I never saw the crest poles as they appeared in the old photographs, when they stood along the ridge at the edge of Gitanmaax village, peering out towards the Skeena, peering down upon Hazelton. The families who erected those poles had been told in 1884 that the feasts that accompanied them—those many and various events which under European categorization systems were called potlatches—were now illegal under Canadian law.
Well, you couldn’t really put up a crest pole without a feast, and while the Gitanmaax and others pretty much ignored the law until the 1920s, after that it had to go underground and get a lot less obvious. That was because in the 1920s they made the potlatch law a misdemeanor rather than an indictable offence, which meant that Indian agents appointed as magistrates could try the cases without the inconvenient option of a jury.
Juries were a problem, you see, because they were always letting Aboriginal people accused of violating the potlatch law go. It was Indian agents and missionaries who had advocated for the potlatch law in the first place, because the feasts kept the communities strong and culturally self-sufficient, and that was a challenge to the power and to the outsider agendas of these selfsame Indian agents and missionaries. People on juries, not themselves engaged in a cultural power struggle, had a hard time seeing what the problem was with throwing a feast, dancing, speechifying and giving stuff away to your guests. That sort of goings-on was entertaining to watch in an entertainment-scarce environment, and a boon to White business besides. Because of juries, convictions under the original potlatch law were scarce.
However, when the Indian Act was amended in the 1920s, the Indian agent who brought the charges also judged those charges, and the chance of a conviction under the law moved from maybe-maybe not, to a dead certainty, especially when the counsel for the defense was also—you guessed it—the Indian agent as well. In 1927 all the way to 1951, the Canadian government threatened with imprisonment anyone taking money to assist Aboriginal people with “claims,” meaning that lawyers and organizations willing to speak up for Aboriginal people were for a long time scarce on the ground.
Potlatches continued to happen in those years regardless, behind the scenes, under other guises, but the kind of extravagant, up-front type of event which characterized the raising of a crest pole was hardly possible.
As well, questions raised by those poles on the crest of the hill, ownership claims by ancient clans to territory and resources, had also been made essentially illegal. Between 1927 and 1951, when organizations such as the Native Brotherhood—an Aboriginal fishers union on the coast to which many Gitxsan belonged—discussed such questions in a meeting, they always dropped the discussion and struck up a hymn when the lookouts outside the door spotted the Indian agent coming.
The people below the hill forgot, and mostly forgot to ask, what those crest poles on the height above Hazelton meant. Disney placed ones like them in front of the teepees in Peter Pan (to be dragged from place to place by horses, I suppose, when the teepees moved.) An old movie serial that my brother Don saw in Prince Rupert in the 50s, early 60s, depicted malevolent rays shooting out of their eyes. Most—ignorantly—called them totem poles, although totems are depictions of spiritual beings, icons of spiritual significance, the word derived from an Algonkian language and concept.
The Gitanmaax crest poles were more like title deeds and not at all like religious icons. No one prayed to them, however important they were.
Sometime in the 1940s one of the Hazelton town fathers, seeing the crest poles overlooking the town falling into disrepair (and not at all imagining why) arranged to have them transported to stand around the town’s baseball diamond. That is where I saw them in 1959 and 1960.
The road that ran out of Hazelton went past the school and past the door where I lived until approaching the Bulkley. Then it turned left and climbed up along the steep bank of the river, reaching the baseball diamond where the road leveled out at the top.
The poles that had been relocated there impressed me with their numbers. In many parts of Tsimshian and Nisga’a territories, under the influence of priests and preachers, many crest poles had been torn down and often burned by their makers. The forests of poles seen in the old nineteenth century photographs of NorthwestCoast villages were largely gone. In Gitxsan territory this did not appear to have happened. Even if only relocated to a baseball park, the crest poles I saw then impressed and overawed me in a way I had never felt before.
And even if regarded and displayed as mere examples of an exotic local art form—their history and meaning forgotten by the surrounding society (and unknown to nine-approaching-ten-year-old Tsimshian visitors)—they still held that history in them, whether unread or not.
Later elders and clan leaders would interpret them (and others) for the judges in the historic Delgamuukw case in the 1990s, where the Supreme Court of Canada recognized legal validity in the claims they made. Later K’san and a school of art were opened in Gitanmaax in the lands below the baseball park so that the art which shaped those poles would remain a vital tradition.
Meanwhile they stood in a field above the BulkleyRiver overseeing baseball games.
I suppose I saw games played in that field as well. Maybe I played a game or two myself. But I remember only the poles.