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History and Legend at Gitwangak Battle Hill

For the week of Monday, October 10, 2016

On October 14, 1971, Gitwangak Battle Hill was designated as a National Historic Site. Located along the Skeena River, in the interior of northern British Columbia, Gitwangak Battle Hill was a fortified Gitxsan village. Archaeologists have identified the remains of five multi-family houses, a defensive palisade, and many food storage pits, all dating to the 18th and 19th centuries.

View of Gitwangak Battle Hill
© Parks Canada

Gitxsan legend relates that the warrior Nekt built the village and used it as a base to conduct raids for food and slaves on the Skeena River and the Pacific coast. To fight his epic battles for control of the region, Nekt wore bearskin armour and used a magical war club called k'i'laa, “Strike-Only-Once.”

A combination of archaeological and historical research suggests that the fortified village was built in response to trade wars and raids. Earth was moved to raise the height of the hill and the vegetation around the site was controlled to reduce the chance of a surprise attack. Spiked logs could be rolled down side of the hill to crush attackers and the houses had hidden trap doors that allowed residents to enter and exit the village undetected. One house had a secret space under the floor where valuables could be stored and people could hide from raiders.

The village was strategically located along the Kitwankul Grease Trail, which was an important trade route between the coast and the interior. Precious oolichan fish oil was brought eastward, passing through Gitwangak, and traded as far as the prairies. The oil was exchanged for baskets, leather, and pemmican.

As more First Nations acquired European firearms, the fortified village became ineffective after 100 years of use. In 1835, inhabitants abandoned Gitwangak, and established another village six kilometres away. This is where the Gitwangak Band Council exists today. Shortly after moving, they made poles that depicted key events in their oral history like Nekt’s story. These totem poles are some of the oldest in British Columbia that remain in their original village.

Gitwangak Battle Hill is designated as a National Historic Site for its archaeological heritage and its association with local legends. Originally called Kitwanga Fort, its name was changed in 2006 at the request of the Gitwangak Band Council. To learn more about First Nations archaeological sites, read A Canadian Archaeological Treasure in the This Week in History archives.

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