I have this childhood memory: a friend of my late grandmother Jane, sharing an old black-and-white photograph of a group of distinguished elderly Nisg̱a’a women. I remember being amazed by the memory and emotion it sparked in my grandmother. I sat beside her, equally curious and anxious, to hear who these women were. She pointed out to me, with the utmost pride, her mother Emily and her grandmother Genevieve. Since that memorable childhood experience I have maintained a genuine interest in the history of my family, my community, and the Nisg̱a’a Nation of northwestern British Columbia, of which I am a proud member.
As one of many distinct Northwest Coast Indigenous Nations of North America, the Nisg̱a’a Nation is a matrilineal society with an oral history that spans back to the beginning of our creation. The significance of our supernatural history of Ḵ’amligiihaahlhaahl (the Supreme Being) who sent his grandson Tx̱eemsim—a supernatural trickster—to be with the Nisg̱a’a Nation in our time of creation is one that is ingrained in all who were taught our oral history throughout the generations. The history books of the Nisg̱a’a Nation are the beautiful, captivating landscapes of the Nass Valley and Ḵ’alii-aksim Lisims (the Nass River) that runs dramatically from Mag̱oonhl Lisims (headwaters) in the north to Saxw Lisims (the mouth) in the west. The beauty and bounty that has sustained the Nisg̱a’a for generations reminds us of our belongingness to the land and natural world that surrounds us.
Modernization in a vastly growing technological world has had both its challenges and benefits on the Nisga’a Nation and our relationship to the natural world around us. That priceless moment I experienced as a young Nisg̱a’a boy—when my grandmother was brought back to a time when her mother and grandmother were alive—has provided endless inspiration and motivation for me to learn more about who those beautiful women in the photograph were, and what their lives may have been like.
While I have never physically visited the Royal BC Museum and Archives I have had the tremendous experience of making amazing discoveries within its vastly growing online records collection. While pursuing my undergraduate degree there were many Nisg̱a’a language and culture-related assignments that required in-depth study of family history. Very late one night, while working on such an assignment, I discovered the museum and archives’ online genealogy records through a random online search. Since then, it has been a constant stream of discoveries. Particularly when accessing vital birth, baptism, marriage and death records, all of which serve as excellent sources for corroborating oral history and research shared by family. For example, it has been shared that the entire community of Greenville was engulfed in a fire in 1924, which may lead to the conclusion that this is why there are no Greenville records in the archives that pre-date that same year.
Visual records have also been an absolute joy to access. There is a priceless 1881 photograph ‘Greenville on the Nass River’ that was taken from the Nass River, looking toward the shore of the community where large communal houses appear along the waterfront. If you were to take a photo from that same vantage point now, you could compare and contrast where past structures once stood and where current ones now stand, including my parent’s home on current day Front Street.1 2
What does it mean to find yourself, your family and your community in the Royal BC Museum and Archives collections? In summary and upon reflection of this question, I must say that it has been an incredible source of learning and personal discovery. History is something that belongs to each of us, personally and collectively. History is something that is there for us to learn from, to discover, and to live our way in to understanding. In the ongoing process of truth and reconciliation between British Columbia and its Indigenous nations, we must all take it upon ourselves to undertake the process of lifelong learning and mutual understanding.