Transcript - Bears’ Den Pole, Gwin̓aahaa

I’d like to tell the story of each totem pole. Each totem pole has a history behind it and every figure has a meaning. That’s how they keep the oral story alive. It is also a source of warning for young people – how to live and uphold our culture. This is what our totem pole is about.

There were a tremendous amount of totem poles standing in the Nass. The missionaries classified it as heathenism and us as being idle, so when some chiefs turned Christian, they cut them down and burned them. They used them for firewood, they used them for house posts. About 5 – 20 % of the original totem poles still survive today, and they are all over the world.

The third pole, Mixmaahl standing in front of the Nisg̱a’a longhouse. The bottom part is the Supernatural Person. A huge supernatural man who surfaces up in the water in the sea. We call it Hagwil̓ooḵ’. It carries a lot of seafood in its mouth. They envisioned that human-like figure huge supernatural being that surfaced. They managed to escape from it. So they took that as their crest.

The two men embracing each other on the pole, having arms interlocked – we call it G̱alksi-G̱alg̱olts’ax̱. Those are the two brothers who were fighting, having a civil war in the Nass over their territory with the other tribes. They were having civil war there and one brother got wounded really badly. So he picked up his brother and carried him through the enemy. When he put him down at the other end where it was safe, were he saved his brother, he said, “Before you die, I will get our territory back – I will get our land back.” Sure enough, he did. He went and defeated the enemies, the ones that were trying to take there territory. That’s why they have the two men on the totem pole called G̱alksi-G̱alg̱olts’ax̱. “Carry Through.” It means carry the brother through.

The next one [crest] is a bear. You notice on the bear – the mother bear – you notice there are five or six marks. [These are] rips showing that indicate the sister and five brothers of this family. They decided to go berry picking.

They left early in the morning. They used baskets. When they filled their baskets in the afternoon and were ready to come home, as they were going towards where the berry patch was, this one lady slipped on bear dung. She was so upset that she was cursing the bear. She said a lot of things about the bear, things you can’t even think of saying. Putting the bear down, there on the path.

When they got to the berry patch, they got their basket full in the afternoon. They were ready to go home. The lady had a basket full. She had a strap. She put it over her forehead. When she was going to pick her basket up to carry it, the strap broke. When she picked it up again, the strap broke. She didn’t even lift it very much. It kept breaking.

Her friends were getting very impatient, so she told her friends, “I know my way home. I will catch up to you later. So you can start walking.” So they left her behind and not long after they had gone, a young man came along and asked her, “What’s wrong”? She was crying and saying, “My strap on my berry bag keeps breaking.” “I’ll fix it for you,” said the young man. He didn’t do too much to it. “It’s strong.” He picked it up, put it on his back. “I’ll carry it for you and I’ll take you home.” She was very happy so she started talking to the man, a stranger. She didn’t know where the stranger came from, but he started conversing with her. They started walking and walking. It didn’t arise that they were walking in a different direction until they were far up the mountain. She started looking back and she was halfway up the mountain. They walked into an open house on the mountain. They walked inside. She didn’t realize that she was taken by the bear – all she could see was a young-looking man that was helping her. The others got home. She didn’t show up that night, so they all started searching for her. The uncle of the girl was very upset because she was a very valuable lady. In our culture, the ladies are very valuable because we look after the woman in the tribe. Like my mother was a Frog and Raven, so I was born Frog and Raven, my sister was born Frog and Raven, all her children are Frog and Ravens. Without the female, the house [and the tribe] will become extinct.

So that’s why this uncle was really upset for leaving this lady behind. She was lost. They put out a search party for her and they find their tracks in the muddy part there trail. And they say it was a bear’s tracks beside her own tracks, so they knew that she was taken by the bear and they couldn’t find her. They searched all over mountains. They couldn’t find her – pretty hard to find a bear’s den in the summer time – so winter time, the oldest brother decided to search for her and prepared to stay out for couple of days. Getting ready to fix his snow shoes, start walking, camp night time, early morning he start off again.

And he sense that he is near the bear’s den where his sister lives. He knows that she is still alive because she has been sighted from distance once in awhile. So as he was walking closer to the bear’s den, the bear was sitting outside the bear’s den, put both of his four fingers out and start waving past. When he did that, the hunter changed direction and went the other way. The second brother tried. They start talking to tell each other were they sensed the bear was. So he tried – same thing happened. Next morning after he camped to look for his sister, they get closer to the bear’s den and the bear put 2 fingers out. The second brother changed direction. The bear was walking towards them and changed direction, so they tried again. And the third brother the third year.

The sister had a youngest brother that just became a teenager who was growing into a man. He fasted, the third brother did the same thing. Three fingers, four fingers, changed direction. He fasted. He said, “My turn to look for my sister. I’m quite sure she is still alive.” He knew the way his brothers sensed were she was. He fasted, go through the ritual, go through fasting. When he is ready, they said, “Don’t try. You’re too young and we don’t want to go out and look for you. Never can tell what the weather is like in the winter time – you will get lost.” Nope – he took off early in the morning. When he got to the camp, he camped out and rested. Next morning, he made himself breakfast then he started walking again. He didn’t walk very far – he was coming close to the bear’s den.

The bear put 5 fingers out – try to redirect the young hunter. The hunter, it didn’t affect him. The sister was so excited the youngest brother was growing into a man – so excited that she grabbed the snow, squeezed it, and let it roll down the hill. And the little balls rolled. It rolled right in front of the young hunter. He stopped and picked it up, looked at it, and he saw human fingers in the snow, so he new that his sister is living in the bear’s den just above. So he started climbing. The bear knew he was going to be killed, so he started teaching his wife a dirge song – a bear dirge song – and his wife learned it by the time he got up there.

The young man killed the big bear. She already had 4 cubs that looked like bear. She took them home. They walked home. The cubs were running in front of them – playing in front of them. When they finally got home, the young boy’s uncle was very happy. He put up a feast for them. He welcomed them home. He promoted him to be in line for chieftainship.

Summertime, the bear cubs’ mother was busy working on salmon. She left them behind in her house – left them there. While she was gone, she heard the human children playing. She got suspicious.

The boys’ sister took her bear pelt off halfway. She watched the doors to see if her mother was coming back, and as soon as she saw her mother coming back, she blew a whistle to the boys. They all run and put there bear pelts on. The mother got suspicious, so she told the children she was going a long time to go get more salmon. “I don’t want any of you to stop the fire. Keep the fire going. I’m going to cook as soon as I get home, so keep the fireplace going.”

When she left, she doubled back. She sneaked back. The girl didn’t see her mother come back. She sneaked back the other way. When she got close to the house, she ran into the house while the boys were playing [as] naked humans. The mother went and grabbed all their pelts and threw them in the fire. The sister managed to put hers back on because she didn’t take hers all off. She put hers

back on and the boys were sitting there crying. They lost their bear pelts, so they all became human. Just the sister stayed a bear. So they used her pretty well. When they go out hunting – the uncles go out hunting, hunting bear in the winter time – she sensed were the bears’ dens are – she show it to them. That’s the story about the bear on the totem pole bear mother.

The one on top is a supernatural bird that had a long beak called Gitguxwts’ag̱at – a long nose. The story starts were the volcano erupts in the Nass. The main river was on the west side on the valley – against the mountain on the west side – and the creek goes all the way up to the lake. Salmon spawning – quick, pink salmon spawns there – just thick blood along the creek.

The two boys cut the fins of the jack pines long enough. They catch the pink salmon humpback. They cut a hole in their back and put those pitch in there and burn it. They did that to a lot of salmon and see the flames going all over the creek. They were laughing away, enjoying themselves. And the old people warned them, “You shouldn’t do that, taboo is going to curse us. You’re not supposed to play around with nature like that. You’re not supposed to make fun of nature.”

Nope, they never listened. But one night they heard a huge rumbling noise. Next thing you know, there was nothing but dust and they managed to escape, but the young girl changed lives first period was then. They usually get the granny to look after her for 4 days or a whole week in the hut. They eat the year old food. They’re not allowed to eat fresh food. I questioned why there not allowed to eat fresh salmon and fresh meat. Well you know, the salmon blood in the meat got at the meat. You leave it for a couple days, a few days – the odor is very strong, very bad. So that’s why they’re not allowed to eat anything fresh in those days.

They weren’t near the volcano when it erupted. The volcano started flowing. I was taken to the crater. There wasn’t very huge crater, but [it] still puts out a lot of it [lava]. The lava flow was a mile and a half wide, 10 to 15 miles long, and it pushed the river way over to the west side of the valley. That’s were it pushed the river.

So the supernatural being on the west side of the mountain, Gitswatx̱, hii nax̱noḵ. “Where the drum is hanging” they call that mountain. And they heard the supernatural being in the lake on the east side against the mountain saying, “Your people are perishing – why don’t you help them?”

That’s when the huge bird surfaced on the lake and put it’s beak way out, all the way out across the valley. Tried to stop the lava flow, but it failed. But there was a point at Canyon [City] you can see – the point called “Side of the nose” point. That’s where it failed.

Then the supernatural being from the other side of the mountain, nax̱noḵ, threw a huge net, tried to stop the lava flow. But the lava flow threw [back] a huge ball that was almost 12 feet ball that is sitting on the ground with the mountain today.

The lava kept on flowing – about another 4 miles it flowed. The supernatural bird attempted again – put its beak all the way out to stop the lava flow. That’s when it succeeded, on the lava bed at Gitwinksihlkw, one of the largest lava fields in North America.

Beautiful. Looks like you’re on the moon when you’re there. When you get at the end of the lava bed at the end of the road, you see the tree line straight out in the river that came that way. Gitguxwts’ag̱at, the supernatural bird, succeeded in stopping the lava from flowing. There was a huge pond on the west side full of lizards. That’s where the people of Ksiluux moved when the lava [came]. The village where the point where the boys harassed the salmon. They moved there. And the pond turned to be part of the river. And there’s a bay below the village. That’s why they call the village Gitwinsihlkw – it means “People of the Lizards”.

They found the round cave on the lava beds straight across Gitwinksihlkw not far from the road, and there was a big hole in there. That indicates that was the hut the old lady and the young girl were in the lava flow. Once in a while, they do find human figures on the lava bed that turned into lava. Next time they look, they couldn’t find it. That’s the story of the Bear’s Den totem pole that’s standing in front of the Nisga’a hall.

Back to Bears' Den Pole