The Nuu-chah-nulth, woodworkers and craftspeople of the Pacific coast

Bird Rattle, Yuquot Collection, c. late 19th century. © Parks Canada / X.78.49.1

For the week of Monday, March 14, 2022.

On March 15, 1978, Parks Canada acquired this beautifully carved Nuu-chah-nulth wooden bird rattle. It dates to the late 19th century and is part the Yuquot Collection of Nuu-chah-nulth artefacts. Crafted for ceremony, bird rattles, such as this one are considered sacred and are used to accompany songs and chants during ceremonies.

The Nuu-chah-nulth group of nations, well-known woodworkers, craftspeople, and whalers, have lived on the western coast of Vancouver Island since time immemorial. They have a strong relationship with the earth and the sea. Using resources from both, especially whale bone and Cedar trees, they developed a refined artistic tradition. The Nuu-chah-nulth have created some of the most notable and beautifully crafted items on the Canadian Pacific coast, including canoes, masks, woven hats, baskets, and rattles. During the 19th century, they also began to incorporate painting in their art. Their distinctive style features bold lines and an emphasis on geometric designs.

Crafted objects have cultural and religious roles and significance. They are used in rituals and ceremonies, and depict figures from the Nuu-chah-nulth spiritual world, including ancestors and spirits, such as the Thunderbird. Crafted objects also display crests: depictions of creatures that represent a family lineage and can only be displayed by them and their descendants. Crests are acquired from the ancestors through supernatural experiences and passed down through ceremonies. These ceremonial objects are crafted by master carvers.

European contact disrupted the Nuu-chah-nulth people and their culture. They were exposed to diseases and faced assimilationist federal policies, such as the Indian Act of 1876, the 1885 outlawing of potlatches — a ceremony central to Nuu-chah-nulth culture — and the residential school system. Indigenous leaders were jailed for practicing their culture, while their ceremonial objects were confiscated, destroyed, and sold to museums. Although sections of the Indian Act were repealed, including the potlatch ban in 1951, these policies had devastating intergenerational social and cultural impacts, including the loss of traditional knowledge. The Nuu-chah-nulth continue to fight for the return of their stolen possessions.

Nuu-chah-nulth art saw a revival in the mid- to late 20th century as Nuu-chah-nulth people began to reclaim their traditions and cultural heritage. Wood carving was an integral part of the revival of Nuu-chah-nulth culture, which requires great skill and knowledge that only master carvers trained in woodcraft possess. Nuu-chah-nulth artist Joe David was inspired by talented master carvers from a very young age. With encouragement from his family and community, he made it his mission to honor his ancestors with his art. He began studying the tradition of woodcarving with help from historian Bill Holm and carver Duane Pasco. Now a master carver himself who continues to study the traditional objects made by his ancestors, David revives traditional Nuu-chah-nulth design elements in his own work and inspires future generations.

Today, Nuu-chah-nulth art is alive because of artists like Joe David, Tsa-qwa-supp (Art Thompson), Ki-ke-in (Ron Hamilton), and Tim Paul, who continue to share their passion for traditional Nuu-chah-nulth woodcarving. They make art for display and objects for ceremonial use by the Nuu-chah-nulth, which express their culture and identity.

If you wish to know more about this object or others in the Parks Canada National Collection, please contact our curatorial department at pc.conservation-curatorial.pc@canada.ca.


May is Asian Heritage Month. Learn more about Asian Canadian histories by exploring articles in our online archives about the Early Chinese Cemeteries in Victoria, British Columbia, Vietnamese immigration to Canada after 1978, and The Abbotsford Gur Sikh Temple.