Numerous categories of spirit and mythological beings were recognized as ubiquitous. They could be obtained and controlled through rituals or by spirit quests. Rituals, especially as practiced by chiefs, helped to ensure bountiful salmon runs, the beaching of dead whales, and other food resources. Long-haired shamans dived to the bottom of the sea to battle soul-stealing sea spirits. Chiefs also engaged in spirit quests (commoners' spiritual help came through minor rituals and charms). One obtained power from a spirit being by seizing it, rather than by establishing a relation with it as with a guardian spirit. Such power provided special skills, luck, or other achievements.
Nootkans prayed for power to the Four Chiefs of Above, Horizon, Land, and Undersea. They observed two primary winter ceremonies: the Dancing, or Wolf, ritual, and the Doctoring ritual (central and southern Nootkans only). Although the former was an initiation and the latter a curing ceremony, the ultimate purpose of both was to confirm the social order. The Wolf ritual, several of which might be held in a village each winter, involved masks and dramatization.
Local groups held defined territories, the legitimacy of which came from a particular legendary ancestor. The chiefly line of descent was the group's nucleus. The highest-ranking man in a local group was its chief, whose position was inheritable.
Local groups sometimes united to form tribes, with ranked chiefs and common winter villages and ceremonials. Some northern Nootkan tribes also came together to form confederacies, with each local group retaining its identity, territory, and ceremonies.
Inherited rights formed the basis of social rank and governed the ownership and use of practically everything of value. Inheritance was generally patrilineal. Nootkan social classes consisted of chief, commoners, and slaves. The chief did not work; he directed his followers, who in turn supported him and who were taken care of by them. A chief's close male relations were secondary chiefs (such as war chiefs and speakers). Chiefs received tribute for the use of resource sites. When goods accumulated, they held a feast or a potlatch. Other occasions for potlatches included life cycle and public events such as status transfer and confirmation. The participation in all life cycle rituals and ceremonies was commensurate with social rank.
Pregnancy and birth carried numerous rituals and restrictions, especially regarding twins. Infants' heads were flattened to achieve an aesthetic ideal. Children were regularly instructed on correct behavior, such as industry, peacefulness, and social responsibility, and on ritual knowledge. For high-status families, the onset of female puberty was the occasion for a great potlatch. It also entailed rituals and seclusion for the woman herself. Along with warfare, marriage was the means by which local groups sought to maximize access to subsistence areas. As such, it was mostly an alliance between families and was accompanied by great ritual, depending on rank. Although divorce was possible, adultery, unless chronic or within the chief's family, was generally smoothed over.
Multifamily cedar houses between forty and 150 feet long, between thirty and forty feet wide, and between eight and ten feet high lined the beaches. Planks were removable for use in smaller camp dwellings. Roofs were of both shed (primarily in the south) and gabled style. Individual family areas, each with its own fireplace, were set off from the others by storage chests. Sleeping platforms ringed the walls. Posts and beams were carved with hereditary designs. Local groups had house frames standing at three sites: permanent village, summertime fishing and sea hunting areas, and a main salmon stream.
Salmon, smoked and dried, was the Nootkans' staple food. Nootkans also ate herring, halibut, cod, snapper, flounder, and other fish. Other important foods included roots, berries, bulbs, ferns, crabapples, and eelgrass; shellfish, mollusks, kelp, and sea cucumbers; waterfowl; and sea mammals such as harbor seals, porpoises, sea lions, sea otters, and whales. The ritualistic preparation by whalers, who were always chiefs, included bathing, praying, and swimming, and it began months in advance of the whaling season. Land mammals included deer, elk, black bear, and small mammals. Most food was dried, smoked, steamed in pits, or broiled in wooden boxes with red-hot stones. Fish were taken with dip nets, rakes, floating fences, and weirs; waterfowl with nets, nooses, bow and arrow, and snares; marine invertebrates with yew digging and prying sticks; sea mammals with clubs, harpoons, stakes hidden in seaweed, and nets. Special whaling equipment consisted of harpoons with mussel shell blades, two forty- to sixty-fathom lines, floats, and lances. Nootkans used six types of canoes, some with cedar-bark mat sails. The uses of wood, a key raw material, included hunting and war tools, canoes, houses, utensils, buckets, and storage boxes. Mattresses and other such items were made of cedar bark.
Nootkans enjoyed a virtual monopoly on dentalia shell, an item highly prized by many peoples along and surrounding the Northwest Coast. They also supplied sea otter pelts and canoes. Their primary trading partners were the Nimpkish Kwakiutls and the Makahs. Nootkans received eulachon (smelt) oil and grease from the Tsimshians, Chilkat goat-hair blankets from the Tlingits, and furs from the Coast Salish (who obtained them from interior peoples).
Music and dance were important Nootkan arts. Vocal music, often containing complicated structures, patterns, and beats, was accompanied by drumming and rattles. Songs were sung for many different occasions, both sacred and secular.
Drama regularly included masks to represent supernatural beings. People told long, complex stories on winter evenings. House posts and fronts and many wooden objects were elaborately carved with crest designs. The decorated conical, onion-domed cedar-bark and spruce-root whaler's hat was a classic Nootkan basketry item. Painting was highly developed in the historic period.
Nootkan culture changed relatively little during the 5,000 years pre-contact with non-Natives. In the late prehistoric period they had acquired iron and other metals through trade and salvage from shipwrecks. In 1778, Captain Cook remained with the Nootkas for a month, acquiring a large collection of sea otter pelts. Cook's crew later sold the pelts to Chinese merchants at great profit, thereby laying the basis for the northwest maritime fur trade.
A few Nootkan chiefs, such as Maquinna, whose power was maintained in part by the Spanish, became very wealthy by controlling that trade. Partly by means of firearms, they established themselves as intermediaries between whites and other Indian peoples. During that time, Indians began to suffer significant population decline owing to increased warfare (competition over the fur trade) as well as epidemics, including venereal disease. By the end of the century, hunters had so depleted the sea otter stock that the local fur trade was in sharp decline. In its wake, Indians began attacking trade ships, which in turn greatly diminished their contact with non-Natives for several decades.
Population decline and general dislocation led to the formation of new tribes and confederacies in the early nineteenth century. Continued Nootkan attacks on trade ships in midcentury brought retaliation from the British navy. Gradually, without being formally conquered, the Nootkans became integrated into the new commercial economy. There was a continuing trade in the furs of animals such as deer, elk, mink, marten, and northern fur seal. Throughout the late nineteenth century, Nootkans were important suppliers of dogfish oil, which was used in the logging industry. They also became involved in the pelagic sealing industry, hunting from canoes as well as schooners. Some Nootkans became wealthy during that period and even purchased their own schooners. Commercial fishing was another important local industry, providing jobs and drawing people to canneries from their villages. Crafts for the tourist trade also became important around that time, as did seasonal hop picking in the Puget Sound area.
When British Columbia joined Canada in 1871, Nootkans became part of the federal Indian reserve system. Villages still in use received small reserves in the 1880s, though without having formally surrendered any land to the government. Missionaries arrived to carry out government health and education programs. Such programs included the establishment of Indian boarding schools, where Native culture was ruthlessly suppressed.
After World War II, further consolidation and centralization of the Nootkan population paralleled similar trends in the fishing industry. Potlatching and other forms of traditional culture continued, despite government opposition. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, Nootkans focused on fostering a positive self-identity and achieving control over their own destinies. In 1978, a political organization called the West Coast District Council (formerly the West Coast Allied Tribes) adopted the name Nuuchah-nulth ("all along the mountains") for all Nootkan peoples and renamed the organization the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council.