Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Niska Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



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Niska. The dialectic name for one of the three Chimmesyan divisions, the other two being the Kitksan and the Tsimshian. In tradition, art, and manner of living these three divisions are closely allied, with such geographic differences as would naturally occur. In language less than one-third of the vocabulary is common to all, a like proportion varies in accent, while the remainder is different and more local in character. Dialectic differences are much less marked between the two interior river divisions than between either of them and the Tsimshian of the coast.


The territory of the Niska includes Observatory inlet, Nass bay, and the drainage basin of Nass r. and its tributaries, but those northern sources that interlock with the Iskut and the Stikine rs. are claimed also by the Tahltan, and over this contention have occurred many wars that have always kept these people apart. The Niska villages have always been on the main river and show evidence of considerable size. The houses, in a single row, follow the contour of the shore; they are built of hewn timbers in the form of a parallelogram, with a central open fireplace of gravel, and a smoke-hole in the roof. Carved heraldic columns stand in front, in which the crest of the deceased is shown at the base and that of the successor at the top, and in one old village grave-houses of logs surmounted by animal and bird forms in wood and stone, representing the totemic emblems of the dead, rest on the river bank in the midst of the columns.


With the establishment of missions the older villages have generally been deserted and the people are being concentrated at three points, under the supervision of missionaries of the Church of England, and small modern dwellings are taking the place of the old communal house. Modern ideas prevail, and the condition of the people is a credit to both their teachers and themselves. The villages, past and present, together with the more important village sites, are: Kincolith, Kitaix, Lakkulzap or Greenville, Gwinwork, Lakungida or Ankeegar, Kisthemuwelgit or Willshilhtumwillwillgit, Qunahhair, Kitwinshilk, Sheaksh, Aiyansh, Kitlakdamix, and Kitwinlkole. Other town names have been given, as follows, but these, wholly or in part, may duplicate some of the above: Kitahon, Kitangata, Kitlakaous, and Andeguale.


The Niska were divided geographically into the Kitkahteen ('people of the lower valley'), including those below the canyon and the Kitanweliks ('people of the upper river'), comprising those above this point.


Tradition tells that long ago when the principal village was across the river to the southward, some little boys were amusing themselves by catching salmon, cutting slits in their backs in which they inserted flat stones, and then letting them go, playing they were whales. This so incensed the guardian spirit that, rising from the mountain to the southward enveloped in a wide spreading black cloud that changed day into night, with eyes of flame and voice of thunder, he rolled down the mountain side as a river of fire and swept the village away. The people fled across the river and took refuge on the hills until quiet was restored, when they divided, some settling at Kitlakdamix and there retaining the old name of Kitauwiliks, while the others, founding Kitwinshilk on the rocks overlooking the rapids, were ever afterward known by the name of their village as 'The people among the lizards.'


The social organization is founded upon matriarchy, and is dependent upon the existence of four exogamous parties, distinguished by their crests, who intermarry and who supplement one another on all occasions of ceremony. These parties are subdivided into families who are represented by minor crests but who still retain the party emblem. These four parties are: (1) Laghkepo, represented by the wolf and having as its subdivisions the Brown-bear, Crow, Crane, and Red-wing flicker; (2) Laghkeak, represented by the Eagle and having as its subdivisions the Beaver, Owl, Dog-fish, and Squirrel; (3) Kanhadda, represented by the Raven and having as its subdivisions the Frog, Sea-lion, Sculpin, and Star-fish; (4) Kishpootwada, represented by the Killer-whale and having as its subdivisions the Osprey and the Bear-under-water. (Boas gives the following subdivisions: Gyitkadok, Lakseel, Laktiaktl, Gyitgyigyenik, Gyitwulnakyel, Gyiskabenak, Lakloukst, Gyitsaek, Laktsemelik, and Gyisgahast. He assigns the first two to the Raven phratry, the next three to the Wolf phratry, the four following to the Eagle phratry, and the last to the Bear phratry.)


The Niska look to the river for their food supply, which consists principally of salmon and eulachon. Indeed it is owing to the enormous number of the latter fish that run in to spawn in the early spring that the name Nass, meaning 'the stomach, or food depot,' has been given to the river.


In 1902 the population of the Niska towns was 842: in 1906, 814; in 1911, 738.         


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Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 350-351.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College