Nuu-chah-nulth-aht are a sea-going people. Archeological dates show that the ancestors of the Nuu-chah-nulth were living here on the coast at least 5,000 years ago. However, they have probably been here much longer than that.
Changes in sea level over time make it difficult to know exactly when the Nuu-chah-nulth ancestors first arrived, because rising seas in the past have obliterated the older deposits. They most likely arrived here well over 13,000 years ago, either by canoes or some other watercraft, along the coast from Siberia and beyond.
The word Nuu-chah-nulth means “the people along the mountains and the sea.” However, this is not the word that they originally used for themselves. Formerly, they were many small tribes, each with a defined territory, united by language, culture and family relations – each tribe with its own name. As a result of colonization, and the need to deal with the relatively new Canadian government as a single unit, it served the people to unite with a common name for all, and the name Nuu-chah-nulth was chosen.
The number of original Nuu-chah-nulth tribes decreased substantially as a result of population loss, primarily due to introduced diseases: many of the smaller tribes were forced to amalgamate. Today there are 14 main Nuu-chah-nulth tribes (or 17 including the closely related Ditidaht, Pacheedaht and Makah to the south).
The Secret Coast expedition will have us go through the territory of three Nuu-chah-nulth nations: Nuchatlaht, Mowachaht/Muchalaht and Hesquiaht. We will pass through several significant historic sites relating to some of the earliest Native/European contacts, too, specifically:
- Homais Cove on the Hesquiaht Peninsula, site of the very first European contact on this part of the coast, where the 82′ Spanish frigate Santiago, under the command of Juán Pérez, made contact with the native Hesquiaht in 1774.
- Yuquot (Friendly Cove), a Mowachaht whaling village for thousands of years, also where Captain Cook landed four years after the arrival of Pérez, later the site of a Spanish fort, and even later the place where the English armourer John Jewitt was held captive by Chief Maquinna from 1803 to 1805.
Nuu-chah-nulth culture has been significantly impacted by European contact over the centuries: for example, through the introduced diseases, the loss of access to traditional territories, and the on-going impacts of residential schools. (Jackie has previously written about some of these topics, such as Indian Residential Schools and aboriginal fishing rights).
However, in recent years, indigenous movements are strengthening, and there is a cultural rennaissance taking place. There is presently a strong push towards reconciliation (whatever that ultimately means) from all sides: from indigenous people, from the governments of Canada and British Columbia, and from many regional governing bodies and communities.