Wii Niisł Puuntk: A Matriarch of the Gitga’at of Hartley Bay

Bronze Plaque Commemorating Wii Niisł Puuntk, a Gitga’at Matriarch, October 4th, 2018. © Parks Canada

For the week of September 30, 2019.

On October 4, 2018 a plaque commemorating Wii Niisł Puuntk (also known as Lucille Clifton) was unveiled in her community of Hartley Bay, British Columbia. Around this time of year, Wii Niisł Puuntk organized an annual fall feast, which is still remembered today, and was instrumental in teaching traditional knowledge of food harvesting, preparation, and sharing.

In 1876, a girl was born to the Royal House of Sinaxeet as part of the Laxsgiik (Eagle) clan, and given the high ranking name Mooxs. After the death of her parents, when she was around 10 years old, Mooxs was raised by her maternal aunt Mary (also known as Wul Puun) and her husband, Chief Neasloss of Kitasoo. She was soon baptized and given the name Lucille Buxton. In 1891, she married Heber L. Clifton, a prominent member of the Gispudwada (Blackfish) clan of the Gitga’at (Ts’msyen). Together they had 12 children, 9 of whom survived into adulthood and assumed roles as leaders within their community.

Lucille received many names during her life, each associated with different ranks and responsibilities. In 1890, she was given the name Wii Nii Puun, the highest ranking female name in the Eagle clan. She received this name for her role as matriarch of the Gitga’at community, which, like other Ts’msyen First Nations, is matrilineal. As she grew in her role as a community leader, Lucille was also known as No’os (mother), and Heber was called Hadiix (father). As No’os, she worked at many levels to help her family and her community maintain their cultural traditions and well-being.

Wii Niisł Puuntk was integral to the teaching of traditional knowledge and the Sm’algyax language to younger generations in her community, especially her own grandchildren. She did so during a time when laws actively prevented Indigenous Peoples from practicing their culture, including feast-based ceremonies, such as the potlatch. Wii Niisł Puuntk is remembered by her family and community for having worked with women and children to pass on her knowledge of traditional medicine and midwifery, including teachings on the prevention of infectious diseases and the gathering and processing of nutritious food such as salmon, clams, seaweed, and berries.

Among the most significant elements of her legacy are the community feasts that she organized from the 1920s to the 1950s, featuring a wide variety of traditional food, including crabapples (moolks) and highbush cranberries (lhaaya) with whipped oulachen grease, half-smoked coho salmon (wüüx, ts’aal) and salmon egg caviar (uuskm laan), blueberries (wo’oksil) and salalberries (dzawes), dried seaweed (lha’ask), and Labrador tea (k’wila’maxs). Community members, particularly those of the Eagle Clan, helped prepare the feasts and learned about traditional foods and protocols related to seating, gifts, and speeches. Those gatherings are still remembered and talked about by her community today and inspire current Gitga’at feasts. Wii Niisł Puuntk died on September 6, 1962, in Hartley Bay at the age of 86.

Wii Niisł Puuntk, also known as Lucille Clifton, is a designated national historic person. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Information on how to participate in this process is available here: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/culture/clmhc-hsmbc/ncp-pcn

June is National Indigenous History Month. Learn more about Indigenous histories by exploring articles in our online archives about the Nuu-chah-nulth, woodworkers and craftspeople of the Pacific coast, The Shubenacadie Residential School, Iggaak (ilgaak) ᐃᒡᒑᒃ – Inuit snow goggles, and Wii Niisł Puuntk: A Matriarch of the Gitga’at of Hartley Bay