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First Nations and 'Ksan Village
Near the end of the Cassiar Highway, in the western part of British Columbia, we pulled our RV into a paved turnout—what we thought was a little rest stop. Glancing down into a narrow valley to my right, I did a double-take at seeing the domed top of a grass-covered mound. Then I noticed a set of informational signs next to stairs leading downward:
It turned out that this was a National Historic Site called “Gitwangak Battle Hill.”
The Gitwangak is one of six communities that belong to the First Nations’ group called the Gitxsan. The word “Git” means “the people,” and the word “Xsan” (also spelled 'Ksan) is the ancient word for the nearby Skeena river, which the people thought of as the “river of mist.” Therefore, the Gitxsan are the “people of the river of mist.”
The Gitxsan have lived in this area for centuries. In the late 1700’s, a Gitwangak warrior chief named ‘Nekt decided that Battle Hill would make the perfect site for a fortified village. The steep sides would allow the homes on top to be easily protected. ‘Nekt built his clan home here, along with that of two other clans.
Here is a depiction of how the village may have looked:
‘Nekt was an aggressive warrior and led many successful raids against neighboring tribes to capture slaves, food stores, or ritual regalia. In retaliation, those tribes got together and attacked Battle Hill twice but were unsuccessful.
‘Nekt was eventually killed during one of his raids. He is remembered and celebrated by the Gitxsan people as a powerful and great leader.
We followed the stairs down the hillside to reach Battle Hill:
A closer look at the top of the mound:
At the bottom of the stairs, Genevieve and Sebastian found a stash of cut branches that were the perfect size for walking sticks. They each selected one for this hike (and returned it to the pile on our way back):
On the trail leading to the back of the hill, we found a pile of bear droppings—with those red berries that we had seen the black bear eating at Fish Creek near Hyder, Alaska:
We looked around carefully, but didn’t see any other signs of bears. Continuing onward, we made a lot more noise (including loud statements of “I know that there are no bears on this trail!”) to prevent surprise encounters.
The back of the hill had a set of stairs that led upward. Reaching the top:
An informational sign contained the outline of how five homes were laid out on top of the curved hill:
Each house measured approximately 35 feet long and held the families belonging to a particular clan. The houses on either end hung over the sides of the hill and are believed to have been supported by stilts.
Protective spiky logs once hung around the exterior of the village, ready to crush anyone who dared to attack:
The Kitwanga River curved around the base of the hill. Here is Genevieve, with a view of the river from the top of the hill:
The people who lived on Battle Hill would harvest salmon from the river. Storage pits on the hill would hold the dried and smoked salmon that the people depended upon in the winter.
Looking across to the stairs that we had descended to reach the hill:
Upon ‘Nekt’s death, the wars in this region ceased. The village on Battle Hill was burned to the ground, and the people moved to a new village nearby, named Gitwangak, where their descendants still live today.
We drove a short distance to Gitwangak to see some of the authentic totem poles that lined a portion of the main street.
Totem poles generally contain figures of people or animals that represent events in a family’s history—similar to a family crest. Sometimes the carved pole would be placed near a grave to commemorate the dead.
Two of the totem poles in Gitwangak had grave markers between them. The markers are shown behind Genevieve:
Here is a small marker for Chief Widahakysqu, who died in 1912:
And a joint marker for Skayan, who died in 1907, and Paul, who died in 1910:
Some of the figures at the top were elaborately carved animals whose three-dimensional shapes stuck out over their poles.
Here is an eagle, whose missing wing was carefully laid against the base:
The top figures, however, are not the most important on a totem pole. The poles are designed to be read from bottom to top, and the bottom figures are the most important as they carry the weight of all that is above them.
Here is the bottom of the totem pole called “Whereon-Climb-Frogs,” which told a story about the warrior chief ‘Nekt:
The entire pole:
The story involved ‘Nekt’s mother, who was stolen by a Haida chief and taken to his island to be his wife. After ‘Nekt was born, ‘Nekt’s mother cut off her sleeping husband’s head, and then escaped with her infant son in a canoe. The totem pole shows ‘Nekt in a canoe with his mother. The severed head of 'Nekt's father is also in the canoe, with his tongue connected to that of the infant 'Nekt.
Also in the town of Gitwangak was the picturesque St. Paul’s Anglican Church:
Next to the church was a separate tower that supposedly held the original 1893 church bell:
Another Gitxsan community in the area was Gitanmaax, meaning “people of the torch light fishing.” Gitanmaax is the site of the ‘Ksan Historical Village, a reconstructed Gitxsan village from the 1800’s with communal long houses made of cedar, totem poles, and a museum.
A totem at the entrance to the village:
The museum and gift shop:
The recreated longhouses had been built at half their normal size:
Three of the longhouses are open to the general public, but only if you are accompanied by a private guide. We signed up for a tour so that we could see the interiors and learn more about how the people lived.
Our guide was Travis, who started with the long house on the end—the Frog House:
The items inside the houses had been donated by members of the community, and photos were not allowed.
The Frog House contained items that the Gitxsan people would use in their daily life during the winter months when they lived in long houses. During the summer, they would move around in camps for fishing, hunting and picking berries and plants. The Frog House had a firepit in the center and raised platforms all around the edges, where families would sleep. The house was intended to hold all the members of a clan, with many families, up to about 60 people. The Gitxsan were matriarchal, and children were born into the mother’s clan. Every family would have their own space on the raised ledges, separated only by stacks of bentwood boxes.
Each house had an excellent audio presentation about the many displayed items.
The next house was the Wolf House, which was set up for a ceremonial Feast. For security reasons, the door was designed so that only one person at a time could enter or exit:
Inside the Wolf House, we found many items used during a traditional Feast, including a large canoe-shaped bowl that held the communal soup, the talking stick that the chief would hold when he wanted to be the only one speaking, and gifts that would be distributed to the people attending the Feast—furs, shells, carved wood, food, blankets, and highly-prized copper items such as shields.
The final long house on our tour was the Fireweed House, which contained masks, costumes, and regalia worn by dancers and those attending a traditional Feast.
Because the Gitxsan villages were located off of the main trading route established by Europeans, the Gitxsan culture remained unaffected by outside influence until the 1870’s. Although the Canadian government outlawed native Feasts from 1884 to 1951, the celebrations continued in secret throughout that time. Much of the Gitxsan culture has been retained and continues in the present day.
Sebastian, outside the long houses:
We came away from the ‘Ksan Historical Village with a greater understanding and appreciation for the shared ideas and traditions that still bind the Gitxsan people together today.
As we left the museum, I stood one last time in front of the words that covered a lower wall near the museum entrance. It was the Creedo of the Peaceful Traveler:
An open mind, a gentle heart, grace and gratitude, appreciation and respect, and friendship. Yes, please let me be a peaceful traveler. Amen.
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