Tsimshian Tribe

Picture of a Chinook Northwest Native Indian

The Tsimshian Tribe

Summary and Definition: The Tsimshian were a seafaring people, skilled fishers and hunters, who were located on the mainland and islands around the Skeena River and the Nass River and Milbanke Sound in modern day British Columbia, Canada and Alaska in the United States.

The Tsimshian tribe, meaning "People Inside the Skeena River" lived off the produce from the Pacific Ocean and built their plankhouses and dugout canoes from the abundant Cedar trees. The Tsimshian were one of only six tribes of Northwest Coastal Native Indians who erected Totem Poles. Tsimshian Totem Poles symbolized guardian spirits who watched over the family, clan, or tribe.

Facts about the Tsimshian Native Indian Tribe
The Tsimshian people, also referred to as Chimmesyan or Skeena, were organized into settlements and communities, rather than tribes. Tsimshian society was multi-layered involving social classes, kin ties, and territorial units. The Tsimshian were divided into four clans:

  • The Laxsgiik (Eagle Clan)

  • The Ganhada (Raven Clan)

  • The Gispwudwada (Killer Whale Clan)

  • The Laxgibuu (Wolf Clan)

The four social classes consisted of royalty, the nobles, the commoners, and the slaves. Children born to slaves were also considered as slaves. The symbols used on Tsimshian totem poles depict not only their clan affiliations of the raven, eagle, wolf and killer whale but also symbols of other important animals such as the codfish, starfish, halibut, beaver, crane, grizzly bear, bear and dolphin. One of the most common traditions of the Tsimshian Tribe were the Potlatch Ceremonies which enabled the host to acquire or maintain prestige within their community.

Where did the Tsimshian tribe live?
The Tsimshian are people of the Northwest Coast cultural group. The main territory of the Tsimshian tribe was the areas surrounding the Skeena and Nass Rivers in British Columbia, Canada and Alaska in the US. Tsimshian means "People Inside the Skeena River". The geography of the region in which they lived dictated the lifestyle and culture of the Tsimshian tribe.

  • Land: Tall dense forests, oceans, mountains and rivers.
  • Climate: Temperate climate with cold, rainy winters
  • Animals: The  animals included Mountain goats and sheep, deer, fox, moose, mink, beaver, porcupine and bear
  • Fish: Salmon, halibut, eulachon (candlefish), herring and shellfish. Sea animals included seals, sea otters and whales
  • Natural Resources: Red cedar trees, bulbs, wapato (Indian Potato) greens, seeds and berries, forests, mountains, rivers and the produce from the Pacific Ocean

What did the Tsimshian live in?
The Tsimshian tribe lived in plankhouses built from the red cedar trees that were so abundant in their location.  The plankhouses were built over a pit and were almost square, measuring perhaps 40 or 50 feet on a side. There were no windows in the Tsimshian plankhouses but there was a central fire pit with a centrally located smoke hole that let fresh air in, and smoke from cooking fires out. The plankhouses held 20-50 people, usually of one main clan.

What language did the Tsimshian tribe speak?
The people of the tribe used a Penutian language and spoke in three Tsimshian dialects. The Niska dialect was spoken along the Nass River. The coastal Tsimshian dialect was spoken along the lower Skeena River and the coast and the Kitksan dialect was spoken along the upper Skeena River.

Tsimshian Art - Chikat Weaving
The Nass River Tsimshian are credited with originating the Chilkat weaving technique, which spread throughout the Northwest coastal regions. The women used mountain-sheep wool and mountain-goat hair. These are a mass of strikingly colored, and crowdedly arranged symbolic devices. Chilkat weaving was applied to creating blankets and clothes including robes, tunics, leggings and shirts. Traditional Chilkat clothing featured a long woolen fringe. Hats, bags and wall-hangings were also created using the Chilkat weaving technique. Chilkat clothing was worn by dancers during Tsimshian rituals and ceremonies. Traditionally the Tsimshian chiefs would wear Chilkat blankets during potlatch ceremonies.

What transportation did the Tsimshian use?
The Tsimshian tribe used canoes made of strong bark from the cedar tree, a water-resistant bark that could be easily cut, bent and sewn. The Tsimshian canoes were “dugouts” of single tree trunks. The logs were cut in summer time and fire was used to char the wood to be cut away. After it had been partly cut out inside it was stretched or shaped by steaming with water and hot stones, and then put in stretchers. Sometimes single-log canoes were large enough to carry from 30 to 60 people. The Tsimshian canoes were often carved and painted at the ends. The paddles used for driving these canoes were slender and long-bladed, and also painted with symbols and designs. The lightweight canoes were perfect for travel along fast streams and shallow waters and were sturdy enough for the rough waters of the bays and the Pacific Ocean.

Tsimshian Totem Poles
The Tsimshian were expert wood carvers and various items were decorated with Tsimshian art. These included fabulous masks and totem poles that were erected, primarily as memorials to deceased chiefs. The Tsimshian were one of only 6 tribes of Northwest Coast Indians (Tlingit, Bella Coola, Kwakiutl, Haida and Nootka) who erected Totem Poles made by carving and painting vertical logs. Totem Poles symbolized guardian spirits who watched over the family, clan, or tribe. For additional facts and information refer to Totem Poles.

What food did the Tsimshian tribe eat?
The food that the Tsimshian tribe ate included their staple diet of fish supplemented by wapato (Indian Potato) greens, seeds and berries. The women also pressed the rich oil from the eulachon (candlefish) and used large amounts of this oil as a dip for their food.

What weapons did the Tsimshian tribe use?
The weapons used by the Tsimshian included bows and arrows, clubs, harpoons and spears.

Tsimshian History
The Tsimshian were believed to have settled in the region for thousands of years. The first recorded contact by Europeans with the Tsimshian people is generally believed to have been in 1740 with the the Russian explorers and traders. In 1787, the Hudson Bay Company initiated trade with the Tsimshian for sea-otter pelts and other items and established a trading post in the area in 1834. In 1862 a devastating smallpox epidemic wiped out many Tsimshian people and further epidemics ravaged their communities until the late 1890s. In 1887, a missionary named William Duncan seeking religious and political freedom, established a settlement of nearly 1000 Tsimshian people founding the Metlakatla Community on Annette Island. The Tsimshian now live mainly on Annette Island, in (New) Metlakatla, Alaska in addition to settlements in Canada.

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