The Nisga'a people are the original occupants of the Nass River Valley of northwestern British Columbia.
The Nisga'a people are the original occupants of the Nass River Valley of northwestern British Columbia. As of 2011, 1,909 Nisga’a continue to live on Nisga’a lands along the Nass in the villages of Gitlaxt'aamiks (formerly New Aiyansh), Gingolx, Laxgalts’ap (formerly Greenville) and Gitwinksihlkw (formerly Canyon City). Another 4,500 Nisga’a live in the surrounding urban areas of Terrace, Prince Rupert/Prince Edward and Greater Vancouver, and across North America.
Nass-Gitksan has been gradually replaced in use by English, but the Nisga’a have taken steps to preserve their language by teaching it in Nisga’a district schools and creating an online archive of words and phrases. Over 300 people in the Nisga’a villages are fluent in Nass-Gitksan.
Life & Culture
Nisga'a life reflects cultural patterns common to Aboriginal peoples of the Northwest Coast. Since before European contact, skilled artisans have created monumental cedar carvings including Totem Poles, figures, plank houses and canoes. Though the Nisga’a carving tradition was almost lost, it has been revitalized. Nisga'a totem poles now stand throughout the world, as well as on the banks of the Nass. Master Nisga’a carvers include Norman Tait, Roy McKay and Alver Tait.
Many aspects of traditional life continue to be practiced, such as the Nisga’a Nation’s balanced reliance on hunting, fishing and plant gathering, and the celebration of the Potlatch feast.
Every Nisga'a belongs to a clan, or phratry. There are four clans: Killer Whale, Raven, Wolf and Eagle. Membership in a Nisga’a clan is determined by a matrilineal system. This maternal clan inheritance also includes the rights to names, songs, and dances.
The natural resources sector is prominent in the Nass River Valley, with most employment being in the fishing and forestry industries. As of 2000, the Nisga’a Nation has ownership and control of all resources in its traditional territory. The Nisga’a are involved in the management, contracting and employment areas of these natural resource industries.
Historic Land Claim
The Nisga'a have historically been and continue to be at the forefront of land claim and Aboriginal rights movements. In 1907, the Nisga'a established the Nisga’a Land Committee, which issued petitions, protest notices, and land claim actions. By 1913, one of these petitions, the Nisga’a Petition of 1908, had been refined into a legal document laying claim to land in the Nass Valley. The document stated that the Nisga’a had occupied this area “from time immemorial.” After several decades, the Nisga’a went to the Supreme Court of British Columbia in 1969 (see Calder case) to obtain a declaration that they had never surrendered title to their traditional lands, either by treaty or otherwise. Dismissed in BC courts, their contention was taken to the Supreme Court of Canada; and its 1973 ruling supported the notion of Aboriginal title, but no agreement was reached as to how these rights might be evaluated or extinguished.
Struggle for Self-Governance
After years of negotiations, a historic agreement-in-principle with Canada and BC was signed and ratified on 22 March 1996 by the Nisga'a people. The extensive document laid the foundation for the Nisga’a Final Agreement, the first modern-day land claims agreement in BC. The Final Agreement calls for cash payments to the Nisga'a of approximately $190 million over a period of years, and recognizes the communal ownership and self-governance of about 2,000 km2 of Nisga’a lands in the Nass River Valley. The agreement recognizes Nisga'a ownership of resources on these lands and spells out entitlements to salmon stocks and wildlife harvests. The agreement was signed and provincial legislation passed in 1999, which ratified the treaty.
The treaty came into effect on 11 May 2000. The landmark agreement is the first in BC to provide constitutional certainty of an Aboriginal peoples’ right to self-government.