People and Language

The Nisga’a are indigenous people who live in the Nass River valley of northwestern British Columbia. The name is a reduced form of nasga, which is a loanword from Tongass Tlingit, where it means “people of the Nass River.”

The official languages of the Nisga’a are the Nisga’a language and English.

Nisga’a flag

Greetings in Nisga’a

Legal Organization

Tribal Structure

The Nisga’a are divided into four tribes (pdeek):

    • Ganada (Raven)
    • Gisk’aast (Killer Whale)
    • Laxgibuu (Wolf)
    • Laxsgiik (Eagle)

Each tribe is further subdivided into clans and houses (wilp) that share ancestry. For example:

    • Laxgibuu Tribe (Wolf Tribe)
      • Gitwilnaak’il Clan (People Separated but of One)
        • House of Duuḵ
        • House of K’eexkw
        • House of Gwingyoo

Members of a tribe cannot intermarry. Those who do are traditionally shunned by the community.

Each house has its own chiefs, territories, rights, history, stories, songs, dances and traditions. These possessions are handed down through matrilineal succession. Houses are matrilineal and matrilocal. The highest ranking woman in a house is called sigidimnak’. She makes the final decisions on names and inheritance. On her death, her position would be assumed by her oldest sister or daughter. The highest ranking man in a house is called the sim’oogit. When he dies, his entitlements are usually passed on to his eldest living brother or the oldest son of his eldest sister.

Oral History (Adaawk)

House chiefs are responsible for passing oral histories (adaawks) to the next generations. This is usually done through a series of feasts to make public these prerogatives and have them validated by other chiefs. Each house has an oral history that describes how its ancient territories were acquired, as well as its ancient migrations, territorial defence and “major events in the life of the house, such as natural disasters, epidemics, war, the arrival of new peoples, the establishment of trade alliances, and major shifts in power.”

The oral histories record property rights such as fishing sites, hunting territories and gathering grounds. They also detail rights and responsibilities in family law. For example, oral histories convey information about how the house’s ancestors were given animals to be used as crests and to show its members how to live, eat and prepare food. They also relate details about how these entitlements and obligations should be passed on to the next generation.

Legal Traditions (Ayuukhl)

Legal traditions (ayuukhl) have guided Nisga’a social, economic and political relationships from “time of memory.” Centuries before Canada proclaimed itself a nation “founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law, the people of the Nass River were living according to Ayuukhl Nisga’a, an ancient code of laws that will stand comparison to any modern constitution or declaration of statehood and nationality.”

Legal traditions, in conjunction with oral histories, historically governed land ownership, education, succession, citizenship and the institutions of the chieftain and matriarch. The laws also governed marriage, divorce, war, peace, trading relationships and restitution, though these have been modified in some degree by a recent Agreement. For example, on matters of succession, property is passed on when a house chief dies and his next older brother or his oldest sister’s son assumes the role of custodian for all the property of the house. “This process occurs through a sophisticated ceremony known as a Settlement Feast. Like a deed in a land registry office, the Settlement Feast is a formal registration of title and ownership.”

Some legal traditions are related to oral histories concerning their origins, such as having being placed in Ginsk’eexkw by the Supreme God, K’amligihahlhaahl. Other legal traditions are founded upon K’amligihahlhaahl teachings to Txeemsim, the trickster, who identified central legal tenets for Nisga’a peace and order. His deeds and misdeeds illustrate consequences that can flow from certain behaviours. Some legal traditions seem to come from the direct experience and observation of the people. For example, Chief Joe Gosnell recounts a legal tradition that warns against disrespect for animals:

Young boys were playing with salmon by setting tiny pitch lamps in their backs to watch the lights swim away upriver. For this crime, the animals took their vengeance upon the valley, causing the eruption of a dormant volcano known as Wilksi Baxhl Mihl. More than 2,000 of our people were entombed in the lava that flowed from the volcano, and the lava beds remain the dominant feature of much of the Nass Valley to this day.

This account demonstrates that Nisga’a legal principles can also be embedded in the very landscape of their nation. A reading of Nisga’a law makes it apparent that sanctions and restitution are an important part of their legal regime. Nisga’a Elder Bert McKay has described the shaming and cleansing nature of Nisga’a law:

And the last of our laws were, I guess you would call them, penalties. One is called restitution, or Ksiiskw. It’s a very, very difficult and important law. When a life is lost over carelessness or over greed the law states very plainly, that before the sun sets if the offending family does not settle the issue with the grieved family, then those people have a right to take double the lives that they lost. So the only way that was resolved was by restitution payment. And then the other part, where certain of the ten Laws were broken, not restitution but to make amends, to make a complete break from the shame that you imposed on your family, and that was called public cleansing.

Nisga’a legal traditions therefore cover many significant aspects of human behaviour. Nisga’a oral histories and legal traditions are important because they connect the people to their territories, families and past. They teach them how to live in relationship with the earth around them.

Recently the Nisga’a nation has modified its legal traditions to a degree by entering into a treaty with the Canadian and British Columbian governments. After initiating the Calder case before the Supreme Court and having the justiciability of their legal position in Canadian law recognized, the Nisga’a entered into a two-decade long negotiation that culminated in a comprehensive treaty in 1999. The agreement provides collective Nisga’a ownership of approximately 2,000 square kilometres of land in the Nass Valley watershed of northwestern British Columbia. The treaty covers issues as diverse as land titles, minerals, water, forests, fisheries, wildlife, governance, the administration of justice, fiscal relations (including taxation), cultural property and dispute resolution. Many of these provisions provide significant benefits for Nisga’a people that are far greater than anything contemplated under the current Indian Act.

Government

The government bodies of the Nisga’a include

    • the Nisga’a Lisims government, the government of the Nisga’a Nation and
    • the Nisga’a village governments, one for each of the four Nisga’a villages.

The Nisga’a Lisims government is embodied in the Wilp Si’Ayuukhl Nisga’a and located in the Nisga’s Lisims Government Building in Gitlax̱t’aamiks.

Constitution

The Nisga’a Final Agreement Act (the Agreement) creates the the Nisga’a Lisims Government and the Nisga’a courts. The preamble to the Agreement recognizes ayuukhl as a source of Nisga’a law, whose meanings Nisga’a courts can interpret under the Agreement:

WHEREAS the Parties acknowledge the ongoing importance to the Nisga’a Nation of the Simgigat and Sigidimhaanak (hereditary chiefs and matriarchs) continuing to tell their Adaawak (oral histories) relating to their Ango’oskw (family hunting, fishing, and gathering territories) in accordance with the Ayuuk (Nisga’a traditional laws and practices).

The ayuukhl will be adapted and find expression in Nisga’a parliamentary procedure. They will be evident in statutory laws governing marriage, divorce, commerce, resource use, education, dispute resolution, wills and estates, citizenship, governance and land. They will be the background common law principles in Nisga’a courts.

The Agreement defines ayuukhl as “the traditional laws and practices of the Nisga’a nation.” Through the Agreement, Nisga’a legal traditions continue to exist today. Since the Agreement came into effect, the Wilp Si’ayuukhl Nisga’a has enacted over 30 pieces of legislation, including:

The Nisga’a Constitution describes how the:

    • Wilp Si’ayuukhl Nisga’a can make laws
    • a Nisga’a executive can make regulations under these laws
    • village governments can make laws in their jurisdiction

Under the Agreement, Nisga’a government has no exclusive jurisdiction. It is always concurrent with federal or provincial jurisdiction. This made it necessary to provide for rules that determine which law prevails in the event of inconsistency or conflict.

Generally, Nisga’a laws prevail in relation to matters that are internal to the Nisga’a Nation, integral to their distinct culture, essential to the operation of their government or the exercise of their other treaty rights. In some cases, Nisga’a laws must comply with provincial standards in order to be valid. If those standards are met or exceeded, then Nisga’a laws prevail. In other cases, Canada, British Columbia and the Nisga’a Nation agreed that, while Nisga’a Government should have the authority to make laws, if there is a conflict, federal or provincial laws should prevail. Finally, there are many subject matters over which Nisga’a Government has no jurisdiction.

Edmond Wright has argued that, under the Agreement, Nisga’a laws prevail in the following matters:

    • administration, management, and operation of Nisga’a Government;
    • creation, continuation, amalgamation, dissolution, naming or renaming of Nisga’a villages on Nisga’a lands, and Nisga’a urban locals;
    • Nisga’a citizenship;
    • preservation, promotion and development of Nisga’a language and culture;
    • use, management, possession, and disposition of Nisga’a lands owned by the Nisga’a Nation;
    • a Nisga’a village or a Nisga’a corporation and similar matters relating to the property interests of the Nisga’a nation;
    • Nisga’a villages and Nisga’a corporations;
    • Nisga’a lands use, management, planning, zoning, development, and similar matters related to the regulation and administration of Nisga’a lands, (including establishment of a land title or land registry system), and designation of Nisga’a lands;
    • use, possession,management and similar matters relating to the property interests of the Nisga’a nation;
    • Nisga’a villages and Nisga’a corporations and their assets, other than real property on Nisga’a lands;
    • organization and structure for the delivery of health services on Nisga’a lands;
    • authorization or licensing of aboriginal healers on Nisga’a lands, including measures in respect of competence, ethics and quality of practice that are reasonably required to protect the public;
    • child and family services on Nisga’a lands, if Nisga’a laws include standards comparable to provincial standards intended to ensure the safety and well-being of children and families;
    • adoption of Nisga’a children, if Nisga’a laws expressly provide that the best interests of the child is the paramount consideration and that British Columbia and Canada are provided with records of all adoptions occurring under Nisga’a laws;
    • pre-school to grade 12 education on Nisga’a lands of Nisga’a children, if Nisga’a laws include provisions for curriculum, examination and other standards that permit transfers between school systems, and for appropriate certification of teachers;
    • postsecondary education within Nisga’a lands, if Nisga’a laws include standards comparable to provincial standards in respect of matters such as institutional structure and accountability, admission, and curriculum standards;
    • devolution of cultural property (ceremonial regalia and similar property associated with a Nisga’a clan and other personal property having cultural significance to the Nisga’a Nation) of a Nisga’a citizen who dies intestate.

Calendar

The Nisga’a calendar revolves around harvesting of foods and goods used. The original year followed the various moons throughout the year.

Month Nisga’a Meaning Explanation
January K’aliiyee To Walk North This time of year, the sun begins to go north (K’alii) again
February Buxwlaks To Blow Around Blow around refers to the amount of wind during this time of year
February/March) Hobiyee Like a Spoon This is the traditional time to celebrate the new year, also known as Hoobiyee. (Variations of spelling include: Hoobiyee, Hobiiyee, Hoobiiyee)
March Xsaak To Eat Oolichans The oolichans return to the Nass River the end of February/beginning of March. The oolichans are the first food harvested after the winter, which marks the beginning of the harvesting year.
April Mmaal To Use Canoes Again The ice begins to break on the river, allowing for canoes to be used again
May Yansa’alt Leaves Are Blooming The leaves begin to flourish once again
June Miso’o Sockeye Salmon Sockeye salmon are harvested
July Xmaay To Eat Berries various berries are harvested
August Wii Hoon Great Salmon Great amounts of salmon are harvested
September Genuugwiikw Trail of the Marmot Small game such as marmots are hunted
October Xlaaxw To Eat Trout Trout are the main staple for this month
November Gwilatkw To Blanket The earth is “Blanketed” with snow
December Luut’aa To Sit The sun is sitting in one spot

References

John Borrows, Indigenous Legal Traditions in Canada: Report for the Law Commission of Canada (Law Commission of Canada, 2006).

“Nisga’a” in Wikipedia (6 February 2019), online: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nisga%27a>.