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The 'Namgis Big House in Alert Bay, BC

‘Namgis First Nation

Alert Bay, BC

The ‘Namgis First Nation is one of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations located on or near northern Vancouver Island. Known to anthropologists and some Europeans as the Kwakiutl, this group of First Nations shares a common language, and the Kwakwaka’wakw designation simply means “those who speak Kwak’wala.” The ‘Namgis today are located mostly on Cormorant Island near the settlement of Alert Bay, and have territorial claims to the surrounding area, as well as much of the Nimpkish River Valley due to their past occupation and extensive traditional use of these lands.




The ‘Namgis oral history begins with a man named Gwa’nalalis, who requested the Creator turn him into a river, and was transformed into the Gwa’ni River. This river was the origin of the ‘Namgis people, and due to an anglicizing of their name, it became known as the Nimpkish River on the maps and charts of the Europeans. At a historical high of about 9,000 people, the ‘Namgis occupied lands all up and down the Nimpkish River Valley, as well as on islands off the coast near the river-mouth. After European contact, the population shrunk, and new industries began to enter the lives of the ‘Namgis. With the establishment of the fish packing plant in Alert Bay in 1880, more and more of the ‘Namgis began to become involved with the new trade of large scale commercial fishing. With most of the jobs existing at or surrounding the packing plant, and the government and missionaries pressuring them to leave some of their traditional lands, the ‘Namgis had to leave their original village site at the mouth of the Nimpkish River, and moved for the most part to Cormorant Island. The majority of the ‘Namgis Nation now resides in the village of ‘Yalis, alongside Alert Bay. They continue to utilize much of their original territory, both for resources and for cultural reasons, and cultural projects as far as Woss in their traditional territory have been undertaken.

Present Day


Though once living all throughout the region surrounding the Nimpkish Lake, the ‘Namgis are now mostly present on Cormorant Island, near Telegraph Cove. By census, there are approximately 1600 people in the ‘Namgis Nation. Almost 30% of Cormorant Island is set aside as reserve for the ‘Namgis Nation, and about 60% of the population lives on the reserves. The Nation is active in several industries in the area, including logging and fishing, and has recently entered into revolutionary partnerships with a number of different power companies to develop small, run of river hydro projects in the area.


The ‘Namgis are also exploring the area of eco-tourism, and have recently received funding to rebuild some of the “Grease Trail,” used to transport Eulachon oil between communities, that stretched from Woss, in the Nimpkish River Valley, all the way to Tahsis, on the west coast of Vancouver Island.


The ‘Namgis also operate the U’mista Cultural Society in Alert Bay, which is a world-class museum that displays artifacts and documents many aspects of First Nations life on the north coast of Vancouver Island, particularly of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations. U’mista means “the return of something important” in the local language, and when opened in 1980, was aptly named, as the central cultural celebration of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations, the potlatch, had been banned by the Canadian Government until 1969.


Treaty Status


The ‘Namgis are currently negotiating a treaty with Canada and BC under the six-step BC Treaty process. Though they are affiliated with the Musgamagw Tsawataineuk Tribal Council, the other two members of the Council are not actively pursuing a treaty.


The ‘Namgis entered the process in 1997 after years of community consultation by filing their statement of intent and completing stage one of the treaty process, as part of the Winalagalis Treaty Group. Stage two, readiness to negotiate, was achieved one year later, in May of 1998, and in the year 2000, stage three, the framework agreement, was in place. Since then, the Nation has been involved in extensive negotiations in stage four, usually the most onerous of the process. They officially withdrew from the Winalagalis Treaty Group in 2005 in order to continue negotiating as an independent nation. The ‘Namgis claim to be in the “home stretch” of negotiations, and are almost ready to finalize their treaty. Negotiations and ratification in stage five are expected to take at least two years more.


Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.