Shamanism Defends a People


In 1984 the Gitxsan of northern British Columbia, Canada, and the neighboring Witsuwit’en First Nation launched a landmark land claims case in response to incursion on their territories culminating in clear-cut logging operations. In this lengthy case, called Delgamuukw v. Regina, Gitxsan and Witsuwit’en head chiefs testified they had never given up rights to their land and culture that were based on shamanic traditions intimately tied to a system of hereditary chiefs.

The Gitxsan are a matrilineal society of about 5,000 people, and are closely related to the Nisga’a and Tsimshian. Their traditional territories are in the Skeena River basin and the headwaters of the Nass River in the coastal mountain region of northern British Columbia.
A Testimony for Halait

In her 1987 testimony for the Delgamuukw case, Mary McKenzie, head chief of her Wolf Clan House (her chief name is Gylogyet), described the nature and the training of the halait (also spelled halayt), the Gitxsan shaman1:
In the Gitxsan way … there’s a group that we call halayts and they foresee things. … But before getting to become a halayt you have to train for it. People go through training for a year, two years before they have the power of seeing—foreseeing the things that will come about later.

My grandmother was one of the second best in Kispiox [a Gitxsan village] and I [have] seen so much of what she had said would come true. ... So this is why I questioned her so much of how she became a halayt, you know, she said, “We have to go through training.” And [s]he2 said “And this halayt is not forced on you.” [S]he said “Right from the start you have it inside you, the feeling that you will become a good halayt, so” [s]he said “you have to go forward with that feeling in you that you’re going to make yourself into a halayt.” … They’re taken away from the village completely. They have to be out in the wilderness with their trainer and quite a bit of fasting is done … they’d just have a meal once a day and they have to exercise to give them strength.

Now, songs have to be used by these halayts. … Now, those songs, these people, they’re taken out where there’s a waterfall and they stay there for some time. And this person would go to this waterfall and sit by this waterfall by the hours and then you hear the echo of the waterfall and they listen to that and they say little by little there’s words coming out from that waterfall and this they have to—they have to remember what these words are and what they mean. … It takes a long time. It could go by months and weeks to gather all these songs for them to use when they start performing on the person that they [are] going to cure. And when you’re ready you’re not afraid. They say you’re not afraid of anything and you have this strength in you. Your hands are strong, your feet are strong, your mind is clearer then too, so you become a halayt and then these visions become appearing to you. It’s not a dream, it’s visions come to these people.

Gylogyet also said the foresight of the halayt predicts the weather, whether there will be plenty of berries and fish, and if a person’s spirit has left them. “This happens when you are frightened and your spirit leaves you and then the people see where your spirit is.” She went on to relate her own soul-loss experience when she was six years old:
I’ve experienced this myself in 1930 … just as soon as we were going up the river at Gitanmaax there the dynamites went off and it frightened the horses so they got away with us on the sleigh and I was really frightened. So after a while the horses stopped and we proceed going home to Kispiox. About six weeks after that I had problems with my sights. I couldn’t see very much. Everything became dimmer and dimmer so they took me up to the hospital. Dr. Wrinch was there and he examined me and he said “You have the measles.” He said, “And it’s gone to your eyes.” He said, “That’s why you’re turning blind.” So they took me up to Kispiox, my parents told my grandmother what’s happened. [S]he said, “Don’t you listen to Dr. Wrinch.” She said, “You have a problem.” She said, “You were frightened one time.” [S]he said, “I had another lady, another halayt came and told me that she had seen you,” she said, “in the rocks upriver from Gitanmaax.” [S]he said, “That’s where your spirit is there.” [S]he said, “And we have to get you out of there.”
So I was—I lost my sight for eight months and then it’s three times that these halayts had to come together and perform and then they—the third time they say I was out of it and after that I begin to just see shadows and then I got my eyesights back. That’s the strength of the halayts that brought my eyesights back ... they had to bring my spirit back to get my eyesights back with it. Now, these are the strength[s] that the halayts have of curing.
I was in this place [the healing lodge] for quite some time, they said that it would take a little while for them to loosen the rocks, and they performed there—maybe there would be a half a dozen of them and they have a place above Kispiox there. They have a building where they took me and each halayt performed what they have.
Now, they used what we call aatxasxw, that’s a power [often referred to in English as a guardian spirit or personal power]. With my grandmother she had the mountain goat as her aatxasxw, and above her bed she has this pelt of the mountain goat and it’s always there, all the time, even on her death bed she still had this with her, her aatxasxw. Now, some halayts would have a marking as their animal they call for this aatxasxw, like the mountain goat. They call for them to help her and give her more strength of—of bringing back the spirit of a person.
I had to be there every time they come together, and here again it cost my grandparents quite a bit of money for them to have these halayts go as they have to be given payment.

The lawyer representing the Gitxsan asked Gylogyet if she recalled what the halait did to her.
Oh, they had a bear skin on the floor and that’s where I laid … one halayt would do the performing, their thing, their songs. And there was one halayt there, his name was Louis Wesley, he went around with these rattles and these aatxasxw and they have their own regalias that they wear when they’re performing. Like some of them would just have a skin apron on.
Now, Louis Wesley’s aatxasxw was the cold water, ice water. Now, there were—I could sense, I wasn’t—I couldn’t see what they were doing, but I sensed what was going on, so when all the drums were going, the rattles were going, the singing, and they kept—he kept asking the other halayts, he said, “Beat the drums louder, the rattles louder.” He said, “I’m beginning to see where she is,” he said. So he said “Now,” he said, “pour me that cold ice water over me.” And they did and you could just see the steam they say when they poured cold water over him. Now that is his aatxasxw you see that performed the steam, so these are the kind of performance that each halayt has. One there went through the fire. They put the fire in the house they were in, and one would walk across this coal with bare feet and not getting them burned. These are the kind of power that they have within them.

“You said that the halayt cured you,” the lawyer asked. “Obviously you can see today?”

“Yes,” Gyologet answered.

“And you could see after they … completed their work with you?”

Shamanic Roots of the Halait

Gylogyet illustrated that Gitxsan halait followed the outlines of shamanism identified by Mircea Eliade: their group was large enough to have a Society of Healers whose members acted alone and together to treat patients. The Gitxsan halait also have the features Michael Winkelman has identified as core shamanism. The halait are often social leaders, providing diagnosis through divination and healing for individuals and the community. Halaits’ all-night ceremonies sometimes involve individual patients and their relatives, and are sometimes practiced in settings where the whole community is witness, such as at feasts known as potlatches. At these gatherings the halait and attendants enact a series of naxnox, or dramatic representations of their healing practices, some scary and some humorous. (Anderson & Halpin 2000) Dancing, drumming, and chanting produce a special state of consciousness that allows the Gitxsan and Witsuwit’en halait to do feats such as walk on coal.

The ecstatic state generally involves soul flight or journeys (as when the halait saw where Gylogyet’s soul had taken refuge in the rocks). The halait sometimes fly and sometimes transform into animals with the aid of their aatxasxw or personal power. Some magical transformations occur at spanaxnox, which are topographic features where the naxnox is manifested. (Marsden) Transformations from the earthly to a spirit plane characterize the experience of halait and the Gitxsan oral traditions, or adaawx.

That Gyloget chose to share with the court the description of the vision quest to become a healer and the story of how she was healed from blindness by the halait shows how important these healers are in the lives of the Gitxsan. Indeed, halait are integral to keeping the Gitxsan culture and people alive. Dr. Wrinch, from the local hospital, was well aware that Gyloget’s case was not unique: often the halait are able to cure a patient that the Western medicine of the hospital cannot.

Halait heal many sicknesses—not only ailments like Gyloget’s blindness, but also afflictions such as severe depression. Often the healing is accompanied by a revelation that the patient was a halait in a previous life but failed to accept the responsibilty. Healing not only restores people’s health but initiates them into the society of healers.
Repression and Survival

While the work of the halait was and is strategic in maintaining the health and balance of Gitxsan people, the practice has also received harsh and stern censure and demonization as “witchcraft” by missionaries, Indian agents, and settler society. During colonization large numbers of Gitxsan people died from diseases such as smallpox and influenza. The missionaries portrayed those deaths as the wrath of God for the practice of the halait. The activities of halait, like the potlatch that was legally prohibited from 1885 until 1951, went largely if not completely underground in the 1960s and 1970s. What ensued was ambivalence toward public exposure of halait, and concealment of practices that were previously privately practiced but publicly acclaimed. Gwaans, a wing chief of the House of Hannamux, has noted that today fewer head chiefs of the Gitxsan houses are publicly noted as halait than were at the turn of the century. Margaret Anderson and Marjorie Halpin have published William Beynon’s 1945 field notebooks describing potlatches in Gitsegukla, a Gitxsan village, in which halait performances were key to the potlatch during the time the potlatch was still officially illegal. “All of the halait names are referred to by Beynon as the property or privilege of specific houses or chiefs,” Anderson and Halpin state. Today’s halaits’ contemporary hesitancy to publicly admit to being halait does not mean they have ceased to exist or practice. A smaller percentage of head chiefs are halait than at the beginning of the 20th century, showing lingering ambivalence by the halait toward their own public practice due to the dominance of Christianity and the hegemonic put-down of halait; the ready availability of Western medical practices to address physical health; the need for Gitxsan leaders to shift some of their energy to healing the ravages of colonization such as alcohol and drug abuse in their communities; and the need to focus on land claims and treaty procedures to ensure the health of the Gitxsan people and their environment. The direction of energy is strategic. Indeed in 1997 the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision in the Delgamuukw case reestablished the rights of First Nations to have jurisdiction over their traditional territories and to use their oral traditions to demonstrate the connection of land to specific people. These oral traditions, or adaawx, are replete with aatxasxw and naxnox associated with places and people, and are the source of images on the famous Gitxsan totem poles that chiefs still erect, marking the connection between spiritual prowess, place, and healing power. But despite the Supreme Court’s finding, the rejection of Gitxsan adaawx by the initial judge means the Gitxsan must go back to court in order to actually reestablish, through treaty negotiations, their rights to their territories and sapnaxnox.

Meanwhile, behind the Gitxsan political activities the practice of halait continues, in more than innuendo. If chiefs share accounts of rebirth more openly or frequently than accounts of halait healings, it is in part because contemporary chiefs are more willing to admit that they were halait in their past life than that they are halait in their present life. The Gitxsan say repeatedly that halait exist because the great halait of the past keep reincarnating. Their practice, training, public acknowledgment, and challenges have merely shifted to the contemporary context in which the manifestations of the Delgamuukw land claims case still have to be worked out.
1. Gyloget testimony quoted from Supreme Court of British Columbia transcript of Delgamuukw v. the Queen/Regina Vol. 7. (1987). pp 390-391.
2. While the English language makes a gender distinction in pronouns ("he" and "she"), the Gitxsan language, like many other Native American languages, does not. Therefore, people like Gyloget, whose first language is Gitxsan, often use “he” and “she” interchangeably when speaking English.
Antonia Mills is an associate professor of First Nations studies at the University of Northern British Columbia. She was hired by the Gitxsan-Witsuwit’en Tribal Council to write an expert report on the Witsuwit’en, and testified in on their behalf in the Delgamuukw case. Gwaans (Beverley Clifton Percival) is from Wilps Hanamuuxw (House of Hanamuuxw), Giskaast (Fireweed) clan, gal tsup (Community of) Gitsegukla. She is treaty negotiator for the Gitxsan Treaty Society. She lives in Old Hazelton and participates actively in the Gitxsan Liligit (feasting system). She is proud and passionate about her identity as a Gitxsan Hanak (woman) and walks gently on the breath of her ancestors. She undertakes with pride her responsibility to pass on her teachings to her daughter and madjagalee (flowers) of the next generation. She holds an arts degree in sociology and anthropology from Simon Fraser University and is working toward her master’s degree in First Nations studies at the University of Northern British Columbia.
References and further reading
Anderson, M.,& Halpin, M., Eds. (2000). Potlatch at Kitsegukla: William Beynon’s 1945 Field Notebooks. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press.
Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Bollingen Series LXXVI. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Guedon, M. F. (1984a). An Introduction to Tsimshian World View and Its Practitioners. In The Tsimshian: Images of the Past; Views of the Present. Margaret, S. Ed. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press. Pp. 174-211.
Guedon, M. F. (1984b). Tsimshian Shamanic Images. In The Tsimshian: Images of the Past; Views of the Present. Margaret, S. Ed. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press. Pp. 174-211.
Marsden, S. (2002). Adawx, Spanaxnox, and the Geopolitics of the Tsimshian. BC Studies (135):101-135.
Mills, A. (1994). Eagle Down Is Our Law: Witsuwit’en Law, Feasts, and Land Claims. Vancouver, Canada: University of British Columbia Press.
Mills, A (1995). Cultural Contrast: The British Columbia Court’s Evaluation of the Gitksan Witsuwit’en and Their Own Sense of Self and SelfWorth as Revealed in Cases of Reported Reincarnation. BC Studies (104):149-172
Mills, A. (2002). The Gitxsan and Witsuwit’en in British Columbia. In Endangered Peoples of North America: Struggles to Survive and Thrive. Greaves, T. Ed. Westport Conn. & London: Greenwood Press. Pp. 59-78.
Supreme Court of British Columbia (SCBC). 1987. Volume 7. Delgamuukw v. the Queen.
Winkelman, M. (1992). Shamans, priests and witches. A cross-cultural study of magico-religious practitioners Anthropological Research Papers #44. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona State University.

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