Tsimshian (meaning "Inside the Skeena River") generally refers to Aboriginal peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast speaking one of the Tsimshian languages. Tsimshian communities are found in Terrace and Prince Rupert (British Columbia), and southern Alaska. In 1988, the Tsimshian Tribal Council, representing seven of the Tsimshian bands, began treaty negotiations with the government of British Columbia. The Tsimshian people continue to work towards self-government and the protection of territorial, economic and political rights.

Tsimshian traditional territory.
(courtesy Victor Temprano/Native-Land.ca)

Timshian Languages

Tsimshian (meaning "Inside the Skeena River") is a name that is often broadly applied to all northern British Columbia Aboriginal groups speaking languages of the Tsimshian language family. The Tsimshian language can be grouped into four dialects: Northern Tsimshian, found along the lower Skeena River; Nisga'a, along the Nass River; Gitxsan, from the upper Skeena River; and Southern or Coast Tsimshian, from south of the Skeena River to the coast (see also Aboriginal Languages of Canada).

Southern or Coast Tsimshian, sometimes referred to as Tsimshian Proper, included groups along the lower Skeena River from the Kitselas Canyon and Kitsumkalum (near Terrace) and the adjacent coast south to Milbanke Sound, including Port Simpson, Metlakatla (in the Prince Rupert area), Kitkatla, Hartley Bay and Kitasu Bay. The 2011 Statistics Canada census reported 1,815 people in Canada who spoke one of the four Tsimshian languages.

Society and Culture

The Tsimshian, along with the Tlingit of Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon and the Haida of Haida Gwaii, represent the Northwest Coast cultural area, characterized by Indigenous carvings, such as totem poles and traditional ceremonies, including the potlatch. Taking pride in their heritage, the Tsimshian continue to practice certain cultural customs, such as hosting community ceremonial feasts to celebrate name giving, marriage, divorce, adoption and funerals. Although few Tsimshian continue the traditional practice of trapping for a living, fishing remains an important part of their economy.

Tsimshian society was originally matrilineal, with descent traced through the female line. Tsimshian society was also based on a moiety (clan system). Each Tsimshian still recognizes himself/herself as belonging to one of four phratries (tribes or totems): Frog or Raven, Wolf, Eagle, and Killer Whale or Fireweed. Tsimshian individuals belong to the same phratry as their mother and traditionally marries someone (historically, the preferred mate was a cousin) from a different phratry than their own. Hereditary, chiefly titles are still maintained by both men and women for ceremonial purposes.

European Contact

In 1862, Anglican Missionary William Duncan established the Christian settlement of Metlakatla (British Columbia). Approximately 350 Tsimshian people from Port Simpson joined Duncan in Metlakatla. In 1887, Duncan and about 825 Metlakatla Tsimshians founded the new community of "New" Metlakatla, near Ketchikan, Alaska.

Archaeological excavations in the harbour at Prince Rupert have unearthed the remains of cedar plank house villages that date back 5,000 years; as such, the Tsimshian claim one of the oldest continuous cultural heritages in the Americas. Tsimshian groups are also generally held to be related historically to the Penutian peoples of Oregon and California.

Treaty Negotiations

In 1988, the Tsimshian created the Tsimshian Tribal Council to negotiate with the British Colubmia and federal governments on behalf of seven of the Tsimshian bands: Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, Gitga’at, Kitasoo, Metlakatla, Lax Kw’alaams and Gitxa’ala (see Aboriginal Land Claims). In 1991, the council officially entered the BC treaty process. Negotiations stalled during the negotiation of the agreement in principle. In 1997, a framework for a comprehensive treaty agreement was established between the original seven bands and the BC government.

In 2004 a new negotiating council the Tsimshian First Nations Treaty Society (TFN) replaced the Tsimshian Tribal Council to represent five of the seven original members in the BC treaty process: the Gitga'at Nation, Kitasoo/Xai'xais Band, Kitselas Band, Kitsumkalum Band and the Metlakatla First Nation. The TFN continues to work towards self-government and the protection of territorial, economic and political rights.