This is an unusual year for all of us, and yet we are finding new ways to stay connected to our Anglican brothers and sisters. Similarly, our Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisga’a Dance family is finding ways for its members to stay connected to one another. We still meet via Zoom for singing and dancing practice, and we begin and end each session as we always do with prayer and positive affirmations. We also meet on Zoom for our weekly language classes. We miss each other and the Nisga’a connections that have brought us together - connections that we would have had if we were in our home communities on the Nass River in Northern BC, sharing our lives together.
The fact that my grandparents could not move about at will without permission in the 1940’s and 50’s has an eerie feel because it is similar to the restrictions we experience today due to the COVID-19 pandemic, encouraging us to remain at home. Mind you, we do have permission to leave our houses but it is a strange feeling not being free to move about at will or gather as a group in BC and the rest of the country.
(Above in the "photo scroll" is a picture of a permission note issued in 1932 for a native man to leave the Reserve to go hunting for food. For more information about this practice take a look at this page)
Today we have not gone that far about not being able to move about. We don’t need written permission to go to work and go food shopping to provide for our families. But as Indigenous people we really miss that we cannot gather in groups due to the pandemic. It is in our nature to be with other people, and we are missing our friends and families.
Despite all the restrictions, Indigenous people had to preserve our traditions and pass on our history and rites of passage to our children as they grew up in order to ensure them the opportunity to become leaders for our future. The most telling thing that shows the strength of our people, even during these hardships, is the way that the stories, songs and spiritual ways are coming back to us in a very strong way. It is not that we lost these things, as much as they went underground. I remember that in the early years of my life my grandfather hid some of his bentwood boxes and his small carved pole upstairs in our home in Old Aiyansh. Even though the law against potlatches was repealed in 1950, it took a long time before cultural items were brought back into the light.
Another example of this underground culture were the stories that Elders kept to themselves but did reveal when they gathered together, telling them to each other when they came to visit our house. These stories included our rights to our traditional territories and the spiritual connection we have to our land. It was such an enlightening moment when they got together. I did not appreciate these moments as child, and only realized the importance of these conversations when I got older.
One of the ingenious ways the Elders kept their language alive was to translate the Christian hymns of the early missionaries into Nisga’a. They could hardly be criticized for speaking their own language instead of English when they were using their voices to praise the Lord!
But besides trying to hang onto our culture, most of all it was the caring for each other that kept us together. I had so much love and care from my relatives on both sides of my family. My grandmother was the one responsible for taking care of me, but I had so many moms who took care of me as well.
I have listened to Dr. Martin Brokenleg’s podcast “Heart Learning with Dr. Martin Brokenleg," which you will find posted below. Dr. Brokenleg, who is both an Anglican priest and a Sioux pipe-carrier talks about the importance of a different kind of knowledge than what we learn with our heads. It is what we learn with our hearts through the direct experiences we have as we practise our culture and our spiritual beliefs. As our Nisga’a dance group continues to keep practising and speaking our language by social media, we strengthen our hearts. For all the setbacks we have had since the Europeans landed in the Americas, our people have survived, and we have come back with strength through practising the protocols of our culture.
The love that this ‘heart learning’ creates became apparent when we went home for Hoobiyee, the celebration of the Nisga’a New Year. First Notions blog #24 describes our experience, and the feeling we all had being in our home territory. Our children were awestruck by how all our relatives remember us, and also by the way that relatives they had not yet met before welcomed them home and embraced them as true family.
This pandemic has not stopped our Nisga’a dancing practice or language classes. Our Indigenous community is still connected as it was in the past, and we need each other for continued love and support for our well-being. Nisga’a and Christian communities alike need to stay united and continue to celebrate our belief in God, and practise our own family and cultural rituals, to remain united as we face and ultimately overcome the unknown. The Nisga’as and other Indigenous Nations have persevered through many a setback and we have survived, as we all will today after this pandemic is over.
Nii K’an Kwsdins