Bella Coola

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Bella Coola (Nuxalk) Midwinter Rites

Type of Holiday: Religious (Bella Coola), Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: November-March
Where Celebrated: British Columbia, Canada
Symbols and Customs: Kusiut, Masks, Potlatch
Related Holidays: Kwakiutl Midwinter Ceremonies


The Bella Coola (Nuxalk) Midwinter Rites is part of Native American religious tradition. The history of this and other Native American cultures dates back thousands of years into prehistoric times. According to many scholars, the people who became the Native Americans migrated from Asia across a land bridge that may have once connected the territories presently occupied by Alaska and Russia. The migrations, believed to have begun between 60,000 and 30,000 B . C . E ., continued until approximately 4,000 B . C . E . This speculation, however, conflicts with traditional stories asserting that the indigenous Americans have always lived in North America or that tribes moved up from the south.

The historical development of religious belief systems among Native Americans is not well known. Most of the information available was gathered by Europeans who arrived on the continent beginning in the sixteenth century C . E . The data they recorded was fragmentary and oftentimes of questionable accuracy because the Europeans did not understand the native cultures they were trying to describe and the Native Americans were reluctant to divulge details about themselves.

Midwinter ceremonials, one type of Native religious rite, are held by peoples throughout the north Pacific coast, including the Bella Coola (Nuxalk), Kwaikiutl, and others. The Bella Coola are a Native American people who flourished at one time along the northern banks of the Bella Coola River in British Columbia. A high point of the Bella Coola's ceremonial life came in the winter, a period devoted to honoring the spirits who walked the earth, often disguised as animals, during the cold weather months from November to March. Preparations, however, began as early as September, when they believed that the supernatural being known as Noäkxnim began his journey by canoe up the Bella Coola River, joined by other spirits along the way. It was also in September that members of the secret society known as KUSIUT , who organized the midwinter rites, began to prepare for the intricate and often terrifying dances they would perform.

These dances or dramatic performances formed the heart of the winter ceremonies. They used masked figures and what would nowadays be called "special effects." In the drowning dance and the beheading dance, for example, dancers would suddenly appear to lose their heads or drop out of sight through trap doors. There was also a burning dance and a stomach-cutting dance that used MASKS and trickery to achieve their illusions. POTLATCHES -gatherings at which gifts were handed out and individuals whose status in the tribe had changed were publicly recognized-were an important part of the Bella Coola rites.

Alcohol abuse and the diseases-particularly smallpox-brought by missionaries, trappers, and Scandinavian settlers had a devastating impact on the Bella Coola tribe by the end of the nineteenth century, and it currently has fewer than a thousand members. The power and mystique surrounding the Kusiut, too, have been undermined by the fact that membership is now no longer as exclusive as it once was. But POTLATCHES are still held and most of the remaining Bella Coola still reside in the same area of British Columbia on a reservation, which has been relocated to the river 's south shore because of frequent severe flooding.



The Bella Coola were one of several tribes along the British Columbian coast that offered membership in the masked dancing society known as Kusiut. Kusiut members were believed to have supernatural powers of their own, especially the ability to cure illness. Only Kusiut members could participate in the dances performed during the Midwinter Rites, and young men were often forced to join and threatened with death if they should ever reveal the society's secrets. They went through elaborate initiation rites, in return for which they were taught the tricks used in the dances and received the protection of the society's guardian spirit. It was Kusiut members who made up the songs for the ceremonial dances and who created the MASKS , which were later burned so that new ones would have to be carved for the following year.

Nowadays membership in the Kusiut is open to all men, and as a result there are no longer enough spectators to make the Midwinter Rites the powerful spectacle they were hundreds of years ago.


The ceremonial masks used by the Bella Coola were among the most frightening of those created by the tribes of the Pacific Northwest. They usually resembled human faces on an inhuman scale, with huge eyes and thick-lipped mouths hanging open. Many of the masks featured moving parts and smaller masks that would suddenly be revealed within larger masks. A skilled dancer could manipulate his mask in such a way that it acted out an entire story.

The Thunder, Echo, and Laughter masks were among the most recognizable, and there was also one that resembled the supernatural bird known as the HokHokw. Today, surviving Bella Coola masks are regarded as rare and valuable works of art.


A potlatch-possibly from a Nootka word meaning "to give"-was a ceremonial distribution of property by North Pacific Coast tribal chiefs to other chiefs and high-ranking guests. Although feasting and dancing were an important part of the ceremony, the main purpose was to hand out gifts according to each guest's social status. The amount of prestige a chief enjoyed was reflected in how much of his wealth he gave away at this event. Although it might seem that such a custom would quickly lead to economic ruin, guests who attended a potlatch were then obligated to hold one of their own or risk social embarrassment. A chief who gave away all of his wealth, therefore, would probably get most of it back when he was invited to other potlatches.

The distribution of wealth was only part of the reason for potlatches, which were also held to announce publicly that the status of the individual hosting the ceremony (or that of a member of his family) had changed. For example, it was common to give a potlatch when a new chief was appointed, when ancestral names were assigned to his children, or when his daughter reached puberty. It made sense, therefore, to give a potlatch during the Midwinter Rites so that everyone would be aware that the supernatural beings were conferring the right to dance the sacred masked dances upon certain Kusiut members.

The potlatch is perhaps the most important surviving religious practice among the Native people in Alaska and along the north Pacific coast in the aftermath of European arrival. They take place not only on an annual basis but also throughout the year, at funerals and memorials.


Hirschfelder, Arlene B., and Paulette Fairbanks Molin. Encyclopedia of Native Ameri- can Religions. Updated edition. New York: Facts on File, 2000. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.


Blue Raven Co.
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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Evidence of this significance is seen in the Nuxalk's priority of securing Kimsquit and Ista, both central to Nuxalk identity yet burdened with existing forest tenures.
C Tiffin and A Lawson (London: Routledge, 1994), 115-30; C R Harris, Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance, and Reserves in British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002); K G Brealey, "Mapping Them 'Out': Euro-Canadian Cartography and the Appropriation of Nuxalk and Ts'ilhqhot'in First Nations' Territories, 1793-1916," The Canadian Geographer, 39:2 (1995), 140-56.
1995 'Mapping them "out": Euro-Canadian cartography and the appropriation of the Nuxalk and Ts'ilhqot'in First Nations' territories, 1793-1916' The Canadian Geographer/Le Geographe canadien 39(2), 140-168
Although this meant meeting with tribal elders for permission to use ancient designs for the costumes, he was able to depict every one of those nations in the costumes for Sarastro's followers: the Tsimshian and Tlingit from B.C's north coast; the Haida from Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands); the Nisga'a from northwest B.C.; the Gitksan from the upper Skeena River in west central B.C.; the Heiltsuk and Nuxalk (Bella Coola) from the central coast of B.C.; the Kwakwaka'wakw from the northeast coast of Vancouver Island and the corresponding mainland coast; the Nuu-Chah-Nulth from the west coast of Vancouver Island; and the Coast Salish from the southwest coast of B.C.
of British Columbia) examines how the Nuxalk of Bella Coola, British Columbia manage complex questions about culture, and the anxieties and ambivalence manifested by the Nuxalk as they negotiate interactions with outsiders.
McIlwraith's Field Letters, 1922-1924, edited by John Barker and Douglas Cole, is a text that delivers exactly what the subtitle promises: a selection of letters written by a noted Canadian anthropologist in the course of Nuxalk field research.
The late Margaret Siwallace, of the Nuxalk Nation, as a nine-year old child in the early 1900s, used to accompany her aunt to the cannery at Bella Coola.
And the guards blocked Native Americans from Canada's Nuxalk tribe from even entering the room--publicly embarrassing the company when the strong-arm tactics showed up in a Wall Street Journal headline two days later ("Home Depot Meeting Bars Indian").
A more historic coming-together occurs that morning when chiefs of the Heiltsuk and Nuxalk nations meet on the waterfront of Ocean Falls, a mostly abandoned village about 30 miles up a roadless fjord from Bella Bella.
Activities include easy and moderate hikes in old-growth forests, a float trip, and cultural visits with Nuxalk First Nation to view ancient petroglyphs.
The day before the shareholders meeting, Qwatsinas, the hereditary chief of the Nuxalk people of the Great Bear rainforest, paid a visit to Home Depot's Atlanta flagship store for an ethical shoplifting action.