The Nisga’a are the indigenous occupants of British Columbia. They inhabited the area around the Nass River Valley before foreigners colonized their land. They lived off fishing in the river, hunting animals, and gathering local plants. They have a structure in their organization where a chief governs a tribe’s territories. The Nisga’a had four clans which were the “Gisk’aast”, “Ganada”, “Laxgibuu”, and the ‘Laxsgiik” (Powell, et al, 2006). They have their own cultures of art, music, and languages. They believed and worship spirits that grant good and bad luck to their people. The rich culture of the Nisga’a is a historical treasure that its modern members fight to preserve.
The colonization of early America threatened the culture and existence of many indigenous people including the Nisga’a. The successful colonization of America brought the Indian Act to fruition. The Indian Act is a law that allowed the Canadian government to rule over the lives of indigenous people. The law favored the side of the Canadian government rather than provide a balanced regulation that benefits both parties. Due to this, the Nisga’a began to fight for a treaty that preserves and benefits the indigenous people of British Columbia. Their fight led to the creation of the Nisga’a Final Agreement. This article will discuss the context around the Nisga’a Final Agreement and its effects ever since it came to effect on May 11, 2000.
History of the Nisga’a
One must first learn about the history of the indigenous people to understand the context behind the Nisga’a Final Agreement. As stated above, the Nisga’a lived around the Nass River Valley in northwestern British Columbia. They relied on the natural world to provide for their needs. They caught crabs, salmons, and even sea lions as part of their meals. They also picked fruits, mushrooms, and berries as part of their diet. Their architecture was made out of wood from indigenous trees. Chiefs govern different clans and the territories associated with each group.
The Nisga’a had a language that differs from other indigenous tribes. People also refer to their language as “Nass-Gitksan”. People even suggest that the two languages are dialects of similar origin. This was due to the similarity of the Nisga’a and Gitksan languages (Powell, et al, 2006). However, both indigenous groups refer to their languages as their own since it is a part of their culture. This refusal to accept the criticism of outsiders shows the importance of culture and self-identity to the Nisga’a.
Around 1793, the Nisga’a and the Europeans became trade partners. The Nisga’a offered animal pelts for European metal works, such as knives and pottery. The trade relationship between the Nisga’a and the Europeans flourished. Not long, the Nass River became a central area for various trades. More and more foreigners came to the area where they not only engaged in trades but also began to explore the Nass River Valley. Some of the foreigners brought their families and established small communities in the area. This surge of outsiders interrupted the lives of the Nisga’a.
The Europeans continued to trade and lived with the Nisga’a until the early 20th century. During this period, the foreigners also brought diseases like tuberculosis, measles, and influenza to the Nisga’a (Powell, et al, 2006). The Europeans came from a different part of the world where these diseases were common. Their immune systems have developed to fight off the illnesses, however, the indigenous people of British Columbia were vulnerable to these diseases. The indigenous population of British Columbia began to decrease as foreign diseases spread across the valley.
Losing Their Territories and Culture
The Europeans forced out the Nisga’a and other indigenous people when the Nass River Valley became a part of European territory. The foreigners began to occupy the native land of Nisga’a and only allowed the indigenous people to live in “reserves”. Reserves are pieces of land that the European parliament offers to the indigenous people (McCue & Parrott, 2011). The indigenous people living in these reserves were also under the effect of the “Indian Act”. This situation forced the Nisga’a to abandon their homes and live according to the European parliament’s new rules.
The arrival of Christian Missionaries brought “residential schools” and Christianity to British Columbia. The residential schools were religious institutions that the church and government established in British Columbia. The primary role of these schools was to indoctrinate indigenous children into European and Canadian culture. With the strong sense of self-identity of the Nisga’a, they did not easily accept these residential schools. However, the British forced the indigenous children to attend these schools.
In the residential schools, the Christian missionaries forbid the children to speak or write in their native language. They took away their traditional clothes and shaved the boys’ hair. The missionaries also gave them new English names. They forcibly taught the children Christian practices and coerced them to abandon their indigenous beliefs. There were also records of physical and sexual abuse within the residential schools. The schools were often overcrowded which promotes the spread of diseases like the Spanish Flu and tuberculosis. Incomplete records showed that over 6,000 children died in residential schools due to malnourishment and diseases.
The Indian Act
Along with this maltreatment of the European colonizers is the implementation of the Indian Act. The Indian Act aimed to abolish the practices and beliefs of British Columbian indigenous people. The act allowed the government to influence the lives of the indigenous people. They were able to influence their government and society structure. The act allowed the government to limit the territories of the Nisga’a and forbid their cultural practices. An example of this was when the government banned the “potlatch” ceremony. The ceremony was an important cultural occasion for indigenous people and banning it was an act of disrespect to their way of living.
This action was not just to disrespect the indigenous people’s culture but also to help in instilling Christian values in them. The government aimed to abolish the indigenous culture through the Indian Act. Another example of this is the rule where an indigenous woman who marries a non-indigenous man will lose her status as an indigenous individual. This would create a chain reaction where she loses her right to live in a reserve and the other benefits of being an indigenous individual. People saw this as an attempt to undermine the indigenous culture and as an act of gender discrimination. The Nisga’a culture is matrilineal which means they structure their society around the female lines.
Formation of the Nisga’a Agreement
The formation of the Nisga’a agreement became difficult due to the regulations under the Indian Act. Between 1927 and 1951, the Nisga’a wanted to raise money to claim their native land. Only after the repeal of some regulations under the Indian Act were the Nisga’a able to act towards their claim. They established the Nisga’a Tribal Council to act as a leading body in their legal actions against discriminatory laws. The council provided a voice for the Nisga’a and engaged in several negotiations with the federal government and the British Columbia government. After years of persecution and cultural abuse, the Nisga’a stood equally with their colonizers.
The different negotiations between the Nisga’a, British Columbia government, and the federal government began in 1976. The negotiations led to the establishment of Nisga’a authority over their assets, culture, and form of governance. It also started the formation of the different Nisga’a governments which are the Nisga’a Lisims Government, four Village Governments, and three Urban Locals (Nisga’a Lisims Government, n.d.). Still, since the Nisga’a government is within Canadian territory, the laws under the Nisga’a Agreement were also within the scope of Canada’s constitution and regulations. The negotiations lasted for about 22 years until the parties signed the Nisga’a Final Agreement in 1998 and came into effect on May 11, 2000.
Benefits of the Nisga’a Final Agreement
The Nisga’a suffered from the grave effects of colonialism. They lost their ancestral homes, parts of their cultures, and a great number of their population. With the signing of the Nisga’a Final Agreement, the indigenous people broke free from the biased regulations of the Indian Act. They received financial assistance from the federal and British Columbia governments to help reestablish their culture and ways of living. Still, the Nisga’a showed their strong sense of self-identity and independence by also financially contributing to the different programs for their people.
The Nisga’a Final Agreement provided the indigenous people with $196.1 million as financial assistance. They also received $11.8 million to fund the commercial fisheries in the Nisga’a territory. The agreement also provided a Fisheries Conservation Trust fund to which the Nisga’a contributed $3 million (Nisga’a Lisims Government, n.d.). This financial assistance helped in the development of the Nisga’a nation as they exercise their cultural and governmental freedom after years of maltreatment. The finances also funded services for the health and education of the Nisga’a. Funds for social and recreational services were also in their budget plan.
The implementation of the Indian Act undermined most of the Nisga’a culture. It banned their practices and attempted to assimilate them to European customs. This threatened their self-identity and their citizenship as Nisga’a. The Nisga’a Final Agreement granted the indigenous people to determine how a person becomes a Nisga’a citizen. Currently, Canadian citizens can apply to become Nisga’a citizens if the Nisga’a Law permits it. The Nisga’a citizenship comes with multiple benefits that include the ability to vote for a leader.
Ownership of Land
One of the biggest impacts of the Indian Act was the forced relocation of the Nisga’a from their territories to land reserves. Even the land reserves where the European government allowed them to establish their home were not theirs. They were free to hunt, fish, and harvest plants on the reserves but the European government owned the land’s title. The Nisga’a Final Agreement granted the indigenous people the rights over their traditional lands and the resources on them. The Nisga’a Final Agreement also gave the indigenous people jurisdiction over indigenous lands that were outside the Nisga’a territory (Government of Canada, 2010). They are granted access and ownership of the forest and minerals in these territories.
Preservation of Heritage Sites and Nisga’a Artifacts
When the Nisga’a lost jurisdiction over their traditional lands, they also lost access to some of their heritage and cultural sites. The Nisga’a Final Agreement made these sites into parks and officially named the sites with Nisga’a names. Even sites that are outside the Nisga’a territory became heritage sites. During the colonization of British Columbia, Nisga’a artifacts went to the hands of different individuals and organizations. British and Canadian museums housed many of these artifacts. The Nisga’a Final Agreement called for the return of the artifacts to the Nisga’a Nation. Some of the artifacts remained in museums to promote the Nisga’a culture and history.
The Nass River Valley and other parts of British Columbia are opportunity-filled areas for tourism. The rich land resources, wildlife, and heritage sites can garner the interest of tourists. The Nisga’a Final Agreement designated the Nisga’a nation to provide tourism services for visitors. The Nisga’a nation received financial assistance to provide excellent tourism services like tour-guiding and lodges. Tourists can experience the natural beauty of the preserved areas as well as observe Nisga’a artworks and culture.
The introduction of the European colonizers to their traditional land brought misery and disdain to the Nisga’a. Not only did they lose their lands and culture but also their children and families. The Indian Act made their lives difficult and stripped them away of their rights and self-identity. Still, the indigenous people persevered and patiently waited for the opportunity to fight for their nation. The Nisga’a Final Agreement is the result of the Nisga’a people’s relentless pursuit for independence. The agreement brought back their culture, rights, and nation. It also provided them with additional opportunities that give them a place in the modern world. The Nisga’a Final Agreement is a reminder that people will resist oppression and fight for their freedom.
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Government of Canada. (15, September 2010). Nisga’a Final Agreement 2001 Anual Report. https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1100100031762/1551117753251
Miller, J.R., Marshall T., & Gallant, D. (Eds). (10, October 2012). Residential Schools in Canada. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/residential-schools
McCue, H.A. & Parrott, Z. (Ed). (31, May 2011). Reserves. The Canadian Encyclopedia. When the Nass River Valley became a part of European territory,
Nisga’a Lisims Government. (n.d.). Nisga’a Treaty. https://www.nisgaanation.ca/understanding-treaty
Powell, J.V., Jensen, V.D., Ellwand, C. & Filice, M. (Eds). (7, February 2006). Nisga’a. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/nisgaa
(n.d.). The Indian Act. Indigenous Foundations. https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_indian_act/