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 Islands. The Tsimshian people comprise approximately 10,000 members belonging to seven First Nations (which include the Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, and the "Allied Tribes" of the Lax Kw'Alaams; the Metlakatla, Kitkatla, Gitga'at at Hartley Bay, and Kitasoo at Klemtu). The Tsimshian are one of the largest First Nations peoples in northwest British Columbia. Some Tsimshian migrated to Annette Island, Alaska, where their descendants in the Metlakatla Indian Community number about 1450.

Similar to numerous Native American peoples, the Tsimshian have a matrilineal kinship system, with a societal structure based on a clan system, properly referred to as a moiety. Descent and property are figured through the maternal line. Early anthropologists and linguists had classified the Gitksan and Nishga as Tsimshian because of apparent linguistic affinities. The three were all referred to as "Coast Tsimshian," even though some communities were not coastal. These three groups, however, 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 chief 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. They continued to share the rights and customs of those who are known as the Gitxsan, their kin on the upper Skeena.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, epidemics of infectious disease contracted from Europeans ravaged their communities, as the First Nations had no acquired immunity to these diseases. In 1862 a smallpox epidemic killed 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, left Metlakatla, British Columbia and requested settlement on Annette Island from the U.S. government. After gaining approval, the group founded New Metlakatla on Annette Island in southern Alaska. Duncan appealed to Congress to grant the community reservation status, which it did in the late 19th century.

In the 1970s, the Metlakatla Indian Community voted to retain their rights to land and water, and opted out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA); they have the only Native reservation in Alaska. The residents of Arctic Village and Venetie accepted free and simple title to the land within the Venetie reservation boundaries, while all other tribes participated in ANCSA.

The 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 Islands Reserve is the only location in Alaska allowed to maintain fish traps according to their traditional treaty rights. The use of these were otherwise banned when Alaska became a state in 1959. The traps are used to gather fish for 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. They stopped the practice early in the 2000s and lost their right to this traditional way of fishing.


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

Similar to numerous Native American peoples, the Tsimshian have a matrilineal kinship system, with a societal structure based on a clan system, properly referred to as a moiety. Descent and property are figured through the maternal line. Hereditary chiefs gained their rights through their maternal line and could be deposed by women elders.

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

Like all Northwest Coastal peoples, the Tsimshian harvested the abundant sea life, especially salmon. The Tsimshian became a seafaring people, like the Haida. Salmon continues to be at the center of their nutrition, despite large-scale commercial fishing in the area. Due to this abundant food source, the Tsimshian developed permanent towns. They lived in large longhouses, made from cedar house posts and panels to withstand the wet climate. These were very large, and usually housed an entire extended family.

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.

In common with 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 have maintained their art and culture, and are working to revitalize use of their language. 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

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. 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 differentiated from the regional Tsimshian variations. Few native speakers are alive today in Canada.

Some linguists classify Tsimshian languages as a member of the theoretical Penutian language group.

Notable Tsimshian people

Benjamin Haldane, 1907, Tsimshian photographer and musician

Anthropologists and other scholars who have worked with the Tsimshian

Missionaries who worked among the Tsimshian

See also


  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
  6. Dennis Zotigh, "Audrey Hudson: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series", Indian Country Today, 26 June 2016; accessed 27 June 2016


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