The Nuxálk of Bella Coola
“They believe that long, long ago, Äłquntäm, the supreme god, caused their first ancestors to be created in his house, Nusmäta, in the land above, and sent them down to populate the Bella Coola Valley. These first people came in groups of two or three, brothers and sisters, or occasionally man and wife, each group descending, in many cases in animal form, to a certain mountain and then making their home at its foot. They brought with them animals and fish, tools and houses, also the knowledge of ceremonial dances. In fact, they differed from the Bella Coola of the recent past only in having greater supernatural power. This first people increased with extraordinary rapidity, until each group grew into a village, bound together by a knowledge of their first ancestors.” (1)
The White People’s Epidemics
The First Nation (2) now known as the Nuxálk once consisted of 27 villages in the region of the Bella Coola River (3). Like other First Nations of British Columbia, Canada, the Nuxalk were exposed to the influences of white immigrants in the 19th century and suffered epidemics of small pox, measles, etc. (4). The erstwhile population of several thousand individuals was drastically reduced. Due to the shrunken population, the inhabitants of the dispersed settlements formed one First Nation, the Nuxalk. Approximately 300 survivors were counted in 1922. (5) The population today is estimated to be about 850 people (6).
The Nuxalk were not only affected by the newcomers’ illnesses, but also by the general (settlement) policy, the type of commerce, Christian spirituality, and the entirety of the ways in which the whites treated the indigenous peoples of British Columbia. The consequences can still be felt today. Residents report forced conversions to Christianity, especially in the context of the so-called “residential schools,” combined with simultaneous repression or prohibition of their own native spirituality. A low educational level, high unemployment and/or low income, and the influence of alcohol continue to be important factors affecting community development (7). At the same time and parallel to these trends, a strengthening self-awareness of cultural identity and tradition, autonomous political organization, and economic impulses and initiatives are evident. As is so often the case elsewhere, here too history should not be understood linearly, but only under consideration of the specific natural and socio-cultural conditions of each population.
Nature and Community
The surrounding natural environments are the starting points toward an understanding of indigenous peoples. This also means that if one wants to comprehend the spiritual tradition, one can readily be mislead by focusing on practices, rituals and actions, because this causes one to analyze on a purely methodical level and to overlook the fundamental living conditions and worldviews.
For the example of the Nuxalk, this might mean: the Nuxalk live in the immediate vicinity of the Pacific Ocean, with which they are directly connected by the Burke Channel or North Bentinck Arm, and in the immediate environs of the Bella Coola River, which – together with the mountains and forests – formatively shapes the natural environment. Accordingly it is not surprising that waters, fishes and mountains play a central role in Nuxalk life and mythology. The cyclical salmon migrations influence not only the food supply and thus the health of humans and animals, but also indirectly regulate the presence of dolphins and whales in the bay. The passage of large ships through the North Bentinck Arm led to a mass die-off and longtime absence of the candlefish (sputc), which was both the most important component in the traditional diet and also used as a source of fish oil. The Nuxalk of Bella Coola erected the so-called “Sputc Pole” directly alongside the river in 2014 to call the candlefishes and welcome them back again: mundane and spiritual, ordinary and nonordinary are interwoven.
An understanding of indigenous traditions is possible only through an awareness of these fundamental relationships. Without it, one runs the risk of perceiving selectively and interpreting ethnocentrically. Or, as the Nuxalk Chris Nelson says: “They [i.e. the white people – author’s note] write books about us, they take whatever suits them and put it back together again.”
Working for Balance
The depiction of so-called “totem” or “clan” animals on the omnipresent poles of the peoples of the West Coast of British Columbia – often interpretatively overemphasized by us – affects only one level of observation. These poles primarily represent status or convey the history of the family or clan. In the case of the Nuxalk, the primordial pole was given to the people by Äłquntäm or the first ancestors. The pole is therefore a kind of familial chronicle embracing both mundane and spiritual aspects, and expressing the inherent power of the community. (8)
As a whole, the spiritual life does not occur disconnected from mundane life, but serves instead to preserve the community. The animals which are associated with the community and represented on the poles and elsewhere not only play a role in the context of spiritual practices, but also permeate the entire life of the community. In other words, these animals are not “allies” in our sense; rather, the human beings themselves are part of the corresponding community (e.g. the Raven Clan).
Petroglyphs, which are many thousands of years old and can be found in the primeval forests of Bella Coola, are evidence – and points of identification – of the spiritual cultural history of the Nuxalk. These marks can be understood as “holy books,” delved in stone, surrounded by forests and waters.
The community, which includes humans and spirits, must continually be kept alive so power can be allowed to circulate. This requires spiritual work in the narrower sense of the phrase. A very meaningful and traditionally important example in Northwest American culture is the potlatch, which is found not only among the Nuxalk, but also among all coastal peoples of British Columbia (and beyond).
The most essential ceremonies are conducted during the winter months, after the annual harvest had been brought in and the year is nearing its end. A potlatch would usually be organized to make social and/or political events visible and effectual, for example, when someone was inducted into one of the secret societies or when a change in the leadership of the community was imminent. Neighboring villages were invited to attend the potlatch, which lasted several days and sometimes even several weeks. The plentiful guests not only served as participants, but also as witnesses. (9)
The most important elements were ceremonial announcement of the event that occasioned the potlatch; invocation of the ancestors; recitation (and thus affirmation) of the oral history, along with performances of the songs and dances; ritual manifestation of the transition; the choreography of the ceremony; and distribution of gifts to the guests (10). Those hosting families which gave the most and costliest presents enjoyed the highest esteem and status. Potlatches accordingly functioned not only in relation to social order and communication of central events, but probably also embodied an inter-collective method for long-term and sustainable preservation of a state of balance with neighboring communities (of the same ethnos). (11)
Potlatches are still conducted today, although among the Nuxalk they usually last only two days: the first day is dedicated to honoring and memorializing the ancestors; the second day is for the ceremonial performance of the transition per se (12). This means that although the scope of the potlatch has been significantly reduced, its essence has been preserved and is still lived. Through the potlatch, the characteristic power of the participating collective is made visible – and made available – for the larger community.
Shamans too were and still are a component of the spiritual tradition of the Nuxalk, especially for treatment of the ill. In the old days, a person became a shaman who could allow miraculous things to happen through the power which a supernatural being had given to that individual. This usually occurred through contact with the mythical woman Tłitcäpliłän-a, from whom one received a name, four songs, and sometimes also the ability to heal a specific illness (13).
Shamans were and are important, but simultaneously were and are only one part of a larger whole.
In a sense, the Nuxalk of Bella Coola can be regarded as exemplifying the First Nations of the West Coast of British Columbia. Though severely decimated and culturally deprived by the influx of white settlers and the settlers’ religion, they are now finding renewed strength and slowly regaining influence, especially in political, economic, and also spiritual context. The spiritual tradition is rich and also colorful for Western observers. The life of the people is permeated by spirituality, at least for those who have been able to gain inspiration from the traditional ways.
Indigenous cultures such as that of the Nuxalk of Bella Coola can help us Western shamanic practitioners to better comprehend the feeling of being embedded in a specific spiritual tradition. We can learn much from our encounters with these cultures.
At the same time, we should refrain from reducing an entire culture to spirituality in general or shamanism in particular. This would do an injustice to the complexity of the natural environment and the social community. It would lead to a fragmented point of view.
It is to be hoped that we do not try to interpret these cultures in the context of our own background, that we do not attempt to copy or create one-to-one imitations of time-honored traditions, practices and ceremonies, and that we do not seek to fragment the richness of all these traditions and to filter out only those aspects which fit into our worldview or way of life, while ignoring or excluding all others.
We are not part of a shamanic culture in the classical sense of the phrase. We must accept and respect this fact. But we can and should allow ourselves to be touched and inspired so we can ultimately turn our attention to our own nature, our cultural history, and our holy songs, dances, rites and practices – our European spirituality and our spirits.
(1) McIlwraith, T.F. (1948; reissued 1992): The Bella Coola Indians. vol. 1. Toronto, Buffalo, London: Toronto University Press. p. 4.
(2) The term “First Nations” is used in Canada to denote indigenous peoples who settled the territory before the arrival of Europeans.
(3) McIlwraith, T.F., vol. 1, p. 12.
(4) Cf. Touchie, Roger D. (2010): Edward S. Curtis: Above the Medicine Line. Portraits of Aboriginal Life in the Canadian West. Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary: Heritage. p. 51.
(5) McIlwraith, T. F., S. 5.
(6) Statistics Canada (2011): Aboriginal Population Profile, Bella Coola 1, British Columbia. https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/dp-pd/aprof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1=CSD&Code1=5945802&Data=Count&SearchText=Bella%20Coola%201&SearchType=Begins&SearchPR=01&A1=All&B1=All&GeoLevel=PR&GeoCode=5945802&TABID=1; 28.10.2016
(7) Cf. ibid. and Thommasen, H.V. et al. (2006): Alcohol drinking habits and community perspectives on alcohol abuse in the Bella Coola Valley. Can J Rural Med.Vol. 11(1):15-22. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16454968; October 28, 2016
(8) Huang, Alice (2016): Totem Poles. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/totem_poles/; 28.10.2016
(9) Cf. Muckle, Robert J. (2014): The First Nations of British Columbia: an anthropological overview. 3rd ed. Vancouver, Toronto: UBC. p. 71f.
(10) Ibid.; McIlwraith, T.F. (1948), vol. 1, p. 182ff. See McIlwraith, T.F. (1948), vol. 2, for descriptions of specific dances, songs and practices.
(11) Cf.: Touchie, Roger D. (2010), p. 83f.
(12) Chris Nelson (2016): personal communication, July 22, 2016.
(13) McIlwraith, T.F. (1948), vol. 1, p. 539ff.
Roland Urban, MSc., is Director of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Europe.