The layers of Lax Kwaxl

dundas island (300x225)A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from Richard Overstall, a Smithers lawyer who brings to his work a deep knowledge of the layers that contribute to the rich upwelling of culture we call the north coast. His comments on The Bathymetry of Lax Kwaxl certainly enriched my admittedly shallow understanding of the Melville Dundas area. I thank him for that.

Richard is currently involved with the LNG assessment at Lelu Island.

September 23, 2016

Dear Sheila:

I very much appreciated your chapbook, The Bathymetry of Lax Kwaxl. It so gently and firmly sets one on the shores of this archipelago of North Coast islands. It also immediately caught my eye as I have been reading and note-taking about Lax Kwaxł for some time as it is a key location in the development of the northern North Coast indigenous legal order.

As a historical centre of northern coastal peoples, Lax Kwaxł at one time may have rivalled the cluster of villages in Metlakatla Pass. Carbon dating from archaeological work currently has the oldest Lax Kwaxł villages appearing before 5000 BC, about a millennium earlier than the oldest found around Metlakatla and Prince Rupert Harbour.[1]

In the region, only the small settlement on Lucy Island, Laxspano, has, so far, found to have been older at around 5600 BC. Interestingly, the oldest human remains found on Lucy Island (4100 BC) have the same rare mtDNA haplogroup (inherited through mothers) as the even older (8000 BC) human remains from On Your Knees Cave in northern Prince of Wales Island in south east Alaska. No living North Coast people have been found with this rare mtDNA haplogroup. One could speculate that these peoples were members of the Wudisaneidi (Old-age beings) who, Tlingit elders told Lt. Emmons, came from off shore and settled on Dall Island, west of Prince of Wales Island, later to be joined by interior groups to form the Tlingit Wolf Teikweidi Clan.

You mention a memory of salmon smoking. This activity may not have occurred on Lax Kwaxł. Before about 1000 BC, the salmon bone density in the surveyed archaeological sites is very low, close to zero in many cases. The faunal remains and the small size of the villages at that time suggest to the archaeologists that the people were year-round marine hunters and gatherers. This view is supported by oral histories. When famines from this time are mentioned, they were not caused by lack of food resources but by series of winter storms that prevented people from travelling by canoe to their resource sites. In later times, while the proportion of salmon bones in the Lax Kwaxł middens increases, the oral histories give evidence that the people living on the Dundas Island group had salmon fishing sites in the Prince Rupert Harbour area – Tuck Inlet, Work Channel, Khutzamateen River and Kwinamass River. These areas are a more likely source of the salmon and where the fish were likely smoke-dried before being transported to Lax Kwaxł. As you know, the Dundas group has very few salmon streams – certainly not enough to support the number of large villages that for a long time existed there.

Oral histories from Kitkatla record that the ancestors of certain Tlingit Ravens were living on Dundas Island before the mythic flood. Tlingit people call the Dundas archipelago Waklt and called the Raven group that lived there, the Wakldeidi. Whether this name is a loan word from the Tsimshian waxł, meaning beaver tail, or vice versa is not clear to me. The Tsimshian Lax|k|waxł literally translates as on|place of|beaver tail, although the word waxł does not incorporate as elements the Tsimshian word for beaver, sts’ool, or the Tsimshian word for tail, ts’uup.

Tlingit oral histories record a group of Raven people migrating south along the western shore of Prince of Wales Island to its southern tip. Here they met another group of Ravens, the ‘old settler Houses’ who had “lived there a long time.” Some of the old settlers moved on to Duke Island and eventually to the Dundas archipelago where they met the Wakldeidi. Meanwhile, in Metlakatla Pass and Prince Rupert Harbour, Tsimshian histories refer to a time “when only Wolves lived at Metlakatla.” One Wolf Clan group led by Asagalyeen was eventually “chased out to sea” by Raven people led by Ayagansk. Other Wolves remained, as up until about two millennia ago, Wolf Clan and Raven Clan peoples living at Lax Kwaxł, the Harbour and adjacent areas appear to have spoken a predecessor of the Tlingit language. While each clan group was exogamous and intermarried with the other, their relationship was fractious and unstable. Both Lax Kwaxł and Metlakatla were comprised of year-round villages, aggregated probably for defensive purposes. From these bases, people set out in the spring and summer to various camps to get eulachon, salmon, sea mammals, and other foodstuffs, which they stored in their village houses for over-winter use.

Between 200 and 600 AD, however, all the permanent settlements on the Dundas archipelago were suddenly and completely abandoned.  At the same time, there was a hiatus in the occupation of many Metlakatla and harbour sites with archaeological artifacts and human remains showing evidence of warfare. The impetus for this increased conflict appears to have been a movement of people from the lower Skeena River into the Prince Rupert Harbour area. They were very soon joined by migrants from Temlaxham, who originally lived around the confluence of the Bulkley and Skeena rivers. These newcomers to the coast eventually joined with others to become the Gispwudwada Clan – the Killerwhale/Fireweeds. They may well have introduced what is now the Tsimshian language to the coast, as well as the concept of “royal” Houses, which exclusively provide the Chiefs for each Tsimshian tribe. Later migrants, including some originally from the area at the confluence of the Stikine and Tahltan rivers, formed a fourth Tsimshian clan, the Lax Skiik (Eagles), who also contributed royal Houses.

The permanent winter village complex in Metlakatla Pass and Prince Rupert Harbour subsequently flourished, while that at Lax Kwaxł never did recover. In the 1500 years until now, Lax Kwaxł has been used only for seasonal marine harvest activities. For example, Green Island that you mention, Laxki’I, has been a camp used as a base to harvest seals, halibut and gulls’ eggs. Until very recent post-contact times, these camps had been used by both Tlingit and Tsimshian families.


[1] The earliest Prince Rupert harbour archaeological site, at around 4250 BC, is in Dodge Cove, itself the setting and subject of another chap book, Seahorse by Patrick Williston and Mark Tworow.

Lelu Island Lace


I’m just coming to the end of a lace project called Estuary, by designer Emily Wessel. I was first drawn to knit this shawl by its name. Emily describes her inspiration for this design: An estuary is an in-between place, not ocean, yet no longer river. It is a fertile habitat where sweet and salt water mix, and many species thrive. Estuary combines two lace patterns to create an ambiguous shape: not quite a shawl, yet something more than a scarf.

There are more beautiful – extravagant, filigreed, starbursts, leafy, vine trellised – lace patterns. But I’ve been knitting this shawl to honour the Skeena estuary. In it, I see the Flora Banks emerging as the tide retreats, the salmon finding their way back up the river after their time at sea, all the young smolts collecting in adolescent jitteriness after their first river descent. Both coming and going they feed the eagles, the sea lions, the gulls, the seals. And us too. So many of us fed for thousands of years.


Photo courtesy Tavish Campbell

The shawl has been a difficult project for me, partly because I’ve picked it up and put it down many times over the past year, but also because the pattern is complex. By combining two different patterns, it mimics the sweet water meeting the salt and you need to pay very careful attention as it grows.

Lace is often like this. Lose concentration and you can find yourself and your stitches in a muddle. And the thing about knitting lace is it’s almost impossible to correct mistakes. The structure, with all its intentional gaps, the pulling together and drawing apart of threads, means you can’t just unravel it and pick it up again like you can with a plain sock or sweater. The structure you’ve laboured so long to create disappears.


Photo courtesy Tavish Campbell

Which brings me to the Skeena estuary. It is re-drawn daily by the tides, weekly by the weather and seasonally by the collection and release of the rain and snow that has fallen throughout the watershed. It has a long history, a place more layered and complex than any lace. You can’t break the pattern and expect to be able to fix it later.



If you plunk an LNG port* on Lelu Island, stretch a bridge across Flora Banks and the eelgrass where salmon smolt gather to the tanker dock at the edge of Chatham Sound, drill, blast, dredge and set up a huge humming structure complete with gas flares and tankers, well you’ve unravelled something that’s taken thousands of years to emerge from the debris of our last ice age.

How ironic to even consider building this example of Anthropocene hubris in this spot. If you add the expansion to the fracking chaos of northeastern BC this project will necessitate to its enormous greenhouse gas emissions, you’ll be speeding up the final melting of ice that began the process, thousands of years ago to create the Skeena estuary. The melting could well see the whole LNG structure itself lost beneath tidal surges within decades.

Maybe we should send Justin Trudeau, Catherine McKenna and Christy Clark each a fragment of unravelling lace and see how well they can pick up the stitches to re-establish the pattern. All while treading water.

* If you want to know more about Petronas’s LNG project, a project approved by the Canadian government just days before it ratified the Paris agreement on climate change, check out Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition’s video.

Thanks to Graeme Pole for the images from No More Pipelines.