Why you should join the Nisga’a New Year celebration

Photo: Wawmeesh G. Hamilton
Photo: Wawmeesh G. Hamilton

The Hoobiyee – a cultural event that rings in the New Year for citizens of the Nisga’a First Nation from northern B.C. – will be celebrated this weekend at Vancouver’s PNE Forum. Entrance is free, and everyone is invited.

When Keane Tait was growing up in northwestern B.C., the Hoobiyee – a traditional Nisga’a event that marked the beginning of a new harvest season – was celebrated with a small meal in the intimacy of his family’s home.

As had been the case throughout Nisga’a history, the annual event was tied to the first new moon of the season, but years of cultural genocide had put an end to large, community-based celebrations, driving festivities away from the public eye.

That is until 1997 when a wave of cultural resurgence spread through the Nisga’a homelands in the Nass Valley, and communities began publicly celebrating the Hoobiyee after nearly a century of silence.

That year, Tait and his family travelled to Gitwinksihlkw (Canyon City) to experience their very first Hoobiyee.

“Listening to those drums and seeing those dancers was very powerful,” Tait remembers. “It was really inspiring to see so many of our people coming together and to see that our culture was strong and thriving.”

Twenty years have passed since then, and Hoobiyee celebrations have multiplied, spreading across B.C. as Nisga’a people moved away from the Nass Valley. For Tait, celebrating the Hoobiyee has since become one of the most important events of the year, and one that he is very glad that he can celebrate in his new home: Vancouver.

Photo: Peter Mothe
Photo: Peter Mothe

The Hoobiyee in Vancouver

For the past 10 years, the Nisga’a Ts’amiks Vancouver Society – a group that provides cultural and political services to the nearly 1,400 Nisga’a people who live in and around the city – has been organizing a formal Hoobiyee celebration.

According to Sheldon Martin, the society’s president, informal celebrations existed prior to that, but formalizing this annual event has helped Nisga’a citizens in Vancouver connect with each other and with their culture, while also allowing non-Nisga’a people to learn about their culture.

“With colonization and everything that has happened to our people, an event like the Hoobiyee has given us a chance to revive our song and our dance and use them to tell our stories,” Martin says. “Putting on such a big event in Vancouver shows the strength and the power that we have to maintain our identity despite being far away from our homelands.”

This year’s Vancouver edition of the Hoobiyee will be held on Friday and Saturday (Feb. 3 and 4) at the PNE Forum. Admission is free for anyone who wants to attend, and the event will include performances by over 600 dancers and drummers.

Among those dancers will be Tait, whose dance group, the Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisga’a dancers, has been participating in the Vancouver edition of the Hoobiyee for the past 10 years.

Through song and dance, Tait and his dance group will tell traditional stories, including the origin story of the Hoobiyee, which is tied to the return of the oolichans – a tiny, smelt-sized fish – whose arrival in mass to the Nass Valley marks the end of winter, and the beginning of a new year.

Photo: KGN Dancers
Photo: KGN Dancers

“For the Nisga’a the Hoobiyee has always been a time of renewal,” says Tait, who rejoices at the fact that the New Year can be celebrated at the same time in Vancouver and in the Nass Valley. “To have that connection of celebrating Hoobiyee in Vancouver while our brothers and sisters are celebrating back home strengthens us as a nation.”

In total, eight different groups will be performing throughout the event’s two days, including Nisga’a dance groups coming down from the Nass Valley and other groups coming from different indigenous nations from northern B.C. Along with the singing and dancing, the event – which last year drew crowds of nearly 7,000 people – will also have local artisans and food vendors, as well as interactive educational booths set up to teach people about Nisga’a culture.

For Sheldon Martin, president of the Nisga’a Ts’amiks Vancouver Society, it’s a celebration that all Vancouverites should attend.

“As Vancouver moves towards being the city of reconciliation, it is definitely an opportune time for the citizens to come out and join us and participate in our singing and dancing,” he says.

“It is our hope that the Hoobiyee opens the door to people in Vancouver and surrounding areas to begin to really look at the First Nations people that surround them. We have a lot of gifts to share with the world, and a celebration such as Hoobiyee allows us to do that.”