The Bella Bella were members of the Kwakiutl tribes, which lived from Gardner Canal to Rivers Inlet. They spoke the Heiltsuk dialect and are perhaps best remembered for their master craftsmanship and elaborate ceremonies. They lived by the sea, which provided them with an abundance of food, leaving them leisure time for arts and ceremonial feasts. Winter was the social season when lengthy feasts and ceremonies were held. The potlatch was perhaps the most popular of these. In a society that was strictly ruled by rank, the Bella Bella found it necessary to occasionally display and reassert that rank. For a person's social position was determined primarily by the inheritance of names and privileges, such as the right to sing certain songs, and use certain crests. The potlatch was the perfect opportunity to partake of those special privileges. And, for the guests, there were gifts, which made them formal witnesses to the titles and privileges of their host.
Potlatches were usually held to celebrate important life events, for face-saving purposes, or to prove one's right to some position or privilege within the tribe.
"The first documented contact between the Bella Bella, formally known as the Heiltsuks, and the European world occurred in May 1793, when George Vancouver passed through Bella Bella territory" (Boas 42). The Bella Bella had little interest at that time of making social contact with the European world. The only interest the Bella Bella had considering the European world was to possibly open trade with the new comers. Before the European world touched the lives of the Bella Bella, this group of people had a established a vast society with some of the most complex social systems in the entire Northwest coast.
The relationship between social organization, mythology, and ceremonialism in traditional Bella Bella society was an...