The Tsimshian Defeat the Tlingit

The Location of Aksk's Fort at what is now the Port of Prince Rupert

It was as if a dam broke, when 1500 years ago a wave of migrants invaded northern Tsimshian territory. Nothing anything like this had ever happened since the Tsimshian first claimed their land after the last ice age.

Made up of inland Athabaskan and Tlingit peoples, these migrants, the Gidaganits, as the Tsimshian called them, began by raiding the villages of the Gitzaxłaał on the Dundas Islands, eventually forcing them to retreat south to their other territories on the Ecstall River.  The invaders then established camps on the Islands, from which they raided the Tsimshian villages to the south.  The raids were so devastating that all the Tsimshian abandoned their coastal villages and took refuge up the Skeena River.

The turning point in these hostilities took place when the warrior Aksk returned to the coast and conceived a strategy to drive the invaders from their territory. Aksk was from the house of Spingen, also called Xmu and Gilax’aks. This house was part of an ancient laxmoon (saltwater) Gispuwudwada group whose original home was on Stephens Island, which remained their territory after they moved their village to what is now Prince Rupert Harbour.  The oral history of the house of Gilax’aks of the Gitwilgyoots tells the history of the extraordinary strategy of Aksk and his nephew warriors.

The events unfolded as told in this compilation of the oral accounts by Herbert Wallace, Gitsiis, 1926, who learned the history from his grandfather, Heber Clifton, Gitk’a’ata, 1952 and 1953, and William Smith, Gitwilgyoots. The accounts were interpreted by William Beynon and transcribed  by William Beynon and Marius Barbeau.

Fred Alexcee painting of Tsimshian Warrior

Aksk and his warriors then came to a place on Kaien Island and were going to build a village there (where the white beacon stands, and where the cemetery of Prince Rupert is). Here Aksk erected a fortified place.  He built his house on a mound (right opposite where the Cooperative Cold Storage Plant now stands, in Prince Rupert),  a walkiik, a large square log house, with a stream running through one corner.

Then he made a huge trap door which was many timbers thick – made of whole logs lashed together and reinforced with pitch. He suspended it from the rafters of the house right over the doorway, so that it would drop upon the clear space below and crush everything it would fall upon.  Each corner was lashed so that it could be quickly released.

Aksk then gathered dry rotted wood and fashioned these to the size of human beings, and then placed them in the sleeping places and covered each of these figures with a cedar bark mat. They resembled sleeping figures.

He gathered many pieces of kelp and strung each piece from a platform he had built in the rafters and each end of the kelp was tied to the head of the pieces of wood resembling sleeping human forms. Through these pieces of hanging kelp they could make sounds of snoring.  In every way these appeared as sleeping forms.  Aksk was now ready to meet his enemies, the Gidaganits.

In order to attract their attention, he made a huge smoke screen of green boughs and the smoke went high into the sky. It was seen by some Gidaganits who were on the Dundas Islands, and they became curious as to who was causing the smoke.  They came in and soon saw where the smoke was rising from, and they located the large house.

That night, Aksk’s scouts went to where the Gidaganits were hiding. Aksk realized that they were now going to attack, and he told his people, “Tonight, we will beat our drums and pretend we are having our halaayt dances and sing very loudly.  This will give the Gidaganits the idea that we are not aware of their approach, and also they will think that we are a large number.

When we have finished and apparently retired to our sleeping places, you will go up into the rafters on the long platforms and you, my oldest nephews will each hold a corner of the lashes for the great trap door. When I say, “Let go,” you will each unfasten your lashes, and let the door drop on top of the raiders.  Then those who are making the snoring noises through the kelp, will shoot their arrows upon the attackers.”

The first invaders crept to the sleeping forms and speared them. But they could not withdraw their spears from the rotted wood forms.  They now gathered at the doorway.  When they all got under the heavy trap door over the entrance, Aksk called out “Wah!”, and the lashes were cut at each corner, and the trap fell upon the Gidaganits wounding and killing many.

Ada ‘al txal haxhogyuxsga mihla k’oolsga hlgusliist ‘a sgan du’tsk. Hla ts’ilim gawdi txaniisga Gidaganits, ada hladim haptsaat.  Ada hawtga  “Go’k” ada’al di haws ‘Aksk hlgusliiskit “Way wah”, adat k’otsditga na ‘amudisga pt’oom skiniist, ada tki’oksa wii pt’oom skiniist alaxoo gitwilim Gidaganiits, ada wii helda lugagat . . . sa minlooyga Gidaganits ada lubagayt gohlt. Ada waals ‘Aksk ‘a gihlamt . . . Ada ‘wii lugaga Gidaganits,

 And each of the nephews possessed a blackened spear. Now all of the Gidaganits had now come into the house and were ready to attack. And Aksk said to his nephews, “It’s time Way wah” and they cut the corner fastenings of the pitch trap door, and the big pitch door fell on top of the raiders, and a great many were killed . . . and the Gidaganits became panic stricken and ran all over. And Aksk [and his nephews] started in to spear them . . And they killed a great many Gidaganits.

Aksk’s warriors cut off the heads of those they had killed and sang a song of victory, and the young men took the bodies of those they had slain and threw them on the beach, which was full of bodies, and after they had done so, they took all the skulls and threw them in the creek that ran by the side of the fort. They took all the canoes, crest helmets, decorated daggers, decorated armour, coppers, and elk skins of their enemies.

In the meantime other Tsimshian heard of the invasion. They now moved down to where Aksk had built his house.  So that there was now a number of houses and many more people added to the group of the warrior Aksk.

Ada ni wil gisi liloyga Tsimsiyan na dzogat a gala ksiyeen. Ada sagalts’apsa txaniit a Maxhlakxahla. Ada gik haaytgis ‘Aksk ‘a na hlawila haaytgit ‘as niitga na’  alxsa lax galts’apm Gitwilgyoots.

 And this was when the Tsimshian moved down who were living all along the Skeena River.  And they all made their villages at Metlakatla.  And Aksk again took his former position and he was the warrior of the tribe of the Gitwilgyoots.

While there were other battles between the Tsimshian and the Gidaganits, from this time when defeated by Aksk, the Gidaganits withdrew farther north. The Tsimshian established their main group of tribal villages at Metlakatla Passage and on what is known now as Tuck’s Inlet.  Instead of associating himself with Saxsa’axt, the Gispuwudwada chief of the Gitwilgyoots, Aksk became associated with Nisloos, the Laxskiik chief of the same tribe, there now being two separate villages.  One of Saxsa’axt where the present site of Metlakatla stands and the other of Aksk at Kxeen (the present site of the Prince Rupert Co-operative Cold Storage plant at Prince Rupert.)

The successful defence of Tsimshian territory, the ultimate integration into their tribes of significant numbers of these new peoples, and the need for a strong presence at the mouth of the Nass and Skeena Rivers thereafter, gradually re-shaped Tsimshian society and augured in a new era.


Archaeological Notes

There has been considerable archaeological research to determine the dates for this period of warfare and its culmination in the expulsion of the Gidaganits by Aksk. A summary of these findings is to be published soon, but in the meantime, a few striking archaeological correlatives to these events can be mentioned here.

Projects undertaken by David Archer and Andrew Martindale in the last decade have dated the contemporaneous abandonment of over 20 villages in Prince Rupert Harbour, around 1500 years ago. Their comprehensive studies have established this as the time when the Tsimshian took refuge on the Skeena River, shortly before Aksk retaliated against the intruding Gidaganits.

One of the earlier archaeological projects in Prince Rupert Harbour in the 1970s was a salvage operation at the Lachane site, a site destined for development by the Port of Prince Rupert, but at that time already greatly disturbed by bulldozing and construction.   Unaware of the history of Aksk located at or near this site, the archaeologist, Jerome Cybulski, noted that “the assemblage from the Lachane site provides the only direct archaeological evidence for decapitation” on the Northwest Coast.  He also noted that a bone point was found lodged between the ribs of one of the four decapitated bodies, and that the majority of the 90 artifacts found in the immediate area of the burials were bone points such as those made for spears and arrows.

: Site map of 1973 Lachane excavation just above the Navy storage tanks and near what used to be the Co-op Cannery site.

Aksk’s warriors used spears and arrows, and cut off the heads of those they had killed. It should be noted that this was a rare occurrence as there is no other mention of decapitation in any of the thousands of pages of Northwest Coast oral history recorded by Barbeau and Beynon.

Richard Inglis, who researched the wet site area of the Lachane site, reported that “towards the bottom of level four was an extensive mass of large logs, tree stumps and branches. Some of the stumps clearly showed adzing on their ends.  He concluded that they had been left there when the site was originally cleared, roughly dated to 1500 years ago.  This interpretation, however,  does not take into account the laws of the Tsimshian and other Northwest Coast nations that teach respect for all living things and proscribe waste of any kind.  It certainly seems possible, since Aksk built the walkiik where a stream ran under the house, that the logs found in the wet site were the remains of his fortified house.

The Wet Site portion of the Lachane Site during the excavation in the 1970s

When you are near the Navy tanks at the Port of Prince Rupert, take a minute to imagine the amazing history of the warrior Aksk, who defended his territory and drove off the invading Gidaganits – and imagine too how different things might have been if Aksk had not been victorious.

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