Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Nisga'a Architecture

Lax Kw'alaams (Fort Simpson). Painting by Fredee Alexcee, 1865. Library and Archives Canada, C-024250.

The ancestors of the Tsimshian speaking peoples probably migrated from the Interior Plateau and initially lived in Plateau-style pit houses. Over time the group changed into four distinct groups, each centred on a specific location in Tsimshian territory. The Nisga’a were spread in villages along the Nass River, the Gitksan along the Upper Skeena River, the Coast Tsimshian along the Lower Skeena River and on the Coast at its mouth, and the Southern Tsimshian further down the Coast.

Winter villages, of which 29 are known, were traditionally located on the banks of streams and rivers or on saltwater beaches. Since early travel was primarily by canoe, village sites were always located where craft could be easily landed or beached. A level, well-drained site was also necessary because houses had tamped earth or sand floors. Houses always faced the beach and were arranged in a single row where space permitted, and were located as close to the water as possible to facilitate the loading and unloading of canoes. Defense from raids was also a consideration in locating a village site, so they were often located on a point of land which had a good view of water approaches, or backing onto woods and swamps that would discourage enemy attacks.

Permanent, pre-contact villages averaged less than a hundred people, although the largest might have contained as many as five hundred. Seasonal and regional trading camps, often held up to two thousand for weeks at a time during oolichan runs or harvest trading. These seasonal camps were built much like the permanent villages, except that the construction was much rougher.    

Thes building material of choice is the Western Red Cedar, which grows in abundance throughout the territory. Being straight-grained, knot free and easily split, it was perfect for the production of planks, as well as major structural members. It also has the advantage of being one of the most durable woods in the forest due to the resins contained in its fibres.

The building system employed was typical post and beam construction, clad in split cedar boards. The harsher winters on the North Coast created a need for the Tsimshian, Haida and Tlingit to build tightly fitted houses to keep out the cold winds, heavy rains, and snow. Usually these were smaller in size than the Southern and Central Coast houses, but the level of carpentry was much more sophisticated, including complex mortise and tenon joints and higher levels of structural, technical, and artistic expertise.

Chief Skagwait's house at Lax Kw'alaams (Fort Simpson). Photograph by O.C. Hastings, 1879. Canadian Museum of Civilization

Tsimshianic architecture uses a version of gable-roofed, two-beam construction similar to the Kwakwaka’wakw, and their houses are rectangular in shape with approximately 40-foot sidewalls. In the past, the floors were typically tamped earth with a one- or two-level deep central fire pit shored up with carved and painted retaining planks. There is usually an adjustable smoke hole above the fire pit. The exterior plank cladding, both horizontal and vertical, is secured into notched top and bottom plates or corner posts.

Tsimshianic houses also have elaborately painted house fronts and interior rear wall screens showing family crests and guardian figures. The rear of the house was traditionally reserved for the chief, while compartments along either side were assigned to kinsmen and their families. Slaves, with their few possessions, lived in the coldest part of the house on either side of the front door. The houses of chiefs were usually larger than other homes because they entertained more and their homes were used for public gatherings.

In pre-contact times, the houshold revolved around the excavated fire pit in the centre of the house, which would have been surrounded by firewood, smooth stones for boiling, wooden tongs, cooking boxes and serving dishes. The upper platform around the exterior walls of the house served as beds, seating and storage space for family possessions. Food was stored in boxes in the cool earth underneath, or in large carved or painted wooden chests. Most of the dried and smoked foods were stored on shelves suspended from the beams and rafters, or hung in bundles from the beams. Here they were safe from vermin and damage, and were kept dry by the heat of the fire. The area behind the rear wall screen was used for storage of dancing paraphernalia and crest ornaments, which were used during potlatches and winter ceremonies.

Occasionally Tsimshianic people built girls’ puberty huts, but adolescents were more frequently confined in an enclosure within the house. They also did not use sweat lodges or elevated caches for food. They did, however, build smoke houses and cabins at each of their seasonal fishing and hunting sites. Both structures were similar to their permanent winter homes, although more crudely built. Some families had well-built cabins at fish camps that were visited every year, but most lived in temporary lean-to or gabled structures, or in smokehouses, and these were usually covered with bark or mats rather than split planks. Although fortifications must have existed, details of them are minimal.  They were built on hills or rocky promontories and were equipped with shelters and provisions. A double fence of logs and a heavy door are described, and logs and rocks were fastened along the base of the walls to be released down onto invading enemies.   

Chief Minesque's (Mosquito) house, Gitlaxdamsk, Nass River. Photographer unknown, 1903. Royal B.C. Museum.

Post contact, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established a trading post at Port Simpson in 1834. With the coming of the settlers, new ideas and styles in houses and interiors developed in Tsimshian and Nisga'a villages. The first innovations were windows and hinged doors in the front wall. Windows took the place of façade paintings as symbols of prestige and influence. Next came the use of milled lumber for walls, and finally floors. The next change in fashion introduced homes that outwardly resembled styles brought from England or Eastern Canada. And finally, the interior floor plan came to be modified to include a single, high-ceilinged family gathering room surrounded by several very small rooms for sleeping and storage. Today, most Tsimshian housing is indistinguishable from any other suburban home. The plank-style communal house has not been used for daily living since about 1900.

Textual information for this page: Garfield, Wingert and Barbeau, 1951; Nabakov and Easton, 1989; Inglis, Hudson, Rigsby and Rigsby, 1990; Dunn and Booth, 1990.