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 Kwalaams
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
Lucy told her story in her own language of sm'alygax. Her
daughter, Doreen Robinson, provided English translation and added to the
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
[photograph by author]
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.
[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
[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
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
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.
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
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,
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.
26 Alex Bolton, interview, June 15,
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.