The Gitga’at Nation
Both the Spirit bear and the Gitga’at people have been living in the Territory off the northwest coast of British Columbia for many generations.
The ancestors of the current Gitga’at people used to live in Laxgal’tsap (Old Town) in Kitikiata Inlet, an area on the northwestern side of the Douglas Channel. They lived in this area during the winter months, but used several other camps along the coastline during the warmer months.
The Gitga’at had their first encounter with the Europeans in the 1870s. Their relationship remained economical until the arrival of two missionaries: Thomas Crosby and William Duncan. Many of the Gitga’at joined William Duncan in a newly established Christian community in Alaska, but some remained. These remaining Gitga’at people decided to migrate to Txalgiu, recently named Hartley Bay, to begin a new community.
The tiny village of Hartley Bay sits quietly on the coast, where much of their existence is tied to the sea. Being a “sea people”, the Gitga’at depend on resources not only the forest can provide, but the abundance the ocean provides as well. Halibut, salmon, octopus, herring, cod, and cockles (a saltwater calm) are among these oceanic resources. In harvest times, few weeks during Spring and Autumn, the Gitga’at gather various plants such as berries, seaweed, Devil’s Club, and Licorice Fern Root. Another, very important resource that pertains to the Great Bear Rainforest is the cedar tree. Because it does not rot or carry insects, it is used for various things such as building canoes, longhouses, tools, and much more. The Gitga’at sustain these resources through ecosystem-based approach. Ecosystem-based management means that they approach resource sustainability by preserving or restoring habitat quality to maintain ecosystem services.
The Gitga’at and the Kitasoo Nations are the only people who live in the territory of the Great Bear Rainforest, so very few people have had impact on the region. They live in this rainforest by leaving the environment intact, and functioning within it in a harmonious way that is rarely seen today. The residents have always depended on the natural bounty of the ecosystem, and in return, the ecosystem depends on them to preserve things.
The most important part of the ecosystem the Gitga’at help preserve is the Kermode, or Spirit Bear. The people of the Gitga’at Nation have incorporated protection of the Spirit Bear as a priority in their respective land-use. Known among them as mooksgm’ol, the Spirit Bear is a revered animal in their culture, and it is never hunted. Even when poachers and fur traders threatened the black bear, the Gitga’at always kept a watchful eye on the spirit bear, and they still do.
The Legend of the ‘Spirit Bear’
The legends of the Gitga’at and the Kitasoo Nations told of a time when the glaciers finally receded, and the Raven, creator of the rainforest, made everything green. Raven also decided to make one in ten black bears white, as a reminder of the time when the world was white with snow and ice. Raven decided to set aside a special area of the world for these bears – now known as the Great Bear Rainforest. It was a remote paradise where the bears were to live in peace forever.