A remote Indian village keeps alive the arts of its ancestors

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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'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.

Animals are central to Indian mythology; every tribe had its own legend that connected the family's origin to an animal, after which the tribe was named. In 'Ksan, for instance, the family groups are Wolf, Raven, and Frog. So it's no surprise that many of the dances describe animals: Two beautiful, beaming little girls do a frog dance; a ``mountain goat,'' clad from head to toe in long white fur, sways and crouches; and most ominous was the bear, its long wooden mask gleaming menacingly in the dim light.

Most impressive of all is the dance of the running grouse. A young man in a large shawl of grouse feathers and a polished wooden helmet representing a bird, its beak pointing out over his nose, executes quick nods and swivels of the head and elbows underneath the feather cape, perfectly capturing the movements of the bird.

The English word ``potlatch'' -- a festival with overtones of extravagance and wastefulness -- isn't much liked around here. The dancers of the Performing Arts group of 'Ksan like to call their reenactment of a Gitksan get-together a ``feast'' or, better yet, a ``celebration.''

The point of the celebration is to validate hereditary rights and privileges. Potlatches, or ``Yukw,'' as the Gitksan called them, were outlawed in 1884 in a decision that severely affected the culture of the Indians, whose myths, dance, singing, and carving were all intended to be used at these ceremonies. Over the last hundred years the Gitksan have continued to hold their feasts, quietly.

The 'Ksan dance troupe does sometimes travel. It performed at the Cultural Olympics in Montreal, for instance. And the products of `Ksan's carving school have been bought by institutions in San Francisco; Baltimore; and Kansas City, Mo., and other far-flung cities as well. There are some 60 carvers in the area, and half a dozen senior carvers who give lessons.

In addition to the performances and carvings, the Gitksan women give tours, explaining displays of articles their great-great-grandparents would have used in daily life. Many of these articles are ingenious. I especially liked the boxes bent out of a single piece of wood. These, after being filled with water and hot stones from the fire, became ovens for cooking. A cedar basket looked like a rather useless object until our guide explained that the cedar expands when it is wet, closing up the holes and making the basket watertight.

About 20,000 visitors a year make their way to 'Ksan. Some of them also venture to the villages nearby -- Kispiox, Kitwanga, Kitwancool -- where some totems still stand in their original locations. Practical information:

Hazelton can be reached by car from Prince Rupert or Prince George; the highway is excellent. Or you can take a Greyhound bus.

The museum at 'Ksan Historic Indian Village is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Wednesdays, when the hours are 10:30 to 4:30. The dance performance is held on Fridays during the summer months at 7:30 p.m.; on other nights films of 'Ksan performers are shown.

Tours are held from May to mid-October; admission is $3.50 (Canadian).

Eating in the area is a bit of a problem. One little restaurant in Hazelton, the Mountain View, has good food.

The Tourist Board, which provides snappy log cabins along the highway, has maps showing where totem poles can be found.

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