By Michelle Oleman
Nisga’a celebrated the 10th anniversary of an historical treaty with several victories, including the return of some priceless artifacts. On September 15th, the village of Laxgalts’ap (also known as Greenville, BC) played host to the entire Nisga’a Nation, and guests orchestrated a traditional tribal picnic to welcome the return of pieces of art from times long past, establishing an almost complete museum right in their hometown. Feeding hundreds of people is quite the task, but the air buzzed with excitement over receiving such important pieces of history back into the community.
The Nisga’a Nation is indeed an infant nation, yet they sing the praises of self-government in the Nass Valley. The Nisga’a draw strength from their culture, traditions, and forward-looking conviction. Canada may commend herself for nurturing and recognizing the strength of its member nations, that we may all reap the benefits.
In a single decade, this tiny nation has accomplished a great deal. In spring 2000, the Canadian Senate approved the Nisga’a final agreement; the Nisga’a Treaty was formally ratified and Bill C-9 was granted. Soon afterward, Nisga’a Lisims government was formalized and passed its first laws. That September, Wilp Si’ayuukhl, Nisga’a Lisims government’s new legislative building opened in New Aiyansh. In 2002, the Nisga’a Highway and Gingolx Extension Project were completed, and two years later, they established Entel Communications for the valley residents. The Nisga’a Highway 113 upgrade project was completed in 2005.
With improved infrastructure in place, the young nation began working to secure its culture. In 2008 Anhluut’ukwsim Sawinskhl Nisga’a (Nisga’a Feasts Procedures and Protocols) was completed, becoming a cornerstone of Nisga’a culture, and in July 2009, the community celebrated groundbreaking for the Nisga’a Museum. Finally, 2010 saw Nisga’a people and guests from around the world gathering to celebrate 10 years of successful self-governance in the Nass Valley.
The Nisga’a Special Assembly happens every 2 years, rotating among the four Nisga’a communities: Laxgalts’a (Greenville), Gitlaxt’aamiks (New Aiyansh), Gitwinksihlkw (Canyon City), and Gingolx (Kincolith). Business includes the four home nations plus three urban locals in Prince Rupert, Terrace, and Vancouver. Executive officers line the panels daily, putting forth their annual reports and projections, ready to take questions from the membership and the general public.
Special recommendation is forthcoming of the Directorate of Fisheries and Wildlife for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification of Nass sockeye salmon. The Nass watershed sockeye fishery meets the council’s standards for sustainability, and the Nass received the highest MSC score of all BC sockeye fisheries (97%). For 16 of the last 18 years, Nass River sockeye have been extremely healthy, and Nass River watersheds rank among the cleanest in the world. The Nisga’a Fisheries program review lends hope for fisheries around the world as they continue to lead in fisheries research and management for the benefit of Pacific coastal fisheries and management of all stocks.
There have been some growing pains over the years, but attention is paid when concerns are voiced. In late August 2010 in the community of New Aiyansh, a wildfire occurred within a kilometre of the village where there was no access road to allow emergency workers to control it. In a community with only one access road, what happens if a fire cuts off said access road? The executive who fielded that question explained that the matter would be considered as swiftly as possible and that action would take place soon. Another question came up concerning developing parks as Nisga’a Parks, not provincial or federal parks; the agreement allows Nisga’a to privately purchase Nisga’a Lands. The official response to this was that “citizens of Canada have a right of recreation. Canadian citizens or Citizens of British Columbia can go fishing on public lands,” and the Nisga’a Nation does not have the means to initiate such purchases. Making such a purchase would require enacting a law to regulate parks, as well as developing a management plan for maintaining them.
The Nisga’a government is willing to ensure that the nation and its citizens not only survive, but also thrive, as evidenced by the Business Development Act. Peter Lambright, co-chair Chief Councillor from Gitwinksihlkw (Canyon City), explained briefly, “You require cash equity (20% for individuals residing in Nisga’a territory). If this poses a problem, allowances may be made to change this requirement to part of that equity translating to cash and part equipment going into the venture.”
While kindergarten and Grade One students attend their weekly drum practise only 50 feet away, a 92-year-old chief strikes a chord with the entire nation that its time to wake up and get a move on if we truly want our ways back. (Chief) Hubert Doolan raised concerns about policing Nisga’a lands against foreigners and Nisga’a alike. “I know people sell moose meat. I know people sell tiben [sea lion] before its time… just to harvest the whiskers!” he said. “Now we have pre-settlement and pre-treaty! I have plenty of ideas to sell you… [The animals] need to survive and so do we!” With a stomp of his cane, Sim’oogit Doolan—who was present when Nisga’a Chief Frank Calder was elected to the BC Legislature in 1949, renewing the fight for Nisga’a sovereignty with a vengeance—makes the most impassioned plea for Nisga’a Governance to return to Nisga’a Ayuuk (Laws, Customs and Traditions of the Nisga’a).
The Nisga’a Ayuuk, prepared by researcher Nita Morven, is a 31-page document reading clearer than any scripture to date, outlining ten very basic laws of life. These laws begin with defining respect, education, and equality through to the 10th and final Law of Sever Sanctions, which include summary execution, restitution, and banishment. People across Turtle Island are quite familiar with some laws from being exposed to traditional stories passed down through the ages from the ancient ones.
The closing ceremony was very traditional. The sacred talking staff, used only for important ceremonial purposes, was formally retired by the carrier and two Sigidim-haanak (matriarchs), and two Sim’oogit (chiefs) to the sound of a sacred song performed by hand drums at the exit of the venue. Strong advancements and strong concerns for the future only lend strength to this tiny nation tucked away at the North East corner of Turtle Island.