The Nisga’a people of Northwestern British Columbia celebrate their traditional new year, called Hobiyee (Ho-be-yeh), every February. Hobiyee is a celebration of the waxing crescent moon and the end of winter, with the moon and stars predicting the year’s coming harvest. The celebration also heralds the arrival of oolichan to the K’alii Aksim Lisims (Nass River). A primary source of food for the Nisga’a, oolichan is a small ocean smelt fish that leaves the Pacific to spawn upriver. It is also known as a candlefish, as it is so rich in oil that it burns like a candle.
In Northwest Pacific Coast culture, songs and dance are used to pass on customs, beliefs, and history as well as mark changes in the seasons. For many decades, Ottawa and the new colonial government of British Columbia banned such performances, along with traditional Indigenous potlatches. The Nisga’a had a song, “Limx Wi’idim Saak,” celebrating the roasting of oolichan; it was accompanied by a performer who wore special ceremonial regalia and danced around the open fire whilst roasting the first feed of fish. The words for this ceremony were lost because of the ban, and only the title of the song remains. But in present day there is a strong resurgence among communities to reclaim their culture, creating a new context for dances to flourish as public performances.
The largest Hobiyee celebrations today are found in the traditional home territory of the Nisga’a Nation, the Nass Valley, in Northwestern British Columbia and Vancouver. The Nisga’a Ts’amiks Vancouver Society hosts a two-day celebration annually, inviting cultural dance groups from other First Nations as well as the general public to share this important aspect of Nisga’a culture and history. This year’s event in Vancouver took place February 2 and 3, 2018 at the PNE Forum.
Hobiyee is an exciting and colourful celebration, with dancers wearing distinctive button blankets, chiefs donning their traditional regalia, and drums being played powerfully. This year, the MLA for Vancouver-Mount Pleasant, Melanie Mark, was in attendance. Of Nisga’a, Gitxsan, Cree, Ojibway, French, and Scottish heritage, Mark is B.C.’s first female First Nations MLA and, as Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training, is the first female First Nations cabinet minister.
Mark danced at the Vancouver Hobiyee event, asking the crowd, “Is the heartbeat of our people strong?” The crowd whooped and cheered in response.
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