The Nuchatlaht are one of a group of 14 native bands that together are known as Nuu–Chah–Nulth [formerly called Nootka], which translated means ‘all along the mountains’. The Nuchatlaht have always lived at Nuchatlitz on the northern part of Nootka Island, which is their traditional territory. The government permanently relocated the people to an area on Vancouver Island across from Nootka Island. The community is called Oclucje [pronounced oo-cloo-gee]. It is located about 12 km from the town of Zeballos and has a population of bout 50 people with a total band membership of 125.
The Nuu–Chah–Nulth all spoke a common language and shared the same culture and beliefs. The majority of the Nuu–Chah–Nulth continue to live in the same area that they have lived for over 10,000 years; the rugged, beautiful west coast of Vancouver Island.
Before the European invasion the oceans were filled with whales, sea otter, salmon and many other kinds of marine life. The vast forests were teeming with game, so that life was generally easy for the people and there was much free time available for other pursuits. As a result the Nuu–Chah–Nulth developed one of the most advanced non–agriculture based civilizations on earth.
At the time of the first European contact the Nuu-Chah-Nulth were an estimated 70,000 strong, but with the Europeans came smallpox to which the natives had no natural resistance. Much is made of the ‘black plague’ epidemic that ravaged Europe in the middle ages. It is estimated that up to 50 percent of the population died as a result of this terrible disease. As bad as this was, many have forgotten that smallpox wiped out 90 percent of the native peoples throughout the Americas. Behind smallpox came other deadly epidemics such as whooping cough, measles, cholera, influenza and TB, leaving many more dead in its wake.
The next deadly scourge to strike the Nuu-Chah-Nulth was the residential school system, which amounted to a full-scale attack on native culture. The government of Canada enacted a law that forced all native children of school age to leave their families and communities each year to attend boarding schools. These schools were run by various religious denominations [Catholic, Anglican, etc]. Funding to these various schools was inadequate so that food and other necessities were substandard and the teachers and others in charge were often extremely cruel and abusive to those in their care. Children could not leave until summer holidays, and parents were not allowed to visit or contact their children while at school. Children were forbidden to speak their native language and were punished severely if they should break this rule. Children were beaten for even the most minor offenses, many thousands died while in the ‘care’ of the residential school system.
A shocking form of assault commonly practiced against native children was rape: those entrusted to care for the children would do this to them – – even those who claimed to be servants of the Most High God, and claimed to be working to save the souls of these ‘heathen’ children. Sadly, for many, this was their first introduction to the white man’s culture. Everything the children had been taught by their people was ridiculed: every effort was made to make them ashamed of who they were and of their people and beliefs. Those who were fortunate enough to survive the Residential School experience often returned home full of hatred and self–hatred, anger, and were depressed and suffered from other emotional wounds. Some turned to alcohol and drugs to ease the pain, some became abusive or neglectful toward loved ones. They were often highly suspicious toward any authority figure, and came to despise the Christian Church.
This systematic destruction of their culture has not been completely successful however, as some elders and chiefs have recently begun working together to bring back some of the ancient ceremonies and traditions of their people.
Another important aspect of the Nuu–Chah–Nulth culture is their art; there is now a renewing interest in canoe building, wood carvings, woven cedar bark hats and clothing and other traditional art forms, not only as a way of keeping their culture alive but also as a means of earning a living. In spite of generations of cultural suppression through residential school abuse, the Nuu–Chah–Nulth have managed to retain their native language until now but, unfortunately, the younger generation does not speak it. Chief Walter Michael Sr. is aware of how vitally important his language is to the survival of the Nuu–Chah–Nulth culture and is currently working with others on a program to encourage the younger people to learn and speak the language.
Although most bands today have made changes to their tribal government structure, the Nuchatlaht band has chosen to hold with their traditional hereditary chieftainship, as the hereditary system has worked well for them. Their present chief is Walter Michael Sr., his title having been passed down through many generations. The authority of chieftainship was officially handed over to Walter years ago but he still consults with his father on a regular basis because, although Alban is now a great–grandfather, he and his wife, Rose, remain healthy, strong, and sharp.
The Nuchatlaht recognize the common kinship they share with their brothers of all the Nuu-Chah-Nulth and the Makah of Neah Bay, Washington. They also feel strongly their close connection with all the First Nations of Canada, United States, Mexico and South America, all of whom have lost much and have suffered greatly these past several generations.
The Nuchatlaht are few in number, but are friendly and hospitable; they welcome all, of any nation or race who would be their friends.
by Eric G
Articles are reprinted under Fair Use Doctrine of International Copyright Law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html