I used to spend my summers prospecting in Alaska and Northern British Columbia.  I spent a lot of time in the woods north of Hazelton, BC, the land of the Gitxsan.

For much of one summer I was working with a Gitxsan teenager named Artie Jacks.  Artie was a great guy and we used to talk about all kinds of things as we spent weeks hiking the mountains of the Necheskwa range north of Babine Lake and living in a tent miles and miles from the nearest town.

'Ksan Village

I was interested in Artie’s people, which was apparently unusual.  But I got him to teach me quite a few words in Gitxsan, including how to count to five on my fingers and most importantly how to swear.

The Gitxsan live along the Skeena River – called Ksan by them.  The word for people is Gkit, pronounced with a guttural hard sound.  So there are towns like Kitwanga, Kitsegukla, Kitwankool and Kispiox.

The language is related to Tsimshian which is spoken further down the Skeena and along the coast near Prince Rupert.  The Gitxsan were the majority of the population in the town of Hazelton.

It was interesting to learn from Artie that his grandfather remembered the first Europeans who came to the area in the early days of the 20th century.  That’s pretty recent and pretty amazing.

The problem that the Gitxsan people face today is that their language and culture are disappearing in the barrage of English media and people that envelop them.  While I was there, they opened a cultural village called ‘Ksan, and while I got a ticket, I ended up being in the bush during the celebration of the opening.

The group is working hard to preserve its language and culture and is one of the more organized such groups, from what I can see.

Now being able to count to five on your fingers and being able to swear – and Artie taught me some pretty choice things to say – is not a skill that can easily be used in everyday life.  You are more likely to meet a Roman centurion on the street than a culturally knowledgeable Gitxsan.

Women in Kitwanga -1910

But being able to swear in Gitxsan did come in handy once for me.  I was traveling in Europe and crossing the border from Spain to France.  The border guard saw my Canadian passport and starting to speak to me in rapid French.  It may seem odd, but I have never taken French in school.  I tried English, but he was insistent that if I was Canadian I must speak French.

At this point I let loose with a tirade of Gitxsan swear words calling the border guard all manner of rude things.  He looked at me with a puzzled expression and decided we could settle on English since he had no clue what I was saying to him and no idea what the language was I was speaking.  It sounds a little Germanic… but just a little.  So English was our compromise and I passed through the border.

Getting a little knowledge can almost always pay dividends later, so keep your curiosity burning.

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