Population and Territory
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. (See also Architectural History of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) Tsimshian peoples are also generally held to be related historically to the Penutian peoples of Oregon and California.
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 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.
Tsimshian (meaning “Inside the Skeena River”) is a name that is often broadly applied to all Indigenous peoples in northern British Columbia, speaking languages of the Tsimshian language family. In the 2016 census, 2,695 people reported speaking a Tsimshian language, with the largest concentration (98.1 per cent) living in British Columbia.
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. 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. According to Statistics Canada, 250 people identified Tsimshian as their mother tongue, while another 455 specified the Nisga’a language, and 1,000, the Gitxsan language. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.)
In 1862, Anglican Missionary William Duncan established the Christian settlement of Metlakatla in British Columbia. (See also Missions and Missionaries.) 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.
As Europeans increasingly encroached on Tsimshian territories, the Tsimshian found themselves forced onto smaller parcels of land. (See also Indigenous Territory.) As a means of assimilating Indigenous populations, the Canadian government sent Tsimshian children to residential schools, where they and other Indigenous children were forbidden from speaking their languages and practicing their cultures. Officially launched in 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) sought to guide Canadians through the difficult discovery of the facts behind the residential school system and to lay the foundation for lasting reconciliation across Canada.
In 1988, the Tsimshian created the Tsimshian Tribal Council to negotiate with the British Columbia and federal governments on behalf of seven of the Tsimshian bands: Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, Gitga’at, Kitasoo, Metlakatla, Lax Kw’alaams and Gitxa’ala. (See also Indigenous Land Claims.) In 1991, the council officially entered the British Columbia 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 Government of British Columbia.
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 British Columbia 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.