The Honourable History of the Interconnected Nishga Girl Families
A Brief History of the Nyce and Tasaka Friendship
by Allison Nyce
The friendship began at Claxton Cannery between a Japanese Canadian boat-builder, Judo Jack Tasaka, and a Nisga’a Chief, Eli Gosnell. The two men were highline commercial gillnet fishermen. Talent recognizes talent. They shared personal insights in all things fishing – from boat building to traditional fishing “hotspots,” net making and mending, and, of course, boat building. They shared all things outside of fishing too, politics, faith, family, traditional laws and customs, and their personal family histories. They attended each other’s children’s weddings and launched many boats together.
Eli Gosnell was a hereditary wolf chief from Gitwinksihlkw on the Nass River. He was raised according to Nisga’a law, had an arranged marriage, and was holder of his family’s territory, stories, songs and laws. He travelled back and forth from the Nass River down to the Skeena each year for the commercial fishery.
An expert builder as well, Eli met Jack at Claxton Cannery on the Skeena River, and an immediate kinship was developed over Jack’s teaching Eli about boat building. Eli often described Jack to his eldest daughter, Emma Nyce, “Wagiy gat tgus – That man is my brother.” Eli had no brothers and in a matriarchal family system brothers are important advisors, chief supporters and friends. Jack and Eli were kindred spirits; both were reared in a traditional manner and soon learned that their philosophies, lives, laws and foods were very similar.
Over the years, the Tasakas, Gosnell and Nyce families fished side by side. Eli encouraged his family fleet to fish his favourite and most productive fishing spots on the Skeena and Nass Rivers, and Jack was amongst them. On the docks they would also be seen together mending, hanging their nets and sharing food. They would exchange wisdom about new Japanese technologies in net making and mending and child rearing.
During the Second World War, when the Japanese boats were seized and the families moved inland from BC’s coastline, Emma’s mother, Mary, cried to see Jack and Mitsue’s house empty – all their belongings left inside and covered! Eli vehemently opposed the removal and seizure of the Japanese Canadians’ fishing boats. Eli wanted to protect Jack’s boat, the Orient. In honour of their friendship, when BC Packers Company began selling the Japanese Canadian boats, Eli was the highest bidder to save Jack’s boat. He then brought it up to Gitwinksihlkw to protect it over the winter.
At the end of the internment BC Packers Co. had a meeting in Sunnyside Cannery and discussed the return of the Japanese Canadian fishermen. Eli was at the meeting and spoke in favour of the decision, ‘Dim aamhl dim luuyaltgwin, dim gigiinaxgum. It is good for them to return and we pray for them.’ Eli helped Jack with the return of his boat.
Although there were many Japanese Canadian boat builders at the northwest canneries, it was Jack’s craftsmanship and attention to detail that awarded him the commissions from the Gosnell and Nyce families. Soon after Deanna and Harry were married, Emma’s husband Maurice Nyce negotiated the commission with Archie Curry, BC Packers Co. Manager to have Jack build the Nishga Girl in 1967.
One example of this very close friendship was the naming of the Nishga Girl. At its completion Jack and Mitsue sat with Maurice and Emma, Lena (Emma’s sister) and Hubert Doolan to determine a name for the new boat. Deanna and Harry were new parents of Harry Jr. and Maurice wanted the name to reflect Harry’s wife, Deanna, but Jack already had a boat named Lady Deanna after his youngest daughter. Three names were shortlisted: Grouse Island, Nishga Prince and Miss Canyon.
‘Look at all these girls,’ Jack said to Maurice, referring to Harry’s seven sisters, ‘one day Harry and Deanna will have girls. You should call it Nishga Girl.’ They all agreed the new boat would bear the name Nishga Girl. There are very few people who allow another person to put a moniker on a personal item.
In 1968, the Nishga Girl was launched and bestowed with a Nisga’a name as well – Wii Luu Hlabit. Wii Luu Hlabit is a Nisga’a Mountain in the Nass Valley which also means resourceful, or never go empty. According to Nisga’a law, a Nisga’a name is bestowed on houses, boats or cars to show the owners’ homeland. The Tasakas attended the launching along with hundreds of others.
The very precious friendship that began at Claxton Cannery so many years before picked up where it left off. The Nishga Girl was fished by Harry Nyce Sr., his son Harry Jr, and his Nishga girls, Angeline and Allison.
Jack and Mitsue fished alongside the Gosnell and Nyce families. They hung and mended nets, swapped stories about life and children. The Nishga Girl is a story about friendship that began between a Nisga’a Chief and a Japanese Canadian boat builder. Four generations share this amazing friendship. Eli Gosnell to Maurice Nyce to Harry Nyce Sr. to Harry Nyce Jr. and of course our dear friends – the Tasakas.