Nisga'a

Approximate mid-19th century territory of the Nisga'a. Redrawn from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of the Handbook of North American Indians.

Territory:

The Nisga’a people have occupied the Nass River valley since time immemorial. The River begins in the Coast Mountains and flows 380 km southwest to Nass Bay. Nisga’a territory is heavily forested and receives a high amount of precipitation. Moving inland from the coast, the giant hemlock, cedar and sitka spruce forests gradually change to spruce, lodgepole and jack pine and balsam forests, while cottonwood cloaks the floor of the valley. 

The Nass River supports all five species of Pacific salmon. These plentiful runs allowed the Nisga’a to build their permanent settlements and develop a trade empire that stretched the length of the Northwest Coast and deep into the interior.

The Nass is also home to a large annual run of oolichan fish. These finger-sized members of the smelt family are prized for their oil, are a mainstay of Nisga’a culture, and a historic staple of Nisga’a trade.

There are currently 4 occupied village sites along the Nass River – Gitlaxt’aamiks (New Aiyansh), Gitwinksihlkw (Canyon City), Laxgalts’ap (Greenville) and Gingolx (Kincolith). Recent lava flows are a feature of the valley near Gitlaxt’aamiks, where according to the Nisga’a, 2000 people were killed by volcanic flows in the late 1700s.

Oolichan fish on drying racks at Ging̱olx (Kincolith), ca. 1900. Unknown photographer. Canadian Museum of History #71-03096

Language:

The Nisga’a language is a member of the Tsimshianic language family that is spoken in northwestern British Columbia and on Annette Island and Ketchikan in Alaska. Most linguists consider Tsimshianic languages to be an isolate group comprised of four main dialects, Coast Tsimshian, Southern Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Nisga’a.

Nisga’a is very closely related to Gitxsan and the two are mutually intelligible. linguists regard Nisga’a and Gitksan as dialects of a single Nass-Gitxsan language but are generally treated as distinct out of deference of the political seperation of the two groups.

Architecture:

Prior to contact with Europeans, the Nisga’a lived in large single-room wooden buildings called longhouses. The average longhouse was between 40 and 50 feet wide by 40 to 50 feet long, and was typically home to several families belonging to a chief’s house or wilp.

Houses and poles at Gitlaxt'aamiks. Photo by G.T. Emmons, 1910. Canadian Museum of History 71-5543.

The houses were post-and-beam style and featured a gable roof. Generally, 2 ridge beams ran parallel to each other on either side of the roof peak, together with parallel roof beams inside the outer walls. The ridge beams were offset from the roof peak to allow for a vent or ala, which was needed to vent smoke from a central fire that was used for cooking and heating.

The interior area of the longhouse was excavated to approximately 30 feet square to a depth of five feet below entry level. At the back of the longhouse, opposite the entrance, was a raised wooden platform. The platform was typically used to seat chiefs and honoured guests during feasts, but it could also be used as a stage for story telling and other ceremonial purposes.

Eagle-Halibut Pole of Chief Laa'y. Photo by C.M. Barbeau, 1927. CMH 69755

Art:

Nisga’a artistic production is based on the complex organization of clans, secret society performances and by potlatches, which are large feasts where name, rank or hereditary privileges are claimed through dances, speeches and the distribution of property.

Crest images are the most frequently used symbols in Nisga’a art. Every Nisga’a person belongs to one of four tribes: Eagle, Wolf, Killer Whale, or Raven. Within each of these groupings, there are many symbolic images or crests that recall the history and origins of each tribe. Crests are owned as property by a house and ceremonially displayed by its members. Objects that are most often marked with crests are architectural features such as totem poles, housefront paintings, beams, rafters and ceremonial entrances; costume features such as robes and headdresses; and feast dishes and ladles.

Basketry and weaving is a highly skilled and well-developed technology among all Northwest Coast First Nations. Women were responsible for making a variety of objects in this fashion, including containers for picking berries, and for the transportation of goods. From a variety of materials they also fashioned oolichan baskets, hats, blankets and cooking baskets. Coastal women mainly used the bark of the western red cedar for mats and containers, while upriver women also used maple and birch bark and spruce roots. Utilitarian objects made and decorated by men include storage boxes, canoes, woodworking tools and hunting and fishing gear.