Tsimshian


Approximate 19th century territory of the Tsimshian. Redrawn from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of the Handbook of North American Indians. View Tsimshian combined in a larger map

Tsimshian Language Family

Coast Tsimshian

Southern Tsimshian

Territory:

The Tsimshian, or “People of the Skeena,” are a group of linguistically and culturally related people who can be divided into four sub-language categories: the Gitxsan, who occupy the Upper Skeena River; the Nisga’a (Nishga) along the Nass River; the Coast Tsimshian, which the Gitselasu are often grouped with, along both the lower parts of the Skeena River and the nearby coast; and the Southern Tsimshian, who are found along the coast as well as the southern islands.

In such a large and geographically diverse area, no one annual cycle was true for all of the different local groups. But, in general, each would occupy a single winter village, and then move to their seasonal fishing grounds in spring and early summer. In the fall, after fish and other winter supplies were preserved and stored, small groups would move to their traditional hunting territories.

Language:

The Tsimshian can be paired into two groups that share similar linguistic traits: the Coast Tsimshian and Southern Tsimshian as one, and the Nisga’a and Gitxsan as the other. At one time, both Nisga’a and Gitxsan people also spoke Coast Tsimshian for ceremonial purposes as it was considered a sign of prestige.

Chief Skagwait's house at Fort Simpson, 1879. Photo by O.C. Hastings.
Chief Tsebessa's house post from Kitkatla. Seen here at the Harvard Peabody Museum, ca. 1915.

Architecture:

For the winter houses, large timbers from red cedars are used for the construction. The traditional winter house was 50 feet long by 55 feet wide, whereas the largest house recorded, which was at Fort Simpson, was 60 feet long by 40 feet wide. Famed anthropologist Franz Boas has noted that walls were not permanently fixed to the main house structure, and even claimed that some people took their house planks with them to their spring and summer village camps.

Inside a traditional Tsimshian house, an excavated pit five feet deep and 30 feet square, lined with cedar plank retaining walls, formed the main living area. Located at the centre of this large area was the main fireplace.

Art:

Tsimshian artistic production is based on the complex organization of clans, secret society performances and by potlatches, which are large feasts where name, rank or hereditary privileges are claimed through dances, speeches and the distribution of property.

Most Tsimshian art depicts myths, tales and the associated supernatural beings. Humans, animals, birds, and fish are also portrayed. Crests were represented through carvings and paintings on interior posts, totem poles, house fronts, beams, rafters and ceremonial entrances.

The style of Tsimshian art is said to be more closely related to that of the Tlingit than to any other group on the coast. Traditional Tsimshian colours include blues, reds, yellows, blue-greens, black and white.

Unique features found on Tsimshian poles include mask-like faces that are usually without a body, and figures of animals or birds (usually carved separately and attached) on top of poles that appear to be in motion or flight.

Textual Information for this page: Barbeau, 1929; Garfield, 1951; Halpin and Seguin, 1990.