Am halayt | Brown Bear Frontlet
Matt Shanley/AMNH Anthropology catalog 16.1/602

Selected features from the Northwest Coast Hall.

“Gitxsan” translates to “people of the river of mist,” referring to the Skeena River. The Nisg̲a’a, Tsimshian, and Gitxsan are neighbors along the Skeena and Nass Rivers. These Nations share many traditions, and their languages are closely related.

Matrilineal Society

Four women stand next to one another wearing ceremonial dress, and hold carved wooden objects in their hands at arm's length.
Gitxsan women performing with the dance group Dancers of Damelahamid (2018). Left to right: Margaret Grenier, Candice Harkley, Jeanette Kotowich, Rebecca Baker-Grenier.
Rafferty Baker/CBC Licensing

In Gitxsan society, lineage descends through women. A female Chief typically chooses an heir from among her children or her sister’s children. A male Chief’s heir is chosen from among his sister’s children. The passing down of Chiefly names, as well as property and responsibility, has remained consistent, following the matrilineal system of genealogy.

Two women standing in front of wooden building wear elaborate headdresses and thick patterned robes. Elaborate ceremonial dress shows the high social status of this Gitxsan mother, Mrs. Richard Douse (right), and daughter, Mrs. Fred Good (Maggie), Frog Clan, Wilps Gamlaxyeltxw, photographed in 1910.
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, NA3443
Woman in a dark patterned cloak with colorful trim stands in front of wooden structure. Dorothy Smith Lattie received the Gitxsan name Wii Gaak when she became a Wolf Clan Chief, Village of Gitanmaax, in 2020.
Ando’ohl lax̱ ha | Nathan Combs, Gitxsan Nation
daxgyet | a Chief's authority - In Gitxsanimax̲, the language of the Gitxsan people, this word conveys the strength of the people as well as a Chief's power and authority.

Traveling Between Worlds

Traditional doctors were called halayt, a word that refers to their ability to move between the spirit realm and the physical world. A shaman entered a trance-like state to call on spirit helpers for assistance in healing the sick and easing hardship among the people. 

Carved figurine of a person with a painted face, wearing a crown, and dressed in a hide robe hair and skirt.
A Gitxsan healer named Gutgwinuxs (White Owl) used this charm during the 1918 influenza pandemic. It represents a female shaman and was carved by Guxsen (Charles Mark), a shaman and Chief.
Canadian Museum of History, VII-C-1156, D2005-09799

Shamanic power tended to run in families. People born with healing powers worked with proven halayt to strengthen their abilities. Ultimately, the power to cure was gained through a vision quest taken alone. The last Gitxsan shaman practiced in the 1960s.

Am Miiluxw Luulak | Naxnox Mask

Carved and painted wooden mask depicting a human face.
AMNH Anthropology catalog 16.1/594

In the worldview of Tsimshian, Nisg̲a'a and Gitxsan people, supernatural spirits called naxnox inhabit all the world. A few exceptional people are able to forge an intimate connection with a naxnox. The spirit then acts as a guardian to help bring success in life. The mask above represents a naxnox in the form of an old woman wearing a large labret on her hinged lip.

Critical Role of Women in the Gitxsan Community

Artist Spotlight: Sug-ii-t Looks | Yolonda Skelton

Woman with short gray hair and glasses stands with her hands held in front of her, wearing a short-sleeve jacket with multi-color patterned circles.
Patrick Shannon

Sug-ii-t Looks | Yolonda (Loni) Skelton is a fashion designer and textile artist from the Gitxsan Nation. Skelton says that, “When people wear my pieces, it’s their history, wrapped around them, to empower and ground them in their culture."

Her Killer Whale Chilkat Wrap is featured in the Generation to Generation exhibition in the Northwest Coast Hall.

Patterned cloth wrap with colorful squares and geometric patterns on display in Museum glass case with mirror positioned to show the back designs.
Killer Whale Chilkat Wrap, 2017
Matt Shanley/© AMNH

I made this robe for my maternal grandmother, the late Lily Jackson, Na-gwaa. We are from the House of Hax-be-gwoo-txw, the Fireweed Clan, and we use the Killer Whale crest. She was a Chief—so I wanted her to have something that represented who she was in the modern day and also showed that she had that status. And I wanted a piece she could wear anywhere, not just to the feast hall.

—Sug-ii-t Looks | Yolonda (Loni) Skelton, Fashion designer / Textile artist
Gitxsan, Fireweed Clan, House of Hax-be-gwoo-txw, Burnaby, British Columbia

Map highlighting Gitxsan geography, including Hazelton, Gitlaxt'aamiks, Lax Kw'alaams, Metlakatla. Also shows proximity to Tsimshian and Haida land.



Gitxsan Consulting Curator

Xsim Ganaa'w | Laurel Smith Wilson

The Museum thanks Xsim Ganaa'w | Laurel Smith Wilson for the Gitxsanimax̲ words included on this site.