Cā’câ | Mask of a Boy
Matt Shanley/AMNH Anthropology catalog 16/965

Selected features from the Northwest Coast Hall

The ancestral lands of the Nisg̲a’a are in and around the Nass River on the northern coast of British Columbia. The Nisg̲a’a, Tsimshian, and Gitxsan are neighbors along the Skeena and Nass Rivers. These Nations share many traditions, and their languages are closely related.

Nisg̱a’a Language

Person seated at long table, in front of window and whiteboard displaying translated phrases, with open binder and papers on table in front of them.
Wilp Wilxo’oskwhl Nisg̱a’a Language Instructor Irene Squires, Wilps Baxk’ap (a Nisg̱a’a Wolf House), prepares materials for an advanced Nisa’a language composition class.
WWN Executive Secretary Katherine Kervel, Wilps Gitxun (a Nisa’a Eagle House)

Language learning is a lifelong journey in Nisg̲a’a communities, taught to babies and preschoolers in Head Start Programs, children in local schools, and adults at the Nisg̲a’a university-college, Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl Nisg̲a’a Institute. The language has an impressive number of fluent speakers—60 alone in the village of Gitwinksihlkw, a center of Nisg̲a’a teaching and learning.

Aam wilaa wilina? | How are you doing?

Aam wilaa wiliy̓. | I am doing fine

T'ooyaḵsiy̓ n̓iin! | Thank you!

Credit: First Voices, a program of the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. Recorded by: Nisg̲a’a teens Garth Munroe, Wilps Ksdiyaawak (a Nisg̲a’a Wolf House) and Sterling Tait, Wilps Ksim Xsaan (a Nisg̲a’a Raven House). Posted here with permission of Wilp Wilxo'oskwhl Nisg̲a’a Institute.

Chiefly Wisdom

Man in headdress and robe with handheld drum in foreground with row of men in headdresses with drums behind him and more people and trees in the back.
Nisg̱a’a Chiefs, Elders, Matriarchs, youth, and guests celebrate the raising of a Pts’aan (pole) in Gitwinksihlkw.
Gary Fiegehen/Nisg̱a’a Lisims Government

In Nisg̲a’a, Gitxsan, and Tsimshian society, both women and men can become Chiefs. To prepare for this and other leadership roles, young people from high-ranking families spend years in rigorous training. They must learn the spiritual history and beliefs of their cultures and how these are expressed and affirmed in both formal ceremonies and daily life. When ready, an apprentice attains halayt, a form of supernatural power, through an initiation ceremony. 

Halayt training is lifelong and includes extensive and detailed recollections of Nisg̲a’a history and Wilp, or House, history, particularly for those in the line of succession for Sigidimn̓aḵ | House Matriarchs and Simgigat | House Head Chiefs.

Maaksgum-k’utk’unukws Amhalayt | White Owl Frontlet 

Click on the 3D model below for a closer look.

Only people of high social rank could wear these elaborate head pieces, which rest on the forehead and are sometimes trimmed with ermine pelts. Frontlets represent family crests, and tell the history of family lineage.

Display of Status

Man in elaborate headpiece and fringed, patterned robe stands on carved chest holding carved rattle against plain background, with masks on the floor.
Nisg̱a’a Chief W̓ahlin Sim’oogit Ksdiyaawak | James Percival of Gitlaxt'aamiks, Head Chief of a Nisg̱a’a Wolf House, stands on a G̱al̓inḵ, a carved bentwood box, surrounded by masks and other House regalia, in 1903. He holds a carved Raven rattle in each hand. The most elaborate G̱al̓inḵ were reserved only for Sigidimhaanaḵ, Nisg̱a’a House Matriarchs and Simgigat, Nisg̱a’a House Head Chiefs. G̱al̓inḵ each had stories and history attached. 
B.A. Haldane, Image PN04329/Royal BC Museum, BC Archives


Map highlighting Nisga'a location in relation to Gitxsan and Tsimshian, labeling Hazelton, Gitlaxt'aamiks, Lax Kw'alaams, and Metlakatla.