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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Nisga’a architecture and landscapes : ecological wisdom and community-led design Mackin, Nancy Patricia


How are long-resident peoples' wisdom and knowledge communicated through landscape and architectural space? This thesis reconstructs spatial histories of the Nisga'a Nation to uncover how architecture and landscapes retain and adapt cultural, technological, and ecological wisdom of past generations. The Nisga'a people, who have lived for at least thirteen thousand years in the Nass River Valley of British Columbia, attest to a spirituality and cohesiveness deriving from their knowledge of and sense of belonging to the land. The knowledge is recorded here through empirical research that records elders' memories of Nass Valley structures and places. Interviews, supplemented with records of ceremonials, photographs, and extant structures, are translated into architectural drawings, models, and Geographic Information System maps. During a feast which is also a community-led research and design charrette (workshop), Nisga'a elders critique the reconstructions, verifying correlations between spatial memories and the reconstructed representations of architectural/ landscape space. The charrettes form a case study in community-led research and design. A reverse chronology, informed by oral histories and written documentation, traces landscape changes back to the beginning of Nisga'a time. Then, as the history moves forward, the people's architectural legacy is shown to encode ecological and cultural wisdom within materials, carved and painted surfaces, and evocation of place. Landscape change, mapped relative to architectural innovation, demonstrates the Nisga'a people's skill at adapting new technologies and designs to suit their visions and needs. Through an architectural repertoire based upon respect for the land, Nisga'a elders' wisdom is shown to have profound implications for on-going global negotiations with cultural and ecological change. Accumulated ecological wisdom of the long-resident people offers practical solutions and respectful philosophies for landscape use that contribute to resource abundance and cultural cohesion. The dynamic Nisga'a architectural repertoire exemplifies how age-old ecological knowledge fuses with emerging architectural and landscape technologies, facilitating adaptation to dynamic situations. Importantly, the traditional feast offers systems of communication that catalyze recollection of ecological wisdom. In this research, the feast becomes a model for community-led spatial decision-making: a process that brings elder-communicated knowledge together with innovation, thereby achieving long-term cultural and ecological sustainability.

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