Village History

Village of Tsunyow

Minimal archaeological work has been done at Tsunyow because the Grand Trunk Railroad was built over the site. The site is located on the west side of Skeena River south of the canyon.

The Gitselasu have a story about first settling Tsunyow.  The story is recounted by the Gitselasu Chief Walter Wright to Will Robinson in the book "Men of Medeek". The word Medeek is Tsimshian for grizzly bear. The grizzly bear is a crest that belongs to the Gitselasu Killerwhale clan family that includes the lineage of Walter Wright.  For the story click here.

Village of Gitaus

Gitaus means 'the people of the sand bar.'  This old village site was built beside a sand bar overlooking the Skeena River.  Unfortunately, there cannot be a comparison between the findings of Gitaus with the absence of an archaeological record at Tsunyow.

In another history of Men of Medeek Walter Wright tells of the movement of people from Tsunyow to Gitaus.  For the story click here.

Paul Mason Site

The Paul Mason Site, discovered in 1981, is located on a high bedrock bank about 25 metres above the present river level. It is not mentioned in the oral history at all. This village site had been completely lost from the memories of the Gitselasu. This being the case, the only data we have about the Paul Mason Site comes from its archaeological investigation. If you were to visit the Paul Mason Site today, you would find ten depressions in a slope, with a fairly large area of flat ground above. These depressions are actually prepared house floors.

The archaeological excavations at the Paul Mason Site in 1982 and 1983 uncovered the earliest level of human occupation found in the Kitselas Canyon. The radiocarbon date of about 5000 B.P. (before present) is also one of the oldest in the entire Skeena Valley. This date comes from about one metre below today's surface. The soil zone of this early occupation is named the Bornite Phase (5000 B.P. to 4300 B.P.). The most common artifacts from the Bornite Phase are microblades and flaked cobble tools. Microblades are small flat razor sharp blades used for separating meat from hides, cutting leather and processing fish. They are flaked from a core rock that has a very high silica content. Obsidian and quartz crystal are the two rocks of choice for making these blades. Microblades of both materials were recovered from the Bornite Phase. The obsidian from the Bornite Phase tells us that it originated about 350 kilometres south-east of Kitselas Canyon in the Anahim area of the Chilcotin Plateau. This archaeological discovery is intriguing because it indicates that the people of the Bornite Phase had either interior origins or inland trade connections a few hundred years before the earliest occupation found at Gitaus and their trading networks with people from Prince Rupert Harbour. During the Bornite Phase, the Paul Mason Site was a seasonal camp, presumably occupied from mid to late summer. This is based on the fact that there is no evidence of permanent houses at that level.

The next phase represented at the Paul Mason Site is the Gitaus Phase (4300 B.P. to 3600 B.P.). The most drastic change in artifacts between this phase and the previous Bornite Phase is the decline, or almost total absence of microblades. It is likely that the Paul Mason Site and Gitaus were inhabited by the same group of people, as the tools found at both sites are very similar. This phase also indicates a seasonal camp, occupied during the summer, once again based on the lack of evidence of winter dwellings.

The Skeena Phase (3600 B.P. to 3200 B.P.) was not represented at the Paul Mason Site. The next phase that has any direct relationship to the Paul Mason Site is the Paul Mason Phase (3200 B.P. to 2700 B.P.). It was in this phase that there is the first evidence of permanent dwellings. This is shown by the presence of prepared house floors. There was a decline in the number of chipped tools such as bifacial points. There were more groundstone and cobble tools, indicating the continued importance of salmon in the region. One of the factors that led to the permanent settlement of the Paul Mason Site is the development of drying fish. This was the last Phase detected at the Paul Mason Site.

When the excavation of the Paul Mason Site was done, it provided some interesting data about the houses. Both of the house floors excavated showed two hearths, one at the front of the house and one at the back. This suggets that possibly there were two families living in each house, each with their own hearth. There have been questions asked as to the social organization of the inhabitants of the Paul Mason Site. It is very likely that the people living at this site were members of an egalitarian society. One of the biggest arguments for this point of view is the fact that the ten house floors are of very similar size. The villages of Gitsaex and Gitlaxdzawk displayed a large range of house sizes. The inhabitants of Gitsaex and Gitlaxdzawk were definitely living in a ranked society and we know that the more important chiefs had the larger houses. It is therefore likely that the inhabitants of the Paul Mason Site were living in an egalitarian society. Another piece of evidence that supports this idea is the lack of status indicators, such as labrets and ground slate daggers, at the site.

Village of Gitlaxdzawk

Gitlaxdzawk is situated on what was a small island in Kitselas Canyon. It is now connect to land by a ravine created as a result of rock debris infill when the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad tunnels were constructed between 1910 and 1913.

Three meanings have been given for the name of Gitlaxdzawk. Ethnographer George T. Emmons refers to it as 'people of the place where they steal canoe bottom boards.' This could be a reference to the fact that the people of Gitlaxdzawk along with Gitsaex operated a toll system in the Kitselas Canyon. In this system, all foreign travellers marked their recognition of the Gitselasu ownership of the canyon by providing payment to Gitselasu chiefs in order to secure safe passage through the canyon, otherwise large boulders would be thrown into the canoes of those who disregarded the toll payment. Louis Allaire in Skeena River Prehistory refers to the village meaning 'people of the ravine' and also the 'fortress.' These names refer to the natural setting as the village is located on a promotory near a ravine. The Gitselasu elder Paul Mason when interviewed in 1981 stated that he believed the name Gitlaxdzawk meant the 'people of the place where they steal canoe bottom boards.'

A total of the remains of ten houses have been located at Gitlaxdzawk. The village area covered 122 metres by 61 metres. The village was located on an island prior to railway construction, now rock debris has formed a dry gully between the village site and the river bank. The site is still surrounded by water on three sides and the surrounding steep slopes makes access formidable. The village was located on top of a promontory providing a natural fortification. Also, it appears a fortified wall of timbers and logs was constructed providing greater protection from intruders.

The houses at Gitlaxdzawk were irregularly placed. Normally, Tsimshian houses are constructed in one or two rows facing the water. The general topography is the primary factor for designing the community that way. The discovery of at least 10 houses and estimating 30 residents per house would mean that the village population was around 300 people.

While the effects of immigrant contact in the Skeena Valley eventually led to the Gitselasu abandonment of Gitlaxdzawk and Gitsaex, there were some positive consequences of immigrant settlement for the Gitselasu, such as their activity in the waning fur trade, in providing transportation services along the Skeena River and later in their involvement in the commercial fishing sector along the coast.  However, high death rates from smallpox weakened their numbers. The Gitselasu no longer controlled the movement of people and goods through the Kitselas Canyon affecting their competition with settlers for the same resources such as fish, game, timber and later jobs. These factors contributed to the Gitselasu abandoning Gitlaxdzawk and Gitsaex some time between 1866 and 1879.

Village of Gitsaex

The village of Gitsaex is situated at the upper end of Kitselas Canyon across the river from Gitlaxdzawk. The name Gitsaex means 'people who live at the edge of the lake' which is a reference to the bay located near the village. The village is situated on a bench about five metres above the high water line. Gitsaex was once a large village. A site survey found the remains of seventeen houses. The houses were arranged in two rows overlooking the river. There were eight houses in the front row and nine in the back row. Also uncovered were six post or pole holes indicating where the poles and posts were located. Some of the houses were quite impressive as the average floor size was 10 metres by 10 metres. The two largest houses were 10.9 metres by 13.6 metres and 13.1 metres by 10.8 metres. Some of the largest houses also had excavated floors for additional living and storage space. At an average of thirty people per house, at least five hundred people would have lived in Gitsaex. All that remains at Gitsaex are the house depressions and the remains of highly decayed poles and posts including the post holes.  The village was also abandoned because of the smallpox epidemic of the 1860's and 1870's.

Petroglyphs of Dry Island and Ringbolt Island

A design or figure carved on a rock is called a petroglyph. The word comes from the Greek 'petra' meaning rock and 'glyphe' meaning carving. A petroglyph is made by striking one rock, a hammerstone, against the surface of another repeatedly in the same spot until a depression or groove is made. This pecking process continues for many hours until the design is created. In the Skeena Region the shapes are usually human and animal, sometimes in transformational stages. No one knows the exact reason for the petroglyphs, their meanings, or their significance.

The significance of petroglyphs may be associated with shamanism. A shaman is a religious specialist and healer whose primary function is to cure people. The making of petroglyphs may be associated with shamansim because the idea of transformation is associated with shamanic activity. Also, shamanic activity tended to occur away from villages and the petroglyphs are also usually located away from villages. The fact that many many of the petroglyphs become submerged in water by either rising river or tidal levels may also be associated with the shamanic idea of transformation in the different zones of land and waters.

Four single petroglyphs have been found on Dry Island. See Kitselas Canyon Site Map. Dry Island is a narrow outcrop of bedrock located adjacent to the village of Gitsaex and parallel to Ringbolt Island. Dry Island can be walked to most of the year. The only time it is inaccessible is during high water between the middle of May to August. At high water when Dry Island in fact becomes an island the petroglyphs are submerged.

Three of the Dry Island petroglyphs depict faces, side by side almost parallel with the river. The fourth petroglyph is very difficult to see but appears to be an animal form. The most interesting aspect about these petroglyphs is the idea of transformation. The idea of transformation is a very spiritual concept among the Tsimshian. It was believed that some shamans had this power of transformation. An example of how this transformation is shown is the carving of one of the petroglyph faces of Dry Island. When viewed with your back to the river the carving has the appearance of a human face, or perhaps a mask. When the same petroglyph is viewed from the other side, looking toward the river, the face seems to have transformed into that of an animal, or perhaps another mask.

Five separate petroglyphs have also been rediscovered on Ringbolt Island. Ringbolt Island is a long rock island in the middle of the Skeena River. See the Kitselas Canyon Site Map. The first petroglyph was found in 1967 and it is the largest. It is called the 'Main Glyph' and it measures 2.1 by 1.8 metres. It required a double bed sheet to do a complete rubbing of the entire carving. This elaborate petroglyph represents two human figures shown in frontal view and at least two animal figures in profile. Both of these human figures are wearing headdresses that may indicate shamanic activity. Another feature of the carving that may represent shamanic activity is the circular mouths. These 'O' mouths may represent a spirit entering or leaving the body. The other major petroglyph on Ringbolt Island is referred to as 'Rescued Rock.' This large petroglyph includes images of human figures and animals. Again concepts of transformation appear in these images. Of all the petroglyph figures on Ringbolt Island, perhaps the most well known locally is the small 'Blackfish' petroglyph. This carving may represent a killer whale and is the symbol used by the Terrace Public Library with the permission of the Kitselas Band.