From New World Encyclopedia

Tsimshian tea party.jpg
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Canada (British Columbia), United States (Alaska)
English, Tsimshian
Christianity, other
Related ethnic groups
other Penutian peoples

The Tsimshian, usually pronounced in English as /'sɪm.ʃi.æn/ or approximately "SIM-shee-an" are Indigenous, or Native American and First Nation people who live around Terrace and Prince Rupert, on the north coast of British Columbia and the southernmost corner of Alaska on Annette Island. Currently there are about 10,000 Tsimshians, of which about 1,300 live in Alaska. Canadian Tsimshian live along the Skeena and Nass rivers, as well as the many inlets and islands on the coast.

The Tsimshian have traditionally obtained food through fishing (halibut and salmon) and hunting (seals, sea lions and sea otters). They have a tribal lifestyle in a difficult environment, but have enjoyed a relative peaceful and mutually prosperous relationship with settlers of European descent. However, in 1860 smallpox annihilated 80 percent of the entire Tsimshian population in only three years. Further epidemics would ravage the coast for many years, and a century of poverty and hopelessness reduced these numbers even further.

Yet, the Tsimshian culture survives as their art and their language are both making a comeback. It can be hoped that these people will find their place in the future world, living in harmony and co-prosperity with all.


The name Tsimshian comes from Sm'algyax ts’msyan, meaning "inside the Skeena River").[1] They are a people of North America's northwest coast, inhabiting the southern Alaskan panhandle and the north coast of British Columbia.

The Tsimshian nation consists of 14 bands: the Kitasoo (who live at Klemtu, B.C.), the Gitga'ata (Hartley Bay, B.C.), the Kitkatla (Kitkatla, B.C.), the Kitsumkalum (Kitsumkalum, B.C.), the Kitselas or Gits'ilaasü (Kitselas, B.C.), and nine tribes resident at Lax Kw'alaams (a.k.a. Port Simpson), B.C.: Giluts'aaw, Ginadoiks, Ginaxangiik, Gispaxlo'ots, Gitando, Gitlaan, Gits'iis, Gitwilgyoots, and Gitzaxłaał. An additional Tsimshian village community in Canada, Metlakatla, B.C. ("Old Metlakatla"), is not associated with any one particular tribe or group of tribes. The one Tsimshian community in Alaska, "New" Metlakatla, is an offshoot of the original Metlakatla, B.C., population.

Some earlier anthropological and linguistic sources also group the Gitxsan and Nisga'a people together as "Tsimshian," because of linguistic affinities. Under this terminology Tsimshians were referred to as the "Coast Tsimshian," even though the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas Tsimshians were not coastal. But all this usage is now outmoded and was never the Native usage. The Gitxsan, Nisga'a, and Tsimshian today are referred to as separate nations.

The Tsimshian had the misfortune of being the nearest and most favored victims of Haida depredations. The Tsimshian and Tlingit shared a common way of life, and while this allowed for a great deal of trade, it also led to the two peoples ferociously battling for the best lands, the best fishing grounds, for slaves and plunder, or revenge. The Tlingit claim that their art of weaving Chilkat blankets is derived from Tsimshian sources, although this has not been historically corroborated. The Tlingit also trace a number of other arts to Tsimshian sources. Intermarriage, name exchange, trade, and slaving were very common between the Tlingit, the Tsimshian, and the Haida.

The end of the Tsimshian as a force to be reckoned with in the north came in 1860, when smallpox annihilated 80 percent of the entire Tsimshian population in only three years. Further epidemics would ravage the coast for many years, and a century of poverty and hopelessness reduced these numbers even further.

Protestant English culture became the way Tsimshian began to lead their lives, including language, religion and culture from this time forward. In fact the Head Chiefs themselves were the ones to lead the assimilative process. It was not until the 1970s when Tsimshian culture began to return to the communities, appearing first in the school district.

Alaskan Tsimshian

The Tsimshian in Alaska were refugees from religious persecution in Canada during the 1880s. Led by the Anglican lay missionary William Duncan, a group of Tsimshian requested settlement on Annette Island from the U.S. government. There Duncan and about 750 Tsimshian followers established a Utopian community, the village of Metlakatla. The island was founded as a reservation for the Tsimshian people and is the only Indian reservation in Alaska. It is interesting to note that the tribal allegiance to a native prophet who rose up was the source of dispute with the Canadian Anglican Bishop, but the success of the move can be attributed to the tribe transferring a similar type of loyalty to Reverend Duncan instead. Duncan was a very charismatic and influential leader who worked very hard to help the Tsimshian, but was a fierce opponent to those with different opinions. He sent back members of his new community to destroy and dismantle the old church they left behind.

The Alaskan Tsimshian also developed a thriving Presbyterian community led by Reverend Edward Marsden, a Tsimshian who became the first Alaska Native to be ordained in the ministry. He led the effort to persuade the Bureau of Indian Affairs to eliminate Reverend Duncan on the basis of his strict and total control of the economic activity of the tribe as well as his opposition to members of the tribe traveling away for educational or economic advancement.

The Alaskan Tsimshian maintained their reservation status and holdings exclusive of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and thus do not have an associated Native Corporation, although Tsimshian in Alaska may be shareholders of the Sealaska Corporation. The Annette Island reservation is the only location in Alaska allowed to maintain fish traps, which were otherwise banned when Alaska became a state in 1959. The traps are used to provide food for people living on the reservation.

Canadian Tsimshian

The Canadian Tsimshian expressed an interest in preserving their villages and fishing sites on the Skeena and Nass rivers as early as 1879, but were not able to begin negotiating a treaty until July 1983.[2] A decade later, fourteen bands united to negotiate under the collective name of the Tsimshian Tribal Council. A framework agreement was signed in 1997, and the Tsimshian nation continued to negotiate with the BC Treaty Commission to reach an Agreement-in-Principle.[3] However, the Tsimshian Tribal Council was dissolved in late 2005 amid legal and political turmoil.


Did you know?
Tsimshian people of the Pacific Northwest lived on salmon, which were plentiful prior to commercial fishing, and used Western Redcedar for most of their needs

Like other Northwest Coast peoples, the Tsimshian fashioned most of their goods out of Western Redcedar, particularly from its bark, which could be fashioned into tools, clothing, roofing, armor, building materials, and canoe skins. The Tsimshian were a seafaring people like the Haida, and thrived on salmon, which were especially plentiful prior to modern large-scale commercial fishing. This abundant food source enabled the Tsimshian to live in permanent towns. Tsimshian longhouses were very large, and usually housed an entire extended family. Cultural taboos centered around women and men eating improper foods during and after childbirth. Marriage was an extremely formal affair, involving several prolonged and sequential ceremonies.

The Tsimshian were fearsome warriors with a deeply hierarchical society. Succession was matrilineal, and one's place in society was determined by one's clan or phratry (known as pteex). The Tsimshian clans are the Laxsgiik (Eagle Clan), Gispwudwada (Killerwhale Clan), Ganhada (Raven Clan) and Laxgibuu (Wolf Clan). Marriage in Tsimshian society must take place between members of different clans. The lord of a village was the head of the strongest clan, with the less powerful clan heads forming his council of the nobility.


The Tsimshian speak a Tsimshianic language, referred to by linguists as "Coast Tsimshian" and by Tsimshians as Sm'algyax, which means "real or true language." It has a northern and southern variety, of which the southern variety, often called Southern Tsimshian by linguists and spoken only at Klemtu, is very close to extinct. Approximately 30 speakers reside in Alaska, with another 300 in Canada. Tsimshian is a Penutian language related to Gitxsan and Nisga'a.


Tsimshian head-on mask, used during the initiation rituals of the great winter ceremonies (halait). Collected in Nisga'a territory, at the mouth of the Nass River. Wood, British Columbia (Canada), nineteenth century.

Tsimshian religion centered around 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.

Tsmishian mythology is known from orally-passed tales. An Adaox is a story concerning animal spirits in human guise and is usually linked to the origin of the Earth and the peoples on it. A Malesk, in contrast, is an adventure or history tale that purports to entertain rather than explain.

The raven spirit is known as We-gyet or Txamsem. Txamsem is said to have a brother named Logobola who is responsible for the lack of fresh water as well as the existence of the fog into which Txamsem became lost. The resolution and adventures of Txamsem involved many tales.


Main article: Potlatch

As with all northwest coastal peoples, the Tsimshian engage in the Potlatch, which they refer to as the yaawk or, in English, "feast." In Tsimshian culture today, the potlatch centers primarily around death, burial, and succession to name-titles. Traditionally, potlatches have been ritualistic and include usually many days of community feasting. They are initiated for many reasons, but always function to bind people and groups together. Much preparation goes into one of these, and various ceremonial masks, drums, rattles, dance ropes, aprons, and whole costumes are made especially for the specific event. Certain people prepare various dance and song as well. Even a totem pole may be carved for the occasion.

Indian visitors attending Potlatch at Kok-wol-too village, Chilkat River, Alaska

In ancient times, the potlatch reflected the strict traditions of each "house" or family group having three classes. The aristocratic level, the common level, and slaves. The methods and format of celebrating mirrored and strengthened the social structure. The potlatch had dual purposes of connecting people together with each other and connecting people with their traditions. Dances, for example, are either spiritual and ceremonial, helping retrace the past, or are simply for entertainment. Plays are also staged mainly for entertainment. The ceremonial dances often predominate in a potlatch, and help the participant feel a power from the shared past.

There was also activity with the secret societies and shamanistic rituals in the past, but the persecution from Christian missionaries in the early nineteenth century stopped much of those activities within the potlatch. The more informal and social aspects are largely what remains today. One major difference in today's potlatch is how many participants need to work at the jobs prevalent in most industrial societies, and this prevents the several days of feasting. Contemporary potlatches are shorter, less formal and more used to bind people together such as occasions of weddings binding clans and different people as well as a bride and groom.

Totem poles

Main article: Totem pole

Totem poles are monuments made of wood, and since they decay easily no examples of poles carved before 1800 exist. However, eighteenth century accounts of European explorers along the coast indicate that poles existed at that time. In all likelihood, the freestanding poles seen by the first European explorers were preceded by a long history of monumental carving, particularly interior houseposts. Edward Malin has proposed a theory of development from houseposts, funerary containers, and memorial markers into symbols of clan and family wealth and prestige.

The meanings of the designs on totem poles are varied and seems to be dependent on the artist as they represent artistic expressions as well as ritualistic expressions. They may recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events. Other poles celebrate cultural beliefs or events. In the nineteenth century the "shame" poles developed to provide objects of public ridicule. These were to highlight an offense that needed to be addressed.

The Haida are renowned for the complexity, colors and artistry of their totem poles, and some attribute them with the origin. The Tsimshian poles only use red, black, and turquoise colors or may leave the wood natural. Although the Tsimshian poles are rarely the ones seen in a museum display, those who study the various totem poles say they have a softer feeling about them than the Haida or Tlingit poles that feature more fierce themes.

One unfortunate misunderstanding was when original Christian missionaries discouraged the creation of the totem poles, as saying they were heathen and should not be worshiped. Other later observers notices that the Tsimshian never used the poles for worship, rather they were works of art and memorials but were not particularly revered in themselves.

Fortunately, there has been a revival in creation and appreciation for this unique art form and there are now many contemporary artists who carve totem poles.

Contemporary life

Tsinshians have entered every area of traditional western life, and there are many who have taken their acquired skills back into the tribe. There are doctors and medical people, writers, political activists, anthropologists and ethnologists, artists, businessmen, historians and every kind of professional trade. Many early notables have been half Tsimshian, usually the mother was Tsimshian and the father's European origin gave a certain access to education and culture beyond the tribe.

The re-awakening of the spirit of the Tsimshian identity is continuing in all areas. In 2007, the first hereditary chief was chosen in one hundred and twenty years of the existence of Metlakatla, the Alaskan village. This represents the Tsimshian learning about western culture and realizing which aspects of their own culture they would keep. Some aspects of their culture have not fared well as there is only one person left who speaks the southern Tsimshian dialect. It seems this awakening is timely for the continued preservation of their culture.

Renewal of interest in totem poles as cultural artworks has also increased.[4] Five totem poles carved by the late Tshimsian artist Ray Wesley, and erected in Simon Fraser University’s Naheeno Park in British Columbia have been removed and will be restored and relocated. The poles had become forgotten as the park, once a popular location in the university's earlier years, became overgrown and unused. Barbara Winter, curator of SFU’s Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology, said of the removal and restoration project, that the totem poles have lasting cultural value: "We want to bring these works of art out where they can be enjoyed by the community."[5]

Although the Tsimshian Tribal Council dissolved, the united group of Tsimshian are exploring other forms of organization and representation. They are represented within UNPO (Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization) by the Tsimshian Nation Gitlaxyuup-m and Smgigyet Society (operational organization owned by the Tsimshian Hereditary Chiefs; English translation: People of the land and Hereditary Chiefs Society).

Notable Tsimshian

Arthur Wellington Clah (1831-1916) is credited with saving the Anglican missionary Reverend Duncan’s life when he was held at gunpoint by the highest ranking chief of the Tsimshian. Chief Ligeex of the Gispaxlo'ots tribe was angry that church bells were tolling on the day of his daughers' initiation into a secret society. Clah taught Rev. Duncan how to speak Tsimshian in 1857.

Clah's grandson, William Beynon (1888-1958), was one of the first Tsimshian to become an anthropologist/ethnologist. He contributed greatly to the work of Marius Barbeau and later his own books were published. Benyon was first recognized in ethnographic literature in January of 1915 when Marius Barbeau praised his ability to record myths and generally help his study of the Tsimshian. He was naturally suited for cross-cultural studies as his mother was Tsimshian and his father Welsh.

The first book published by a Tsimshian was From Potlatch to Pulpit in 1933 by William Henry Pierce (1856-1948). He was a member of the Tsimshian nation in British Columbia and the first Tsimshian missionary for the Methodist church. His mother was from the Gispaxclo'ots tribe and died when he was only three weeks old forcing his Scottish Father, Edward Pierce, to seek care for him with William's maternal grandfather. William was raised by him in Tsimshian culture in Port Simpson. He was mentored by Arthur Wellington Clah and witnessed Rev. Duncan being saved by his adopted uncle. He was not converted to Christianity until he heard the preaching of the Methodist missionary Rev. Thomas Crosby while on a trip to Victoria, British Columbia. His missionary activity was his life's vocation and he also worked to suppress native customs like the potlatch and secret societies.

Heber Clifton (1870-1964) was an hereditary chief of the Gitga'ata tribe of the Tsimshian nation of British Columbia, Canada. He was from the Tsimshian community of Hartley Bay, British Colubmia and was of the Gispwudwada or Killerwhale clan. As a child he moved to Rev. William Duncan's mission at Metlakatla in Alaska, but when many Tsimshian migrated to Metlakatla in 1887, he was one of a group of families who moved back to their traditional territories and founded the new community of Hartlely Bay. He and his wife Lucy were married by Rev. Thomas Crosby in 1891. They had a large family of five sons and four daughters. His leadership abilities were recognized early in the twentieth century. He worked all his life in the commercial fishing industry and also worked for Aboriginal rights. He spoke to the McKenna-McBride Commission in 1913 and was one of the founders of the Native Brotherhood of British Columbia. Together with William Benyon they recorded some of the oral traditional knowledge of the Tsimshian. These, including a version of the story of Gwinaxnuusimgyet, have been a remarkable resource for understanding traditional Tsimshian culture.

One great artist who recorded much of Tsimshian culture in his wood carvings and paintings was Frederick Alexcee (1853-1940). His father was Iroquois from eastern Canada and worked with the Hudson Bay Company, and his mother was Tsimshian of the Giluts'aaw tribe from the lower Skeena River area. He was included matrilinially in his mother's lineage in the tribe and also in the Gispwudwada (Killerwhale clan). He was a halaayt carver, which included shamanic practices that were reserved for chiefs. He produced nacnoc or spirit paraphenalia for use in secret society ceremonies. The late nineteenth century missionaries were determined to eradicate these things. Perhaps his ability to produce items for the growing curio trade and his paintings that captured much to Tsimshian culture helped him be successful and eventually end the determination to eradicate indigenous culture. He carved human figures to adorn a baptismal font in Port Simpson's Methodist church.

Reverend Edward Marsden (1869-1932) was the first Alaska Native to be ordained in the ministry. He was born in Metlakatla, British Columbia, and became from his earliest years a protégé of that utopian Christian community's founder, the charismatic Anglican lay minister William Duncan. Duncan exercised fierce control over his parishioners' lives and for a while barred the young, ambitious Marsden from leaving the island to pursue higher education. Eventually, the Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson intervened and persuaded Duncan to let Marsden join him in Sitka, Alaska, to attend the industrial school there. Jackson arranged for Marsden to attend the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and then Marietta College in Ohio, making him the first Alaska Native to receive higher education in the "lower 48." During his education there, he joined the Presbyterian Church, deepening his schism with Duncan. In 1894 he became a U.S. citizen, the first Alaska Native to do so. He attended Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, from which he graduated in 1898, becoming ordained the same year. Also, in 1897 he became the first North American Indian to be licensed to preach in the U.S. When Duncan refused Marsden's suggestion that a Presbyterian church be established on Annette Island to minister to the Tlingit families there, he was installed as minister at a Tlingit community near Ketchikan. There he participated in a fierce rivalry with Duncan for Tsimshian loyalties, including participating in a campaign to have Duncan removed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). His complaints, and those of many in the community, focused on Duncan's control over the community's entire economic life and his opposition to his flock's seeking any economic or educational betterment off of the island.

The push toward utilizing the governments of the countries the Tsimshian inhabited is most characterized by Peter Simpson (1871?-1947). He was a Canadian-born Tsimshian activist for Alaska Native rights, growing up on the Alaskan side as a member of the Gispwudwada (Killerwhale clan). He was related to Reverend Edward Marsden. He invested in a sawmill as well as being active in the fishing industry. In 1912, Simpson became chairman of the committee that eventually formed the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), and was the only non-Tlingit member. He is considered the father of the ANB and also "the father of Land Claims" in Alaska, the long process that led to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (without Metlakatla's participation, interestingly), long after his death. He and his wife, a Tlingit named Mary Sloan, raised 15 children.


  1. Lyle Campbell, American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, ISBN 9780195094275), 396.
  2. Kitsumkalum and the Tsimshian Treaty Process, Kitsumkalum Treaty Office. Retrieved December 15, 2007.
  3. Treaty Commission Annual Report 2001, BC Treaty Commission Retrieved December 15, 2007.
  4. William Zimmer, Taking Time for a Look At Art in the Open, The New York Times May 23, 1999. Retrieved December 18, 2007.
  5. Marianne Meadahl, Totem blessing begins restoration, Simon Fraser University, SFU News Online. November 1, 2007. Retrieved December 18, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barbeau, Marius. Totem Poles. 2 vols. (Anthropology Series 30, National Museum of Canada Bulletin 119.) Ottawa: National Museum of Canada, 1950. ISBN 0660129027
  • Beattie, William Gilbert. Marsden of Alaska. New York, NY: Vantage Press, 1955. ASIN B000KUNULQ
  • Boas, Franz. "Tsimshian Mythology" in Thirty-First Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1909-1910. 29-1037. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916.
  • Campbell, Lyle. American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0195140507
  • Garfield, Viola. "Tsimshian Clan and Society" in University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, 7(3) (1939):167-340.
  • Garfield, Viola E. and Paul S. Wingert. The Tsimshian Indians and Their Arts. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1951, 1966. ISBN 0295740426
  • Halpin, Marjorie M. and Margaret Seguin. "Tsimshian Peoples: Southern Tsimshian, Coast Tsimshian, Nishga, and Gitksan" in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 7: Northwest Coast, edited by Wayne Suttles. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1990. 267-284. ISBN 052157109X
  • Miller, Jay. Tsimshian Culture: A Light through the Ages. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. ISBN 0803282664
  • Miller, Jay, and Carol Eastman, (eds.). The Tsimshian and Their Neighbors of the North Pacific Coast. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1984. ISBN 978-0295961262
  • Neylan, Susan. The Heavens Are Changing: Nineteenth-Century Protestant Missions and Tsimshian Christianity. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0773525733
  • Seguin, Margaret. Interpretive Contexts for Traditional and Current Coast Tsimshian Feasts. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1985. ASIN B0006EK5I2
  • Seguin, Margaret. The Tsimshian: Images of the Past, Views for the Present. Vancouver: UBC Press, 1984. ISBN 978-0774804738

External links

All links retrieved May 2, 2023.


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