Gitxsan ("people of the Skeena") live along the Skeena River of northwestern BC in the communities of Hazelton, Kispiox and Glen Vowell (the Eastern Gitxsan bands) and Kitwanga, Kitwankool and Kitsegukla (the Western Gitxsan).

Language and Ancestry

The Gitxsan language, a dialect of Nass-Gitxsan, is part of the Tsimshian language family, related to Coast Tsimshian and probably also to the Penutian dialects of California and Oregon. A matrilineal people, Gitxsan are born into one of four kinship lineages or phratries (to which their mate, when they marry, may not belong). Historically, the most important aspect of each Gitxsan family, or "wilp," was the control of their land and fishing territories and the inheritance of these assets by the children born into their mother's wilp. The father's wilp governed other responsibilities such as the children's education. It is estimated that there are more than 50 wilp in Canada and each has an oral history (adaawk) and songs that describe its ancestors and family history.

Contemporary Gitxsan life continues to centre around the obligations and privileges of the li'ligit, community potlatch feasts at which funerals, marriages, namings, adoptions and other ceremonies involving a change in identity are announced and guests are given gifts for witnessing. The Gitxsan language is gradually being replaced by English as fewer individuals speak Nass-Gitxsan, although some community schools teach Gitxsan.

Culture

Traditionally, Gitxsan people burned the bodies of their dead, a cultural ceremony which they shared with their Dakelh (Wet'suwet'en) neighbours but not with related Tsimshian or Nisga'a groups. They are noted for their traditional arts, ranging from weaving complex Chilkat blankets, to intricately carving mountain-sheep horn spoons, to carving the totem poles that the heirs of chiefs were obligated to raise as memorials. Learning and producing traditional crafts are encouraged by programs of Ksan (the reconstructed Gitxsan village which serves as a cultural centre), and by the band councils and band-operated schools.

Social and Political Organization

One of the first recorded territorial disputes in British Columbia involved the Gitxsan during the Skeena Rebellion of 1872. The Gitxsan blockaded the Skeena River to protest the destruction of their property by traders and miners at Gitsegukla. Gitxsan chiefs met with Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Trutch to resolve the dispute and negotiated compensation for the families. During the late 1800s the Gitxsan protested the mining and development that encroached on their territory and in 1908 Gitxsan chiefs met with Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier regarding the ownership and rights to their traditional territory in northwestern British Columbia.

In the historic court case Delgamuukw et al v The Queen (8 March 1991), the hereditary chiefs of the 2 groups claimed Aboriginal rights to approximately 58 000 square kilometres (22 000 square miles) of their traditional territories in northwestern BC, an area approximately the size of New Brunswick. The judgement by BC Supreme Court Justice A. MacEachern stated that the Gitxsan/Wet'suwet'en had neither sovereignty, jurisdiction nor Aboriginal title, and that such rights ceased to exist during the colonial period because colonial legislation exhibited a clear and plain intention to extinguish them, even though these laws did not do so expressly, nor did they even mention Aboriginal rights. The judgement did find that the Gitxsanwere entitled to use unoccupied crown land in their claimed territory for Aboriginal subsistence activities. A Supreme Court of Canada judgement (11 Dec 1997) found that an aggregate extinguishing of Aboriginal Rights pre- or postcontact had occurred (see Delgamuukw Case). Part of the Delgamuukw decision also created a legal precedent for proof of Aboriginal title that used oral history testimony as supportive evidence in addition to written testimony. The Tribal Council continues to document and foster Gitksan traditions.

The Gitxsan-Wet'suwet'en (previously Gitxsan-Carrier) Tribal Council also continues to co-ordinate social and educational programs and is engaged in land claims litigation.