Traditionally, several permanent villages existed south and east of the Bella Bellas and the Haislas, east of the Queen Charlotte Sound coast in British Columbia. These people may also have occupied territory east of the Coastal Range. Beginning around 1800, they consolidated their villages at the mouth of the Bella Coola River. In 1936, a flood forced them to move from the north to the south shore of the river's mouth. Their traditional territory is rugged, with mountains, estuaries, and forests. The climate is cool and wet. Perhaps 1,400 Bella Coolas lived in their villages in 1780. Speaking a Salishan language, the Bella Coolas were late-comers to the region, probably arriving around 1400.
The Bella Coolas recognized four or five worlds, including a center, or human, world. A supernatural being kept this flat center world level and balanced. There were many deities and a supreme female deity, all of whom resided in the sky. All things had spirits that could intervene in the lives of people. Favorable intervention might be gained through prayer and ritual sexual intercourse.
Their extremely rich ceremonialism was dominated by two secret societies as well as the potlatch. Membership in one such society, Sisaok, was restricted to the children and relatives of certain chiefs. An extended period of seclusion accompanied initiation, as did songs and the display of carved masks with crests. The ceremony dramatized various kin-related legends. The other society, Kusiut, was based on contact with the supernaturals. Its dances, such as cannibal, scratcher, breaker, and fungus, included songs and masks representing supernatural beings. These dances dominated the ceremonial period, which lasted from November through March.
All people had the potential to become shamans; the event occurred when a supernatural being conferred power through a visit, a name, and songs. Some such power could cure sickness. Some shamans received power through ghosts and could see dead people; they cured disease caused by ghosts.
Aboriginally, the Bella Coolas inhabited between thirty and sixty autonomous villages, each consisting of from two to thirty houses arranged in a row along a river or creek bank. Each village had a chief, whose status derived from his ancestral name, prerogatives, and wealth. Chiefs had little direct ruling power. A woman who had been "rebought" several times, and who had thus helped her husband accumulate status, was also recognized as a chief.
Descent groups probably owned fish weirs in aboriginal times. Hunting, too, could only occur in an area claimed by a descent group. Hunters, some of whose ancestral prerogatives allowed them to be known as professionals, underwent ritualistic preparation.
The units of social organization included the household, village, and descent group, or all those with a common ancestral mythology. A child could inherit both parents' descent groups, but residence with the father's family tended to reinforce the patrilineal line. Social status was important and clearly delineated. The ability (and obligation) to give away gifts on ceremonial occasions (potlatches) was a key component of social status. Social mobility was possible, and even slaves might obtain dance prerogatives and thus achieve some status.
Babies were born with the assistance of midwives in a birth hut in the woods. Their heads were flattened and their bodies massaged daily. Wealthy parents gave naming potlatches. Infanticide and abortion were occasionally practiced. The Bella Coolas pierced the nasal septa of high-status children, both boys and girls; the occasion was accompanied by potlatches. Upon reaching puberty, girls were secluded, and their activity and diet were restricted for a year. There were no boys' puberty rituals, although their first hunted game was distributed and eaten ritually, as were the first berries gathered by girls.
Although the ancestral family was an important source of Bella Coola identity, they did inter-marry extensively with other peoples. Parents and elderly relatives arranged marriages, around which there were many rituals and opportunities to increase status. The relatives of high-status brides were expected to "rebuy" the woman (donate goods) every time her husband gave a potlatch. Cruelty, neglect, and infidelity were considered grounds for divorce.
Music could be both sacred and secular. The former was sung by a choir, who used sticks and drums for a beat, and three main performers. Various wind instruments were also used to symbolize the supernaturals.
Permanent houses were large, planked structures. They were constructed of red cedar and often built on stilts against floods and enemies. House-fronts were decorated with the owner's crest. Houses were inhabited by extended families. Entry was through carved house posts. Some winter houses were excavated, with only the roofs showing.
The Bella Coolas enjoyed a relatively regular food supply. Fish was the staple, including five types of salmon plus steelhead trout, rainbow and cutthroat trout, eulachon (smelt), Pacific herring, and others. All fish was boiled, roasted, or smoke-dried. Eulachon was very valuable, perhaps more for its grease than as food. The first chinook salmon and eulachon of the season were eaten ritually.
Other important foods included shellfish; seals, sea lions, and beached whales; land mammals, such as mountain goat, bear, lynx, hare, beaver, marmot, and deer; and fowl. More than 135 plants were used for foods, medicines, and raw materials. Important plant foods included berries and the cambium layer of the western hemlock (steamed with skunk cabbage leaves, pounded, dried, and mixed with eulachon grease).
Wood carving was probably the preeminent Bella Coola art. Masks, entry poles, house frontal poles (with entry through a gaping mouth), and carved posts were often painted and decorated with crest figures. They had no fully developed totem pole. They also made pictographs and petroglyphs. The Bella Coolas used several types of canoes, including long, narrow canoes of a single red cedar log for rivers (the most common) and four types of seagoing canoes. Canoes were decorated with crest designs or painted black. Hunters also wore two types of snowshoes in winter.
The Bella Coolas engaged in irregular conflict with neighbors such as the Carriers, Chilcotins, and Kwakiutls. Their lack of political centralization made retaliating against raiding parties difficult. The Bella Coolas raided too, attacking at dawn, burning a village, killing all the men, and taking women and children as slaves. Weapons included moose-hide shields, wood armor, the bow and arrow, clubs, and spears.
In 1793 the Bella Coolas encountered the explorers George Vancouver and Alexander Mackenzie; the Indians traded fish and skins to them for iron, copper, knives, and other items. As the fur trade developed, Hudson's Bay Company maintained a local fort/post from 1833 to 1843. During this period, the Bella Coolas prevented furs from the Carrier Indians (an eastern group) from reaching the coast, thus maintaining a trade monopoly with the whites.
Shortly after gold was discovered in their area (1851), disease, alcohol, and hunger combined to weaken and kill many Indians. A severe smallpox epidemic in 1863 forced the abandonment of numerous villages. Hudson's Bay Company operated another local trading post from 1869 to 1882, and Protestant missionaries penetrated the Bella Coola territory in the 1870s and 1880s. In 1885, nine Bella Coolas journeyed to Germany for thirteen months, dancing and singing for European audiences and inspiring the anthropologist Franz Boas to begin his lifelong study of Northwest Coast Indians. A Norwegian colony, the first local non-Indian settlement, was established in the Bella Coola Valley in 1894.
These changes, combined with the gradual transition to a commercial (fishing and logging) economy and the replacement of traditional housing with single-family structures, weakened descent groups and led to the gradual consolidation of ceremonials and the abandonment of songs. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the people relearned the old songs, using recordings made by anthropologists. In the 1970s, the revival of traditional culture also included new masks and dances.