ETHNONYMS: Chimmesyan, Skeena

The Tsimshian are a Northwest Coast group who lived and continue to live along the Nass and Skeena rivers and nearby coastal regions of British Columbia. In the early 1800s, the Tsimshian numbered as many as 10,000. In 1980, there were nearly that number in British Columbia and 942 in the Metlakatla Community on the Annette Island Reserve. The Tsimshian were composed of three subgroups (some experts say they were separate groups): Tsimshian, Niska (Nass River), and Gitksan (Kitksan). Tsimshian is a Penutian Language, and four dialects were spoken aboriginally.

Sustained contact with Europeans began in the early 1700s and focused on Tsimshian involvement in the fur trade, first with the Russians and then with the English and the Americans. This involvement brought many Tsimshian closer to the coast and culminated in the formation of the large town of Fort Simpson around the Hudson's Bay Company post of the same name beginning in 1834. In 1887 the missionary William Duncan, seeking political and religious freedom, led a group of 942 Tsimshian to Annette Island where they founded the Metlakatla Community. The Community is noted today for its progressive economic policies and relatively high quality of life. The Tsimshian in Canada are now divided into sixteen bands and live on reserves in their traditional territory. In both Alaska and Canada salmon fishing remains an important subsistence and commercial activity, although modern technology such as power boats have replaced the traditional technology.

As with all Northwest Coast groups, the social and Political organization of Tsimshian society was multilayered and involved social classes, kin ties, and territorial units. There were four social classes: royalty, nobles, commoners, and slaves. The basic territorial units were the villages, controlled by the matrilineages. Societal-level integration was achieved through affiliation with one of the four matriclans, potlatching, clan exogamy, and patrilocal postmarital residence. The Tsimshian displayed many cultural features typical of the Northwest Coast including potlatches, large plank houses, an economy based on the sea and especially salmon fishing, slavery, and totem poles. The Tsimshian are known for originating the Chilkat blanket, with clan crests woven from Mountain goat wool and yellow cedar bark. Once a medium of exchange, the blankets are now valuable collector's items.


Garfield, Viola (1939). Tsimshian Clan and Society. University of Washington Publications in Anthropology, no. 7, 167-340. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Miller, Jay, and Carol M. Eastman (1984). The Tsimshian and Their Neighbors of the North Pacific Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

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