Pacheedaht HistoryWest Coast Vancouver Island,
British Columbia, Canada
Nootka (meaning "circling about")
Southern Wakashan ("Wakash!" meaning "Bravo!")
Nuu-chah-nulth (meaning "all along the shining mountains")
Ditidaht (meaning "people along the way/coast")
Pacheenah (meaning "sea foam")
Pacheedaht (meaning "people of the sea foam")
The first arrivals along the west coast of British Columbia occurred around 10,000 years ago, after the last great glacial melt, although it wasn't until around 5,500 years ago that these small and
relatively unspecialized groups finally formed large complex societies that became associated with certain areas over time. (It is interesting to note that for an unknown period of time before
contact with Europeans, the Nootka acquired iron and other metals through native trade networks and shipwrecks.)
The southern Wakashans, along the west coast of Vancouver Island, were part of the Nootka (both names suggested by Captain James Cook during his first encounters with those peoples in 1778). The
Nootka are one of many groups of natives that have inhabited Vancouver Island, and particularly its west coast, for thousands of years.
There are territorial sub-groups of each regional native group, and most of these sub-groups are divided into several distinct branches, within which each village has its own identity, and sometimes
its own distinct culture. These sub-groups have been known by inappropriate or erroneous names throughout recorded history, and these names have largely been rejected by the people to whom they
Today all these groups have taken names which better reflect their own concepts of their identity. The Nootka people now prefer to be known as the Nuu-chah-nulth collectively, and the southern-most
Nuu-chah-nulth as the Ditidaht, which has three branches of its own.
The southeastern-most peoples of these three are the Pacheedaht, who are located on the Gordon River Reservation in Port Renfrew, on the San Juan Bay. The Pacheedaht traditional lands extended from
Point-No-Point, up the west coast (including Pacheenah Bay) to Bonilla Point and from the mouth of the San Juan River to Todd Mountain, 26 miles inland (according to Chief Charlie Queesto Jones, in
Wakashan is one of the eleven native language families in Canada. The Wakashan language family is one of the six found in British Columbia alone. Wakashan has two main branches, Kwakiutl and Nootka
(Nuu-chah-nulth). Nuu-chah-nulth itself is divided into three languages. The northern and central Nuu-chah-nulth groups speak dialects of one language, while the southern group (Ditidaht and Makah)
speak separate but closely related languages.
The outer coast Nuu-chah-nulth relied extensively on halibut, although all 5 salmon species were a fundamental resource. The natives would time seasonal movements to coincide with each of the salmon
runs, from spring to late fall. Eulachon oil, rendered from a small spring smelt, and a highly prized condiment, was valuable in trade as well. Herring and herring spawn rounded out the fish which
were harvested regularly. The always available inter tidal bounty of clams, mussels, abalone and other shell fish, as well as sea urchins, sea cucumbers, octopus, crabs and seaweed provided more
Being a rugged maritime peoples, seals, sea lions, porpoise and especially whales, (particularly the California gray and the humpback) were much desired, and most often hunted. Whale meat was
preferred in the Nuu-chah-nulth diet, and the oil-rich blubber had many uses. The Nuu-chah-nulth were the only open-ocean canoe whalers on Vancouver Island and much prestige was conferred on the
whalers for their skill and bravery. (The Pacheedaht are related to the Makah on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, who are also historically renowned for open-sea canoe whaling.)
Of the land-based resources, deer, elk and bear were the most important meats, and water fowl were caught on occasion. Salmon berry greens and fireweed shoots were among the first spring greens to
relieve the long winter diet. Clover, fern roots, edible bulbs and tubers were important sources of nourishment, along with the inner bark of the hemlock, which created a starchy cake. Salmon
berries, salal berries and huckleberries would be enjoyed fresh, as well as pressed into cakes and dried for winter use. Soap berries would be whipped into a froth for a kind of "ice cream".
Southern Wakashans allowed inheritance and membership in the kin group to come from either the mother's or father's side, with an emphasis on the father's side. People in kin groups traced their
descendency to a common ancestor, usually a supernatural being from when the world began.
Kin groups sharing a name and a descendency from a common ancestor held the rights to important hunting and fishing sites, and other resource areas like cammas root sites and clam beds. Even the
rights to assets like dances, songs and crests fell to the order of rank. Rank was accorded by the closeness of the relationship to these ancestors, with the highest-ranking person or tribe having
the greatest prominence on all ceremonial occasions.
Raids were common, and usually conducted to take revenge for insults, or to acquire slaves, though seldom was there warfare over territory. Marriages of equal rank between kin groups were usually
arranged as political alliances, which kept open warfare between tribes to a minimum, in the interest of maintaining shared resources between these alliances.
The potlatch was central to the whole concept of status and rank, with the prominent feature being the distribution of wealth. If there was any change in the status quo, the chief and his kin were
required to invite others to witness their claim. Potlatches were held for numerous reasons, from celebration of a high-status marriage, birth of an heir, finishing a new house, to an "erasure of
shame" for reinstatement of one's good name.
Potlatch is from the Chinook word for "gift", with the biggest and best goods going to the highest ranking visitors, to not only validate the status of the giver, but to reaffirm that of the guests.
Without a written language, potlatching helped the public to recognize a person's claim to a particular status or inherited rights. Potlatching also played an economic role, redistributing food and
goods, as well as keeping people occupied and entertained during the winter months.
Supernatural forces were believed to be most accessible during this time, as it was felt that these forces were closer to the village in winter, and many performances by masked dancers reinacted
ancestral encounters with these supernatural beings. Winter ceremonials where the wolf featured prominently, were held often, and the carved wolf masks of the Nuu-chah-nulth are among the best-known
of their artworks.
A wise chief, who managed his people's resources and rights skillfully, could accumulate immense wealth, which would enhance his status when publicly distributed at feasts and potlatches. A
high-ranking chief would sometimes show disdain or indifference for his great wealth by destroying valuable items like copper shields, eulachon oil and even slaves, in a show of rivalry intended to
force back high-ranking guests by making them feel defeated by the show of excessive wealth. A potlatching chief would be far from poor, though, as he would become a recipient at the upcoming
potlatches and ceremonies.
There were year-round gatherings, where strength games, and canoe and foot racing were common, and gambling games were a grand passion. Any successful endeavor required supernatural aid, from hunting
to amassing wealth, and involved much ritual cleansing and "training" in order to enlist the aid of whatever being one called upon. The exploits of these supernatural beings and their encounters with
human ancestors are the basis of a rich oral tradition. Myths were not only instructive, but were a major means of entertainment on long, rainy evenings around the fire.
The Red Cedar was of paramount importance to the West Coast peoples because it was strong, light, and rot-resistant. The roots and bark were crafted into beautifully woven hats, clothes, mats and
baskets, while the branches would be split and twisted into ropes. The wood itself was used at both summer and winter villages to make impressive and comfortable multi-family homes with huge roof
beams and planks. Whaling and traveling canoes, totem poles, frontal crest poles, interior house poles, boxes and masks were also provided by this versatile tree.
Cedar became the main medium in which Northwest Coast natives expressed their unique artistic abilities, mostly in the form of heraldry, ceremonial objects, and everyday things such as bowls and
spoons. Every item was embellished with finely carved designs and animals, which depicted stories or represented characters of myth. Even the planks and support poles inside each lodge became works
Cultural Changes Resulting from European Contact:
The Spanish made fleeting contact with the Nuu-chah-nulth around 1774-75, when Captain Juan Perez attempted to protect Spain's claims in western North America from the Russians. The coastal natives
were not afraid of these strange people in their floating houses, and they paddled their canoes out, making gestures of peace to initiate trade. Among the much-coveted trade goods was anything made
of metal, of which the Spaniards seemed to have an abundance.
Captain James Cook arrived in Nootka Sound in 1778, on his third expedition for the British, and this is when extensive contact with the Nootka peoples began. Cook stayed almost a month with the
Wakashan Nootka, and his diaries contain the earliest and fullest descriptions of northwest coast native life. Much of the British/Nootka relations centered on trade, from which a lucrative fur trade
developed within a few short years. Sea otter pelts commanded the highest prices, and by the mid 1780's, the French and the Americans added themselves into the rush for fur trade wealth, with the
first trading ship to enter Nootka Sound in 1785. Fur trade declined rapidly after 1790, when the sea otter was finally hunted to extinction along the British Columbia coast by the early 1800's.
White settlement was beginning to work its way out from Fort Victoria, and the first steps in Indian administration came after Vancouver Island was declared a crown colony in 1849. The ensuing
encroachment into native lands made it neccessary for the whites to create reservations and residential schools to control the land and its native people. Epidemic European diseases like smallpox and
measles all but wiped out whole native populations, who were now in ever-increasing contact with whites. . In 1862, one major smallpox outbreak in Fort Victoria made its way through the entire coast
and into the interior, killing roughly 20,000 native people. This was nearly one third of British Columbia's native population at the time.
Between 1850 and 1854, Governor James Douglas negotiated fourteen treaties with native groups in order to obtain land for settlement under pressure of the government. These treaties declared the land
to "be the entire property of the white people forever", in exchange for small compensation payments and the establishment of reserves on land not considered useful by the whites.
In 1871 British Columbia joined Canada, and the Nootkans became part of the Indian reserve system of the federal Department of Indian Affairs. Missionization began in 1875, fueled by the desire to
transform "heathen" native lifestyles by forcing them into total assimilation of European beliefs and habits, thereby "saving" them. In 1884, the potlatch was finally outlawed, the whites believing
that the practice hindered their efforts to convert and assimilate the natives. This law was not overturned until the Indian Act was rewritten in 1951.
Much has occurred since then, and today's Nuu-chah-nulth peoples are very much involved with regaining their ancestral lands and rights. The Pacheedaht, and other West Coast native villages, have
begun an internal preservation of their own history and culture for their future generations. There is also a great desire that the general public understand these unique people and their precious
history, which was almost lost to the world during those few short hundred years.
Compiled by: R.M. Ridout, April/2004
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