Academic journal article Ethnology

Whales, Chiefs, and Giants: An Exploration into Nuu-Chah-Nulth Political Thought

Academic journal article Ethnology

Whales, Chiefs, and Giants: An Exploration into Nuu-Chah-Nulth Political Thought

Article excerpt

The Nuu-chah-nulth of the Northwest Coast attained a high degree of

political organization. Hereditary chiefs had great power and

influence often extending beyond their own communities. The ideology

of the chieftainship, set forth here in a historical narrative, is

examined. Chiefs are symbolically associated with whales, and the themes

of whaling, giantism, magic, and generosity are connected with chiefly

power. The distinction between legitimate and illegitimate chiefs is

clearly drawn, with reference to the whale-chief affinities. The telling of

the narrative is linked to contemporary political issues facing the

Nuu-chah-nulth. (Chiefdom, ideology, narrative, Northwest Coast)

The Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka)(1) live on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Today, they are organized into a tribal council consisting of representatives from about twenty local bands; e.g., Chickliset, Ahousat, Ucluelet. Depending on context, these bands are referred to by tribal or band designation. While noticeable cultural differences exist among the groups, considering these groups as one people, the Nuu-chah-nulth-aht (aht is a suffix meaning people), follows ethnographic convention. Moreover, nowadays there are numerous intervillage ties that give this identity a cultural reality, albeit one modified by local group membership. Some scholars have suggested three distinct geocultural zones: Northern Nootka, Central Nootka, and Nitinat, which map ecological, linguistic, and cultural differences (Arima et al. 1991:9-11). The material presented here is from Ahousat, a Central Nootkan group.

The Nuu-chah-nulth achieved a high degree of cultural elaboration in the precontact period. Along with the closely related Makah across the Juan de Fuca Strait, the Nuu-chah-nulth were alone among Northwest Coast groups to practice whaling. Whales were important both materially and symbolically to Nuu-chah-nulth culture. Even a few whales annually could make a significant contribution to the nutritional status of a village (Arima and Dewhirst 1990). Whales were killed from large canoes, using toggling harpoons and sealskin floats. Perhaps the most dangerous jobs were stabbing the wounded whale with lances and stitching closed the mouth of the dead whale to prevent the carcass from sinking. Other sea mammals, especially seals, were highly valued. Salmon, as elsewhere on the coast, were extremely important, and when dried, provided the mainstay of winter subsistence. Groups were transhumant, moving to outer islands and beaches in the spring and sheltered inlets in the fall (Arima and Dewhirst 1990). The spectacular wealth of maritime and sylvan resources was exploited with the help of a significant slave class (Donald 1983). The society of the free was divided into two groups: chiefs, hawilh (including village chiefs and their close patrikin); and commoners, maschim. Chiefs were owners of all resources, including beached whales and other salvage that came within territorial waters. Territories were bounded with markers, and boundaries were defended. Commoners' exploitation of resources, such as salmon streams, was always at the chief's pleasure.

Whaling was exclusively the domain of the chief, who was always the leader of the hunts. The chief alone could perform the private rituals that were thought to determine success or failure of the hunt. Chiefs were the leaders of the main (and in many communities the only) collective ceremony, the Tlukwana (Wolf Ritual). This ritual involved the abduction of initiates by "wolves"; although the imagery was violent and thanatotic, it was performed in the spirit of fun, and was seen as an entertainment provided by the chief for his people (Drucker 1951:386-443).

Nuu-chah-nulth culture reached a pinnacle of development in the early fur-trade period. Observers such as Mozino (1970) and the officers of the third Cook voyage recorded an elaborate material culture, a large slave class, and powerful chiefs (Gunther 1972:18-54). …

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