17 March 2010
For the Gitxsan people, the Wilp and clan are the two most important units of society. A person is born into a particular Wilp and clan. The Gitxsan, like many other small societies, are well organized through kinship lines. Kinship organizes most aspects of life including property ownership, economic activity, residence patterns, education, marriage, inheritance, political activity and most social relationships. All of these spheres of existence are determined by one's kin group membership. The basic kinship unit is the Wilp or House. The Wilp is composed of a group of matrilineally-related kin. In some Wilps the biological relationships between all Wilp members is known. In other Wilps there may be two to six lineages between whom the relationship is no longer remembered. This is sometimes expressed as "maybe our grandmothers were sisters."
There are about 45 to 65 Wilps, each ranging from 20 to 250 members and belonging to one of the four clans: Lax Gibuu, Lax Skiik, Lax Seel/Ganeda, Giskaast (Wolf , Eagle, Frog, Fireweed). The Wilp is a political unit with a considerable degree of autonomy. Each Wilp controls most of its own affairs. However, the chief's power never becomes dictatorial. In fact, as expressed in the adaawk, dictatorial power is a matter of serious concern.
One essential reason why the power of a Wilp chief could not become dictatorial is that power within a Wilp is never exclusively held by the chief. Each Wilp owns a set of ranked names with power and authority generally corresponding to the rank of each name. There are gradations in rank as well. The Wilp chief is the highest authority and is the spokesperson on behalf of all Wilp members. In some cases there are two or more chiefs equal in power. Wilp members with adult names and a seat in the feast hall make up the third gradation in rank within the Wilp. The rest of the Wilp members are actually children or adults who are "children" in the feast system.
Wilp names are like immortal living entities. They are eternal but they are also perpetually changing. Their fortunes rise and fall and they are continually growing and declining. The individual who holds a chief's name is seen as a temporary custodian of that name. They are obliged to hold up the honor of the name and thereby the honor of their Wilp by acting in a chiefly manner at all times and by fulfilling their chiefly duties.
The most important aspect of the Wilp is control over land. A chief is the nominal head of the territory. Gitxsan hereditary chief Solomon Marsden says, "the first person in the Wilp, the head chief is Miin Simoogit, and the power and authority is placed on this chief to make decisions on territories and Wilp plans."