings, bows and arrows, and stone clubs were the warriors' favorite weapons. Only chiefs wore body armor.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Nootka believed in supernatural forces, which they tried to control with public or private Rituals. Nootka rituals sought to secure good luck with nature, as in their magical attempts to control the weather. Still other rituals tried to cure sickness. The Nootka conception of the supernatural did not include gods and was in general vague and unsystematic. Nootkans believed in numerous spirits, some malevolent, others not. Men acquired supernatural powers by undertaking vision quests, during which time they came into face-to-face contact with a spirit. That spirit then became a man's ally, or spirit-helper, and bestowed upon him special powers and abilities. Successful whalers, warriors, and fishermen, among others, had supernatural helpers. The traditional religion has been modified by the decades of European-American contact, and today few Nootka follow traditional beliefs.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans, the most powerful Supernatural practitioners, acquired their special powers to cure illnesses during a vision quest.

Ceremonies. The Nootkans' main ceremony was the Dancing Society (the English translation of the word for it was "The Shamans," although initiation into it was not restricted only to shamans) ; the performance of the Dancing Society was called the Wolf Dance because dancers wore wolf masks. Feasts and potlatches were also performed. Four main groups of people attended Nootka potlatches: the host/giver, the people in whose honor the potlatch was given, the guests who attended and witnessed the transfer of rights, and the groups who helped the host by contributing goods and Services. The Nootka always potlatched to their relatives. After a cash economy had been established, many potlatch gifts were European (dressers, woven blankets, sewing machines). In traditional days, goods were native (canoes, cured animal skins, large quantities of food). During a potlatch, the social status of the host was elevated, and rights and privileges were transferred, often to children. Potlatch guests publicly witnessed and confirmed the validity of those changes. High-ranking chiefs possessed numerous titles, prerogatives, and privileges, and held many potlatches. Acculturation has altered the social role and symbolism of the potlatch, with today's feasts and dances only reminiscent of the great traditional potlatches. Intertribal dances have become a meaningful social event as well as a means of maintaining contact between the Nootka and non-Nootka neighbors.

Arts. The best known Nootka art is their woven conical hat displaying whale-hunting scenes. The distinctive Nootka wood sculpture was the giant figure carved into longhouse support posts. Ceremonial masks carved without the color and fantasy of other Northwest Coast cultures were a hallmark of Nootka art. The Nootka also excelled at carving redcedar canoes; canoe carvers were thought to be inspired by a woodpecker spirit-helper. The accomplishments of a carver were publicly recognized at feasts and potlatches. Nootkans also transformed themselves into objects of symbolic expression. Men painted their faces with colors, including black, Ted, white, and brown; they pierced their ears, often several times, and wore earpieces of abalone shell, bone, quills, shells, or pieces of copper; and they wore their hair in many styles, including pulled to the back of the head and tied English-style. Men also wore woven hats, bracelets, and anklets.

Medicine. Cuts and bruises were treated with home Remedies. Serious illnesses were treated by shamans.

Death and Afterlife. The Nootka feared the dead, and handling a corpse was taken seriously. They believed that the dead had some power over whales. A corpse was placed into a wooden box and taken to a burial place distant from their villages.


Colson, Elizabeth (1953). The Makah Indians. Manchester, England, and Minneapolis: Manchester University Press and the University of Minnesota Press.

Drucker, Philip (1951). The Northern and Central Nootkan Tribes. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 144. Washington, D.C.

Jewitt, John R. (1824). A Narrative of the Adventures of John R. Jewitt. Edinburgh: Constable.

Sproat, Gilbert Malcolm (1868). Scenes and Studies of Savage Life. London: Smith, Elder & Co.


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Nootka (nŏŏt´kə), Native North Americans whose language belongs to the Wakashan branch of the Algonquian-Wakashan linguistic stock (see Native American languages). The Nootka proper are a small group on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, but the name is also used to refer to the Aht Confederacy, which formerly included more than 20 tribes. Traditional Nootka culture was fundamentally that of the Northwest Coast area (see under Natives, North American); they fished for salmon, lived in long wooden houses, and created elaborate totem poles. In 1991 there were some 4,000 Nootka in 15 bands in Canada. The so-called Nootka hats of woven fiber were common among other tribes of this area. With the exception of the Makah and a few of their neighbors, they were the only Native Americans on the Pacific coast who hunted whales.

See P. Drucker, The Northern and Central Nootkan Tribes (repr. 1988).

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Nootka Tribe of Native Americans living along the w coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. They were once expert fishermen and were the only Native Americans on Canada's Pacific coast to hunt whales.