Dalk Gyilakyaw (Robin Town)

The main residential area for the community of Kitsumkalum the canyon of the Kitsumkalum River. In sm'algyax, this town was called Dałk Gyilakyaw, a name that is usually translated, loosely, as Robin Town. The exact translation is slightly different: gyilakyaw is the Sm'algyax word for robin and the Sm'algyax word dałk is the word for a type of house built by important Sm'gyigyet (or chiefs). The name Dałk Gyilakyaw therefore creates the image of a very important chief's house.


Figure 4: Drawing of a big house at Lax Kw’alaams
[Boas 1916]


The interior of a dałk consisted of a series of platforms arranged around a large open floor that often was an excavated depression in the ground, leaving what archaeologists call a house pit when the dałk no longer exists. The late Lucy Hayward of Lax Kw'alaams (Port Simpson) explained the pits this way:

I guess that's where the older generation used to live in the olden days. Because I see what people call the big dałk. The big dałk [meaning at Robin Town] was very deep. It was getting over grown with berry bushes. 9

Lucy told her story in her own language of sm'alygax. Her daughter, Doreen Robinson, provided English translation and added to the description:

She remembers that she's seen big, big old homes that they used to have long time ago that you have to dig out. Dig out and then it's just like an arena. It's dug out and that's what they called 'tschm-dackh caught-seen-ah'. I've seen it at Kitkatla and was told by my grandfather that you dig out a big place it would be the size of a hall now. And in that place there is a family of a child and all the families that would go down, that would be in that place and that's the place where they would have their potlatches, Indian dancing, or anything that goes on during the year. She remembers seeing one of that, and it was overgrown with salmon berries at the time she was small.10

Robin Town had such a central importance to the people of Kitsumkalum and to the region that it is widely thought of as the capital of old Kitsumkalum. All the families of Kitsumkalum eventually came to live in Robin Town and to identify with it as their community. The place was so greatly associated with the history of the Kitsumkalum people that they were sometimes referred with the nickname 'the People of the Robin', a name they frequently use today.


Figure 5: Kitsumkalum Canyon, 1982
[photograph by author]


There are no pictures of Robin Town but Rev. Henry Pierce said 'the formation of the rocks of Kit-sum-kalum Canyon, lay in tiers, and tradition says that the first village discovered there was built right on the topmost tier.11 The ridges on which Robin Village stood are easy to identify, especially in Spring time before the trees and bushes have leafed-out or in the Fall when the branches are bare again. There are four ridges, three of which are nested above each other, with an orchard of crab apple trees and hazelnuts on the fourth one. While imagining the old style big houses that were built on these ridges, it is possible to understand why the town had the appearance of having three or four streets, as described in stories and legends.

A town of this size must have been a busy place with many houses, many of which would have been beautifully decorated. Elder Lucy Hayward said,

There were just that many houses, there [Robin Town]. They were old fashion houses, of long ago. They had totem poles there. But they are all gone, now. And there was the same number of houses by the Skeena River [Kitsumkalum Village]. Don [Roberts Sr.] lives a little way below it [Robin Town], now. We used to face the Kalum River. That's where the houses were standing.

Her statement that there were crest (or totem 12) poles in the area was collaborated by David Nelson. Although he could not provide details, he reported on their fate.

There was, I think, some totem poles. And what [was on them] I can't remember, I can't remember. The old man told me that they were all cut down. All fell down, every one of them.13

Archival sources contain some ethnographic details that were received from 'the old man' and this information will be discussed more fully, later.

In the Tsimshian 'The Story of the Ghost'14, Robin Town was described:

Long ago there were many people in the various villages among the Indians. A large village of three rows was situation on Kitsumkalum [G×its!Emg_´lôn]River, and a great many people were in that village who shouted when the geese were flying over the village. When they shouted, the geese would fall down to the ground and die. They were very healthy, and had a great chief and chieftainess, who had an only son, whom they loved much, and all the people of the village love him much. The prince was called Brown Eagle.

In 'The Story of Part Summer'15, the town was described as 'very pretty'.

In olden times there was a very happy people in the village of Kitsumkalum [G×its!Emg_´lôn]. They lived in a very pretty town of three rows up the Kitsumkalum [G×its!Emg_´lôn] River. I called it the Three-Row Land, for the village was built in three rows. They built their houses on top of the hill, the second row under the first, and the third row under the second one. The town was on the bank of a river, a very good river, and the village was not far from a very large lake.

In the story of 'The Chief who Married the Robin and the Sawbill Duck'16. The town is described as a beautiful, healthy place to live:

Therefore the people say nowadays that as soon as the robin sings the first time in spring, the ice begins to melt. They say that the bird's singing over the ice causes it to melt. They went on many days, and finally reached a beautiful town. There were four rows of houses there, and every row was full of houses, and the chief's house was in the middle of the first row. It was a very large house. The village was very beautiful, and all the people in the village looked very fine.

Nearby to the main residential of Robin Town were several other residences - satellite communities, if you like. These were on both sides of the canyon, with access by means of a bridge or boat.

The Streets of Robin Town

Robin Town is described consistently as a place of many streets - either three or four. Each street was defined by the terraces on which Robin Town was located. These terraces rose above the mouth of the canyon, more or less parallel to the river. Following the natural contours of the terraces, the big, traditional style houses were arranged in rows and placed side by side.

The cultural and social significance of the arrangement of the streets and rows of houses at Robin Town should not be overlooked. Streets are public areas with a greater social role than their basic function of allowing people to move easily from house to house. They only exist within a settled area, where people live in a social setting. People gather on streets, they meet, and they socialize. Streets are areas where people assemble, interact, and do public things, and where the community sees itself and identifies itself.

Thinking of the streets in this way, we can use archival documents to reconstruct a picture of street life in Robin Town. In 1918, the Tlingit anthropologist, Louis Shotridge, recorded a description of Robin Town from information given to him by a Kitsumkalum leader, either Charles Nelson or Sam Kennedy:

In course of time, when other parties from upper Skeena River came down to join the community, the place gradually grew to a very large town. It was divided into different sections, each section being a single row of houses arranged on level ledges staged down the embankment, and occupied by different phratric divisions. The town grew so large that on some occasions a visitor from one section to another disappeared17.

We can imagine the members of each pteex living in close proximity, with close interaction on their own terrace as they went about their daily chores. At the same time, the activities on the other streets would have been visible and of interest to others. In the story of The Chief who Married the Robin and the Sawbill Duck18, people went searching for a wife for their sm'oogyet. Some went to Kitsumkalum.

Those who went up the mountains reached a large plain, where they saw a large village, and they went toward it. When they came near, they saw young people walking up and down on the street. They seemed very happy, and they were good to look at. They were young men and young women. When they saw the hunters coming to their village, some young men ran in and told the people and also their chief, who invited the strangers into his house. They spread mats at the side of the chief's large fire, and immediately they sat down.

The street life described here is active, as one would expect. Young people, both men and women, are on the street and happy. When they encountered strangers coming in to their community, the young men immediately ran to inform the authorities who took the proper actions. In the Story of the Drifting Log19, 'the young people were shouting outside on the street' in a scene of young people socializing in the streets.

The streets of Robin Town helped the residents move around but the streets also helped the residents be a part of a community. In conformity with the traditional Tsimshian style, the houses were 'arranged side by side, facing the water, with the street stretching in front of the houses parallel with the river20 and were grouped according to the four pteex , with each pteex occupying a separate terrace. The previous quote from the story of 'The Chief who Married the Robin and the Sawbill Duck'21, described the 'rows of houses' and Robin Town as 'very beautiful'. Some of the street beauty that was the result of public art, crest art, decorating the houses. Carvings such as the house posts, the rafters, and the crest poles, all enhanced the appearance of the town's buildings. The art work also identified the chiefs and houses who formed the community in Robin Town, as well as where they lived.


Figure 6: Chief Councillor Steve Roberts during a 1982 ethnohistorical survey of the canyon area
[photograph by author]


The Apple Orchard

Community members often say that wherever there are crab apple trees or nut trees, there is a settlement site. This actually is a very good guide that has been noted elsewhere on the coast.22 Both crab apples and nuts are found in the Robin Town area in association with houses. In fact, a very large and impressive orchard exists above Robin Town. Ken Downs, who is studying the ethnobotany of the area, described the cluster of trees as an 'orchard' rather than as a 'stand'. His insight helped develop an appreciation of the social and economic importance of the trees for Robin Town.

The word crab apple translates as moolks in Sm'algyax. There are various English names for moolks, including the species name Malus fusca (orPyrus fusca23), the Pacific Crabapple, and the wild crab apple. Moolks is a small tree but it can grow up to 12 metres in height. Preferred locations include moist woods, swamps, edges of standing and flowing water, and upper beaches. The crab apple orchard of Robin Town is in a moist area above the town.


Figure 7: Moolks
[photograph by Nancy Turner, used with permission]


The trees themselves suggest they were also valued for their decorative and aesthetic qualities. Moolks flowers with showy and fragrant apple blossoms that are white or pink. During the spring flowering, the orchard must have produced great beauty for the eyes and a wonderful fragrance in the air around Robin Town. A cluster of cedars beside the path that leads down into the orchard, the Apple Orchard Path discussed below, is still growing in such a way that they form an enclosed and shady arbour with a great view of the mountains and the valley. During apple blossom time, this sheltered nook would have been a very peaceful place to rest.

Walking through the orchard, there is a definite sense of order but also of neglect. The trees still bear fruit but they have not been tended for a long time. Traditionally, people used to take care of the trees by pruning them. When the trees grew large, they were cut so as to re-grow as a smaller tree closer to the ground for pickers.24 Today, the trees are old and have not been pruned for many years. The area is wild and over grown, yet the trees are have a definite appearance of spacing, especially when one walks down the path to enter the orchard from above.


Figure 8: The Apple Orchard
[photograph by author]


Hazelnuts (Corylus corunta) were one of the few types of seeds eaten aboriginally.25 A small, branchy shrub, the hazelnut produces a favoured food that has a sporadic distribution. An unusual northern distribution is centred on the Hazelton area and includes the Kitsumkalum Valley. Hazelnut shrubs grow in well drained but moist sites, in open forest and shady openings such as clearings. Many shrubs can still be found throughout the Robin Town area. Several house sites along the canyon, such as at Gitmiinłgalaaw, have hazelnuts growing along the outside of the house depressions. This is not accidental but a result of gardening. The old people brought the hazelnut shrubs to Robin Town using saplings from Kitselas Canyon26 and planted the bushes where they were convenient.

Hazelnuts were valuable as food and peoples who were not in a hazelnut area often travelled to obtain them. At Kitsumkalum Canyon, there were lots to be picked and stored.

And you know those nuts [Hazel nuts], the round ones. There is lots up there, too. We used to fill up pails.27

The Robin Town shrubs are now untended and wild but while Robin Town was inhabited, they must have added much to the landscaped appearance of the community.

The Graveyard

Elders say there was a graveyard at Robin Town. Although the location is not known, Don Roberts, Jr. was told it was near the town. This fits with the information from Lucy Hayward, who spoke about the burial location of a sm'oogyet at Robin Town.

And where they had the marker [a pole, which is described below], where the chief was buried... And there was a big house there, where the chief was buried. I don't know who the chief was, that was buried there. That's where there was a sandy place. That's in front of our place.28

Elder Winnie Wesley remembered29 hearing that the graveyard had been disturbed by people searching for souvenirs, in effect grave robbers.


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9 L Hayward interview, Kitsumkalum Social History Research Projects Archives.

10 L Hayward interview, Kitsumkalum Social History Research Projects Archives.

11 Hicks, John Peak (Ed.) 1933. From Potlatch To Pulpit: Being The Autobiography Of Reverend William Henry Pierce. Vancouver: The Vancouver Bindery Ltd. p. 173 .

12 The term "totem pole" is not an accurate description of the carvings, which were not totems but crests. The term "crest pole" is more accurate, although it is not commonly used. More accurate still would be "carved crest column".

13 David Nelson, interview 1980

14 Boas, Franz 1916, Tsimshian Mythology. In: Thirty?first Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, 1909?1910. 1910. Washington Government Printing Office. pp. 336-339.

15 Boas 1916, pp. 278-284, 834-835.

16 Boas 1916, pp.179-185

17 Shotridge, L. 1919. A Visit To The Tsimshian Indians. In The Museum Journal, University Of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania: The University Museum. X: :119.

18 Boas, 1916, pp.179-185. The full text of the story is reproduced below.

19 Boas 1916, pp. 253-260; 831-832.

20 Boas 1916, p.395.

21 Boas, 1916, pp.179-185

22 McDonald, James A. 2005. Cultivating in the Northwest: Gleaning the evidence from the Tsimshian. In Keeping it Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America. Nancy Turner and Doug Deur, ed. pp. 240-273. Washington: University of Washington Press.

23 Pojar , Jim a. A. M. e. 1994 Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska. Vancouver: Lone Pine Publishing. p. 48

24 Alex Bolton August 1982; Margaret Anderson pers. comm., October 29, 1997 quoted in McDonald 2005.

25 Pojar and MacKinnon 1994. p:92.

26 Alex Bolton, interview, June 15, 1979.

27 Lucy Hayward, Kitsumkalum Social History Research Projects interview 1980.

28 Lucy Hayward, Kitsumkalum Social History Research Projects interview 1980.

29 Kitsumkalum Social History Research Projects interview, October 28, 1980.