SGANISM SM’OOGIT (meaning “mountain chief”; also known as Sagawan, meaning “sharp tooth,” in reference to a mountain at the mouth of the Nass River, B.C., K’ayax, and Mountain), Nisga’a chief; b. c. 1830, probably in Git’iks or Gunwok, B.C.; d. 1928, probably in Kincolith (Gingolx), B.C.
Ancestry and kinship define the social structure of the Nisga’a and other nations of the northwest Pacific coast. Individuals inherit names that determine their place in the kinship networks and in society. In one of the Eagle clan lineages of the Nisga’a Gitxatin tribe, generations of high-ranking men have held one or all of the names Sganism Sm’oogit, Sagawan, and K’ayax, these names changing with their age and rank in society. Since northwest coast peoples reincarnate within their own lineage, these men in reality inherit their own names. The biography of Sganism Sm’oogit then is that of countless generations of individuals who held this name and led this lineage. The lineage was founded by a people who settled at the mouth of the Nass River after the last ice age and, over time, established the villages of Git’iks and Gunwok. Later, others migrated to the region, bringing their distinct histories and forming a complex network of relationships with those already there. Still later, an Eagle clan group of Athapaskan origin which had first settled along Portland Canal and Observatory Inlet joined the group of Sganism Sm’oogit. Finally, around A.D. 500, many groups of both the Eagle and the Wolf clans arrived from the north and one Eagle clan group among them also settled with Sganism Sm’oogit’s people.
In the late 18th century, when Euro-Canadian history first intersected with that of the Nisga’a, the Wolf and Eagle clan descendants of these migrating peoples had long been established on the Nass River and active in the trade with interior peoples that had been a vital part of the northwest coast economy for several centuries. When the first European ship arrived in Nass Harbour to barter goods for furs, the Sganism Sm’oogit of the period was well positioned to control access to the ships. He strengthened his ties with Legex [see Paul Legaic*], a Tsimshian chief who shared a common ancestry with the last Eagle group to join Sganism Sm’oogit’s people. Together they ensured that their sea otter furs would be the first to be traded. To acquire inland furs for exchange, Sganism Sm’oogit drew on his shared ancestry with the Tsetsaut, the Athapaskan people to the north of Portland Canal.
The first Sganism Sm’oogit identified in European history, born about 1830, grew up during a period of intense competition for the wealth to be gained in the declining fur trade economy. He faced attempts to wrest control of the mouth of the Nass from him and the other lineages there, and a decline in the quantity of furs, especially beaver, from Athapaskan sources. In the 1860s lineages of the Eagle, Wolf, and Killer Whale clans vied for the same control of trade along the Nass that the Tsimshian Eagle clan chief Legex exercised over the Skeena River region to the south. The competition for power took form in a race to raise the tallest totem pole on the Nass.
At a feast he hosted in Git’iks around 1860 Sganism Sm’oogit took his names, assumed the rank of chief, and raised the tallest pole on the Pacific coast, thus confirming his wealth and status. Alfred Mountain, in an interview in company with Albert Allen and William Moore, would later describe the feast, explaining that “My uncle made this totem pole at Git’iks . . . as a monument to Gitxhon, Txalaxatk and K’ayax [his predecessors] . . . there was a big quantity of copper shields and goods given away at the time the pole was made.
“It took three days to raise [the pole] and all the people of Laxskiik [Eagle] . . . origin then brought all their wealth such as guns, overcoats, blankets and other valuables [which] were thrown into the hole at the foot of the totem pole.
“[It was] to be erected in the spring just before the arrival of the eulachons when all of the people of the entire Nass were to be invited as well as those of Tongass and Kasaan and messengers were sent to all of these tribes, inviting them to come to the feast of Mountain.”
Although only in his thirties, Sganism Sm’oogit had confirmed his lineage’s position at the mouth of the Nass. The establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Simpson (Lax Kw’alaams) in 1831 had lessened the importance of the mouth of the Nass as a key trading location, but the eulachon fishery there still drew people from up and down the coast and still attracted fur traders. Sganism Sm’oogit continued to trade with his Tsetsaut relations, especially Saanik, a leader at Smailx, at the head of Portland Canal, and he established himself at Knagooli, at the gateway to this lucrative enterprise.
When Robert Tomlinson, a Church of England missionary, moved to Kincolith in 1867, the Wolf clan chief Hlidux saw an opportunity to undercut Sganism Sm’oogit’s position. Protected by the missionary and by the navy ships at his disposal, he became Tomlinson’s right-hand man at Kincolith, in the heart of Sganism Sm’oogit’s territory. He had had his eye on Sganism Sm’oogit’s alliance with the Tsetsaut for some time, to the point of killing their leader Saanik in an unsuccessful attempt to force them to trade with him. Hlidux encouraged Tomlinson to visit the Tsetsaut at the head of Portland Canal in the hopes that when William Duncan*, Tomlinson’s mentor and counterpart at Metlakatla, visited Kincolith the Tsetsaut would bring their furs to his trading sloop.
As Txalaxatk (Robert Stewart) would explain in 1948, “[Tomlinson] soon learned of [the Tsetsaut] with whom Sagawan had been trading for so long. . . . So he went to this village . . . and saw that there was a great many people there, also they had no canoes and a great deal of furs. So he traded several canoes for some of their furs and then invited them to come to Kincolith, telling them to fetch their furs there, to Mr. Duncan’s trading schooner. . . . Tomlinson was accompanied to Smailx by Hlid[u]x, who was his assistant. This man further urged [the new chief] Saanik to move to Kincolith. So bitter became the feelings [of Sagawan toward the new mission and Hlidux] that Sagawan together with his own group moved back to Git’iks.”
In spite of Tomlinson’s intrusion, Sganism Sm’oogit remained a powerful chief. At the beginning of the 1880s, in protest against Tomlinson’s actions, he and other chiefs joined the Methodist mission of the Reverend Alfred Eli Green in Laxgalts’ap. In 1881 Sganism Sm’oogit and some chiefs of this group led the first land claims delegation from the northwest coast, protesting in Victoria against the creation of reserves in British Columbia and the crown’s assertion of landownership. In 1885 they published a letter in the Victoria Daily Colonist denouncing the inadequacies of the government’s land allotments and incursions on their lands.
Because of his status and enormous knowledge of Nisga’a culture, Sganism Sm’oogit was sought out by anthropologists. American Franz Boas*, who visited the Nass region in 1894, and Canadian Marius Barbeau*, during his first visit in 1927, recorded many of the histories of his lineage. Barbeau asked to purchase his famous totem pole, then at risk of falling in the abandoned village of Git’iks. Sganism Sm’oogit’s response, “Give me the tombstone of Governor [Sir James Douglas*]; I will give you the totem of my grand-uncles,” encapsulates his feelings about the request. He was almost 100 years old when he passed away the following year. He had lived through a period of enormous change. While others resorted to force and alliances with Euro-Canadian institutions, he had remained faithful to his heritage and the dignity of his position.
Little is known about the nephew to whom the title Sganism Sm’oogit passed. As was the custom at the time, he took the English translation of his name as his surname when he was baptized, and became Alfred Mountain. In 1928 he and other nephews of the deceased chief sold the totem pole that had been raised by their uncle to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, where it has been preserved and displayed ever since.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Sganism Sm’oogit (James Robertson) brought the traditions of his ancestors into the political and legal arena. Drawing on “ancestral native law in order to protect ancestral lands,” he contested elements of the Nisga’a Final Agreement of 2000, a treaty which excluded lands he and his lineage shared with their Tsetsaut kin. These ancestral traditions, still alive, stretched back to the first Sganism Sm’oogit at the end of the last ice age.
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Arch. (Hull, Que.), Marius Barbeau fonds, folder: I Gwenhoot (original ms), Narrative no.I 122, box 299, f.5; Mss ready for publication ser., folder: The Gwenhoot of Alaska, box 102, f.3, Marius Barbeau, “The Gwenhoot of Alaska in search of a bounteous land” (typescript, Ottawa, 1959); Northwest coast files ser., folder: Gitxatin, B-F-104, box B8, ff.12-13; box B9, f.1. Daily News (Prince Rupert, B.C.), 17, 28 June 2002. Marius Barbeau, Totem poles (2v., Ottawa, 1950-51), 1. Franz Boas, “Tsimshian mythology,” Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Annual report (Washington), 1909-10: 29-1037. Susan Marsden, Defending the mouth of the Skeena: perspectives on Tsimshian Tlingit relations (Prince Rupert, 2000). Susan Marsden and Robert Galois, “The Tsimshian, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the geopolitics of the northwest coast fur trade, 1787-1840,” Canadian Geographer (Toronto), 39 (1995): 169-83. Peter Murray, The devil and Mr. Duncan (Victoria, 1985). E. P. Patterson, Mission on the Nass: the evangelization of the Nishga (1860-1890) (Waterloo, Ont., 1982).