A remote Indian village keeps alive the arts of its ancestors
Hazelton, British Columbia
It's very idealistic -- a small, yet first-rate living history center set miles away from anywhere. And yet it's right that it be here in Hazelton. The 'Ksan Historic Indian Village is devoted to the culture of the Gitksan Indians of this area. It wouldn't even exist if it had not been wrenched into being by informed local people who wanted a place to display their splendid artistic heritage.Skip to next paragraph
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From Prince Rupert, not exactly a high-powered metropolis, you drive a good seven hours northwest -- just you and the logging trucks, racing along beside the wide jade-colored Skeena River, with only mountains, mist, and trees for company. But the long drive is an appropriate introduction.
``Gitksan'' means ``people of the Skeena River.'' It was the river that made it possible for this trading people, whose main form of transportation was the canoe, to live so far inland.
'Ksan's remoteness is what makes it special. ``The culture here wasn't bothered too much by white contact, so a lot of the mythology and dance remain here, while it was lost in other places,'' says 'Ksan director Ron Burleigh.
The seven wooden buildings of 'Ksan are decorated with the distinctive black and red designs characteristic of west coast Indian art. They resemble the old communal houses the Gitksan Indians used to live in. Appropriately, their backs abut the road, while the fronts look out across the Skeena at the spectacular Rocher D'eboul'e Mountain.
One of the first reasons for the starting of 'Ksan back in 1950 was that local people wanted a safe place -- nonflammable, humidity controlled -- to preserve their ancestral treasures. 'Ksan's small but up-to-the minute museum contains mostly costumes and masks -- many of which are still borrowed when needed by their Indian owners for occasional ceremonies.
Today 'Ksan is much more than a museum; it's a multimedia center. Here young Indians learn to become master carvers and to perform ancient songs and dances, while older Indians give tours explaining their heritage to visitors. There's a store to market local art work, much of it of museum quality, and a small theater for performances.
Dance and song are particularly ephemeral art forms. Yet the center has managed to collect some 500 examples of these arts. To watch the 'Ksan dancers in action, you go to the Historic Village a little before 7 on a Friday night during the summer. You walk past the totem poles and cedar houses until you reach one that has a pole for a doorway. Inside are a dimly lit stage and rows of wooden benches. During my visit they are rapidly filling up with tourists. There is a distinct and agreeable doughnut-like smell in the air of hot buckskin bread.
On one side a row of elderly Indian women is gathering. Their neat gray coiffures would be more appropriate for bridge or bingo, but they are clad in the almost military splendor of ``button blankets'' -- navy blue wool appliqu'ed with red flannel and highlighted with thick rows of large pearl buttons. The Indians adapted their traditional designs to the materials that the Hudson's Bay Company (now an upmarket British Columbia department store chain calling itself ``The Bay'') used to sell them in exchange for furs.
A pleasant-faced young woman clasping a ``speaker's pole'' (which looks a bit like a miniature totem) explains that, as the audience, we represent visiting dignitaries invited to witness the induction of a new chief. ``The Breath of our Grandfathers,'' as the show is called, is built around a ceremony as it might have appeared in 1880.