Nuu'chah'nulth
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Nuu'chah'nulth

On the West Coast, a culture formed about 7,000 BC around salmon fishing and whaling. Whales were especially critical to village survival, supplying food, oil, sinew and bone. Because of this vital relationship, the whale hunt incorporated a spiritual element.
Scraping marrow from animal bone. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
Scraping marrow from animal bone. (As portrayed in Canada: A People's History)
The hunter fasted before the hunt, abstained from sex and bathed several times daily with increasing intensity, scouring himself with shells until his skin bled. The hunt was a seduction; the whale chose his killer and would only submit to a worthy suitor.

The Nuu'chah'nulth or Nootka of Vancouver Island had a whaling prayer that reads like a cross between a Christian litany and an erotic courtship.

"May I cause the whale to emerge from the head area, may it come up my canal. May it listen to my words... May I cause embarrassment to my fellow whalers, may it surface right where I am on the water, that it may wait for me. May I cause it to become lame when I start paddling after it. May I bend its mind to my advantage. That the females would want me, that the female whales would want to marry me.

That it may look away from my fellow whalers. That all females would favour me, that they would 'catch' my spear. That it would put my harpoon point under its bosom, that I may cause it to roll on the sea as I would spear it fatally. Only me they would love, me most of all."
Styles of Native Canoes, National Archives of Canada C-113196
Styles of Native Canoes, National Archives of Canada C-113196
It wasn't just the whaler who had to endure the rituals. His wife had to as well, scrubbing herself raw. "Between her thighs is where she has to rub, the whale hunter's wife, rubbing until it breaks open at her crotch with the sharp vines of the wild blackberry."

As she rubs, she recites her own prayer, "May you not look at my husband when he is paddling towards you, that you may stop there on the water when he comes near you." The village's fate was greatly affected by the whale hunt, but it had a metaphysical element too, it provided a moral structure. The whale judged the couple, divined their fidelity and their worth.

They were hunting grey whales, which could grow to more than forty feet in length. But the boats of the Nuu'chah'nulth were the same length, elaborate dugouts made from a single tree, planed and burned to a smooth finish then elaborately painted with ochre.
Tribal distribution at first contact
Tribal distribution at first contact
They used ten-foot harpoons linked to a bark rope. Attached to the rope were twenty to thirty inflated sealskins that impeded the whale's diving once he was harpooned, a technology borrowed from the Inuit and Aleut to the north.

The chief had to strike the first whale and when one was taken, there was a prolonged feast to celebrate the fact and the whale's various parts were apportioned according to rank. The animal was honoured in death so the whales would return the following year.
Tribal distribution - westcoast
Tribal distribution - west coast

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