Bella Coola Tribe

Picture of a Chinook Northwest Native Indian

The Bella Coola (Nuxalk) Tribe
Summary and Definition: The Bella Coola fishers and hunters were also known as the Nuxalk people of Bella Coola, British Columbia. Its people were located at the mouth of the Bella Coola River that flowed westward to the Pacific Ocean. The Bella Coola tribe lived off the produce from the river and ocean and constructed their plankhouses and dugout canoes from the abundant Red Cedar trees.

The Bella Coola were one of only six tribes of Northwest Indians who erected Totem Poles. The Totem Poles symbolized guardian spirits who watched over the family, clan, or tribe.

Where did the Bella Coola tribe live?
The Bella Coola are people of the Northwest Coast cultural group. The Nuxalk people lived in Bella Coola Valley, a steep sided valley within the coastal temperate rainforest ecosystem of the central coast of British Columbia.  The geography of the region in which they lived dictated the lifestyle and culture of the Bella Coola tribe.

  • Land: Tall dense forests, oceans, mountains and rivers.
  • Climate: The climate was very warm summers and cold, rain drenched winters
  • Animals: The  animals included Mountain goats and sheep, deer, moose, fox, mink, beaver, bear and elk
  • Fish: Salmon, halibut, eulachon (candlefish), herring and shellfish. Sea animals included seals, sea otters and whales
  • Natural Resources: Red cedar trees, bulbs, wapato (Indian Potato) greens, seeds and berries, forests, mountains, rivers and the bounty of the Pacific Ocean

What did the Bella Coola live in?
The Bella Coola tribe lived in plankhouses built from the red cedar trees that were so abundant in their location.  The Bella Coola built the plankhouses over a pit in various sizes which were located in large villages of up to 1000 people. The size of the plankhouses range from 20 to 60 feet wide and from 50 to 150 feet long. There were no windows in the plankhouse but there were roof slots that let fresh air in, and smoke from cooking fires out. Many of the plankhouses and doorways were adorned with pole carvings of totems that illustrated the dwellers clan, history or mythology. Many entrances to the plankhouses were designed around an open mouth, reflecting the mythology of the Bella Coola people (see the beliefs of the Bella Coola).

What language did the Bella Coola tribe speak?
The Bella Coola tribe spoke Nuxalk, a Salishan language of the Northwest Coast.

Bella Coola Art
The Bella Coola were expert wood carvers and various items were decorated with Bella Coola art. These included fabulous masks, totem poles, house frontal poles with entrance through a gaping mouth. The artists also created Petroglyphs and Pictograms.

Bella Coola Totem Poles
The Bella Coola were one of only 6 tribes of Northwest Coast Indians (Tlingit, Haida, Kwakiutl, Tsimshian and Nootka) who erected Totem Poles made by carving and painting vertical logs. Totem Poles symbolized guardian spirits who watched over the family, clan, or tribe. The Bella Coola tribe used the "Southern Style" of Totem Poles that included impressive thunderbirds using an intricate color scheme favoring black, red, green, and yellow, white and turquoise colors. For additional facts and information refer to Totem Poles.

What transportation did the Bella Coola use?
The Bella Coola tribe used canoes made of birch bark, a strong and water-resistant bark that can be easily cut, bent and sewn. Although called a birch bark canoe the bark from cedar trees was also used in the same way. The Bella Coola hollowed logs with fire and then the bark was stretched over a lightweight, wooden frame to make the canoe that could be easily steered. The bark canoe was perfect for travel along fast streams and shallow waters and were sturdy enough for the rough waters of the Bella Coola River that flowed westward to the Pacific Ocean. The Bella Coola used several different types of canoes, including long, narrow canoes of a single red cedar log for rivers and bigger types of seagoing canoes that were often decorated with crest designs or painted black.

What food did the Bella Coola tribe eat?
The food that the Bella Coola tribe ate included their staple diet of fish supplemented by wapato (Indian Potato) greens, seeds and berries. The women also pressed the rich oil from the eulachon (candlefish) and used large amounts of this oil as a dip for their food.

What weapons did the Bella Coola use?
The weapons used by the Bella Coola included bows and arrows, blowguns, clubs and spears. The also used shields made from the hide of the moose and wore wood armor used a form of defensive clothing called a clamon which was like a breastplate made from hardened moose hide and cedar bark and was designed to protect the wearer from arrow fire.

What clothes did the Bella Coola wear?
The clothes worn by the Bella Coola were the same as those worn by the Chinook Tribe - please refer to this article for comprehensive information about clothing.

What was the religion and beliefs of the Bella Coola tribe?
The Bella Coola believed that there were five worlds, located one above the other. The middle world was their own world, the earth. Above earth were two upper worlds, one the home of 'Our Woman - Afraid of Nothing', and the one below that was the 'House of the Sun'. Two lower worlds were below earth. The first world was called the 'Ghost Land' and the second was the home of those Bella Coola who die a second time. The upper heaven, the home of "Our Woman" or Afraid of Nothing was envisioned as a prairie without any trees in it. In order to reach it, the Bella Coola must pass through the House of the Sun.

The house of Afraid of Nothing stands in the far east. A strong wind blows always toward it across the open prairie so that everything rolls to her house. However, immediately around the house it was always quite calm. In front of the house stood a totem post in the shape of a large winged monster whose mouth was the entrance. The Bella Coola believed that Afraid of Nothing, "Our Woman", created the whole world. She fought a great war with the mountains and defeated them. She made them much smaller than they used to be. During this fight she broke off the nose of one mountain, and its face may be recognized even now. The mountain is near the Bella Coola River. The Bella Coola believe that Afraid of Nothing visits the earth now and then; but when she does, her visits cause sickness and death. 

Bella Coola History
The Bella Coola were believed to have settled in the region around 1400. In 1793 they encountered the explorers George Vancouver and Alexander Mackenzie. They traded fish and animal skins for copper, iron, knives, kettles and other items. As the fur trade developed, Hudsonís Bay Company established a local trading post from 1833 to 1843. During this time, the Bella Coola prevented furs from other tribes from reaching the coast, thus maintaining a trade monopoly with the Europeans.

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