Nisga’a Women’s Health Foods, Shelter and Education in the Mountainous Permafrost

Community History – The History of Our People

“We are Nisga’a, People of the Nass River. We have lived here, on British Columbia’s northwest coast, since time immemorial. Long enough to see our culture thrive, adapt, and endure” (from Nisga’a website Calder 1993: 1). Nisga’a lands stretch from the glacial headwaters to the estuary of the Nass River. This research takes place within the glacial headwaters and the high mountain regions bordering the Nass River (see map next page) which are continuous permafrost areas.

“For more than 10,000 years, we have thrived in this land, organizing ourselves into four clans: Gisk’ahaast (Killer Whale), Laxgibuu (Wolf), Ganada (Raven) and Laxsgiik (Eagle). Our population now numbers about 6,000. About 2,500 people live in the Nisga’a village of Gingolx, Laxgalts’ap, Gitwinksihlkw, and New Aiyansh. Three thousand five hundred live elsewhere in Canada and around the world.

We still hunt, fish, and trap. But today we are also lawyers, administrators, politicians, priests, teachers, linguists, loggers, commercial fishermen, carvers, dancers, nurses, architects, technicians, and business people” ( Calder 1993:1). The main activities of the Nisga’a population within the permafrost regions include fishing, hunting, and delivery of health and education programs for young men and women. In the permafrost areas, berry plants such as lowbush cranberries and mountain blueberry are still occasionally collected.

Established in 1993, Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a Institute (WWN) is a fully accredited university with a new campus in Gitwinksihlkw, British Columbia, a village of about three hundred permanent residents. Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a was built to serve the people – Nisga’a and non-Nisga’a – living in Canada’s northern regions. To safeguard and protect Nisga’a language and culture, Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a Institute’s core curricula is based on Ayuukhl Nisga’a – the ancient code of laws. WWN is a member of the University of the Arctic. 

Nisga’a Elder Emma Nyce with children

Project Summary – How We Are Leading the Way

The geography and area of the Nass Valley alpine tundra are changing. Glaciers in the Nass Valley are visibly retreating as the climate is getting warmer. As glaciers melt, the ice patches change into alpine meadow: the kind of meadow where Nisga’a Elders have for centuries found an abundance of berries and other food plants. Cooled and kept moist by glaciers, these meadows and other components of glacier-influenced watersheds are home to diverse plant and animal species and are a critical place for sustaining biodiversity in British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada. Scientists note that as glaciers melt, they are replaced by these food-rich alpine meadows. From this we might discern that the melting glaciers in the Nass Valley will initially create larger sites for growing the rich diversity of healthy foods that grow in the moist, glacier-cooled alpine permafrost. In the long term, however, the area of the alpine tundra region in British Columbia is expected to decline dramatically, as much as 90 percent over the next fifty to one-hundred years.

Scientists and oral history alike, report that much of the disappearing alpine tundra may be replaced by subalpine shrublands. Our fieldwork at Lax Bilak, the Nisga’a berry picking grounds in the subalpine demonstrated that the alpine shrubland/wetland ecosystem is also rich in food resources. Places such as Lax Bilak may be critical to ensuring that a range of healthy foods and materials will remain available even as glacial plains become alpine permafrost and then subalpine shrublands, under the influence of accelerating climate change.

If Lax Bilak and other food-producing sites are to remain healthy and abundant, it is important to listen to the traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom of the people who have looked after these lands for countless generations.

Through our research at Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisga’a Institute, women’s knowledge of healthy foods, shelters, and education in the alpine permafrost was actively recorded and communicated across generations. At WWNI, Nisga’a Elders and knowledge-holders are re-introducing women’s wisdom to young Nisga’a people, who in turn are gradually restoring the knowledge to active use. The children’s day camps and ethnobiology field trips of our research have provided additional opportunities for Elders to share their wisdom about the alpine permafrost and its value to survival.

Capacity Building – Connecting the Guidance of the Past with the Needs of Today

Many Indigenous peoples have dealt with climate changes and associated dangers to health in the past for which this knowledge has been sustained through oral history. By understanding the past and really knowing the ecosystem through oral history and observation, First Nations and Inuit communities are able to handle the change in the future. Communities not only need to know this information: they also need the means to pass oral history and experience on to future generations. Communities can ask themselves: how did we manage change in the past and how can this information guide our actions in the future? More research and communication within and among communities are needed to understand climate and landscape changes and their impacts on the health of people and our lands.

Next Steps – How We Are Adapting to Climate Change

In the Nass Valley, traditional ecological knowledge about surviving during times of change is taught and overseen by Nisga’a knowledge-holders, Elders, and other leaders. This knowledge, and the leadership that sustains it, has direct health benefits during times of climate change. Nisga’a knowledge is important for managing food resources, understanding all of the signals relating to timing of harvest and abundance of plant and animal foods, understanding the materials needed to process foods safely and economically. When Nisga’a people practice traditional knowledge, there are indirect health benefits too: we get more exercise! Looking to our Elders for guidance in traditional foods is key. Sometimes it helps to access scientific knowledge to show out young people how valuable Elders’ wisdom can be: for example, nutritional analysis demonstrates to young people that community knowledge-holders understood the intricate interrelationships among food, health, and climate.


Community Profile

Land Area:
1,946.27 sq km

Project Information

Years Funded:
Topic Area:
Wilp Wilxo‟oskwhl Nisga‟a, the Nisga‟a University
Nancy Mackin, Deanna Nyce ([email protected])

Map Location