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For the languages, see Tsimshianic languages.
Ed Bryant (Tsimshian), drumming at a meeting in Wuppertal, 1999

The Tsimshian[1] (/ˈsɪmʃiən/; Sm'algyax: Ts’msyan) 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 Island. The Tsimshian people comprises approximately 10,000 members belonging across seven member First Nation peoples (which include the Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, and the "Allied Tribes" of the Lax Kw'Alaams, Metlakatla, Kitkatla, Gitga'at (at Hartley Bay) and Kitasoo (at Klemtu)). The Tsimshian are one of the largest groups of First Nations' people in northwest British Columbia. The Tsimshian culture is matrilineal, with a societal structure based on a clan system, properly referred to as a moiety. Early anthropologists and linguists had also grouped Gitksan and Nishga as Tsimshian because of apparent linguistic affinities. They were referred to as "Coast Tsimshian," even though some communities were not coastal. The three groups, however, self-identify as separate nations.


Tsimshian translates to Inside the Skeena River.[2] At one time the Tsimshian lived on the upper reaches of the Skeena River near present-day Hazelton, British Columbia. After a series of disasters befell the people, a prince led a migration away from the cursed land to the coast, where they founded Kitkatla Village. Other Tsimshian chiefs followed them 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, while still sharing all the rights and customs of the Gitxsan, their kin on the upper Skeena.

Throughout the second half of the 19th-century, epidemics ravaged their communities. In 1862 a smallpox epidemic annihilated many of the Tsimshian people. Altogether, one in four Tsimshian died in a series of at least three large-scale outbreaks.

In the 1880s the Anglican missionary William Duncan, along with a group of the Tsimshian, requested settlement on Annette Island from the U.S. government. After gaining approval, the group founded New Metlakatla in Alaska. Duncan requested that the community gain reservation status, and eventually, with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), it became a reservation. The residents of Arctic Village and Venetie accepted free and simple title to the land within the Venetie reservation boundaries, while all the others participated in ANCSA.

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 were 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.


Bag with 65 Inlaid Gambling Sticks, Tsimshian (Native American), 19th century, Brooklyn Museum

Like all Northwest Coastal peoples, they thrived on the abundant sea life, especially salmon. The Tsimshian became 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. Due to this abundant food source, the Tsimshian were able 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.

The marriage ceremony was an extremely formal affair, involving several prolonged and sequential ceremonies. Cultural taboos related to prohibiting women and men from eating improper foods during and after childbirth.

Tsimshian bentwood box featuring formline painting, 1850, collection of the UBC Anthropology Museum

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.

As with all Northwest Coastal peoples, the Tsimshian engage in the potlatch, which they refer to as the "yaawk" (feast). Today in Tsimshian culture, the potlatch is held at gatherings to honor deaths, burials, and succession to name-titles.

The Tsimshian culture lives 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, 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.[3] Historically, the Tsimshian competed with the Tlingit, Haida, the Athapaskan groups in the north and east, and the Wakashan groups in the south.


The Tsimshian people of British Columbia encompass fourteen tribes:


The Tsimshian clans are the

Treaty process[edit]

The Tsimshian wanted to preserve their villages and fishing sites on the Skeena and Nass Rivers as early as 1879. They were not able to begin negotiating a treaty with the Canadian government until July 1983.[4] 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 continues to negotiate with the BC Treaty Commission to reach an Agreement-in-Principle.[5]


The Tsimshian speak a language, called Sm'algyax, which means "real or true tongue." Tsimshian also speak a language variety similar to the Gitxsan and the Nisga’a, but further differentiated than the regional Tsimshian variations. Very few speakers remain today in Canada. Some linguists classify Tsimshian languages as a member of the theoretical Penutian language group.

Notable Tsimshian people[edit]

Benjamin Haldane, 1907, Tsimshian photographer and musician

Anthropologists and other scholars who have worked with the Tsimshian[edit]

Missionaries who worked among the Tsimshian[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Note: There are many other ways to spell the name, such as: Tsimpshean, Tsimshean, Tsimpshian, and others, but this article will use the most common spelling, "Tsimshian".
  2. ^ Campbell, Lyle (1997). American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pg. 396 n. 29
  3. ^ Shearer, Cheryl. Understanding Northwest Coast Art; Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre; 2000; 28 ISBN 0-295-97973-9
  4. ^ Kitsumkalum and the Tsimshian Treaty Process Kitsumkalum Treaty Office
  5. ^ Tsimshian First Nations - BC Treaty Commission


  • Barbeau, Marius (1950) Totem Poles. 2 vols. (Anthropology Series 30, National Museum of Canada Bulletin 119.) Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.
  • Boas, Franz, "Tsimshian Mythology", in Thirty-First Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1909–1910, pp. 29–1037. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916.
  • Garfield, Viola, "Tsimshian Clan and Society", University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, vol. 7, no. 3 (1939), pp. 167–340.
  • Garfield, Viola E., and Paul S. Wingert, The Tsimshian Indians and Their Arts, Seattle: Washington, University of Washington Press, 1951, 1966.
  • 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, pp. 267–284.
  • McDonald, James A. (2003) People of the Robin: The Tsimshian of Kitsumkalum, CCI Press.
  • Miller, Jay, Tsimshian Culture: A Light through the Ages, Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
  • Miller, Jay, and Carol Eastman, eds., The Tsimshian and Their Neighbors of the North Pacific Coast, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1984.
  • Neylan, Susan, The Heavens Are Changing: Nineteenth-Century Protestant Missions and Tsimshian Christianity, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.
  • Seguin, Margaret, Interpretive Contexts for Traditional and Current Coast Tsimshian Feasts. Ottawa, ON: National Museums of Canada, 1985.
  • Seguin, Marget, ed., The Tsimshian: Images of the Past, Views for the Present. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 1984.

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