The History of ‘Ksan Performing Arts

‘Ksan Performing Arts Group are cultural ambassadors for the Gitxsan people. They have performed throughout the province, across Canada, and around the world demonstrating through traditional song and dance the richness of our culture. The ‘Ksan Performing Arts Group has worked with ‘Ksan Historical Village and Museum for over twenty-eight years and continues to be a fundamental component of this institution. Because ‘Ksan Performing Arts group was initiated by the ‘Ksan Historical village and museum, they share a common history with us. The topic of this page is to present this history in context of the development of ‘Ksan. This review will outline the creation of ‘Ksan Historical Village and Museum from its beginning until the creation of Performing Arts.

During the 1940’s the concept of a museum dedicated to the preservation of delicate and decomposing Gitxsan artifacts emerges. In 1950 the Board of Trustees for Hazelton Public Library, lead by then Hazelton Mayor Margaret (“Polly”) Sargent, in conjunction with Simoigyet Gamlaxyelt, Albert Douse of

Kitwancool; Simoigyet Hanamuuxw, Jeffery Johnson of Gitanmaax; and other members of the Library Association began the development of the museum project. The Library Association believed that the economic and social problems of Hazelton would diminish if all people, both First Nations and non-First Nations, understood the stature, richness, and sophistication of Gitxsan society and culture.

In the beginning financial support for the project was limited and progress was slow. Hazelton, a low-income area, had a limited tax base with a population of 450 residents. During this period, the members of the association began researching museum administration and operation, as well as, Gitxsan history and culture. The association had no thought of buying artifacts, but to obtain them on loan from their owners with the understanding that they could remove them from the proposed museum at any time when they were needed for use.

 

In 1958 as part of the Centennial celebrations, the provincial government made cost sharing grants available for community projects. The Library Association from its previous fundraising efforts was able to collect 10,000 dollars locally, and, thus, the “Skeena Treasure House Association” was created with the mandate to build a museum. Simoigyet Hanamuuxw, Jeffery Johnson developed the name “Treasure House”, because he felt that the term museum implied collections of lifeless and unused items. In fact, the Treasure House, as described above, was a safe depository for chief’s regalia and important items owned by House groups. Construction of the Treasure House began in 1958 and opened its doors to the public in 1959. It was located on the banks of the Skeena River in Hazelton at the intersection of Omenica St. and Government St.. Two additional house post totems, carved by Simigyet Hanamuuxw, Jeffery Johnson were later added to the building on June 4th, 1960.

 

From its opening, the Treasure House was a success. It housed both a small library in the back and museum in front. The house also presented hand made crafts from local artists. Artists from the different villages sold crafts at the museum. As its fame spread, anthropologists and other informed people began visiting the Treasure House. The demands placed on the house by visitation and sales began over exceeding its capabilities, thus, plans for larger facilities were developed.

Instead of constructing a single larger building, the association developed plans for an entire Gitxsan village. The name of the village would be derived from the Gitxsan name for the life giving Skeena River – ‘Ksan. The theme of the village would represent a Gitxsan village one hundred years in the past. The initial plans called for three buildings. Each building would demonstrate a different period in Gitxsan history. The projected cost for the new facility was 100,000 dollars. This enormous price tag was far out of the reach of the association and village of Hazelton, and, therefore, the association solicited outside help.

On May 31st 1968 the Treasure House Association was incorporated under section 71 of British Columbia’s Society Act and became officially known as the ‘Ksan Association. To meet the financial goals of the association, the village of Hazelton, seeing ‘Ksan as a secondary industry, allocated the association 15,000 dollars to the project. The village council promised an additional 36,500 dollars (representing over ten dollars for every man, woman, and child with a radius of 25 miles from Hazelton) to help support ‘Ksan. Hazelton mayor and President of the ‘Ksan Association, Margaret (“Polly”) Sargent petitioned the provincial and federal governments for assistance. The Agricultural and Rural Development Agency scheme gave ‘Ksan matching grants and suggested the construction of an additional carving shed and campground. Over fifty acres of river front land for the ‘Ksan Campground Village was selected for this project.

In 1969, the original Skeena Treasure House relocated to the new ‘Ksan Historical Indian Village facility at the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers. Construction of the village began in 1969 and ended in 1970. ‘Ksan Historical Indian Village officially opened on August 12th, 1970. The carving shed, a donation by the premier of British Columbia, opened on December 4, 1970. This building housed the school of Northwest Coast of Indian art. Later, during 1976, the Northwest National Exhibition Centre (NWNEC) opened. The NWNEC housed the contents of the Skeena Treasure House properly cared for in the museum portion of the center.

During the late sixties and early seventies, ‘Ksan Performing Arts Group was created. Mary Blackwater, Johnson Williams, Stevens Morrison and Moses Morrison from Kispiox, as well as, Ernest Hyzims from Kitsegyukla, contributed. Many hours of time, energy and knowledge were contributed to give us what we have today.

Mary Johnson from Kispiox and David Milton from Kitsegukla also shared their knowledge and to them we are indebted forever. Doreen Jensen and Polly Sargent spent many years working with these people. Their labor resulted in the ‘Breath of our Grandfathers, As it was first performed in Ottawa at the National Art Centre in 1972.

The performing group has played an important part to ensure that the culture has been preserved with dignity. They have been the true ambassadors for ‘Ksan, for the Gitxsan and the communities in the Upper Skeena, for the Northwest Coast Native People, and for British Columbia and Canada. In the first years of its beginning, old songs were loaned to the group, or bought by the group to sing and perform. The material of their performance “Breath of Our Grandfathers” comes from ancient history. Names of many of the original poets, musicians, composers, choreographers and dramatists are now unknown. The regalia and props used in the performance by the group were all designed and crafted by local Gitxsan artists in the sixties and seventies.