Legends of Myself 62

Posted on February 14, 2013

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HazeltonBC 195062. Gitanmaax, 1959-60:  A Playground on the Edge of Town

I don’t remember arriving in Gitanmaax in 1959.  It’s surprising how few of those kind of memories have survived, despite the importance of arrivals and departures in the stories people tell.  Perhaps when you spend much of your life arriving and departing, such moments lose their emphasis.

I do remember coming back again thirty years afterwards.  My first response returning was to the setting, high granite whited peaks on every side, mountains behind the town, rising across the Skeena, rising across the Bulkley; clear brisk rivers flowing down and west over pebbles and stones, joining, strengthening, widening there; hills, fields and the trees down by the Skeena’s edge.  The journey ascending the Skeena to Hazelton presents stream, canyon, valley, villages with stands of crest poles and the Seven Sisters mountains side by side, but the journey there doesn’t at all blunt the affect of arrival.

My return in 1989 showed some changes from the place I remembered in 1959.  The well had been capped.  A pipe led out of the place where it used to be.  In place of a log cabin and a clapboard house, there was now a housing development, perhaps lacking in a little character, but rather more modern, and I suspect “convenient,” than the housing available in 1959.  The clapboard house no longer existed; the log cabin, looking quaint and incongruous and ridiculously small amidst the new housing development, was still there.

Much of the space of open land where my playmates and I used to play—between the cabin and the slough where the Skeena and the Bulkley Rivers joined—had become commercial camping and picnic grounds.  What was in 1959 the wild territory along the Bulkley and below the road (which anciently had housed old Gitanmaax, before the main village had relocated to the bluffs above the White-man’s neighbourhood after the “founding” of Hazelton) had by 1989 transformed again into K’san.

K’san—called after the Gitxsan name for the Skeena River—is a model village with half-sized longhouses housing a Gitxsan cultural centre and a college of Northwest Coast art.  That part of my old playground had been put to good use, but it was unimagined in 1959.

k'san s

In 1959, I count 8 of us living in that little log cabin, three adults, four children and a baby-cum-toddler.  My memory is sufficiently vague that I might have forgotten at least one other child, but 8 is a large enough number.  The cabin which I spotted amidst the housing development 30 years later hardly seemed sufficient to house so many, but I don’t remember feeling crowded.

There was a kitchen and a living room in that cabin, and two alcoves off of the living room where the adults slept.  The couple in one corner were the parents of the baby, and the baby’s crib was stationed just outside their corner.  The head of the household, who was both grandmother and the mother of the other children—I would guess that she was about forty then—slept in the other alcove.  I occupied part of the floor in a sleeping bag behind the couch, and I suppose somebody else slept on the couch itself, although I can no longer summon up that level of detail.

I suppose we had electricity, which I suppose because I don’t remember coal oil lamps.  I know for a certainty that there was no running water and no plumbing.  For water, we had to cross the road and walk down a little way to a shady place where the well was.  I remember taking that trip many times, dipping the pail into the water with a rope, tilting the pail until it filled, and carrying the water home.  For plumbing, there was an outhouse out back supplied with old Eaton’s catalogues and the like (that was before the catalogues were printed on shiny paper) which filled the need for both reading material and toilet paper.

rabbit's footBehind the house on one side of the yard was a wire cage filled with rabbits which I remember were forever digging holes and threatening escape.  For all I know, some did.  Once or twice, we had rabbit stew for supper, which I wasn’t particularly fond of.  After one of these suppers, a rabbit’s foot came into my possession. That was supposed to be lucky.  I’d seen them sold as charms and on keychains in drugstores and in nickel and dimes.  But I harboured doubts about the luck because I had seen that rabbit being skinned.

There was only one neighbour in our neighbourhood, if you didn’t count the school, the clapboard house I mentioned before.  The kids who lived there formed a seamless part of our gang.

Between the cabin and the school was the lot where the clapboard house stood, plus a width of schoolyard.  Past the school was the town itself, Hazelton proper.

Between the cabin and the place where the Bulkley and the Skeena joined was a large, open, down-sloping meadow, with enough variation in landscape, bush, and trees between cabin and river to hide the Skeena until you’d approached it a little, and hide the Bulkley until you came right up to it.  That whole area was our playground.

I suspect that it was partly because of this playground, with fields, trees, berry bushes, swimming holes and companions to share it with, that I never noticed how small our house was.

It would have never occurred to me to think of myself as underprivileged, as I clearly wasn’t in the wider scheme of things.  I had a gang.  I had mild Aboriginal parenting.  I had warmth and clothes and food.  My backyard was a 20 to 25 acre park.

So I never actually noticed that I lived outside of town.  Town was Hazelton.  Its population today is less than 300, and I don’t suppose it was much larger then.  Gitanmaax, the Aboriginal community surrounding Hazelton, has a modern population of 1100, and if half of that population lives at home then the reserve population well exceeds that of Hazelton itself.

But Hazelton is the tail that wags the dog.  It is town, it is where the White people live, and Gitanmaax is its suburb.  The school, which in 1959 was two doors away from the log cabin and, I presume, in town, had plumbing, had running water, had indoor toilets that flushed.  No, there wasn’t a line of outhouses out back, one set for boys and girls, one set for faculty, a special one apart–which locked with a key–for the principal and visiting dignitaries.

That wasn’t how it was.  We had no plumbing and no sewer line for our log cabin a hundred yards away from the school, because that’s what living outside of town meant.

And in 1959, you couldn’t be more outside of town than on an Indian reserve.  Aboriginal communities, no matter where they are located, are often still a long way out of town today.

Posted in: memoire