Legends of Myself 61

Posted on February 5, 2013


61. The Forgetting of Temlaxham

The Sphinx gazes across a short stretch of ground towards the Valley Temple of Khafre, the temple complex built in conjunction with Pyramid Khafre, the second largest of the pyramids at Giza.  When that story was beginning, when that temple complex and that pyramid were about to be built, when they were yet little more than piles of fresh-cut stone beside the Nile, another story on another river on the other side of the world was ending.

Stekyawden MountainThe Gitxsan had been living where the Bulkley River meets the Skeena for a long time by then.  Didn’t the Raven stories explain about the time of darkness, when the world was bleak, the time, perhaps, when the people made the Arctic passage into America, from midnight sun to sunlight and salmon?  Raven could be talking about that when he tells about stealing the sun.  How many thousand years ago, after the ice sheets melted from British Columbia and the Skeena River formed, did the ancestors of the Gitxsan follow the salmon people up the river?

They knew the Skeena as K’san, the River of Mists, which that river truly is.  Some 4500 years ago, across K’san from where Hazelton sits now, there was a prosperous town, Dimlahamid, also known as Temlaxham, in translation, Prairie Town.  Around the time when the Pyramid and the Valley Temple of Khafre began to rise across the Nile from ancient Memphis, Temlaxham fell.

The side of Stekyawden Mountain (Rocher Deboulé) slipped, it glided across the Skeena and buried Temlaxham.  That destruction is remembered in the oral histories as a flood, because for those who survived the landslip’s first assault, that’s what it was.  Debris from the disaster blocked the flow of the Skeena, halted the migration of salmon, created a lake which inundated the entire region behind.

lamp fishing at GitanmaaxAfter hundreds of years the Skeena wore a new path through the dam, the lake subsided, the salmon returned and the people returned also.  But not to Temlaxham itself.  Over the following thousands of years, they built their villages and erected their crest poles in many places up and down that valley, wherever it pleased or suited them.  They liked the places where other streams joined the Skeena, Kitwanga at the Kitwanga River, Kispiox at the Kispiox River.  The location of Gitanmaax at the most significant of these confluences—the Bulkley is a substantial stream by itself—follows this logic.  Gitanmaax was the place where they fish by torchlight.

The community at Gitanmaax grew important in the early part of British Columbia’s fur trade era when important fur trade chiefs set up shop there.  The maritime fur trade on the Northwest Coast had begun in the late 18th century following the Cook expedition stopover in Friendly Cove, Vancouver Island, in 1778.  When that expedition later sailed to Canton, (sans Cook, who had been killed during an abortive act of political terror in Hawaii during the passage between) sea otter furs purchased from the Nuu-chah-nulth of Friendly Cove and sold to Chinese merchants brought enormous profits.  News of those profits quickly brought fleets from Britain and the United States to the Northwest Coast eager to cash in on the sea otter trade.

The local people from around the Skeena River mouth called these floating traders, who seldom set foot on shore, gumshewa, the driftwood people, and that is the Tsimshian name for people of European descent to this day.  They also recognized the tweedle-dee tweedle-dum tribes from the United States and Britain as “Boston-men” and “King George-men.”

I was surprised in 1988 when the chief of Kitsumkalum told me that the hat that I wore then, a fedora, was known as an “American hat.”  Bosn-m’n hat, he called it in Tsimshian.  Centuries after driftwooding off the coast trading furs, Americans were still remembered as “Boston-men” in the Tsimshian language.

Ships trading off shore, and—at the beginning of the nineteenth century—interior Hudson’s Bay fur trading forts, competed for furs in the region.  Tsimshian established a fur trading network into the interior to acquire furs for the maritime trade.  Later on they traded goods purchased from shipboard traders for furs in the interior in competition with the Hudson’s Bay forts.  The Hudson’s Bay was accustomed, in the land-based fur trade, to establish a monopoly over the furs in an area and thereby tightly control prices paid for those furs.  The Tsimshian trading network up the Skeena, and a trade fair established by the Gitanmaax at the present site of Hazelton, successfully challenged this monopoly for a time.

In 1866, the Collins Overland telegraph established an office in the outskirts of Gitanmaax, in the midst of their territory.  The Omineca Gold Rush, 1869-1873, the same gold rush behind the establishment of Port Essington on the coast, brought a few more get-rich-quickers to the neighbourhood (which the White folk began calling Hazelton.)  In 1891, sternwheelers opened a transportation corridor to the coast, docking at Hazelton and Port Essington and places in-between.  Another kind of gold rush arrived in the region early in the 20th century, a land rush to cash in on the just-announced Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, which resulted in the establishment of new communities up the Bulkley a little way, along the railroad’s route, New Hazelton and South Hazelton.

Gitanmaax 1909In the midst of all this settler activity, most of the village of Gitanmaax relocated from the riverside to the bluffs above Hazelton, erecting their crest poles on the crest of the bluff overlooking the Skeena and in full view of the townsite below.  These crest poles detailed the stories and made mention of the ancient lands claimed by the chiefly families.

Meanwhile in the stories of the people below, they talked about how this suburb of Gitanmaax, more accurately, this intra-urb of Gitanmaax, had been founded in 1866.  Founded, by the magic of history, in the midst of a community already present.  The old history, despite standing in full display on the crest of the hill above, had already disappeared.

Shelley, standing amidst the ruins of the Ramesseum, the self-built temple of Ramses II across the Nile from Luxor, ancient Thebes, wrote “Ozymandias.”  He mocked Ramses by comparing his self-importance to his ruined temple, the head of Ramses’ statue lying on the ground.

Shelley writes,

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

For Shelley, Ramses was ancient, yet in Ramses’ time–which was fairly close to Moses’ time, if the scholars are correct in this–the sphinx, the Valley Temple of Kafre, the pyramids of Gaza, were already a mystery of the ancient past.  Their connection to the funerary arrangements of pharaohs had already been forgotten.  Ramses and Moses were both too modern to have access to cultural memories going back that far.

Yet in the Skeena Valley, on the crest of the hill above Hazelton, they remembered that era, and the time before.  It was only in the village below that the past had been forgotten.

In their local histories, the newcomers of the Hazeltons talk about the three Hazeltons.  But I think there were four.  When I moved to (Old) Hazelton in 1959, I stayed perhaps 40, perhaps 50 feet from the village boundary.  But I think in some ways I lived in a different place entirely.  Not entirely a bad place for a child to be, but a clear and certain boundary apart from the other Hazeltons.

Posted in: memoire