Attending a traditional Nisga’a feast is an exercise in formality that puts all but the most studied Anglican liturgies to shame. At the entrance to the feast hall, each guest is announced (in the Nisga’a language) and escorted to his or her place by young warriors. Guests are seated in strict order of rank: chiefs and matriarchs at tables of honour at the back of the hall, then visiting chiefs and honoured guests, then all the other guests in descending order of precedence. Men and women are seated separately at tables on opposite sides of the hall. Guests do not choose with whom they sit and eat; they must get along with everyone seated at their table. It is considered bad form, once seated, to leave your place for any reason before the Master of Ceremonies declares the feast closed (guests in the know make sure to use the toilet before entering the feast hall). The food is served, and the dishes cleared away, by the young women, but once the food is eaten, the feast is far from over. Next come the speeches, which will last as long as the speakers think necessary. Only when the business has been completed will the feast close (with prayer), and the guests be sent on their way. The feasts that I have attended here in Vancouver have lasted four to five hours, but I am told that in the Nass Valley feasts will often last until two in the morning or later. Culturally, nutritionally, spiritually–in every way a traditional Nisga’a feast is the opposite of “fast food.”
The greatest challenge for those who come to this culture from a Western background is the discovery that in a traditional feast, time has no meaning. The order and length of events at a feast is governed not by the clock, nor by the desires or needs of the guests, but by the needs of the community, and the needs of the community are determined by its leaders and elders. Different assumptions about the purpose of such gatherings are in play here. In Western culture, it is assumed that the meal has been arranged primarily to entertain the guests, and the event must in some way serve the guests. After-dinner speakers are expected to limit their remarks as a sign of courtesy to the guests. In Nisga’a culture, it is assumed that the feast has been arranged primarily to serve the needs of the community, and that the guests come not to be entertained, but to fulfill (in part) their obligations to the community. The guests are expected to sit quietly and listen to what is being said, as a sign of respect to the speaker and to the community. Everyone, from toddlers to elders, sits while everything that needs to be said is said, and everything that needs to be done is done.
This seems like a counter-intuitive way to sustain the life of a community. In a culture where we can have instant access to anything we want for the price of a high-speed internet connection, why would we want to make any kind of demand on people? Will they even listen, or will they just keep on downloading? Those of us who struggle to build and maintain Christian communities in this culture are often encouraged to make our community life accessible and appealing, and few things can be less appealing than sitting in a chair for several hours listening to speeches. We can all imagine how a newcomer, or even a seasoned church-goer, would react to a five-hour liturgy which included a 90-minute sermon. Traditional cultures, though, have traditionally made demands upon their members, and have understood that if a community is to remain strong it must be built on something more substantial than ready accessibility and easy appeal. Traditional cultures are marked by obligation, responsibility, relationship and accountability. Christian churches are traditional communities whose cultures are not readily accessible to outsiders. Joining a Christian community demands intentional effort and hard work, so much so that the traditional word for the process is “conversion”.
Impenetrable and forbidding as they may at first appear, there is value and purpose to the practices and assumptions of traditional cultures. The traditional nature of Nisga’a culture helped it to survive colonization; the traditional culture of the Christian churches helped them survive persecution. And, because tradition is resilient and adaptable, not frozen in time, their traditional cultures have helped both the Christian churches and the Nisga’a nation survive and adapt to vastly altered circumstances.
Adaptability, however, does have limits. If the culture is to retain its integrity, there must be something at the heart of it that will not yield, and which cannot be reduced to user-friendliness. Traditional cultures everywhere, including churches and aboriginal communities, find themselves challenged by something that has never existed before: a global mass consumer culture. Worldwide, globalization and consumerism are testing the limits of adaptability of traditional cultures, and it is not yet certain if they will survive. The trick will be to find the right balance between adaptability and integrity. Whenever I see a youth amble into a feast hall wearing his backward ball cap, baggy shorts and assorted bling, and sit down next to an elder, I think that the Nisga’a nation may just be pulling that trick off, and I’m filled with hope for the future of traditional cultures and traditional ways, and for the people who live by them.
Michael Batten is a priest of the Diocese of New Westminster and a member of Kwhlii Gibaygum Nisga’a, a group of traditional Nisga’a cultural performers. He works with members of the Nisga’a nation and other north coast nations who live in the Metro Vancouver area, and is the incumbent of St David’s in East Vancouver.