Gitga’at First Nation
The Gitga’at have lived on the Northwest coast of B.C. for thousands of years. Their culture and prosperity are inseparable from the continued health of their lands, waters, and abundant resources.
The Gitga’at, which means “People of the Cane”, have lived on the Northwest coast of B.C. for thousands of years. The Gitga’at are one of the 14 tribes of the Tsimshian, a matrilineal society. Clan membership, emblems, names, and harvesting areas are inherited from the mother’s side of the family. The first contact with Europeans came with fur traders in the 1780s. The Hudson Bay Company arrived about 50 years later. Gitga’at social and cultural life was changed forever through contact with European missionaries and residential schools, but the community managed to hold fast to its traditions and customs. Legends, genealogy and life-sustaining knowledge have been carried down orally through the ages. To this day, the Gitga’at continue to use the same village sites, camps, fishing and harvesting areas their ancestors used.
The Gitga’at Territory is roughly 7,500 square kilometres of land and water, which is about one and a half times the size of Prince Edward Island. Hartley Bay, home base for the Gitga’at, is a picturesque but isolated waterfront village in the world famous Great Bear Rainforest. Situated 145 kilometres South of Prince Rupert and 600 kilometers North of Vancouver, it is accessible only by air or water. About 180 Gitga’at live in Hartley Bay year round, and another 450 live away. Wooden boardwalks link the Longhouse, homes, school, church, and other buildings. There are no cars in Hartley Bay.
Gitga’at First Nation
Gitga’at society is sophisticated and complex. Cultural practices and the rights and title to territorial lands and waters fall under the jurisdiction of the traditional government. Decisions affecting Gitga’at lands and resources are made by Hereditary Chiefs and elders following community consultation. Affairs related to the community of Hartley Bay, Band administration and delivery of social programs and services are governed by a Village Council, which is elected by Nation Members. The Gitga’at are bound by their laws and customs to ensure the protection and stewardship of the lands, waters and resources in their territory for future generations. There are three clans in Hartley Bay: Eagle, Raven, and Black Fish or Killer Whale.
The Gitga’at continue to rely on their natural resources for their main source of food. Salmon, halibut, crab, shrimp, clams and sea weed are harvested and preserved in many forms. Seaweed is dried and berries are made into jam. Although “big city” food is not uncommon, the Gitga’at are heavily dependent on their waters and shores. There are two shipwrecks threatening Gitga’at traditional food sources. Hydrocarbons from the Queen of the North and an American warship from World War II have contaminated vital halibut habitat and clam beds (gitga’at.net).
The Gitga’at have one of the most remote territories of any BC first nation and they are turning this to their advantage. Eco and adventure tourism are major drivers of the economy. The successful working relationship between the Gitga’at and King Pacific Lodge began as one of the first private sector-First Nation partnerships in the province. The eco-lodge operates on a “triple bottom line” philosophy that goes beyond sustainable tourism, emphasizing a deep respect for the land and its people. King Pacific Lodge has opted to play a vital role in the development of Guarding the Gifts. It has offered its property as the main delivery vehicle for our non-profit organization and our Summer Internship Program for High School Students from Hartley Bay.
The Gitga’at have always worshipped and nurtured their land and water. Fishing and harvesting are still the mainstays of a life that follows the seasons. Unlike some other indigenous peoples, the Gitga’at did not deplete their resources and continue to share some of the oldest and tallest trees on the planet with the iconic white Spirit bear or Kermode. The territory is home to one of the highest concentrations of grizzly bears in North America as well as coastal wolves that uniquely fish for salmon. There are sea lions, seals, otters, eagles and wolverines. Several species of whale either live here year round or transit through on their migration.
Enbridge is the largest pipeline operator in the world and it wants to add to its network with a pipeline connecting the tar sands of Alberta with a proposed deep-water terminal at Kitimat B.C. The oil would be loaded onto supertankers and transported through the narrow and treacherous Douglas Channel. Hartley Bay is situated at the T-intersection at the mouth of the channel. The tankers, some of which are the length of 3 football fields, will have to steer hard to avoid hitting the same island which sank the BC Ferries – Queen of the North. Given the navigational hazards and the potential of dangerous weather an oil spill to equal the Exxon Valdez is a near certainty. What is certain is the damage the supertankers will do. There will be collisions with whales and other sea mammals. Exotic species will be introduced to compete with native species. The wake-generated erosion will destroy prime harvesting beaches. The Gitga’at are under direct threat of irreparable damage to their culture and the other living things in their territory face ecological disaster and extinction (gitgaat.net).