Published on November 10, 2012 by Amy
The Tsimshian (/ˈsɪmʃiən/; Sm’algyax: Ts’msyan) are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Tsimshian translates to Inside the Skeena River. Their communities are in British Columbia and Alaska, around Terrace and Prince Rupert and the southernmost corner of Alaska on Annette Island. There are approximately 10,000 Tsimshian. Their culture is matrilineal with a societal structure based on a clan system, properly referred to as a moiety. Early anthropologists and linguistics grouped Gitxsan and Nisga’a as Tsimshian because of linguistic affinities. Under this terminology they were referred to as Coast Tsimshian, even though some communities were not coastal. The three groups identify as separate nations. There are many other ways to spell the name, such as Tsimpshean, Tsimshean, Tsimpshian, and others, but this article will use the spelling “Tsimshian”.
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At one time the Tsimshian lived on the upper reaches of the Skeena River near present day Hazelton BC. It was after a series of disasters that befell the people, that a Prince from the leadership lead a migration to the coast, away from the cursed land and founded Kitkatla, which is today one the oldest continually inhabited communities on Earth. Following suite, other Chiefs migrated down the river and began to occupy all the lands of the lower Skeena valley. Over time a new dialect of the language developed and so too did the Tsimshian proper; but still sharing all the rights and customs of their upper river brothers the Gitksan.
In 1862 smallpox annihilated many of the Tsimshian population. Further epidemics ravaged their communities for many years until the late 1890s. There were at least three large scale outbreaks, in total one in four Tsimshian died. Lax Kw’alaams began burying the dead without ceremony, on Rose Island. 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.
In the 1880s the Anglican missionary William Duncan, with a group of Tsimshian, requested settlement on Annette Island from the U.S. government. After being approved, the group founded New Metlakatla in Alaska. William Duncan later requested the community gain reservation status. After approval, it became the only Native reservation in the state.
The New 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 Island reservation was 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. Legally the community was required to use the traps at least once every three years or lose the right permanently. This practice was stopped early in the 2000s and they are no longer allowed.
In British Columbia, the governments of Canada engaged in the British Columbia Treaty Process with First Nation bands in the province. The Tsimshian First Nations pursued negotiations until late 2005 when the Tsimshian Tribal Council, the organization for representing each of the First Nations in treaty negotiations, dissolved amid legal and political turmoil.
Like all Northwest Coastal peoples, they thrived on the abundant sea life, especially salmon. The Tsimshian were a seafaring people, like the Haida. A staple for many years, the salmon continues to be at the center of their nutrition, despite large-scale commercial fishing. This abundant food source enabled the Tsimshian to live in permanent towns.
They lived in large longhouses, made from cedar house posts and panels. These were very large, and usually housed an entire extended family. Cultural taboos related to prohibiting women and men eating improper foods during and after childbirth. The marriage ceremony was an extremely formal affair, involving several prolonged and sequential ceremonies.
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.
As with all Northwest Coastal peoples, the Tsimshian engage in the potlatch, which they refer to as the yaawk, or feast. Today in Tsimshian culture, the potlatch is held at gatherings to honor deaths, burials, and succession to name-titles.
The Tsimshian live on in their art, their culture and their language, which is making a comeback. Like other coastal peoples, the Tsimshian fashioned most of their goods out of Western red cedar, particularly from 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 competed with the Tlingit, Haida, the Athapaskan groups in the north and east, and the Wakashan groups in the south.