Imagine celebrating Canada Day in an independent nation surrounded on all sides by, well, Canada. If your guess is la belle province, think again. In 2000, after more than a century of negotiations, the Nisga'a signed the first modern-day treaty—the Nisga'a Final Agreement—negotiated with the federal government. Since then, the Nisga'a Lisims government based in New Aiyansh, about 150 kilometres north of Terrace, has overseen four traditional villages whose 2,500 inhabitants occupy the heart of the Nass Valley. Welcome to Nisga'a Land.
The mighty Nass River flows through the valley as smoothly as molten lava did about 270 years ago in a fiery volcanic eruption. The Georgia Straight spent much of Canada Day exploring the Nass—the anglicized version of Lisims—in the company of Kim Morrison, chief operating officer for Nisga'a Commercial Group Tourism, now in its second year of operation. Morrison, of Mohawk ancestry, was pleasantly surprised by the 150-percent visitor increase over the past year, spurred in large part by school groups from as far afield as Toronto. “Our staff have been working full-time since May, even though I thought they'd only be needed on weekends,” the dynamo admitted. “Last year was stepping off the edge for the Nisga'a after years of tourism feasibility studies. This job suits me because I'm all about living on the edge.”
Presently, most visitors are drawn to the area to explore Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park—also tongue-twistingly named Anhluut'ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga'asanskwhl Nisga'a Provincial Park—on a 12-stop, self-guided auto tour. For Morrison, that's just the beginning. “We're building three backcountry fly-in lodges on the Cambria Icefields in Nisga'a traditional territory near Stewart, with a 36-kilometre trail system that leads through four different environments with bikers, hikers, paddlers, snowshoers, and backcountry skiers in mind. The first will open by the end of next year with an all-Nisga'a staff.” In a frank admission, Morrison said she herself doesn't plan to be around in five years. “I want to work my way out of a job and have a Nisga'a in my place.”
One person who has already worked his way into a leadership role within the new nation is hereditary chief and carver Alver Tait. When the Straight visited Tait at his studio in the village of Laxgalts'ap, or Greenville, he was in the midst of preparing the first of four dugout canoes to be launched by summer's end. “My home is in New Aiyansh, but this village hired me to train eight apprentices in traditional carving techniques,” the Order of British Columbia recipient said. Alver, younger brother of noted carver Norman Tait, recently journeyed to Austria to raise a ceremonial pole the Canadian government had commissioned to honour the Vienna Zoo's 250th anniversary. “These canoes represent a revival of one of the most important symbols to our people, who journeyed between winter and summer camps for gathering food like oolichan, cockles, sea lions, and salmon.” In the future, Tait's eight apprentices will take their place as the principal canoe carvers. “Norman taught me how to design and shape a canoe in 1980, which we eventually paddled from Prince Rupert to Gingolx, or Kinkolith. It's been a long time coming. We were working on our own then, nothing like today, where we have apprentices.”
According to Tait, fortunes changed with the founding of Nisga'a Land. “It takes a lot of money to find the trees, fell them, and move them to the carving shed. The old growth is getting harder to source.” In addition to the canoes, Alver is also carving four house poles to be installed at the new Nisga'a Museum taking shape nearby, where longhouses will honour the nation's four principal clans: raven, wolf, eagle, and whale.
In B.C.'s northwest region, travellers seek out carvers in the same way they tour wineries in the Okanagan. The effects are similar: well-executed carvings can have as heady an impact on the central nervous system as wine. Bear this in mind as you work your way around the park and beyond. Although the carving shed in Laxgalts'ap, which is open to the public daily, is the ideal place to witness the creative process, take time to also view the four ceremonial poles that dominate the entrance to the municipal hall in New Aiyansh, as well as a similarly sized pole topped by a human figure holding a rainbow that fronts the Nisga'a Lisims government building farther uphill. Festooned to an almost baroque degree with swirling designs, the poles' impacts are heightened to mind-altering degrees by their outdoor settings on terraces at the feet of glaciated peaks that wall the valley. And although exploring the lava fields that spread in a wide swath through the park is the main attraction, an equally attractive activity is paddling the freshwater lakes on whose surfaces the peaks are reflected to an even higher degree of impressiveness.
In total, Nisga'a Land encompasses 2,000 square kilometres of territory. Don't be intimidated. No passports are required. Set aside at least a full day just to explore the park and adjacent villages. You'll never look at Canada the same way again.
Access: The Nass Valley, including Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park, is located 1,525 kilometres north of Vancouver via Terrace. Detailed information is available from the Nisga'a Commercial Group Tourism, 1-866-633-2696 or www.ncgtourism.ca/. For information on surrounding communities, including Terrace, call 1-866-615-7205 or visit www.kermodeitourism.ca/.