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North to Alaska - Live!

by Kathy 6. August 2011 08:17

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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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Map of Our Journeys

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Our travel map

Places We’ve Been, w/Quick Links

   Bumthang Valley
   Gom Kora
   Paro Valley
   Punakha Dzong
   Sangdrup Jongkhar
   Wangdi Phrodrang

   Janko Marca
   La Paz
   Laguna Colorada
   Laguna Verde
   Salar de Coipasa
   Salar de Uyuni
   San Pablo
   Santa Rosa
   Sud Lipez
   World’s Most Dangerous Road

   Banff National Park
   Battle Hill Nat'l Hist. Site
   Boya Lake Prov. Park, BC
   Burns Lake Bike Park
   Canyon Sainte-Anne
   Dawson Creek
   Eastern Townships
   Fort Nelson
   Jasper National Park
   Kluane Lake, YK
   'Ksan Historical Village
   Lake Louise
   Liard Hot Springs
   Niagara Falls
   Quebec City
   Thousand Islands
   Vancouver Island
   Watson Lake

   Forbidden City
   Great Wall at Mutianyu
   Hong Kong
   Summer Palace
   Terracotta Warriors
   Tiananmen Square
   Yungang Caves

Costa Rica
   Arenal Volcano
   Finca Corsicana
   Hanging Bridges
   Manuel Antonio
   Poas Volcano
   Proyecto Asis
   Sky Trek Zip Lining
   Venado Caves


   Amazon Rainforest
   Chaquiñan Bicycle Trail
   La Mitad del Mundo
   Napo Wildlife Center
   Papallacta Hot Springs
   Proyecto DCR
   Yasuní National Park


   Baja California
   Frida Kahlo Museum
   Hierve el Agua
   Marietas Islands
   Mexico City
   Monte Alban
   Oaxaca City
   Puerto Angel
   Puerto Escondido
   Puerto Vallarta
   San Agustin
   San Martin Tilcajete
   Santa Fe de la Laguna
   Santa María el Tule
   Studio of Jacobo Angeles
   Teotitlán del Valle

   Dead Vlei
   Elondo Village
   Etosha Nat'l Park
   Hippo Pools Camp
   Hoba Meteorite
   Khowarib Camp
   Moose McGregor's Bakery
   Mowani Camp
   Ngepi Camp
   Nkasa Lupala
   n'Kwzi Camp
   River Dance Lodge
   Seisriem Camp
   Treesleeper Camp

   Cañón del Pato
   Cerro de Pasco
   La Oroya
   Machu Picchu
   Nuevo Jaén
   Tingo Maria
   Yungay Memorial


South Africa

   Rock of Gibraltar
   Santillana del Mar

United States National Parks
   Arches National Park, UT
   Badlands National Park, SD
   Bandelier National Monument, NM
   Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
   Cahokia Mounds (UNESCO site), IL
   Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
   Canyon de Chelly Nat'l Monument, AZ
   Cape Hatteras National Shoreline, NC
   Capitol Reef National Park, UT
   Civil Rights Memorial, AL
   Death Valley National Park, CA
   Denali National Park, AK
   Devil’s Tower National Monument, WY
   El Morro National Monument, NM
   Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.
   Glacier National Park, MT
   Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
   Grand Tetons National Park, WY
   Great Basin National Park, NV
   Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, HI
   Joshua Tree National Park, CA
   Kaloko-Honokohau Nat'l Hist. Park, HI
   Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks, NM
   King's Canyon National Park, CA
   Martin Luther King Jr. Nat'l Hist. Site, GA
   Mesa Verde National Park, CO
   Montezuma's Castle Nat'l Monument, AZ
   Monticello, VA
   Mount Rushmore National Memorial, SD
   Mt. Rainier National Park, WA
   Olympic National Park, WA
   Petrified Wood National Park, AZ
   Pinnacles National Monument, CA
   Pu'uhonua o Honaunau Nat'l Hist Pk, HI
   Pu'ukohola Heiau Nat'l Historic Site, HI
   San Antonio Missions Nat'l Hist. Park, TX
   Tuzigoot National Monument, AZ
   Walnut Canyon National Monument, AZ
   Washington Monument
   White Sands National Monument, NM
   Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, AK
   Wright Brothers National Memorial in NC
   Yellowstone National Park, WY
   Yosemite National Park, CA

United States, Cities and Places
   The Alamo, TX
   Alaska Wildlife Conservation Cntr.
   Alpine Loop in CO
   Anchorage, AK
   Antares Junction, AZ
   Arctic Circle, AK
   Barrel Oak Winery in VA
   Biloxi, MS
   Bottle Tree Farm in CA
   Calico Ghost Town, CA
   Canfield Mountain Trail System, ID
   Cape St. Vincent, NY
   Carson City, NV
   Carter Caves State Park in KY
   Chappie-Shasta OHV Area, CA
   Child's Glacier, AK
   Circle B Chuckwagon Show in SD
   City Museum in MO
   Cody, WY
   Corn Palace in SD
   Crazy Horse Memorial in SD
   Custer State Park, SD
   Dalton Highway, AK
   Dinosaur Tracks in AZ
   Discovery Place in Charlotte, NC
   Dry Falls (Sun Lakes-Dry Falls), WA
   Fairbanks, AK
   Front Royal, VA
   Gallup, NM
   Goffs, CA
   Grand Canyon Caves, AZ
   Grand Canyon Skywalk, AZ
   Grave Digger Monster Truck in NC
   Great Salt Lake, UT
   Hackberry General Store in AZ
   Hannibal, MO
   Hatteras Island, NC
   Hawaii (Big Island)
   Hickison Petroglyphs, NV
   Holbrook, AZ
   Hole in the Rock, UT
   Homer, AK
   Honey Island Swamp Tour in LA
   Hoover Dam, NV
   Hyder, AK
   Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Co. in AZ
   John’s Peak OHV Area, OR
   Kailua-Kona, HI
   Keepers of the Wild Nature Park in AZ
   Kennecott, AK
   Kennecott Copper Mine in UT
   Kingman, AZ
   Lake Havasu, AZ
   Lake Tahoe, NV
   Las Vegas, NV (winter 2010)
   Little Brown Church in IA
   London Bridge in AZ
   Loneliest Road in America, Hwy. 50, NV
   Los Angeles, CA
   Lost Colony Show on Roanoke Isl., NC
   Lowe’s Speedway in NC
   Mardi Gras World in LA
   Mark Twain Museum in MO
   Meteor Crater, AZ
   Million Dollar Highway, CO
   Minnesota Zoo
   Mitchell, SD
   Moab, UT
   Moab, UT (dirt biking)
   Montgomery, AL
   Montpelier, ID
   Navajo Nation, AZ
   Needles, CA
   Nevada Beach, NV
   Newberry Springs, CA
   New River Gorge, WV
   New Orleans, LA
   Niagara Falls 
   North Pole, AK
   Oatman, AZ
   Old Faithful Geyser in WY
   Omak Stampede, WA
   Painted Desert, AZ
   Park City, UT (summer)
   Plymouth, NC
   Portage Valley, AK
   Portland, OR
   Prospect OHV Trail System, OR
   Resaca, GA
   Riverside State Park, WA
   Rock City in TN
   Rosa Parks Library and Museum in AL
   Roswell, NM
   Russian River, AK
   Salt Lake City, UT
   San Antonio, TX
   San Diego, CA
   San Juan Islands, WA
   San Francisco, CA
   Santa Catalina Island, CA
   Seattle, WA
   Sedona, AZ
   Shoe Tree in CA
   Shoe Tree in NV
   Silverton, CO
   Sonora, TX
   St. Louis, MO
   St. Paul, MN
   Talkeetna, AK
   Telluride, CO
   Route 66
   Twin Knobs Recreation Area in KY
   Virginia Beach, VA
   Washington D.C.
   Wayne Fitzgerrell State Park in IL
   Williamsburg, VA
   Winom Frazier OHV Area, OR
   Winslow, AZ
   Zion National Park, UT

Planning Our Adventures

For us, each journey begins with the initial heart pangs to venture to a certain part of the world. Then the ideas start coming together . . . ahh, the possibilities . . . and the dream evolves gradually into an actual plan. But, oh, the joy of the dream!  Click here to learn more about how we plan and prepare for our journeys.

Where Are We Now?

Click here to discover where we are now, as well as our uncoming travel plans.

Words for the Heart

“. . . and then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Anais Nin