The Tsimshian

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The Tsimshian

ETHNONYMS: Tsimshian, Coast Tsimshian, Chimmesyan, Chimseyans, Chymshean, Chimpsain, Shimshyans, Simseans, Simpsian, Tsimsean, Tsimseyans, Tsimsheeans, Tsimpsean, T'simpshean, Zimshīan (German)


Identification and Location. The Tsimshian are a group of Canadian First Nations affiliated with the Tsimshian Tribal Council. They live in seven communities in northwestern British Colombia just below the Alaska panhandle along the Skeena River and its estuary and extending south to Milbanke Sound. The seven communities are Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, Lax Kw'alaams (Port Simpson), Metlakatla, Kitkatla, Gitga'at (Hartley Bay), and Kitisoo (Klemtu).

Demography. In 1835 the Hudson's Bay Company estimated the population of the Southern Tsimshian at twelve hundred and that of the Coast Tsimshian at three thousand; this was after over fifty years of maritime trade during which the population was reduced by disease. The population continued to shrink during the nineteenth century but began to grow again in the twentieth century. In 1990 there were over six thousand Coast and Southern Tsimshian, though that figure excluded those who resided outside Canada (there are numerous Tsimshian people in New Metlakatla, Alaska, and Seattle) and those who were not federally recognized Indians.

Linguistic Affiliation. Sm'algyax, the language of the Coast Tsimshian, is part of the Tsimshianic language family, along with the languages of the Nisga'a and Gitksan; a fourth Tsimshianic language, Sküüxs (Southern Tsimshian), was replaced by Sm'algyax during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Tsimshianic is not demonstrably related to any other language family despite academic theorizing that it may be a Penutian language.

History and Cultural Relations

The archaeological record indicates that after the retreat of the glaciers communities were small, relying on large mammals and berries in the inland areas and shellfish and sea mammals on the coast. When salmon became established in the rivers, it became the principal food resource, and permanent winter villages were established. Early in the archaeological record there is evidence of trade involving items such as obsidian and dentalium from distant sources. For the period after cedar forests became well established and the technology for canoe making began to develop, evidence of trade is even more pronounced. By 1500 b.c.e. there are indications that the organization of society had become hierarchical and that coastal and inland economies were interdependent, exchanging dried salmon, mountain goat and caribou, berries, furs, and tanned hides for dried seafood and oolachan grease. Trade networks extended to the Gitksan, and beyond them to the interior Athapascan groups such as the Wet'suwet'en and Carrier and to the Haida and Tlingit and Bella Bella on the coast.

The first written record of contact with Tsimshian people appears in the log of the British vessel Princess Royal, which visited the Kitkatlas in 1787. In 1834 Fort Simpson was built in the territories of the Coast Tsimshian at presentday Lax Kw'alaams (Port Simpson). The trade center became the site of the winter habitations of the ten lower Skeena communities of Coast Tsimshian, and the Nisga'a, Gitksan, other Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit visited regularly for trade. This period was marked by an increase in wealth and by intergroup hostilities, sometimes fueled by alcohol purchased from ships or the Hudson's Bay Company. The first missionary to enter the area was William Duncan in 1857; by 1862 he had established the mission village of Metlakatla at the site of an old Tsimshian winter village. In the 1860s prospectors entered the area, traveling up the Skeena to reach the Cariboo. In 1873 the first salmon cannery was established on the Skeena, bringing permanent settlers and a cash economy that interfered with Tsimshian control over land and resources. In 1887 Duncan moved the mission village to Alaska, and over eight hundred Tsimshian moved to the American side, reducing the population of Metlakatla to a small fraction of its former size; many Tsimshian returned to their own territories rather than move to Alaska. Newcomers continued to enter the territories of the Tsimshian to pack fish, mine, log, and establish new communities, forcing the Tsimshian to defend their territories through the use of political and legal strategies.


Two Coast Tsimshian communities have long existed in the vicinity of Kitselas Canyon on the Skeena River. The Kitselas lived in two winter villages on either side of the Skeena River, and the Kitsumkalum lived below them near the mouth of the Kitsumkalum River. Ten communities of Coast Tsimshian had winter villages on the lower Skeena and its tributaries below the canyon: Gitwilgyots Gitzaklalth, Gitsees, Ginakangeek, Ginadoiks, Gitandau, Gispakloats, Gilutsau, Gitlan, and Gitwilkseba. In late prehistoric times they built new villages on the islands of Venn (Metlakatla) Pass, where the weather was milder, but continued to return to their territories on the Skeena in the summer for salmon fishing. After the Hudson's Bay Company moved Fort (later Port) Simpson to its current location in 1834, nine groups built communities around the fort (the Gitwilkseba were extinct by then). Duncan reported that there were 2,300 Indians living in 140 houses around Fort Simpson in 1857. In the 1980s those people constituted the Port Simpson and Metlakatla bands in British Columbia and also lived in New Metlakatla, Alaska.

The historical Southern Tsimshian villages are Kitasoo, Gitga'at, and Kitkatla. The Kitasoo reside in Klemtu, where there are also Haihais people. The original village of the Gitga'at was depopulated as a winter settlement when the people joined the mission village of Metlakatla. The current village was founded at a new site in 1887 by people who returned to their own territories rather than follow Duncan to Alaska. Kitkatla has been in its current location on Dolphin Island for at least five thousand years.


Subsistence. The Tsimshian harvested the abundant resources of their territories and preserved them for use and trade: fish, shellfish, seabird eggs, game (land and sea mammals, fur-bearing species, birds, and small game), berries, seaweed, the inner bark of trees, shoots, and roots. The Tsimshian fished and rendered oolachon oil at the mouth of the Nass River, and that product was both a staple food and a valued trade commodity. Smoked fish, sometimes preserved in oolachon oil, was carried over trails to the interior, where game animals were predominantly lean and fat was an essential nutrient for winter survival. Most of these activities have continued into the present. The labor of slaves, who were either war captives or their children, was important in permitting the accumulation of surplus food for trade.

Commercial Activities. By the late nineteenth century the economic pattern included commercial salmon fishing, with women working in the canneries and men fishing. By the 1950s multinational forestry companies and canneries were dominant players in the economy of the Tsimshian area. As in the fur-trading period, there was an era of increased prosperity followed by depletion of resources, softening of foreign markets, and a marked decline that neared crisis proportions in the 1990s.

The economy of the Tsimshian continues to adapt. Forestry, fishing, sale of art, management of resources, government services, and a growing tourism industry are the major sources of income. Unemployment is high, especially seasonally, related to the cycles of commercial fishing and logging. The wage economy is supplemented by fishing for salmon, halibut, cod, herring, and oolachon; harvesting shellfish and berries; and hunting and trapping for use, trade, and sale.

Industrial Arts. Woodworking is a major traditional industry, including canoes, houses, and storage boxes; sculpture; and decorative painting on wooden house fronts and boxes. Ropes, fish nets, and baskets were principal manufactures in pre-nineteenth century Tsimshian communities.

Trade. The Tsimshian developed extensive trading networks over millennia, moving goods by canoe along the coast and rivers and packing them over a network of "grease trails" to the interior. Formal trade relationships were significant both within and between the Tsimshian-speaking divisions and with the Haida and Tlingit groups. Trade goods included preserved foods (shellfish, salmon, halibut, herring, fish roe, oolachon, grease, meat, seaweed, berries, and edible cambium), furs, basketry, rope, robes, carved horn spoons, canoes, storage containers, coppers, ochre, and slaves. Periods of intense production and preservation alternated with spring and fall trading expeditions and a winter ceremonial season.

Division of Labor. Women were responsible for weaving (baskets, mats, and robes) and making rope, fishing nets, traps, and other goods. The technology for weaving Chilkat blankets originated with the Tsimshian. Men produced cedar beams and plank timbers and used them in building houses, large cedar canoes, and bentwood boxes for cooking and the storage and transportation of food and for household property, especially oolachon oil. Men and women cooperated in constructing fish weirs and traps such as intertidal stone structures at river mouths. Men were primarily responsible for hunting and fishing, while women processed the catch and preserved it for the winter; both men and women harvested shellfish. There was also a division of labor by social class, with chiefs and matriarchs managing intergroup relations and directing the use of territories, resources, and labor. Lower-ranked people performed most of the activities of harvesting and production, while slaves did many of the onerous tasks, such as hauling water and firewood; their labor was essential in the harvesting and preservation of food and in paddling canoes on long trading expeditions.

Land Tenure. The matrilineal house owned fishing, hunting, and gathering territories under the stewardship of ranked members. Since British Columbia has never signed treaties with the Tsimshian, their aboriginal title still exists. In the nineteenth century tiny reserves were allocated to each band, providing little more than a village site, a cemetery, and a bit of land for collecting firewood. All identified fishing stations were included in the reserves, but as the commercial cannery industry developed, Indians were restricted in their right to fish in the rivers and sell their catch as a distinction between 'subsistence' and commercial fisheries was imposed. The 1973 Supreme Court of Canada decision in the Calder case acknowledged that aboriginal title to land might be a living right and ushered in several decades of treaty negotiations. The Nisga'a Treaty is the only one that has been finalized and signed. Tsimshian communities have been negotiating under the British Columbia Treaty Process, but there is no sign of a final agreement. The 1997 Delgamuukw decision by the Supreme Court affirmed that aboriginal title may be a living right and that compensation is required if it is infringed. The Tsimshian continue to negotiate their aboriginal title and are suing for recognition of their aboriginal right to a commercial fishery.


Kin Groups and Descent. The basic social unit is a matrilineal house whose members share a history of origin and the crests derived from that history. Each house belonged to one of four exogamous matrilineal clans designated by the names of the primary crest animals: Killerwhale, Eagle, Raven, and Wolf. All the members of a clan consider each other brothers and sisters, and marriages must be with members of other clans; hence, the clans were connected through marriage over many generations.

The most powerful houses and chiefs of each clan are the leading chiefs of the village, and the most powerful is considered the leading house and chief. Decision making is by consensus and involves all the chiefs and the matriarchs, who bring other people into the discussion through clan meetings and informal consultations. The primary responsibility of the chief or matriarch is to manage the territory of the house, provide for each member, and meet the social and ceremonial obligations of the house group as a whole. Chieftainships have been maintained and bear many responsibilities to their houses and communities. Since the imposition of the Indian Act election system in 1867 there have been elected band councils and chief councilors in all the communities, but their functions consist largely of administering village affairs. The Tsimshian Tribal Council has undertaken an "umbrella" role to facilitate the pursuit of land rights by all its member communities, and an advisory council of chiefs assists in its activities.

Kinship Terminology. The kinship system is of the Iroquois type, with separate terms for affines.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages traditionally were arranged. Gift exchanges between the relatives of the bride and the groom were made, including a potlatch when the marriage was announced to others. There was a preference for marriage with a man's mother's brother's daughter, though this was relevant only for the highest-ranked members of society who were heirs to chiefly positions, for whom the primary goal of marriages was the consolidation of wealth and position.

Domestic Unit. The unit of production and consumption was the matrilineal house, which was managed by the Sm'gigyet (chief and matriarch) and a class of councilors. The ideal postmarital pattern, at least for high-ranking men who inherited noble names, was avunculocal residence. A boy would go to live with his mother's brother as a child, later succeeding to his name and position. Polygyny was permitted for chiefs, although it was apparently rare. A widow might marry her husband's successor or brother or could return to her own (brother's) house; divorce was probably frequent. Related houses cooperated and supported one another, while village wide activities were coordinated by the village chief and a council of house chiefs.

Inheritance. Since descent was reckoned matrilineally, succession to a man's names and position went in theory to a younger brother or a sister's son. Actual succession, which involved a number of situational factors, was often a source of controversy. Since property and resources were owned by the house, their stewardship was passed to the successor to the ranked names.

Socialization. Traditionally, the educational system drew on the resources of the extended family, with different members playing designated roles in raising and educating children. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents taught children practical skills, values, and proper behavior. The chief or the matriarch of the house group instructed children in their house's history (adawx) and the laws of the people. As they matured, children accompanied their parents and other family members in learning place names and boundaries and assisting in productive activities. At puberty children entered the ceremonial life of the community; at that point aunts and uncles assisted in rites of passage and in preparations for marriage and adulthood.

This system of education was undermined by the church-sponsored shift to single-family homes, which was largely achieved at Metlakatla by the 1870s; legislated schooling (especially residential schools); and participation in the mainstream economy by adult members of the extended family. Education in communities was substandard until recently, and residential schools provided an education that was only marginally better. Since the 1970s aboriginal communities have had more control over the education of their children. There is a Tsimshian curriculum-development program in one provincial school district where 47 percent of students are native, and there have been several locally delivered social work and education degree cohorts in partnership with postsecondary institutions; Sm'algyax is taught in public schools and one university for credit.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Tsimshian recognize four named social distinctions that often are called classes. Women were of the same levels as men, although their names and status did not ordinarily entail the same sort of political power. All marriages were supposed to be between social equals; the children of parents of unequal rank inherited a rank no higher than that of the lower-ranked parent. The titleholders were ranked, and this was most apparent at feasts where the order of seating and the gifts given reflected rank. The social distinction between the sm'gigyet, or "real people" (singular sm'oogyet, or "chief")the chiefly familiesand the likagigyet, or "other people"those who had names of a lesser rankwas maintained through intermarriage with other chiefly families, including Tsimshian speakers and members of other language groups (Tlingit, Haida, Haisla, and Heiltsuk). Free people who had not taken ancestral names in the potlatch system were termed wah'ayin or "unhealed people" ("without origin" or "having no relatives"). Slaves (xaa or luungyit) were captives taken in war or purchased from slavers, especially from the south, and their children; their status was hereditary.

Political Organization. Although matrilineal houses were the owners of territories and resources, they were linked into several types of organizations for political purposes. All the houses in a village would cooperate for defense, and the chief of the highest-ranking house was the village chief; in all clans the other houses were ranked under him in descending order. Houses also had connections beyond the local village, linking houses that shared adaawx (oral histories recounting the origin and migrations of houses). Members of related houses owed support and loyalty to one another and would not engage in warfare or raiding against one another. Houses tended to fluctuate in size over time, and if a house became small, it might recruit members from related houses, especially if there was no appropriate successor to a chiefly title.

Until well into the nineteenth century Tsimshianspeaking peoples regulated individual behavior and conducted community affairs through the institution of the house group and the leadership of hereditary chiefs and matriarchs. This system was challenged by the federal government's appointment of Indian agents and the imposition of a system of elected band councils. Besides undermining local structures of self-government, the new arrangements placed control over all matters concerning relations with the federal and provincial governments in the hands of a few people. At first communities adapted to the system by electing one of the leading hereditary chiefs to the post of chief councilor. However, the chiefs often were forced to rely on individuals who were familiar with the procedures, politics, and bureaucracy of the Department of Indian Affairs, and the position of band manager eventually was created to fill that need. Ultimately, the interplay of the hereditary system, the elected system, and a local Indian agent made routine decision making complicated and maximized the potential for divisions within and between communities, particularly since final approval of decisions had to be granted by the federal government. Counterbalancing the forces of division was continuing respect for the role of the hereditary chiefs, matriarchs, and elders and the perpetuation of the feast system.

The tribal councils have annual elected positions such as president, vice-president, treasurer, and board members. These positions are often contested, and the choices are considered with grave deliberation since the councils are responsible for land negotiations with the provincial and federal governments. Since 1996 the councils have been responsible for capital works, education, and social services.

Tribal councils are affiliated with the Canada-wide Assembly of First Nations and participate in its activities. The other active political organization is the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia, which is both a fishing union and a political action organization. Members of the Tsimshian-speaking groups were prominent in this body when it was formed in the mid-twentieth century, and their continuing presence in large numbers in the brotherhood is reflective of their significant role in the fishing industry.

Political relationships with nearby cities, regions, and the provincial and federal governments generally are managed through the tribal council. Participation in provincial and federal politics is considerable though variable. In some communities the right to vote is exercised with enthusiasm, but in others almost no one votes and the external political system is often rejected.

Social Control. Village chiefs and house heads traditionally managed local affairs and settled disputes. Matriarchs had considerable control over stores of preserved foods and often participated in trading expeditions, actively trading and sometimes making trade decisions for the group. Trespass, resource theft, murder, and witchcraft were punishable by death or banishment. Injury, especially to a titleholder, was a serious offense; cleansing feasts "washed" a person who had made a mistake or had been injured.

Conflict. Intragroup hostilities generally were engaged in by house groups, sometimes involving several related houses. Raids for slaves, booty, and control of trading routes sometimes were made against villages in other nations; the network of relationships tended to temper hostilities among Tsimshian communities. The level of hostilities may have increased during the period of maritime fur trade, but the level of competitive feasting apparently increased, largely replacing armed conflict.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Northwest coastal peoples do not separate religion from other aspects of life. The spiritual vitality and interconnectedness of creationhumans, animals, plant life, and the spirit worldare acknowledged in every aspect of life. Spiritual beliefs and a value system based on them form the basis for the education of children and are emphasized throughout the lives of those destined to be leaders. The development of attitudes of respect begins at an early age and in the past was followed by specific spiritual training that empowered young adults to deal with the physical, social, and spiritual demands of life as an adult. Specific rituals were used for making contact with supernatural powers for healing and for winter ceremonial dancing and life-cycle rituals and in preparation for hunting. Chiefs controlled some forms of spiritual powers, and shamans had access to others. There were many types of shamans, including healing shamans and divining shamans as well as specialists who watched the sun and stars to predict the timing and bounty of the coming seasons.

Missionary activity during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries culminated in the conversion of almost all the Tsimshian, with a number of syncretic beliefs emerging to form a distinctly Tsimshian Christianity. The practices of the long-established denominations (United Church, Anglican, and Salvation Army) have been incorporated into public events such as weddings, funerals, and political gatherings. People see no inconsistency in holding firmly to precontact ideas such as reincarnation along with Christian doctrines. The role of church services varies from community to community. There also are newer denominations and "revivals" conducted by traveling evangelical groups. Those groups often denounce drumming and traditional dancing as "heathen," whereas the mainstream denominations have apologized for their past behavior and now accept indigenous practices as legitimate forms of spirituality.

Religious Practitioners. Establishing and maintaining supernatural power and well-being were not relegated to religious specialists but were the responsibility of the political leaders (sm'gigyet). Their religious responsibilities included demonstrating respect for animals and spirits in activities such as hunting, fishing, and the consumption of animal foods and during the volatile periods around rituals, birth, and death. The spiritual leadership of the sm'gigyet can be separated into four types of activity. In their role as house chiefs they were active in ritual occasions such as feasts and naming ceremonies; on those occasions they wore crests and ceremonial robes and headdresses. In their role as naxnox ("power") dancers they dramatized and validated the powers of their ancestors and houses through masked dances and dramas. As smhalayt ("real dancers"), garbed in gwushalayt (Chilkat dance robes) and amhalayt (frontlet headdresses not covering the face), with the raven rattle as a symbol of power, they initiated young people into ritual roles. The final formal named role for a leader was the wihalayt ("great dancer"), the leaders of the four secret societies into which many people were initiated. For that role the wihalayt wore red cedar-bark neck rings and danced to the music of whistles and drums. The chiefs' roles in ordering sacred relations were complemented by the activities of specialists called swansk halayt ("blowing shamans"), who were particularly active during serious illness or times of "bad luck" such as failure in a salmon run. Such events were understood to be due to events in the domain of power. Secret society dances apparently were borrowed from Haisla- and Heiltsuk-speaking people just before contact with Europeans; they were most fully expressed among the Southern Tsimshian, who obtained them directly from the Heiltsuk speakers and were only partially received by the other divisions. Most of the names for the dancers are Northern Wakashan in origin.

Ceremonies. Although the secret society dances were the most flamboyant expression of ceremonialism, the feast complex was the core around which the social system revolved. Through various types of feasts the social order was maintained and expressed, inheritance and succession were validated, and conflict was expressed and managed. The ability to manage the territories of the house and gather the support of contributors made it self-evident that the house was ritually clean and the event was proper. The constant features of a feast or "potlatch" were the division of the people into two groupshosts and guestsand the public distribution of wealth by the hosts to the guests. The specific nature of the feast varied according to the purpose of the event: there were house-building, marriage, naming, funeral, and cleansing feasts (which "washed off' a mistake or indignity from an individual or group and "shut the mouths" of the guests).

The sociopolitical system of the Tsimshian persists in spite of efforts by government agencies to replace it with Euro-Canadian institutions. Although the Indian Act banned the potlatch in the nineteenth century, the Tsimshian continued to feast. During the era of repression defiance of the potlatch ban occurred in more remote communities where agents of the state did not reside. In the communities where police, Indian agents, and missionaries resided, people feasted privately in their homes and in some places covered their windows to avoid detection. Some charges were brought under the antipotlatch law, but they were not effective in ending the practice.

Arts. Fine bentwood boxes, totem poles, feast bowls, masks, ornate carved horn spoons, baskets, mats, and robes used in ceremonial dance and theatrical performances are now museum pieces. These arts were discouraged for decades but have seen a revival, and artists continue to produce these and other items such as limited edition prints for sale and use in Tsimshian communities and for the external art market.

Medicine. Good health is considered to be dependent on physical training from youth on, a healthy diet, and spiritual cleanliness (fasting and sexual abstention sometimes were practiced to achieve this before hunting or warfare). Some foods, such as grease, serve dual purposes as food and medicines for specific ailments. Other medicines, such as infusions of devil's club, yew wood, or poison root, are prescribed carefully for specific conditions. Illness was believed to be at least partly due to spiritual weakness or impurity, and the practices of the shaman marshaled the spiritual resources of the community to strengthen and purify the spirits of the patients, who were symbolically cleansed by having the shaman suck "dirty" objects from them and rub them with clean substances. The swansk halayt were not a separate social stratum like the sm'gigyet, and some sm'gigyet were shamans as well. Today health care practitioners provide services at village clinics and urban hospitals, but "Indian medicines" continue to be used.

Death and Afterlife. Death initiates a crisis in the house that is resolved through a memorial and feast, now with Christian services. A memorial totem pole was formerly erected by a successor to a chiefly name; a stone monument generally has replaced it. New babies often are recognized as reincarnations of the deceased by birthmarks or behavior. Adaawx referred to a special village to which the souls of the dead traveled before reincarnation.

For the original article on the Tsimshian, see Volume 1, North America.


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