Gitxsan


Approximate 19th century territory of the Gitxsan. Redrawn from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of the Handbook of North American Indians. View Gitxsan in a larger map

Language:

Gitxsan or Gitksan, which means “People of the Skeena River”, is a Tsimshian language that shares linguistic similarities with the Nisga’a.

Territory:

The traditional territory of the Gitxsan-speaking people covers approximately 33,000 square kilometers of land in Northwest British Columbia. Located along the Skeena River, upstream from the town of Terrace and the Kitselas canyon, are the  seven Gitxsan speaking villages: Gitwangak (Kitwanga), Gitanyow (Kitwancool), Gitsegukla (Kitseguecla), Gitanmaax (Old Hazelton), Ans'pa yaxw (Kispiox), Kisgegas and Kuldo.

In the past, each of the communities mentioned above functioned primarily as winter villages on or near the Skeena River, except Gitanyow, which was further north on an oolichan oil trade route to the Nass River. The area has a rich ecosystem of birds and small mammals, bears, mountain goats and salmon-bearing rivers for hunting and fishing. The people also harvested and processed soapberries for trade with the coastal groups in order to obtain seaweed and shellfish in return.

Unlike the people of the other Gitxsan villages, the people of Gitanyow, Ans'pa yaxw, Kuldo, and Kisgegas had their hunting territories along the upper Nass and Skeena River drainages.

Gitanyow totem poles. Photo by G.T. Emmons, ca. 1910. Canadian Museum of History

Art:

Like Tsimshian artistic production, Gitxsan art is based on the complex organization of clans, secret society performances and potlatches, which are large feasts where name, rank or hereditary privileges are claimed through dances, speeches and the distribution of property.

Most Gitxsan art depicts myths, tales and the associated supernatural beings. Crests are represented through carvings and paintings on interior posts, totem poles, beams, rafters and ceremonial entrances.

Unique features found on Gitxsan poles include mask-like faces that are usually without a body, and not intertwined. Often figures of animals or birds (usually carved separately and attached) are on top of poles and appear to be in motion or flight.

Textual Information for this page: Halpin and Seguin, 1990; Gitxsan Community Website.