The Tsimshian are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Their communities are mostly in coastal British Columbia and far southern Alaska, around Terrace and Prince Rupert in British Columbia, and Alaska’s Annette Islands.
Their original homeland is between the Nass and Skeena Rivers in British Columbia, Canada, though at contact in Southeast Alaska’s Portland Canal area there were villages at Hyder and Halibut Bay.
Presently in Alaska, the Tsimshian live mainly on Annette Island, in (New) Metlakatla, Alaska in addition to settlements in Canada.
The Tsimshian people consist of approximately 10,000 members of seven First Nations:
Allied Tribes of the Lax Kw’Alaams
Metlakatla Indian Community
Gitga’at at Hartley Bay
Kitasoo at Klemtu
The Tsimshian are one of the largest First Nations peoples in northwest British Columbia.
Some Tsimshian migrated to Annette Island, Alaska, where their descendants in the Metlakatla Indian Community number about 1450.
Early anthropologists and linguists had classified the Gitksan and Nisga’a as Tsimshian because of apparent linguistic affinities. The three were all referred to as “Coast Tsimshian,” even though some communities were not coastal.
These three groups, however, identify as separate nations.
At one time the Tsimshian lived on the upper reaches of the Skeena River near present-day Hazelton, British Columbia. The majority of Tsimshian still live in the lower Skeena River watershed near Kitimat, as well as northern coastal BC.
There are distinct groups of Tsimshian native peoples: the Nisga’a, the Gitksan, the Coast Tsimshian, and the Southern Tsimshian. The southern Tsimshian language had more prestige than the others and was often used ceremonially by the Nisga’a and the Gitksan.
According to southern Tsimshian lore, after a series of disasters befell the people, a chief led a migration away from the cursed land to the coast, where they founded Kitkatla Village, the first of three Southern Tsimshian villages.
Kitkatla is still considered to be the most conservative of the Tsimshian villages.
The Nishga and Gitksan remained in the upper Skeena region (above the canyon) near the Nass River and forks of the Skeena respectively, but other Tsimshian chiefs moved down the river and occupied all the lands of the lower Skeena valley.
Over time, these groups developed a new dialect of their ancestral language and came to regard themselves as a distinct population, the Tsimshian-proper.
They continued to share the rights and customs of those who are known as the Gitxsan, their kin on the upper Skeena.
In late prehistoric times, the Coastal Tsimshian gradually moved their winter villages out to the islands of Venn (Metlakatla). They returned to their summer villages along the lower Skeena River when the salmon returned.
Archaeological evidence shows 5,000 years of continuous inhabitation in the Prince Rupert region.
Kitkatla was probably the first Tsimshian village contacted by Europeans when Captain Charles Duncan and James Colnett arrived in 1787.
Although Captain James Vancouver sailed up the Portland Canal into Nishga territory in 1793, the Gitksan were not subject to settlement pressure until the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers, formerly the site of the Tsimshian village of Kitanmaks, became the new European settlement of Skeena Forks(today known as Hazelton).
When the Hudson’s Bay Company moved their fort to modern-day Port Simpson in 1834, nine Tsimshian villages moved to the surrounding area. Many of the Tsimshian peoples in Canada still live in these regions.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, epidemics of infectious disease contracted from Europeans ravaged their communities, as the First Nations had no acquired immunity to these diseases.
In 1862 a smallpox epidemic killed many of the native people. Altogether, one in four Tsimshian died in a series of at least three large-scale outbreaks.
In 1835, the total population of the Tsimshian peoples was estimated at 8,500. By 1885, the population had dropped to 4,500, 817 of whom moved to Alaska two years later.
In the 1880s the Anglican missionary William Duncan, along with a group of the Tsimshian, left Metlakatla, British Columbia and requested settlement on Annette Island from the U.S. government.
After gaining approval, the group founded New Metlakatla on Annette Island in southern Alaska. Duncan appealed to Congress to grant the community reservation status, which it did in the late 19th century. This is the only Indian reservation in the state of Alaska.
In 1895, the BC Tsimshian population stood at 3,550, while the Alaska Tsimshian population had dropped to 465 by 1900. After this low-water point, the Tsimshian population began to grow again, eventually to reach modern numbers comparable to the 1835 population estimate.
However, the numbers of the inland Tsimshian peoples are now higher than they were historically, while those of the Southern and Coastal Tsimshian are much lower.
In the 1970s, the Metlakatla Indian Community voted to retain their rights to land and water, and opted out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA); they have the only Native reservation in Alaska.
The residents of Arctic Village and Venetie accepted free and simple title to the land within the Venetie reservation boundaries, while all other tribes participated in ANCSA.
The Metlakatla Tsimshian maintained their reservation status and holdings exclusive of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. They do not have an associated Native Corporation, although Tsimshian in Alaska may be shareholders of the Sealaska Corporation.
The Annette Islands Reserve is the only location in Alaska allowed to maintain fish traps according to their traditional treaty rights. The use of these were otherwise banned when Alaska became a state in 1959.
The traps are used to gather fish for food for people living on the reservation.
Legally the community was required to use the traps at least once every three years or lose the right permanently. They stopped the practice early in the 2000s and lost their right to this traditional way of fishing.
In this culture, no central government existed. Each village and each clan house resolved its differences through traditional customs and practices; no organized gatherings for discussions of national policy making took place.
Decisions were made at the clan, village or house level, affecting clan members of an individual village or house. The people had a highly stratified culture, consisting of high-ranking individuals/families, commoners and slaves.
Unlike present day marriages, unions were arranged by family members. Slaves were usually captives from war raids on other villages.
The Tsimshian have a matrilineal kinship system, with a societal structure based on a clan system, properly referred to as a moiety. Descent and property are figured through the maternal line.
This means the children inherit all rights through the mother, including the use of the clan fishing, hunting and gathering land, the right to use specific clan crests as designs on totem poles, houses, clothing, and ceremonial regalia.
One’s place in society was determined by one’s clan or phratry. Four main Tsimshian clans form the basic phratry. The Laxsgiik (Eagle Clan) and Ganhada (Raven Clan) form one half. Gispwudwada (Killer Whale Clan) and Laxgibuu (Wolf Clan) form the other half.
Prior to European contact, marriage in Tsimshian society could not take place within a half-group, for example between a Wolf and a Killer Whale. It was considered to be incest even if there was no blood relationship.
Marriages were only arranged between people from clans in different halves: for example, between a Killer Whale and a Raven or Eagle.
Hereditary chiefs gained their rights through their maternal line and could be deposed by women elders.
The marriage ceremony was an extremely formal affair, involving several prolonged and sequential ceremonies. Some cultural taboos have related to prohibiting women and men from eating improper foods during and after childbirth.
Like all Northwest Coastal peoples, the Tsimshian harvested the abundant sea life, especially salmon. The Tsimshian became a seafaring people, like the Haida. Salmon continues to be at the center of their nutrition, despite large-scale commercial fishing in the area.
Due to this abundant food source, the Tsimshian developed permanent towns. They lived in large longhouses, made from cedar house posts and panels to withstand the wet climate. These were very large, and usually housed an entire extended family.
The Tsimshian used animal fur, mountain goat wool, tanned skins and cedar bark for clothing. Hats made of spruce roots and cedar bark kept the rain off the head. After western trading, wool and cotton materials were common.
Tsimshian religion centered on the “Lord of Heaven,” who aided people in times of need by sending supernatural servants to Earth to aid them.
The Tsimshian believed that charity and purification of the body (either by cleanliness or fasting) was the route to the afterlife.
In common with other Northwest Coastal peoples, the Tsimshian engage in the potlatch, which they refer to as the yaawk (feast).
High-ranking Tsimshian clans and/or individuals were expected to give potlatches. However, a potlatch could be given by a commoner who could raise his position by doing so.
Potlatches were held for the following occasions: a funeral or memorial potlatch, whereby the dead are honored; the witness and validation of the payment of a debt, or naming an individual; the completion of a new house; the completion and naming of clan regalia; a wedding; the naming of a child; the erection of a totem pole; or to rid the host of a shame.
Potlatches might last days and would include feasting, speeches, singing and dancing. Guests witnessed and validated the events and were paid with gifts during the ceremony.
In potlatches, there would be a feast, however, a feast does not constitute a potlatch.
Today in Tsimshian culture, the potlatch is held at gatherings to honor deaths, burials, and succession to name-titles.
Regalia worn at potlatches were the Chilkat and Raven’s Tail woven robes, painted tanned leather clothing, tunics, leggings, moccasins, ground squirrel robes, red cedar ropes, masks, rattles, and frontlets.
Other items used at potlatches include drums, rattles, whistles, paddles, and staffs. Only clan regalia named and validated at a potlatch could be used for formal gatherings.
The Chilkat robes were made of mountain goat wool and cedar wraps. The Chilkat weaving style is the only weaving that can create perfect circles.
The Raven’s tail robe is made of mountain goat wool. Some of the headpieces had frontlets that would also have sea lion whiskers and ermine.
After contact, robes were made of blankets, usually those obtained from the Hudson Bay trading company, adorned with glass beads and mother-of-pearl shells, along with dentalium and abalone shells.
The Tsimshian have maintained their art and culture, and are working to revitalize use of their language. Like other coastal peoples, the Tsimshian fashioned most of their goods out of western red cedar, especially its bark.
It could be fashioned into tools, clothing, roofing, armor, building materials, and canoe skins. They used cedar in their Chilkat weaving, which they are credited with inventing.
The Tsimshian people speak another isolate language, Sm’algyax, which has four main dialects: Coast Tsimshian, Southern Tsimshian, Nisga’a, and Gitksan.
There is much debate over which larger family the Tsimshianic languages belong to. Many scholars believe that they are part of the controversial Penutian language stock, which includes languages spoken throughout the Pacific Northwest and California.
Though probable, the existence of a Penutian stock has yet to be definitively proven. Some linguists still maintain that the Tsimshianic family is not closely related to any North American language.
Tsimshian, known by its speakers as Sm’álgyax, is a dialect of the Tsimshian language spoken in northwestern British Columbia and southeastern Alaska. Sm’algyax means literally “real or true language.”
The linguist Tonya Stebbins estimated the number of speakers of Tsimshian in 2003 as 200 or fewer. Most speakers are over 70 in age and very few are under 50. About 50 of an ethnic population of 1,300 Tsimshian in Alaska speak the language.
Tsimshian House Types and Settlements
Before and during early contact with the non-aboriginal population, the people built their homes from red cedar, spruce, and hemlock timber and planks. The houses, roofed with heavy cedar bark or spruce shingles, ranged in size from 35’-40’ x 50’-100’.
All houses had a central fire pit with a centrally located smoke hole. A plank shield frames the smoke hole in the roof. Generally, each house could hold 20-50 individuals with a village size between 300-500 people.
The people had winter villages along the banks of streams or along saltwater beaches for easy access to fish-producing streams. The location of winter villages gave protection from storms and enemies, drinking water and a place to land canoes.
Houses always faced the water with the backs to the mountains or muskeg/swamps. Most villages had a single row of houses with the front of the house facing the water, but some had two or more rows of houses.
Each local group of Tsimshians had at least one permanent winter village with various seasonal camps close to food resources. The houses held 20-50 people, usually of one main clan.
Tools and Technology
Southeast Alaska’s environment is a temperate rain forest. This environment produces many tall and massive trees. Wood was the most important commodity for the people.
Houses, totem poles, daily utensils, storage and cooking boxes, transportation, ceremonial objects, labrets (worn by high status women), clothes all were made of wood and wood products.
The tools to make the wood into usable items were adzes, mauls, wedges, digging sticks and after contact, iron. To cut the wood people used chipped rocks, bones, beaver teeth and shells.
For light, dried ooligan (an oily smelt fish) were used as candles. Also, hollowed sandstone with cotton grass were fashioned into wicks.
Various means were used to harvest the seasonal salmon runs. Fish weirs (fences) and traps were placed in streams. Holding ponds were built in the inter-tidal region.
Dip nets, hooks, harpoons and spears were also used to harvest salmon during the season. A specialized hook, shaped in a ‘V’ or ‘U’ form allowed the people to catch specific sized halibut.
Various baskets were used for cooking, storage, and for holding clams, berries, seaweed and water. The Tsimshian used baskets in the process of making ooligan oil.
Basket weaving techniques were also used for mats, aprons, and hats. Mats woven of cedar bark were used as room dividers and floor mats, as well as to wrap the dead prior to burial or cremation.
The inner cedar bark was pounded to make baby cradle padding, as well as clothing such as capes, skirts, shorts and blankets (shawls).
The Nass River Tsimshian are credited with originating the Chilkat weaving technique, which spread throughout the region.
The Tsimshian people of British Columbia encompass fifteen tribes:
Gitdidzu or Kitasoo (who live at Klemtu, British Columbia)
Gitga’at (Hartley Bay, British Columbia)
Gitxaala or Kitkatla (Kitkatla, British Columbia)
Gitsumkalum (Kitsumkalum, British Columbia)
Gits’ilaasü or Kitselas (Kitselas, British Columbia)
Allied tribes of Lax Kw’alaams (Port Simpson, British Columbia) including Metlakatla, Alaska