His heartbeat may have started in the small village of Gitwinksihlkw up in the Nass River Valley on December 7, 1948, but Ron Nyce’s heartbeat has most recently become the pulse behind the COVID-19 evening drumming at Cedar Village Seniors Residence, has been the tempo of the Four Crest Dancers, and is now the heart of our city.
As a young boy of 6 years old, the first time he ever saw Prince Rupert left him and his two siblings in awe.The year was 1954. There were no paved roads back then. Ron remembers his dad pulling the family boat up to the dock in Cow Bay.
Ron didn’t know where to look – at the hundreds of houses he had never seen before, because his village had only eight houses, or in the distance where he could see something strange and unrecognizable moving around. The three children all started chattering in their native Nisga’a language in excitement, questioning the unfamiliar sights before them. They did not know the English language, the European culture nor did they understand what they were seeing.
“We didn’t know anything. We didn’t know about restaurants. We didn’t know about taxi-cabs. We walked up the ramp and realized what we had seen moving. We had seen a car for the very first time.”
Ron said when the family got the car he sunk into the seat and was wide eyed with fear because the movement was something he had never experienced.
“We got to the Grand Cafe. We had never seen so many tables and chairs in one little room. We loved it.”
The server who took their dinner order was not of First Nations decent, Ron said. When asked what pop they wanted to drink the siblings didn’t know how to answer.
“We just said ‘the red one’. It was cream soda. We’d never had it before,” Ron said laughing at the memory. “We liked it.”
“All of these things were brand new to us. We had no idea.”
Ron said with his first six years spent in the village, he and his siblings only knew what they saw on a daily basis.
“We had no idea there were other people that were different from us. We had no clue. We were in awe. We were startled that (people) were different. Their skin colour is different and their speaking is different.”
Ron said his dad Morris, had been taught English by the Salvation Army. When they returned to the Nass Valley after their trip to Prince Rupert, the children attended ‘Indian Day School’ where they too started to learn English. Lessons took place in a 17 ft. by 17 ft. room packed with more than 20 children, ranging in age from five years old up to about 20, Ron said.
Morris was a fisherman in the summer and a coal packer in the winter. In 1956 he purchased a house in Prince Rupert and the family moved to start a new adventure.
The adventure didn’t go as planned.
When Ron was eight years old his mother contracted tuberculosis. She was admitted into the Miller Bay Hospital. Harry, Ron and May were taken away from Morris and sent to St. Albert Residential Day School, just outside of Edmonton, where they remained for four years.
The girls were kept on one side of the school and the boys on the other, Ron said. Even though the boys were on the same side the brothers were not together.
The children were finally returned to their family when their mom had recuperated and was released from hospital.
When the two brothers reached teenage years, Ron at 14 and Harry at 16, they rented a fishing boat to earn a living as fishermen. Ron fished for more than 40 years.
“I acquired a salmon licence, and a herring license and acquired a halibut license. I went into all of those fisheries. It was a beautiful life.”
Doing well in the fishing industry and being liked by his peers, in 1989 Ron became the voice of his colleagues in the union, working on relevant issues to the industry and the members of the day.
“In 1989, I became the president of the Native Brotherhood Prince Rupert Local,” he said.
With his experience in the local union, Ron was soon asked to run for Nisga’a Band Council. He did run and he was voted in.
One of the first things Ron focused on in his duties in administering the health and cultural portfolios of the Band, was to find ways to encourage the growth of First Nations culture and traditions. Many traditions had been lost to western ways, he said.
In 1993, Ron and the Council hired a master carver to complete a 60 ft. pole. They also hired eight apprentices to work with the carver, who would teach them traditional skills that were at risk of being lost.
During the carving process, which took almost four months, it was decided to hold a celebration to honour the pole. Under Ron’s duties he brought together the Elders of the four tribes of the Nisga’a to share ideas on how to establish and grow traditions. The four tribes are Killer Whale, Eagle,Wolf and Raven. The planning and preparation blossomed into a movement with drum making, regalia making, singing and dancing. The Four Crest Dancers were born.
“When the pole was finished, it was quite the celebration. It was the first one raised in 100 years. We put out a call to anyone who wanted to witness the raising. We had people come from Queen Charlotte, Kitimat, the Hazletons. They all came to witness the raising with singing and dancing.”
The Four Crest Dancers under Ron’s presidency, were an inspiration to other First Nations Communities with their performances which taught culture and traditions. First Nations’ started show their pride once again.
The dance group was invited to perform in Victoria at the Commonwealth Games in 1994 to showcase the culture and traditions, Ron said. There were 82 performers and more than $100,000 dollars in fundraising was garnered to cover accommodations and ferry.
On the way to Victoria, while out at sea on the ferry, the drummers started drumming and the singers started singing. As the vessel approached Bella Bella, they were welcomed by a line of impromptu singers responding from land to the melodic voices and pulsating beat of drums coming off the ocean.
When the group arrived at the games, there were too many to march in the opening ceremonies, so the youth section of the dancers entered as representatives.
It was a lifetime moment to cherish and remember, Ron said, as the young people entering the stadium field followed directly behind Nelson Mandela.
The whole group got to perform at other locations, like at the Victoria Inner Harbour. Ron said that all First Nations groups lined up around the harbour to sing and dance and it was sight to behold.
From there the group was invited to Hawaii in 1997 to show their culture and talent. Again, 82 performers went to teach the First Nations traditions of the North Coast.
“It was quite the turn of events for all of us,” Ron said.
In 2000, Ron was one of representatives for the negotiations of the Nisga’a Treaty, and as a Band Council leader he was a signator on the agreement. In the realignment of the Council Government, Nyce was put in charge of the Peace and Public Safety. Under the treaty offenders could choose to be prosecuted with provincial or federal laws, or to allow due process under Nisga’a law. Nyce’s judgeship like role was to render consequences for lesser offences under the Nisga’a laws.
Ron’s life has encompassed many different jobs from fishing, union representative, Band Council, building manger, bed and breakfast owner, to teacher.
Ron currently teaches Nisga’a languages courses and courses on proper feast protocol. He also leads workshops on drum making, rattle making, paddle making, copper seal necklace making, as well as moccasin making.
Ron said when he teaches, he teaches the culture and traditions behind the item being made.
“While they are in the process of making, I explain what everything is in Nisga’a, so they are learning not only how to do these things, but they are learning what they are using,” Nyce said.
As an Elder Advisor for Tricorp, Ron also shares his knowledge with young entrepreneurs.
“I do zoom with them right now, before that I used to go into the classroom. I tell them what I was taught. I was taught that you don’t have a sharp tongue or you are going to make people angry. It’s not good. So, when you are among public, you have to be very honourable.”
“You need to make people feel comfortable being around you and happy to be around you. That’s how to be.”
As a teacher, Ron said there is a lot of history that still needs to be learned by younger people.
“I think because of being so westernized, parents fail to utilize their language and culture,” Nyce said. “They are so westernized they have forgotten who they are.”
“Try to learn your language. From wherever you come from, whether you are Nisga’a, Tsimshian, Haida, Haisla, wherever you come from, you need to pick your language back up. Pick it up and learn it. At the same time you will start to learn your culture. You can feel your strength coming back.”
“It makes me really proud of who I am. I am proud of other First Nations as well,” Ron said.
K-J Millar | Journalist
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