“Chiefs, Female Chiefs, and the rest of the people. My heart is full to see that you’ve come here to see us today. I am glad that we will share this beautiful day together.”
Alice Barnes, our guide at the K’San Historic Village, welcomes us with this traditional Gitxsan greeting in her native language. We’re just starting our afternoon walking tour of the interpretive museum, built to showcase the heritage of the Gitxsan people. Immediately I feel welcomed and intrigued. Located near the town of Smithers in Hazelton, I’d already fallen in love with the mountain vistas and rushing rivers of Northern-Central British Columbia. But, as with many of my travel experiences, it’s my interactions with the people tied to the place that, in turn, gives me a deeper connection to the area as well.
For the rest of the afternoon, as we walked from one longhouse to another, Alice shared the history of her people, transitioning from topic to topic with personal stories that provided a more meaningful experience. Alice, not only a tour guide but also a hereditary chief, explained that the name of the tribe, Gitxsan, translates to the People of the River of Mist, as they live near the Skeena river. She clarifies on this, that, “We don’t own anything, we’re simply the caretakers of the lands.”
Lineage is matriarchal, and are broken down into four different clans: Wolf, Frog, Fireweed and Eagle. Alice’s tribe is the Wolf, and she proudly shows me her carved necklace of a wolf. Each longhouse is named after a clan and each signifies a specific part of their culture. For example, the Eagle House is known as the treasure house, holding the various regalia for special occasions and performances, while the Frog House shows life of the Gitxsan people before contact with the outside world. In this manner, an overall understanding of the Gitxsan people can be grasped in a relatively short period of time.
A highlight for me was the House of Carving. Father and daughter duo Randy and Cecelia Adams are the main carvers, working in both wood and jewelry mediums. There used to be a carving school, due to a lack of interest they had to shut it down. Randy explained that it’s hard to get new carvers, as it takes time to build up skill and eventually make money. In the Museum gift store, carved pieces are in higher demand than they can keep up with. Unfortunately, the younger generation is more interested in mining. “What they don’t realize” Randy says, “ is that carving is another type of gold mine.” When asked if her kids practiced carving, Cecelia replied that they are still too young, but are hoping that when they are older they will want to carve as well. They remain positive that one day they will reopen the school. On this note, Alice adds, “It’s important to create living cultural centers, not just showcase what we used to do.”
Alice explains the significance of the totem poles in a way that changed the way I viewed totem poles. Since the river was the mode of travel for the Gitxsan people, the totem poles were like addresses, or house numbers. From the totem pole, you could tell who was chief and which clan the homeowner belonged to. If you were ever in need of help or lost, you could look at the totem pole and tell if the person belonged to the same clan as you. You could tell the homeowner your full name and clan, and soon you would begin a conversation about how you were related, and they would help you.
Interestingly enough, while Alice can show you how to read the totem pole, but she can’t interpret totem poles that are different than her clan, as it’s inappropriate. She could interpret it incorrectly, and this would cause great shame to her and her family.
I left the K’San Historical Village with a much deeper understanding of the Gitxsan, thanks to Alice. I reflected on what she said as we parted ways. “When you’re got so little left of the culture, it’s just that much more important to share all that I know.” I knew that each tour she gave, she was passing on her knowledge so that it could be appreciated to all that came to visit.
All photos taken by Joslin Fritz.
My visit to the K’San Historical Village was provided by Aboriginal Tourism BC, but as always, my opinions are my own.Add a comment