Legends of Myself 3

Posted on July 6, 2010


Continues from Legends of Myself 2

5. Spaksuut

My father grew up in Port Essington, or Spaksuut, which sits near the foot of Spokeshute Mountain, where the Ecstall River joins the long, wide Skeena estuary.  The waters of Port Essington are tidal, a mingling of salt and fresh, and the Skeena is nearly two miles wide at that point.  The small lip of non-vertical land upon which Port Essington sat—and where the remainder of it still sits—is almost the only stretch of habitable area near the Skeena mouth.  On the north coast of British Columbia, where the Coastal Range meets the ocean, the mountains tend to plunge directly into the water.   Essentially, Port Essington stood where it stood because there was nowhere else nearby to place it.

Such a rare and valuable piece of real estate was, of course, occupied and used before the Europeans came along.  Spaksuut means “autumn camping place” in the Tsimshian language, but that does not really tell the story.  At Spaksuut, the Tsimshian gathered, played games, gambled, feasted, visited, socialized, watched theatrics, and decided where they were going to spend the winter.  Possessors of important names and privileges, house chiefs, village chiefs, and so on, used the occasion to persuade less privileged relatives to stay with or join their households for the winter.  In Tsimshian economics, more meant merriment, because larger households harvested larger shares of resources. Thus, in the autumn camping place the nobles courted the commoners with feasts and entertainment, the commoners stubbornly held out for the best offers and the best showcards, and, after it was all over, and much fun had been had, everybody went home.

A picture of “Port Essington, 1866” by Henry Wood Elliott depicts a small village of plank houses.  Elliott’s visit took place outside of festive season, no doubt, and evidence of his painting shows that Spaksuut–although it attracted and involved Tsimshian from many places–took place in the territory of a specific people, who actually lived there.

Anyway, there are stories.

First, you should know that at low tide, the Skeena shore of Port Essington is almost all mudbank, and if you want to go out into that mudbank, you had better wear your hip waders—and for all I know carry a snorkel—because the mud is deep and soft in most places.  That’s why it’s significant that the people of Spaksuut were known as “those who could walk on the mud without sinking.”

Of course they weren’t all duck-footed—or light-stepping adepts, either.

As people whose livelihood was harvested from the water, whose highway was the water, the people there naturally depended on convenient access to the Skeena.  This was simple at high tide, but low tide moated the village with a wide swathe of slow-motion mud of unknown and varying depth.  So the people of Spaksuut engineered their access and bridged the mud by stomping tree branches into it, creating subtle but reliable pathways where they could walk, carry loads and transport canoes right to the water’s edge.

Visitors, of course—not all of whom would be welcome visitors—had no way of telling where in all the mud these pathways were.

In 1871, the same year that British Columbia became a part of the freshly founded country of Canada, a new story was also begun on the Skeena.  That year, lay missionary and trader Robert Cunningham, along with a partner, refounded Spaksuut as Port Essington, a community which was meant to be the head of a trail, and a victualer presumably, to one of British Columbia’s various small gold rushes.

The gold rush was short-lived and forgettable, but by the end of the its first decade Port Essington had evolved to become a multi-ethnic cannery town, with Euro and Japanese Canadians and an expatriate community of up-river Tsimshian from the communities of Kitsumkalum and Kitselas.  In the 1880s, an official Indian reserve was established on the north side of town which became unofficially known as Spaksuut, although that designation was also used to refer to Essington as a whole.  The reserve was described as the property of the Kitsumkalum and the Kitselas bands.

By the time my father was born in 1920, Port Essington had fallen from a peak of population and importance, and was already in long decline.  The major blow had been the founding of Prince Rupert in 1910 by Charles Hayes, and the construction of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway to that destination in 1914.  The railway passed down the Skeena River on the opposite side of the river from Essington, leaving the village in a permanent economic backwater.  However, canneries continued to operate there until the 1940s.

And the stories continued on just the same.


Continued at Legends of Myself 4

Posted in: autobiography