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History Native American

Bella Coola Man

More Stories of Clayton Mack

by (author) Harvey Thommasen

with Clayton Mack

Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd.
Initial publish date
Sep 2002
Native American, Cultural Heritage
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2002
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jan 1994
    List Price

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Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels

  • Age: 14
  • Grade: 9


When Clayton Mack was a child, his parents wrapped him in wolf skin and dumped him in water four times so he would grow up strong and fierce in the woods like a wolf. True to this Nuxalk tradition, Mack grew up to be a world-famous grizzly bear hunter and guide.

Clayton Mack's first book of amazing tales about bears and q'umsciwas (white men), Grizzlies and White Guys, became an instant best seller when it was published in 1993. In Bella Coola Man, Clayton Mack continues his hair-raising stories about pulling bears out of the bushes by their legs, eating fresh bear meat with Thor Heyerdahl, finding gold nuggets in the bush, murder in the Big Ootsa country and dead men's talking beans, plus Crooked Jaw the Indian agent and where to find good fishing.

Clayton Mack was a walking encyclopedia of tribal lore, and one of the best storytellers ever born. The stories in Bella Coola Man are the last he told, and reflect his desire to pass on as much information about Nuxalk life and legends as he could before his death. Hear about the man-eater dance performed at River's Inlet where the dancers ate a dead woman's head, or about the last Indian war on the coast, native remedies like devil's club tea which is "good for anything," Alexander Mackenzie's travels through Bella Coola country along the Grease Trail, how native hunters killed mountain goats by prying them off cliffs with sticks, and about forgotten villages and places, which come alive again through Clayton Mack's words.

Clayton Mack had a deep understanding and appreciation of life on British Columbia's rugged coast. His stories are unique lessons in history, as well as pure entertainment. Here are the stories of the legend himself, Clayton Mack.

About the authors

Harvey Thommasen,is a physician, researcher and naturalist whose previous books include Grizzlies and White Guys: The Stories of Clayton Mack, Bella Coola Man: More Stories of Clayton Mack and River of the Angry Moon with Mark Hume. Thommasen began taping Clayton Mack's stories during morning rounds at the Bella Coola Hospital. Thommasen makes his home in Bella Coola with his wife and two children.

Harvey Thommasen's profile page

Clayton Mack was born in 1910, at Nieumiamus Creek - "place of flies." He went to a residential school and worked as a logger, fisherman and a rancher before becoming a tracker and hunting guide. Descended from a long line of Bella Coola chiefs, he was a walking encyclopedia of tribal lore and wordsmanship. He spent 53 years on the BC central coast, guiding the rich and famous on trophy hunts that felled an estimated 300 grizzly bears. During this time, he also gained a reputation as one of the best storytellers in the province. He was flown to Hollywood in the sixties for a visit, where he mesmerized the California jet set with his hunting tales. In 1988, after suffering a stroke, he was moved into long-term care at the Bella Coola Hospital. He died in 1993.

Clayton Mack's profile page

Excerpt: Bella Coola Man: More Stories of Clayton Mack (by (author) Harvey Thommasen; with Clayton Mack)

Just Like A Wolf

I have two Indian names. Sk'ma yanih, that means my home is a moose tent. My other Indian name is Qyapatus, that means sharp eyes, can see long way in the woods. My mother gave me them names. She knew I would be good hunter.

When I was just a small kid, maybe five years old, they wrap me in a wolf skin and they dump me in the water four times. Four is a lucky number for the Indian people. World is made up of four parts, you know: the sky, land, trees and the underwater. The old people always do things in fours. They dump me right underwater, right over my head. I can remember a little bit, but not much. The old people do this all the time to the kids. Pick how they want the kid to be like, then they put him in that kind of skin. It's kind of like medicine for the little kids. It make me a good hunter. Not afraid of anything, That's why I was so good in the woods. But it give me a bad habit, I don't know how to stop. I keep going till I get what I want, just like a wolf. I go by myself a lot of places in the woods. Days and days. Longest was twenty-nine days from Mosher Creek to the Big Ootsa.

There was a woman in South Bentinck, little village at Noeick River, she gonna have a baby but she had no husband. The baby was gonna be born without a dad, and the biggest chief found out. The biggest chief found out and he call all the chiefs together. From Noeick and Taleomey River villages. They were gonna help that poor woman. The chiefs meet and decide what kind of kid they want. They want the kid to grow up and look after his poor mother.

After the kid was born, they get wolf skin and wrap him up in it, and dump him in the water four times. Wolf skin make him tough and good hunter. But trouble with that is he get lost sometimes. Wolf sometimes get lost. Keep hunting, don't find no game, keep going over mountain after mountain until he gets lost. Next, the chiefs kill four grizzly bear to make him a real good man, not mean, and strong. If they use only one skin that kid would be just mean like a grizzly bear. Bad temper too. Like to kill. But if it is four grizzly bears skins, that kid will be a real good man and strong as can be. They wrap him up in a grizzly bear skin and put him in the water right over his head. Clean him up. And then do it again. Four times, inside four different grizzly bear skins. Then they get an octopus, still bit alive, and wrap it around the baby. Octopus is the strongest animal in the water. Wrapping him in octopus makes that kid strong in the water. Wrap all eight legs around. That octopus suck a little bit on the body. Dump him in the water four times too. Then they get a yellow jacket nest and rub it on the body. They do this to make him shoot arrows straight. You know when yellow jackets sting you, their little arrow [stinger] goes straight in. Then they sink that kid in the water four times. Then they put the baby in a basket, tie on a rope and swing the kid into a waterfall four times. This make him brave.

This kid grew up real strong. But not mean. Just right. He never get married, he have nothing to do with womans. For years he was all by himself. He built a big longhouse, right where the logging company put some big oil tanks. Nice flat place, stinks like oil there now.

All winter he make arrows and bows. Fills his house full of arrows right up to the ceiling. He was getting ready to fight the Indian people who come in every year to rob the small villages and take slaves. One day them bad people came. But this strong kid was all ready for them. He aim and shoot his arrows right into the middle of the canoe. The guys get scared, try and dodge his arrows, and tip over the canoe. They were just floating around then. That strong kid killed the whole works.

I did something like this with dogs. I kill a bear, I cut the black bear's belly open and I stick that little puppy right inside the belly. When that puppy grows up, he will have no use for bears. That dog will try and kill bears. Also makes the dog real good. Best dog I ever had. When I hunt moose he would chase moose toward me. When we go out on coast in our boats, he would sit at the bow and sniff the air. When he start snorting we let that dog jump onto the shore, few minutes later he chase a big deer buck to the shore and we shoot him. Let the dog get in again and do it all over again. He chase bears whenever he sees them, he just don't like bears.

For little girls, the old people would cut,wrist skin of a beaver and make a bracelet. Girls with these beaver bracelets likes to work all the time. just like a beaver. Go out and pick berries, clean and smoke fish. Always using their hands. Good with their hands.

Give It All Away

Time for potlatches is fall and winter. Most potlatches in the fall. I remember my dad save money for three years to have a big potlatch. He would have a potlatch every three years. He and my mother work in cannery March to November, pret' near all year round. And they save all that money they make in three years to make a big potlatch. He buy lots of food - sugar, flour and over fifty boxes of hardtack biscuits. Give it all away at his potlatch. My dad was a well-known man on the whole coast. One of the biggest chiefs. People come from all over the coast to come to his potlatches. Later people return stuff. After a while we h ad a lot of stuff in the house. Stuff like guns, sewing machines, dishes and cups, coppers and trunks full of clothes. My dad got this stuff when he go to other people's potlatches.

I don't always like that potlatching. My dad wouldn't buy no clothes for us kids. He just save all his money to give it away to other people. All us kids had holes in our clothes. My knees sticking out of my pants. Bare ass sticking out of my pants. My mother just keep on patching our clothes! I think if you want to be a chief, you go ahead and potlatch. If you want to be rich, you keep your money, don't potlatch.

Potlatches is good for the poor people. If people hear you are broke, they throw a potlatch for you. Give you a lot of stuff., In a potlatch, if you give someone ten dollars, when that guy have a potlatch later he give you back twenty dollars. And potlatching good for the hungry people. Bella Bella people would get boatloads of apples, potatoes, cabbages from Bella Coola people and give it all away in a Bella Bella potlatch. Can't grow apples or potatoes or cabbages in Bella Bella. Sometimes they bullshit one anothers. One chief give another chief a copper and say, "This copper is worth two thousand dollars." Really only worth ten dollars. Just made out of a big flat sheet of copper. Next time the chief give back the copper and say, "This copper is worth four thousand dollars."

There was one old guy who used to live five or six miles up the valley. Norwegian guy. His name was Peterson. Joshua Moody and Lame Foot Charlie were going to put up a potlatch. Two guys together. They went up to this old man and said, "We want potatoes and apples and beef. We want to buy that off you." They wanted twenty boxes of apples, ten sack of potatoes. They wanted to get a steer, kill it and cut it up and make a big stew with it. Have a big potlatch in the old hall on the other side of the river. I remember that hall from when I was a kid.

Peterson ask Joshua, "What are you gonna do with all that?"

"We gonna put up a big potlatch in Bella Coola," Joshua said.'You gonna put a potlatch together?" Peterson asked.

"Yeah," they said. And Peterson said, "If you give me Indian name, like a chief name, I give you all that apples, potato and steer." They said, "Yes, we give you Indian name if you give all that to us. And you get an Indian dance too!"

They say they will give him the Indian name of the mountain on the other side, Nusmuklihoi, Four Mile Mountain. Peterson said, "I'll join you guys when you put up that potlatch."

Joshua and Lame Foot Charlie teach Peterson how to do Indian dance. After a while he dance pretty good. Peterson went to the potlatch and was right in there. He sing that song, that Four Mile Mountain song, and he do that Indian dance.

In them old days, the fishermen would go to shore and make big fish stews. Peterson was a fisherman and he like to eat with the Indian fishermans. Lots of times Peterson be the first guy to be there. But he got no bowl for stew and no wooden spoon to eat with. So the guys hear he was gonna do Indian dance at the potlatch. They say, "We got to make a bowl for him. Big wooden bowl. Put a big sign of a big grizzly on it. And make him a big spoon too." I think Dick Snow made them for Peterson. They give that spoon and bowl to him at the potlatch. Peterson eat with that spoon and bowl after that. Peterson was sure happy.

The first potlatch I remember was when my oldest brother married that Lina Clellamin girl. When they first married, my dad put up a potlatch. Indian marriage. Lasted three days. The second potlatch I remember was that big homebrew potlatch in Rivers Inlet where they eat a woman's head (see "Man-eater dance"). That was the only one where they had homebrew. The third one was in Bella Bella af 'ter someone died. That was a big one too. I went to lots of potlatches when I was a kid. just like now. The biggest potlatch I ever seen was in Kluskus Lake, this side of Quesnel. Two weeks long.

There were lot of reasons to have potlatch. When the chief's son or daughter gettin' married they potlatch. After a big chief dies they make a big potlatch. To be a bigger chief you got to potlatch so many times. And they potlatch when they gonna give their kid a name and dance. My dad give me a potlatch and he give all my brothers a potlatch too.

He give me a big potlatch so that all the Bella Coola Indian people can remember my name, Qyapatus, means sharp eyes. Everybody in the village hear what my Indian name is. After my potlatch nobody can steal my name. He give Samson a potlatch, too, after he learn that special man-eating grizzly bear dance.

My brother had a big name after he learn that man-eating grizzly bear dance. First my dad tell everyone that Samson was lost for a month. That he go to some place in heaven to learn that dance. Samson wasn't allowed out in the streets. For one month he was hidden upstairs in the house. He can't go outside. Some days we sneak out real early and go hunting for rabbits and ducks in the woods, or gaff hooking for fish. No one see us there. After one month, then they put up a big potlatch. Everyone go there because they hear Samson is coming back from heaven. And he gonna do that special man-eating grizzly bear dance. Real scary dance. He goes around with a grizzly bear head. He go around and bite people. And blood start to come out of the people. Look like real blood, anyways. Then Samson start to make that grizzly bear head's teeth start to rattle. He could move the lower jaw up and down. Then we see meat hanging out of that bear's head. The nurses, schoolteachers, doctors see that dance and runout of the longhouse

The kids used to potlatch too. Potlatch just the kids. Give each others money. The fathers and mothers make the kids play potlatching.

After a while the government stopped us from potlatching. They didn't really stop us here. Alert Bay, that's where they stopped them. In Alert Bay they get the police to put guys in jail for holding potlatches. Here they didn't bother us. When the Bella Coola Indian people hear that if you potlatch the white man will put you in jail, the Indian people quit potlatch here. Bella Bella, they quit too. The Indian people didn't want to quit, because potlatching was good for the poor people.

The Indian people are potlatching again these days. Bit different now. Nowadays anybody can be chief. Nowadays the people can call any kid a big name. Any kid can get a chief name. I don't think that's right. Chief name should be real special. In the old days the name you get is real important. Your name tells people where you come from, your name tells you where is your mountain that God put your ancestor on, your name tells you where is your village, and your name lets everyone know where you can hunt and fish.

Librarian Reviews

Bella Coola Man: The Life of a First Nations Elder

Through taped discussions at Bella Coola Hospital, Clayton Mack is able to tell about his life lived on the BC coast during the twentieth century. His story of astonishments and achievements is told with honesty and humour. Mack begins by describing how he learned “about the old Indian ways” of fishing, hunting and trading by listening to the elders. With photographs, pictures, detailed maps and precise descriptions, Mack weaves a tale of his life, learning and appreciating all that nature and the people around him have to offer. An important and influential Nuxalk Indian elder, he remained forlorn over the depletion of the wildlife, fish and forests that were so abundant during the earlier years of his life.

Thommasen also wrote Grizzlies & White Guys, and teaches at the University of Northern BC.

Caution: Includes some coarse language.

Source: The Association of Book Publishers of BC. Canadian Aboriginal Books for Schools. 2008-2008.

Other titles by Harvey Thommasen

Other titles by Clayton Mack