Prager Islands is a group of islands, islets, and tidal reefs in Hecate Strait, situated between Dolphin Island to the east and Goschen Island to the northwest, which are part of the Gitxaala Nii Luutiksm Conservancy within the Great Bear Rainforest, about 39 miles (63 km) south-southwest of Prince Rupert and 4 miles (6.4 km) west-southwest of Kitkatla, British Columbia. The islands are in Browning Entrance which leads to Ogden Channel and the mouth of the Skeena River. Gitxaala means ‘people of the salt’ which is a reference to the ocean-front location of the Kitkatla community on Dolphin Island. Nii Luutiksm means a special or treasured area. Hecate Strait is a wide and shallow sound between Haida Gwaii and the mainland that is notoriously violent during stormy weather. It merges with Queen Charlotte Sound to the south and Dixon Entrance to the north. The strait was named by Captain George Henry Richards in 1861 or 1862 after his surveying vessel, HMS Hecate. This area is part of the Hecate Coast Ecoregion that generally consists of mountainous terrain that was overridden and rounded by past glaciations. The mountains are lower in relief than mountain ranges to either the north or south but valley slopes are rugged and steep. During the Last Glacial Period, glaciers advanced west out of the Kitimat Ranges and buried this area for considerable periods. There are no major streams and most small streams empty directly into the ocean. The lowlands contain many large and small lakes, wetlands, and muskeg bogs. Moist Pacific ocean air moves over this region bringing intense precipitation to the west-facing slopes and adjacent mountains to the east. Coastal rainforests dominate the landscape, but at higher elevations, there are extensive areas of alpine tundra and barren rock. Coastal temperate rainforests are characterized by their proximity to both ocean and mountains. Much of the Pacific coastline of North America share this climate including portions of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. The Hecate Strait coast is within the Great Bear Rainforest comprising 15,814,730 acres (6,400,000 ha), which is part of the larger Pacific temperate rainforest ecoregion, which is the largest coastal temperate rainforest in the world. The coastal forest is dominated by western hemlock, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce. The area is home to salmon, deer, cougars, wolves, grizzly bears, and the Kermode or ‘Spirit’ bear, a unique subspecies of the black bear, in which one in ten cubs displays a recessive white-colored fur.
People of the Gitxaała Nation have lived along the north coast of British Columbia for thousands of years. The historical territory of the Gitxaała extended from Prince Rupert in the north to Princess Royal Island in the south, and from Hecate Strait in the west to the lower reaches of the Skeena River in the east. The Gitxaala are one of the 14 bands of the Tsimshian nation and their central home is now the village of Kitkatla on Dolphin Island, to the east and adjacent to the Prager Islands. The Tsimshian are one of three closely related but distinct Northwest Coast nations, the others being the Nisga’a and the Gitksan. Their combined territories encompass the Skeena River watershed, most of the Nass River watershed, the lower Douglas Channel and its tributaries, and all the coastal areas from Aristazabal Island to the islands and inlets at the mouth of the Nass River. The nations in the interior immediately to the north of the Nisga’a, Gitksan, and Tsimshian are the Tsetsaut and Tahltan, which are Athabaskan nations whose institutions are quite distinct and whose people speak different languages. Their territories encompass most of the Stikine River watershed and a portion of the upper Nass River. The Tsetsaut have now been effectively absorbed into the Tahltan nation. To the north, on the coast is the Tlingit nation and to the west on Haida Gwaii, the Haida nation. While each of these nations is distinct in territory, language, and social and political institutions, their people nevertheless each belong to one of four clan groups, Eagle Clan, Killer Whale Clan, Raven Clan, and Wolf Clan, and have common ancestry with many of the house groups of the Nisga’a, Gitksan, and Tsimshian. The Gitxaała are reputed to be the first Tsimshians to encounter Europeans when Captain Charles Duncan and James Colnett arrived in 1787. In 1834, when the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Simpson, nine Tsimshian villages moved to the surrounding area. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, a series of epidemics of infectious diseases contracted from Europeans killed one in four Tsimshian.
Gitxaala Nii Luutiksm Conservancy was designated in 2006 and is one of a number of areas that were identified for conservancy status from the North Coast Land and Resource Management Plan. The terrain of Gitxaala Nii Luutiksm Conservancy is low-lying with many small islands. The conservancy protects a wide range of marine and terrestrial resources that have a long history of use by First Nations peoples. Marine resources include seaweed, cockle, salmon, and, herring roe-on-kelp harvesting, high value waterfowl habitat, and a grey whale rubbing beach. Threatened and endangered bird species recorded in these waters include trumpeter swan, Brant geese, long-tailed duck, western grebe, Pacific loon, and great blue heron. An ecologically important large herring spawn occurs in the conservancy. Terrestrial resources include rare pebbly/sandy beaches and coastal forests. Kitkatla Inlet has high recreational values for kayaking, camping, fishing, and diving. Kitkatla Inlet provides a wealth of traditional resources that have for millennia sustained the Gitxaala. Traditional harvesting of seaweed, roe-on kelp, cockles and salmon are some of the practices that continue to occur within this inlet. The area has an oral history for the many stone fish-weirs and cache pits within the Gitxaala Nii Luutiksm Conservancy that represent a time when the Gitxaała lived in many villages located throughout the territory. Traditional foods and resources have sustained the Gitxaała for millennia, and the purpose of the conservancy is to ensure that collecting seaweed, herring roe-on-kelp, cockles, and salmon will continue for future generations. Read more here and here. Explore more of the Prager Islands here: