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Native Canadian tribe begins process toward self-rule

Against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and beating drums, the Nisga'a Indian Nation celebrated Tuesday the initialing of a treaty it hopes will restore land lost to Europeans some two centuries ago.

The agreement has been hailed as a "template" to ease the damage unresolved Indian land claims have inflicted on British Columbia's economy, but has also been condemned for eroding the rights of the Canadian province's non-Native residents."Today we make history as we correct the mistakes of the past and send a signal of hope around the world," said Chief Joseph Gosnell, resplendent in native dress with a carved headdress symbolizing the eagle.

More than 500 Nisga'a members, most adorned in the red and black costumes of four clans, sang songs of celebration and danced outside the new community hall where the initialing took place.

One man danced with the photograph of an ancestor who helped take the Nisga'a complaints to government officials in the 1880s. "It's a good day," a young girl was overheard telling a friend as they watched.

The celebration was marred late on Tuesday when word arrived of an apparently unrelated plane crash at the nearby Nisga'a village of Kincolith. Five people were killed when the float plane flipped while landing after a medical mission, CBC Newsworld reported.

The agreement would cede the Nisga'a 745 square miles of land around the Nass River near the Alaska panhandle, extensive self-government rights, and pay the tribe about C$490 million (U.S.$324.5 million) in assorted compensation.

Tuesday's colorful ceremony with tribal, federal and provincial officials is only the start of a long ratification process. It must be approved by the nearly 5,500 Nisga'a, Canada's Parliament and British Columbia's provincial legislature.

The ratification process has been under attack since negotiators gave the treaty "handshake" approval in mid-July, with critics demanding a provincewide referendum on the deal.

Critics also complain that giving the Nisga'a lawmaking powers in their territory will give them special rights over non-Indians - especially the estimated 120 non-Indians who live in the area ceded the tribe.

"This government has no right to change the way we live together without public consent," Raef Mair, a popular conservative Vancouver radio talk-show host, complained in a recent commentary.

Indians make up only 3.8 percent of British Columbia's 3.7 million people, and treaty supporters say it would be unfair to have such a vote on an issue of minority rights.

The tribe's path to this treaty has been as rough as the road to New Aiyansh - a long gravel road that near the village crosses the surreal landscape of a lava flow that killed an estimated 2,000 Nisga'a in the 1770s.

The first recorded European contact with the Nisga'a came in 1793 when British sea captain George Vancouver encountered the tribe's canoes while mapping the coast.