77. The People of the Cane
The Kitka’ata, like many other Tsimshian, trace their origins to Temlaxham, which was destroyed and its people scattered when the side of Stekyawden Mountain slipped some 45 centuries ago. There are many stories in-between, but at last the chief ‘Wamoodmłk, seeking a site for a new village with salmon, berries and other seafoods nearby, brought his people to a place where two rivers met and there placed his cane in the ground. It is said that the cane had come from Temlaxham and was a possession of the Fireweed clan, and it gave the people their name, because Kitka’ata means “People of the Cane.” The village so founded is now called Laxgal’tsap and was located in narrow Kitkiata Inlet which opens onto Douglas Channel.
Like the slipping of Stekyawden Mountain, all the Tsimshian were set in motion by the coming of European settlement to British Columbia, and the Kitka’ata no less so than others. Their fates were to entangle with that of William Duncan and his Christian Utopian settlement of Metlakatla.
William Duncan was a lay missionary who arrived in the Hudson’s Bay trading post of Fort Simpson in 1857, sponsored by the Church Missionary Society of Britain. Port Simpson had been established in 1834 directly in the heart of Tsimshian territory, and nine tribes of Tsimshian from the lower Skeena and the Tsimshian peninsula had relocated there to better control the fur trade and make best use of the trading opportunities offered. Fort Simpson eventually became known as Port Simpson, but the Tsimshian name for it was Lax Kw’alaams, which means “place of the wild roses.”
Duncan mastered the language spoken by the Tsimshian in Fort Simpson and worked there for five years, finally, in 1862, deciding to relocate a few miles away to the site of a former Tsimshian village on Metlakatla Pass with about 50 of his followers. (Metlakatla means “Salt Water Pass.”) He retained the Tsimshian name for this new community. Coincident with Duncan’s departure, a smallpox epidemic devastated Lax Kw’alaams, killing about 500 Tsimshian out of its approximately 2300 inhabitants. Duncan didn’t hesitate to attribute the narrow escape from the epidemic to divine intervention.
What “divine intervention” meant within the traditional Tsimshian worldview is hard to say. People tend to interpret things according to their own way of looking at the world, and William Duncan’s claim to special dispensation protecting his followers from smallpox might have sounded like a shamanistic claim to his Tsimshian listeners. For whatever reasons, William Duncan grew in prestige, influence and power among the Tsimshian, and quickly added to his flock, eventually claiming the entire community of the Kitka’ata as his followers.
By 1879, the old village in Kitkiata Inlet was virtually deserted. The Kitka’ata now lived at Metlakatla.
The relocation came at some cultural cost, and not merely because of the infusion of European ideas and religion. There are four major linguistic divisions among the Tsimshian. The Gitxsan of the Upper Skeena and the Nisga’a of the Nass speak two of them, distinct dialects of what is considered the same language. The Tsimshian of the Lower Skeena and the adjacent coast speak the third, Coast Tsimshian or Sm’algyax. The Tsimshian of Kitasoo and Laxgal’tsap speak (or spoke) the fourth, Southern Tsimshian or Skuumxs. Except that when the people of Laxgal’tsap relocated to Metlakatla, they found themselves in the midst of a community dominated by the Nine Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams, all of whom spoke Sm’algyax, and Sm’algyax was also the language that Duncan preached in. Thus, eventually, Skuumxs faded in use among the Kitka’ata, and by the time they left Metlakatla once more to return to their home territories, it was Sm’algyax that they spoke.
From a few hundred in 1862, Metlakatla expanded to about 1100 by 1879, but by 1887 it was poised to shrink again. Having already for several years parted ways with his Church Missionary Society sponsors, William Duncan moved his flock again–as many as he could persuade to follow him–this time to found a new Tsimshian community in New Metlakatla, Alaska. 800 went with him from (Old) Metlakatla, but about 30 Kitka’ata decided to return home instead—which they had never truly left anyway. They had always kept up their connection to the land in the intervening years.
Rather than re-establishing on Kitkiata Inlet at Laxgal’tsap (Laxgal’tsap means “Old Town”) the thirty chose to build a new community at Xalkiu, one of the former Kitka-ata camping spots which already had a house or two standing there in 1887. Since the peoples’ time away the place had been renamed Hartley Bay, which is still the name of the community they established .
Laxgal’tsap on Kitkiata Inlet was turned down because it could be isolated in winter by storms blowing up Douglas Channel. The inlet had protected their village in a more violent era by funneling would-be attackers and permitting flight or counter-measures, and the mudflats that stood in front of the village at low tide provided another protection. But in 1887, these considerations no longer mattered, and the mudflats were now only an impediment to water travel. Hartley Bay, on the other hand, was accessible at low tide, protected from storms in the winter and located conveniently near the Inside Channel and ferry traffic.
Eventually more Kitka’ata came to join the first returnees at Hartley Bay, including some who had initially migrated with William Duncan to Alaska.
When I myself arrived there in 1960, the church was still central to the community, and the harmony singing that they had learned in Metlakatla had been mastered there. Hartley Bay had a famous choir, of which my brother’s adoptive mother was a prominent and gifted member. The Lord’s Prayer was read out bilingually on Sundays, in English and in the Sm’algyax translation which William Duncan had rendered so many years before. Hymns in Sm’algyax, also in William Duncan’s translation, were sung by the choir.
But of course I knew nothing of that history, or of Hartley Bay itself, when I climbed up the float there with my father, officially ending our Inside Passage Odyssey. I simply knew that I was arriving to stay in the village where my brother Tommy lived, and that I was going to meet my brother—consciously at least—for the very first time.