Dancing or secret societies performed their ceremonies in winter. Initiation into the societies was by hereditary right. Dances—a first, or shamans', series, including a cannibal's dance; a "coming down again," or second, series, including war dances; and a dog-eating dance—were ranked according to the status of both the dance and the performers. Performances dramatized the encounter of an ancestor with a supernatural being. Wealthy, high-status people sponsored dances, feasts, and potlatches. A council of chiefs managed the winter dances.
As was generally the case along the Northwest Coast, the basic political unit was the autonomous local group or clan. Each such group was presided over by a chief. Parts of several clans often formed a village, where the highest-ranking chief had relative degrees of control over the others. For defensive purposes, some villages congregated to form loose confederations or tribes.
Distinctive crests and ranked titles identified each of the four crest groups, or clans—Raven, Eagle, Orca, and Wolf. These groups also had heads, or chiefs. Resource sites could be owned by families, local groups, or crest groups, and they could be rented out for some form of compensation.
In general, society was divided into status-ranked groups, such as chiefs, free commoners, and slaves. Some divisions also added another free group between commoners and slaves, as well as several levels of chief. Symbols of high rank included tattoos, ornamentation, and the possession of wealth and hereditary titles. Commoners had less prestigious names, held smaller feasts, and had no inherited rights to certain dances. The low-class free were orphans or the unambitious with no wealthy relatives.
Regular intermarriage occurred between the Bella Bellas and the Bella Coolas. Marriage between close cousins was condoned if it furthered one's status. The bride price was a key ingredient of a marriage; in cases of divorce it was generally refunded.
Semipermanent winter villages were composed of rectangular cedar plank houses. Features included vertical wall planks, a gabled roof and double ridgepole, carved interior posts, an adjustable central smoke hole, and mat-lined walls in sleeping areas. Summer camp houses were of similar but less elaborate construction. When they were in small or temporary camps, people made do with bark structures.
Fish, especially salmon, was the staple. Other marine foods were also important. The Bella Bellas took stranded whales only for their blubber. They ate several varieties of berries and hunted deer, wolf, bear, mountain goat, small mammals, waterfowl, and most birds (except crow and raven) and their eggs. Other than in winter, when food stores were eaten, people migrated seasonally to various resource sites. Fishing technology included stone and wood stake weirs, traps, harpoons, dip nets, and clubs. Harpoons, clubs, and bow and arrow were used for hunting sea mammals. Land animals were hunted with the help of dogs, snares, spears, and deadfalls. Digging sticks helped people gather roots. Most woodworking tools were of stone. Women made burden and storage baskets.
The Bella Bellas traded shellfish and seaweed with more inland groups (such as the Bella Coolas) for eulachon (smelt) and eulachon products. They also obtained canoes in trade, often from the north. Bentwood boxes, chests, canoes, and horn spoons and ladles were items of fine local construction. Also important were relief carved and painted ceremonial/religious items such as totem poles and masks. The cedar dugout, a shallow-bottom canoe used with round-tipped blades, was the primary means of transportation. The Bella Bellas and Haihais also used bark canoes for lake travel.
In warm weather, women wore cedar-bark aprons; men went naked. Blankets of woven cedar bark, mountain goat wool or dog hair, or tanned, sewn skins kept people warm in cold weather. Women wore waterproof basket caps and cedar-bark ponchos in the rain. Both sexes wore their hair long. Those who could afford it wore abalone nose and ear pendants. High-status women also wore labrets, dentalia bracelets, necklaces, and anklets. They also deformed their babies' heads for aesthetic purposes. The people painted their bodies and faces against sunburn.
The Bella Bellas fought regularly, mainly against the Bella Coolas, Haidas, Tsimshians, and Kwakiutls. They were well organized militarily. The Haihais were regularly under attack, but the Oowekeenos were more geographically isolated. Revenge, trespass, violation of custom, and seasonal shortages of food were common causes of war.
Bella Bellas probably met non-Indians for the first time in 1793, when the explorers George Vancouver and Alexander Mackenzie arrived to prospect for the fur trade. Shortly thereafter, that trade brought more Anglos as well as Anglo-Indian violence. Milbanke Sound was the first local major trade center. In 1833, the Hudson's Bay Company built Fort McLoughlin on Campbell Island as a major trading post. Although it abandoned the fort ten years later, the company opened a small store on the site about 1850. During the fur trade period, the Bella Bellas emerged as intermediaries, controlling access to some interior tribes and playing the Americans and British against each other.
An 1862 smallpox epidemic set off a period of rapid change. Dramatic Indian depopulation led to village consolidation. Missionization followed, as did the growth of the commercial fishing, canning, and logging industries. In 1880, the government separated Indians from their land by unilaterally establishing reserves. The Bella Bella Reserve was run by Methodist missionaries. Village centralization and consolidation continued. Around 1900, two Oowekeeno villages were established near a sawmill and a cannery. The Haihais moved from their local villages in about 1870 to Swindle Island, a fuel depot for steamships.
In the twentieth century, northern Kwakiutls were largely displaced from the logging and fishing industries owing to a combination of factors, including competition with non-Natives, technological advances, and the loss of land rights. Increased unemployment and out-migration have been the results. However, ties remain strong between home communities and the people in regional cities and towns.