During our second day visiting the Freda Diesing school, the topic of ‘Kitselas Canyon’ kept emerging. I wondered about what this place was, why it was so important, if and when I would understand more about the uniqueness that this place seemed to hold for not only the artists – learners and teachers – at the school, but also for many First nations communities beyond.
Dean Heron (current teacher and former student) and Latham Mack (former student and apprentice artist of Dempsey Bob — see ‘voices of former students’ post for more information) each spoke about the importance of their experiences working on the painting of longhouses and carving of totem poles at Kitselas Canyon. Closer to the end of the day, Rocque, Ken and Stan spoke about Kitselas Canyon, providing a brief historical overview of the place, stories about what happened as part of European conquest and colonization and what was being done now as part of a long-term cultural reclamation project at Kitselas Canyon that each of them (Dempsey, Ken and Stan) and students were deeply involved in, as well as people from Gitsxan communities.
After all of the presentations were finished for the day, Dempsey hurried us to gather our things so that we could visit Kitselas Canyon before dark. I had not realized we were going on that day and I was very moved at Dempsey’s insistence and energy to take us there and show us around. We drove the 20 minutes or so with Dempsey to the site. Stan and his cousin, Brian, were there waiting for us in front of a huge totem pole that looked recently carved. The ‘community totem pole’ as it is fondly and proudly referred to, offers a richness of stories that are literally embedded into the cedar tree that was carved into being. I cannot tell the particular story of this totem pole unless I am explicitly given permission to do so – it is not my story to tell, it belongs to the community. Stories are protected by communities and transferred as forms of knowledge when it is decided by a member of the community that the timing is appropriate. Needless to say, there are multiple clans represented within the Gitsxan community totem pole (raven and bear) and a conflict that involved an arrow and a chief…
Totems poles are stories. The most important figure on the totem pole is on the bottom rather than the top. This was significant to me as I was reminded of the oft used phrase – ‘low man on the totem pole’ — who would according to the design and carving of stories embedded within a totem pole – be the most revered! This particular totem pole is really impressive, the more you look at it, the more you see. The details are exquisite. Dempsey, Stan, Ken, Dean and Latham were all involved in the carving of this pole. The community pole was the first one to be raised in over 150 years and there was a community ceremony of dancing and singing before it was raised. The main motivation of this ceremony was so that the community felt it belonged to them, in spite of the fact that multiple people, from multiple First Nations communities, aside from the Gitsxan, were involved in its design and carving.
After we marveled at and learned more about the community totem pole, Dempsey directed us down to the Kitselas Canyon, a short 5 –minute drive down a hill. We met Brian, Stan’s cousin at the entrance to Kitselas Canyon. Brian spoke to us of the importance of this place to him personally as a renewing of their culture and community. In front of us were 4 longhouses and 5 totem poles – each one placed on one side of a longhouse. Another longhouse and totem pole were on the right side of the 4 longhouses.
Rocque had explained during that afternoon in a photographic presentation to all of the students about the tragic history of the area. Using maps and old photographs we learned that Gitsaex Village was between 5,000 to 6,000 years old.
The last people to leave the village was in 1912 and we saw them, in an old photo from that time, dressed in their Sunday best, rather than clothing they might have worn before European contact. Where the new longhouses and totem poles were being built at the current Kitselas Canyon National Historic Site, was about a mile or so above the Skeena river. The reason for the new construction being at this higher site was that the area next to the river, the site of the original village, were now gravesites where nearly the entire village died due to Smallpox. Families who had perished were left as they were in their longhouses to prevent further spread of the disease. There were also many fallen totem poles amidst the gravesites. The last totem pole fell down in that area in 2001 and is now nearly impossible to discern from the fauna that has grown around and through it, decaying it beyond recognition.
The construction of the longhouses and the totem poles involved a multitude of people, the majority of which work or learn at the Freda Diesing school. Dempsey, Ken and Stan designed the longhouse fronts and the totem poles in a 13 week project. Dean described how the students were responsible for sketching out the designs using projectors and painting the designs onto the longhouse fronts using the original drawings by Dempsey, Stan and Ken. Dean told us how they worked on their hands and knees those 13 weeks – all of the painting had to be done on the floor as painting vertically was much more difficult. He said that this was a tremendous opportunity for them as students, to be so closely involved in such a significant cultural reclamation project. Ken described the project as ‘an artist’s dream’ to bring out their culture and that the project had been excellent overall.
The longhouses all began in 2007 (although the project had been discussed for at least 25 years) and are now used as a museum; a gathering space for ceremonies or weddings; a studio space and a shop for selling objects. The totem poles next to the longhouses represent 4 different clan crests – wolf, bear, raven and beaver. There is also a salmon totem. Similar to the community totem pole, there was a ceremony and Elders came to bless the longhouses and totem poles once they were built and raised.
After viewing and learning about the longhouses and totem poles, Dempsey said that we should hurry through the forest before dark. The walk through the forest down to view the river was about twenty minutes. The forest was carpeted in moss with glowing shades of green. There was still a good deal of light on the way down. Stands of evergreen trees emerged sharply, perpendicular from the bright green moss. The trees are second growth (possibly third) and are about a meter in diameter. There are odd areas that are sunken in and it is difficult to perceive why and how these were formed as the moss disguises well.
We suddenly came upon four totem poles, formed in a line, all facing toward the river. Stan, Brian and Ken had designed and carved the totem poles. One is of a Raven and is a replica of a fallen totem. Brian told us that participating in the design and carving of these totem poles for Kitselas Canyon had pulled him out of a deep depression that had taken over him after the death of a family member due to suicide. We had learned (previously through conversations we had with Blackfoot community members) that this happens often within First Nations communities. I was moved by Brian’s openness and could feel his emotional connection with the carved beings that were now storied into the landscape at Kitselas Canyon – providing a renewal of wisdom and watchfulness.
The color of the totem poles had become a silvery color due to weather and aging. Brian spoke of a calm that has ensued since the totems were raised – within the community and within the forest. Udi and I both felt a sense that these totems belonged to the place, that a gentle eye was keeping watch on the beings that have lived and continue to live in this place. The light of the last rays of that day’s sun created an intensity of strength emanating from these beings watching over the gravesites in the ancient village, the fallen totem poles and the Skeena river.
The Skeena River is deceptively dangerous. The current is wild and dangerous. There are upswells and a place in the middle is known as the ‘shaman’s whirlpool’ which has taken people and canoes under on many occasions. The river is a turquoise color, the rocks covered with shades of lichens (blacks, greens, yellows).
Beyond the river, mountains raise and there are evergreen trees and aspens yellowing in the decreasing Autumn daylight hours. On the other side of the river, the train runs straight through where the Gitsxan once had their fortress – a large longhouse to which villagers would escape to during times of siege.
Brian and Dempsey decided to take us all the way down to the river’s edge. We had to walk through brush and on a muddy path. There was an eerie feeling here and we were told half-way down that we were in the middle of the old village, the longhouses and gravesites and that old totem poles were decomposing amidst the vines and brush.
We walked slowly on the small rocks along the river’s edge and then towards the larger rocks where Dempsey found a petroglyph and poured some water on it so that we could see it more closely. On the rocks next to and on the river, there are highly intricate petroglyphs of spirit beings (this is obvious as the beings look like they are being x-rayed, you can see their bones) amongst other animal forms and symbols. There is still a great deal of speculation as to what these mean.
After walking, observing, feeling, breathing it was time to leave. There was barely any light left. Dempsey handed us a perfectly round stone as we begun to walk back up through the brush. We thanked him for the beautiful stone and he said that it was not him that we should thank. He had asked Brian’s permission for us to be given the stone because afterall, it was a stone that was not from his territory, but rather from that of Brian’s. Dempsey could not have given us the stone without either putting another one in its place or without permission from a community member of that First Nations territory. It was then we really began to further understand this notion of reciprocity and how it is practiced.
Walking through the forest out of the canyon, it was nearly dark. I kept thinking I saw shadows of different animals. Brian told us stories of playing in these woods as a boy and encountering bears and wolves.
The longhouses were striking under the dim lights as we emerged from the forest. I felt I understood more about the importance of these reconstructed longhouses, the cultural connections for artists such as Stan, Dempsey, Brian and Ken – and for the students to have the opportunity to engage so intimately with repatriating space and culture through their art. There was a strong sense of healing in this place – for Brian, for the forest, the river and the ancestors.
I was also understanding more about the stories and symbols represented in totem poles and designs. Like Udi, I was starting to see ovoid shapes and animals within the rocks and the forests. I could only imagine what it must be like for these artists to live in such a wondrous storied landscape with the stories echoing through the ages.