My Clan Story
Main Language Groups
Social Organization
Social Organization and Clan System
Beliefs, Supernatural, Secular
Goypax (Light, Heaven)
Secret Societies of the Tsimshian
The Way It Was
Spirit Doctors
Dundas Collection
Death, Reincarnation
Negative Future
Northwest Coast Regalia
Chilkat Blanket

Living Among the Giants (Red Cedar trees)
Totem Poles Tsimshian Art
Oral Narratives
Knowledge: Storytelling, World of Light, Salmon, Animals
Notable Tsimshians
Notable High Smooygits (Chiefs)
Housing and Transportation
Photos from drawings by Tsimshian Elder, Frank Alexcee
European Contact



Imagine what it must have been like for First Nations people to live on the Pacific Northwest Coast of British Columbia before the Great Change. Small Native villages were scattered along the rivers, bays, and inlets. The Tsimshian had survived and flourished for thousands of years in their lush and bountiful rain forest home. Every region had its own language, tradition and distinctive identity.

The Pacific Coast was abundant in natural resources which formed the basis of the traditional economy - salmon and eulachon in the rivers; herring, halibut, cod, seals, sea lions, otters and whales in the open sea; seaweed and shellfish along the shores and on the rocks left visible by the receding tide; and, in the dense rain forests, berries, lupine roots, and the extremely important hemlock, red cedar, fir and yew trees were in abundant supply.

The wood from these trees provided strong logs for the building of the plank houses. The northwest coast was rife with artists, carvers, singers and dancers. The two-dimensional art form unique to the northwest coast manifested itself in the design of the houses, utensils, clothing of the Tsimshian. Cedar was carved into bowls and storage boxes, some called Bentwood boxes; utensils were made for cooking and eating; The bark was pounded into soft fibers until it was the consistency of velvet, and then woven into warm blankets and clothing. Beautifully designed Chilkat blankets and leggings woven from goat hair were prized possessions. These were practical items but there was no reason for them not to be beautiful.

Little in the way of animal hide was worn for it did not fair well in the humid and rainy weather of the north west coast. The cedar woven bark capes and hats kept the rain at bay. For the most part, however, in the spring and summer men wore nothing at all, and the women wore cedar robes that were draped over one shoulder and bound at the waist. Shoes, moccasins were a rarity. Barefoot was the preferred way to go which explains why even to this day, despite my lengthy urban upbringing, I have trouble keeping shoes on my feet, it is quite simply in the DNA!

The Ancestors were not nomadic peoples having access to a wide spectrum of food.  Although there were winter and summer camps, travel was not excessively long and the northern peoples had plenty of opportunity to spend their time creating elaborate social and political hierarchical structures supported by lavish ceremonials (see Yaawk-Feast below).


TRIBES: Here are the names of some of the many tribes who inhabit British Columbia: Tsimshian, Tlingit, Gitksan, Heiltsuk, Nisga'a, Slavey, Okanagan, Chilcotin, Comox, Sechelt, Lilloet, Sekani, Squamish, Thompson, Tsetsauts, Haisla, Kutenai, Haida, Nuxalk, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-cha-nulth, Tsilhqot'in, Wet'suwet'en, Shuswap, Schelt, Carrier, Salish. 60% of all tribal communities in Canada reside in British Columbia.

LANGUAGE  B.C. is the most linguistically diverse area in Indigenous Canada. Sixteen languages from five different linguistic groups are spoken: North: Haida, Tsimshian (Gitksan, Nisha’a), Tlingit; Central: Kwakwaka’wakw (Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kwagiulth); Nuu-cha-nulth; Nuxalk. South: Coast Salish (6 related languages).


SSIMSHIAN: Three Groups: (a) Tsimshian (included: Coast  and Southern); (b) Gitksan (Farther north on the Skeena River), (c) Nisga'a (basin of the Nass River).  Nishga and Gitksan peoples speak dialects of the Tsimshian language (Sm'algyax). Thunderbird's tribe, the Giluts'aaw (Coast) inhabit Lakelse Lake (Lax Gyels), Lakelse River, and territorial camps in Lax kw'Alaams (Port Simpson) and near the Tsimshian Peninsula in Metlakatla, B.C.


Giluts'aaw (Thunderbird's Tribe), Ginadoiks, Ginaxangiik, Gispaxlo'ots, Gitganda, Gitlaan, Gits'iis, Gitwilgyoots, Gitzaxlaal,

 HAIDA:  Occupy Haida G'wai, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia.

TLINGIT: Southeastern Alaska, off the northern coast of British Columbia, also the southern Yukon.



Owners of the Houses; Thunderbird's Grandmother was born a Sigidmhana'a (Princess/Matriarch). The title passes down to the next female generations. This is a post-European contact adaptation in deference to the recognition of the Great White Grandmother (Queen Victoria). On a number of levels this is quite amusing. The Tsimshian, if nothing else, were certainly adaptable! Thunderbird, despite her best efforts, gets zero mileage out of this! (Photo right: Women of high status)

Nobles  Most of The People are in this group.

Commoners  Those with no legitimate family ties; or slaves who have been made part of a family.

Slaves  Captured in raids.

As noted above, northern tribes were fairly sedentary because food was plentiful (although there were for most tribes, summer and winter homes). Very stable economy. There was a lot of time, in other words, for the peoples of the northwest coast to create the most complex social organizations in Indigenous Canada. The Tsimshian are at the top of the list in terms of complexity.

Social divisions for the northern tribes were based on birth; tribal societies were divided into royalty, nobles, commoners and slaves. Wood labrets (u-shaped bone) inserted in the bottom lip of noble women was a sign of their stature. (Photo at left depicts a Haida woman wearing a labret.

Earspools. Pulley-shaped objects worn by perforating and stretching earlobe.

Artificially flattened foreheads (bound during infancy) to mark noble status.

 (Photo: Haida Woman wearing labret)


Tsimshian in Sm'algyax means "People Inside the Skeena River."
Tsimshian also refer to themselves as "The Originals"


Ownership of territory, clans, crests held by kinship groups sharing a name and a tradition of descent from a common ancestor.

Great importance placed on inherited rank and privileges. Chiefs and nobles held high-ranking names (i.e., Thunderbird) and controlled access to group-held territory and rights.

Commoners who lacked inherited claims to titles shared in group’s greater prestige and were an essential labour source; Slaves usually captured in war.


Tsimshian society is organized in terms of (a) tribes, (b) houses, (c) clans. It is a complicated matrilineal system of Phratries, an anthropological term meaning four equal subdivisions (or clans) within a tribal group.

TRIBES: The Tsimshian consist of fourteen tribes, called galts'its'ap. The Kitasso, Gitga’ata, Kitkatla, Kitsumkalum, Kitselas, Gilusts’aa,** (Thunderbird's tribe), Ginadoiks, Gispaxlo’ots, Gitando, Gitlaan, Gits’iss, Ginaxangiik, Gitwilgyoots, Gitzaxlaal.

**I am a member of the Giluts'aaẅ, Nine of the fourteen tribes who live in and around the lower Skeena River. Traditional territory is Lakelse Lake, near Lax Kw'alaams, also known as Fort Simpson, a fort built by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1834). Giluts'aa, means "people inside the Skeena River."

HOUSES: The house is a group of extended Tsimshian who literally lived in a large house. The head of a house is a Chief or Chieftaness - equal opportunity in the world of the Tsimshian! In my case, the Gispudwada House of Nisnawa is not in existence as the lineage was interrupted with the arrival of the Europeans among other things.  It was at one point held by an ancestor, Victoria Young and may or may not have been transferred to the Swanson family when Victoria bore no children. No historical evidence one way or the other. My Grandmother, was of royal lineage but was not acknowledged as part of the house due to....a very long story.

CLANS: Prior to European contact, the clan system was strictly administered. For example, even if there was no blood relation, a Blackfish/Orca could not marry a Wolf because both clans were in the same half of the phratry; it was considered incest (called endogamy). Most Indigenous people practiced exogamy (marrying outside the moiety/phratry/clan). 

The Tsimshian social hierarchy is considered to be the most complicated on the northwest coast. Royal women were a powerful presence and were often Chieftenesses, Spirit Doctors, later Negotiators and Mediators with the Europeans, i.e. Victoria Young.

The Clans based on supernatural and other spiritual beings in the form of birds and animals, were considered to be the ancient Ancestors of the Tsimshian, and as a result the origin of their clans. These categories were elaborated into a threefold system of Crests, Wonders and Privileges.

Crests: Represent a close relationship with the spirit world and includes the right to own certain land, names, heraldic designs, and important perogatives. In traditional law, this right was ‘paid for’ with a life. If an animal killed an Ancestor in a story, then the descendants of that person could use the image as a crest. Crests were related to the tradition of a ‘shining heaven’ or ‘glistening light’.

Wonders: Called Naxnox, are physical representations of supernatural beings. The ceremonies were a time in which the Tsimshian and the supernatural world also known as Halaayt (see below) became one. It was a time to appease the powers of nature and to give thanks for the bounty they enjoyed. Physical expression was given to this relationship through the dances and wearing of masks.

There is a separation in that the full meaning of Naxnox includes immortal beings, while ‘Wonder’ refers to the cultural recognition of it. (See Beliefs below)

Privileges: Was a means of identifying members of the eliteThere were four orders of the Secret Society and a royal or noble child was initiated into one of them at an early age.  The following chart based on one taken from Jay Miller's, book, Tsimshian Culture: A Light Through The Ages gives a clearer picture of how it all worked.


A matrilineal system called Moiety (Two equal subdivisions of a tribe). Haida moieties were Raven and the Eagle. Each was divided into a large number of clans (main ones included: Raven, Eagle, Frog, Beaver, and Bear), which were identified within local groups; that is, one or several of these clans formed a village, and the clans found in the village were not, originally, found elsewhere. 

Note: Tlingit  Raven (corresponds to Haida Raven and Tsimshian Raven), the Wolf (south) (corresponds to Haida Eagle and Tsimshian Wolf), and the Eagle (north) (corresponds to Haida Eagle and Tsimshian Eagle).

MARRIAGES among nobles were often arranged for political purpose.



A long way back, a very long way. Way before recorded time, Gyibaaw Mootsk (White Wolf) stood contemplating his world. He was beautiful with glistening, satiny white fur that shone in both the sun and moonlight.  There was much wisdom in his piercing green eyes. They reflected the power of the earth on which he walked and his own inner knowing. He had wandered around the world searching for someone who look just like him, but to know avail. It seemed he was the only of his kind in existence. I made him very sad and lonely.

One day he met Noo Halidzocks (Mother Earth) standing near the big water. She was singing to herself in the evening twilight as the waves washed into the shore. Her voice was soft, yet seemed to carry far out across the water, into the trees, below the ground to the original home of the four great winds, the beautiful sounds flying on silver wings to the star nation. "~Looda lagyigyeda txa'nii yets'isga waaldi da lax yuup ada txa'nii goo ada luwaalm ts'm aks." (Respect all animals that live on land and all things that live in the sea.

"Yes, I guess it is." Replied  Gyibaaw Mootsk.

By this time, Culture Hero, Gaax (Raven) attracted by the smell of cooked salmon, had joined them. He dropped another fat salmon onto the fire as he invited himself for dinner. He settled down on a low Amgan branch, and looked curiously at Gyibaaw Mootsk.

"You are sad, 'nasiip'nsgu (my friend). Will you tell us why?" Delicately he nipped a choice piece of salmon out of the air tossed to him by Noo Halidzoks.

"Ah, Dzi'is (Grandmother), Gaax I am just very lonely."


"Why?" She asked.


"Well I have travelled everywhere, yet I've been unsuccessful in finding another like me. I am sad because I have no one to share things with."

"Well." Gaax fluffed his feathers. "I am also one of a kind, I rather like it, and I have lots of friends."


"I just think you are one of the most elegant of the four leggeds, but, I think I understand how you feel." Noo Halidzoks said quietly. "Go to sleep now, beautiful Gyibaaw Mootsk, Gaax and I will think on this awhile.

A few days later, the three of them gathered together again for a late dinner. "We have decided, Gyibaaw Mootsk that if you are this unhappy, you need to change. Therefore, you will be turned into a big, shiny, black dolphin."  As Gyibaaw Mootsk started to dance in anticipation, Noo Halidzoks raised a cautioning hand. "But," she said, "white markings will be painted on your sides to remind you that you used to live on land as a white wolf. Always remember and respect your four-legged relatives; acknowledge them when they come to visit. Dolphins travel in groups, like the wolves, protecting and teaching their young by singing to them. When dolphins surface to breathe, it is also a reminder of its origin." She smiled. "You will also have the responsibility of remembering and singing the history of your people.


With that, Gyibaaw Mootsk sank below the great water of the Pacific Ocean. All the other swimmers rushed over to welcome him to their midst. To this day when Gispudwada (Blackfish) begins its migratory path from Alaska to the warmer waters of the south Pacific, they stop to rest in a place called Puget Sound, near Seattle. They rise to the surface and call to their wolf relatives who come down to the shore to sing back. Pod and Pack then introduce to each other any babies that may have been born between visits.


And, this is why Gispudwada looks the way it does, uniquely, glisteningly, powerfully beautiful, with a voice that carries for long distances and holds the wisdom of the ages. Wilwilaaysk, All My Relations. Nii'sabbat, It is finished.




--  --  "Killer Whale" is an incorrect and insulting term for one of the most magnificent creatures in nature.

2.    --  Orca/Blackfish is a Dolphin!

3.   -- Why would anyone want to have the Killer name as its principal identifier?

==-- Photos: Shannon Thunderbird as Mother Earth; Sandy Horne as Raven in their musical: "Daughter of the Copper Shield.

Beliefs, Supernatural, Secular

It was once said that the Supernatural and Secular worlds were separated by only a thin veil, and humans with special supernatural powers could pass back and forth with ease.

Of all the northern coastal people, the Tsimshian had the most complex social, spiritual and political structure. One of the main reasons was the amount of idle time there was in which to create involved cultural systems. As noted earlier, the area in which they lived was lush and forested, food plentiful, travel light. Therefore, over time, much effort was put into creating a hierarchy of complicated clan systems and secret societies that consisted of dzapk (as noted earlier, represented by the wearing of a woven hat), wonders, privileges and a ‘real time’ relationship with the spirit world also known as Halaayt. The winter ceremonies in which Halaayt was celebrated was known as Naxnox. It is also important to note that the Tsimshian did not recognize a supreme being. They assumed that heaven already existed in the form of goypax (light).

Light (goypax) from: Tsimshian Culture: A Light Through The Ages, Jay Miller, created Tsimshian Culture when Raven brought it into the world with a blinding flash. Light is also called Heaven, Sky Chief or the Sun.

Halaayt is the spiritual world, the supernatural and sacred aspects of Tsimshian beliefs. The notion of 'Power' is derived from close interaction between the secular and supernatural worlds. It was within the supernatural world that all resources and spirit resided. Halaayt channels the power of the person expressing it through a mask or carrying some other sacred object.

Naxnox: (pronounced nack-nock). The objects used to represent  Halaayt are called  Naxnox, the physical representation or applied part of Tsimshian belief. In other words in order to express spiritual power, the individual required particular items such as drums, shakers, masks, horns, crystals or a carved frontlet, often inlaid with abalone shell and worn over the forehead to help with contacting and travelling in one of the other worlds.

 Masks were the main representation of Naxnox. The person(s) most often gifted with the power to traverse the worldswere the Spirit Doctors, either male or female. The word ‘Shaman’* does not exist in Sm’algyax.’ Halaayt is the correct term. To simplify, the frontlet was the intermediary between the hat and the mask. With Halaayt comes Privileges, with Naxnox comes Wonders. *Shaman is a word that originated in central Asia with the Turks and Mongols. There is no word in any Native language that translates directly to Shaman. (Photo above: Tsimshian Transformation Mask)

Naxnox loosely translated means an unwieldy supernatural power associated with chiefly might, antisocial acts, and distinctive tendencies intended to instill fear into the onlookers. For example: Gilax Naxnox was a spirit who came into the town during the day and put out everyone’s fires. Main difference to Halaayt, that in order to be in the world, Naxnox must have a physical embodiment, for example crests or souls. The Masks at a dance drama provides direct representation of the crests which were derived from Naxnox and the Ancestors.  Naxnox  was restricted in usage to the masked performances at a yaawk (Feast)**.

**More popularly known as a Potlatch (Chinook trading language)

Anyone going out into nature to commune with spirits was said to be seeking his or her Naxnox. Normally, Naxnox is inherited by only one person and the name received had to be validated with a Yawk that had ritual dramatization of the event. The dramatization included the wearing of elaborate masks which were seen as symbols of great power.

Marjorie Halpin, for example, described Naxnox naming system as:

"...a metaphorical elaboration on the theme of death. The various physical infirmities represented by naxnox names - old age, lameness, deafness, smallpox, etc. were metaphors of physical death. The various cultural infirmities [such as] selfishness, drunkenness, insanity, were metaphors of one sense or meaninglessness; that is, cultural death....What the Tsimshian collectively overcame was death."

The concepts of Halaayt and Naxnox were magical and inspirational because they called on all the senses and engaged the whole brain. The left brain functions of logic, spoken word and rational thought were balanced by the right brain strengths of creativity, intuition, adawx, emotion and visualisation. The dance of life could only function in a harmonious way if halaayt and naxnox melded seamlessly within the supernatural and secular worlds both of which contained vital memories. In other words, adawx (storytelling) and incumbent ceremonies echoed the voices of the Ancestors, and as The Originals walked in the physical world they remembered their lives and gatgyet.




Gisbudwada (Blackfish), Laxgibuu (Wolf),
Ganhada, (Raven), Laxgiik (Eagle)

(Woven Hat & Button Blanket))

E.g., Thunderbird, Grizzly Bear, Blackfish


HALAAYT (Frontlets) - Supernatural, Spirit World and Spirit Doctors.

PRIVILEGES - Members of Royalty or Nobility permitted to practice Halaayt. They were also members of secret societies

NAXNOX  - Primordial Spirits (Raven, Thunderbird, Blackfish, Wolf, Eagle, Earth, Sky, Cave, Forest

WONDERS (Masks) - Dramatization of Naxnox by Humans recognizing the right of the primordial spirits to act on their behalf.



Mila (Dancers), Nulim (Dog Eaters), Ludzista (Destroyers), and Xgyedmhalait (Cannibals)

Wherein culture hero's such as Raven fall into the Naxnox category, Spirit Doctors are considered to be an integral and natural part of the supernatural world, and, therefore, referred to as Halaayt. The Tsimshian were not cannibals by the way; it was abhorrent to them. The Cannibal society taught the Tsimshian that if their desire to kill overcame their reason, then they would suffer terrible calamities throughout their lives.

Mila and Nulim were secret societies with initiated members. Destroyers and Cannibals were the personal privileges of high chiefs and as such, had no orderly associations. Unlike Naxnox, Halaayt was the preserve of the elite with only royalty and nobility as members in all four orders. Royal children wee initiated during the winter. Cannibal society was reserved for the greatest chiefs who bore Halaayt names linking them with the Chief of Heaven or Sun Chief, the grand chief of the Tsimshian upper world.

With the arrival of the Europeans, such beliefs and practices were decried as pagan and uncivilized by the missionaries, among others. Eventually, they were outlawed by the federal government (1884) and the Tsimshian were ruthlessly turned away from their spiritual practices. Missionaries, William Duncan, Thomas Crosby and Reverend Collison were all instrumental in turning the Tsimshian into devout Christians. In fact, these men were quite shameless in their constant attacks on Tsimshian knowledge, referring constantly to the fact that their beliefs and practices were the scourge of the universe, and in league with Satan. In time, the Tsimshian came to reject their time-honoured spiritual heritage. "Even with a reawakened appreciation of their past greatness, the accept translation of the word "swansk" is "witch doctor" or "devil worker." (J. Miller). 



Dominating knowledge was that the bodies of men, animals, and plants were the houses, canoes or shells in which souls lived and these souls had a great range of action outside their normal habitat. Having a good life depended on good relations with the spiritual world.Much time and effort was placed on honouring those who lived beyond the white veil. There were special, rigid rituals that were undertaken to ensure good relations. For example, sexual restraint, sweat baths, fasting, and purging the physical body with special teas.

The Tsimshian were not so caught up in ritual that they didn't also think, it was a bit of  a crap shoot on any given day, whether or not the spirits were listening. Therefore, my Ancestors also believed mightily in luck!

Main Knowledge: The integration of the past, present and future. It was the vivid imaginations of the storytellers that tried to explain the origins of the world and the Tsimshian people. The future was also speculative and related particularly to the persistence of each person "after death", because it was the Supernatural World that was of the greatest importance; it influenced daily life. Thunderbird produced lightning and thunder; creek-women were deities from each stream that controlled the water and the fish.

To the Tsimshian, the creation of the original world was assumed, however, it was in chaos, which required Culture Hero, Raven to organize it into a cohesive format, which he gleefully undertook using all means necessary to get the job done. Like all Culture Heroes, Raven is referred to as a "Trickster", which, is a post-European insult, borne from the closed minds of the missionaries who were appalled at the thought that a squawking black bird could be spoken of on the same level as Jesus Christ. Therefore, the only alternative, was Raven to be seen as a child of Satan and therefore tricky and up to no good.  In fact Raven was kind, loved humans and gave them their first conscious thought.

Tsimshian, as is the case of many tribes, believed in the sanctity of harmonious connections between the seen and unseen worlds. There was a time long ago, when all living beings spoke with one language; there was never any confusion as to the understanding or intent of one group towards another. As well, only a thin veil separated the two worlds, and people, particularly Spirit Doctors, could move back and forth with ease. Animals and birds could take on human form, and vice versa.




Essay by: Shannon Thunderbird

Time has not always been kind to the Indigenous Spirit Doctor; terms such as 'witch doctor' or the 'Devil's servant' have frequently been used to describe the nature and responsibilities of this very special and important person. The correct term ‘Spirit Doctor’ in lieu of the term ‘Shaman’ is being used. 'Shaman' is a term that came from central Asia and as a result there is no word in any Native language for the word ‘Shaman’.  (Photo left: is Kilisnoo Pete (Tlingit) His Tlingit names were S’eeneesh and Naaxwuduyeesh and he was Dakhl’aweidí (Orca Clan) from Angoon, AK).

There are Spirit Doctors who do not act in the best interests of the people. As in all situations in life, both the positive and negative occur. A negative Spirit Doctor (Sorcerer) is someone who, like many others, does not have, (a) full understanding of his role, (b) does have a full understanding but has become corrupted with his powers, or (c) is 'burned out' after a number of years carrying heavy responsibilities. Whatever the case, they have been known to reap incredible damage and it is these people who have earned, for all Spirit Doctors, the labels of witch doctor, devil's servant, sorcerer, etc. That said, this article chooses to deal with the Spirit Doctor as a positive role model and healer as they outnumber the negative ones by a huge margin. 

A Spirit Doctor subscribes to neither the aforementioned labels; indeed, h/she is more accurately described as a healer, visionary, mystic, poet. More to the point, h/she is an intermediary between the people and the Lowerworld/Upperworld.  As such, h/she is a healer first and a prophet second. A Spirit Doctor can be either male or female and only becomes one after much initiation and soul searching.

While Spirit Doctors carry a certain tabu, they do not stay secluded from the people. They are involved with everyday activities and expected to earn their way.  When not directly involved in a healing capacity, they become teachers for other healers and certainly the children or planning for an upcoming event. In other words, they are approachable on a variety of levels. At least I like to think so!

In Indigenous cultures, every problem is treated seriously for a group's very survival depends on healthy attitudes and healthy bodies.  It is believed that a person can become diseased or open to disease if that person's guardian spirit has left or been lost. It becomes the job of the Spirit Doctor to go in search of that spirit and bring it back, or, if it is lost, bring back another one.

How do they do this? You need to imagine a tree, its roots buried in the ground, its trunk tall and its branches and leaves in full foliage. Trees hold a great significance as roots are seen as the past, trunks are seen as the present and branches/leaves are seen as the future.  In keeping with this symbol, the roots are the Lower world, the trunk is the journey and the branches/leaves are the Upper world. (It should be understood that a Spirit Doctor may also choose to journey through other methods such as mentally picking a cave entrance, a waterfall, etc; however, more often than not, the tree symbol is used because the notion of tunneling up and down is the constant).

In order to find what he is searching for, the Spirit Doctor's understanding allows him to give of his soul and to give up his soul. The giving 'of his soul' means he uses his energy in the service of the patient(s); the giving 'up of his soul' means he must provide a receptacle to bring back what is needed. He cannot lose or leave his own soul behind because (a) he understands what the journey entails and is so prepared, (b) he could die, and (c) the drum and the rattle keep him connected.

Upon entering the world of altered consciousness, the Spirit Doctor picks a mental point in her tree to enter and begins her journey. If, for example, she is in search of a lost guardian spirit, she goes to the Lower world to acquaint herself with the roots (or past) of the patient. She may, indeed, find the spirit there.  If not, she travels to the Upper world, the future (branches/leaves) to see if the spirit has 'gone ahead'. If she finds the spirit, she comes back down the trunk and exits at the point of entry. Upon her return, she blows the spirit back into the patient through the chest/head areas. The Tsimshian Spirit Doctor uses a "soul catcher". It is usually intricately carved from hollowed bone (See below). If the spirit has been lost and a new one found, she returns and blows the new spirit into the patient's body whereupon the patient must rise and begin to dance, making noises and movements of the new spirit so that it can feel at home and want to stay.  If a physical disease is the problem, the Spirit Doctor goes in search of the special cure that is needed.

What is important to understand is not only the connections the Spirit Doctor has with herself and herself and her guardian spirits, but the connection she has with her patient(s). There is, put in modern words, a contractual agreement between the two and interestingly, when the Spirit Doctor begins her journey (along with the drum and rattle), she will lie down beside the patient, with a view to sharing the energy of the Universe. The patient must feel that h/she has an investment in the cure in order for it to be long lasting.

The Spirit Doctors’ spirits can move freely and are often gone during waking hours. They will meet the Spirit Doctor as he enters the tunnel inside the trunk. They may all go to the Lower world and work together or some may go to the Upper world and beckon the Spirit Doctor upwards if they find what he is looking for. Since this is a mental journey, time is based on the Spirit Doctor (of course, if it is an immediate life-death situation, the Spirit Doctor will stay conscious of the time). (Picture to right is of a female spirit doctor).

As mentioned above, the Spirit Doctor does not invalidate anyone's experiences; he will never tell another that only a fantasy exists. He completely understands that everything occurring is a reality and occurring in real time and that every symbol in her journey has a message. He will contemplate even the most unusual happenings and see how they fit in with what he already knows, for all matters are part of the truth by which he lives. As a side note, a Spirit Doctor may wear a mask when journeying so that a lost spirit, for example, will recognize the face of its owner and come back. Pacific northwest coast Spirit Doctors did not wear masks.

Spirit Doctors (photo left: curing boy with drum healing), like anyone else in service professions often specialized and carried heavy responsibilities to serve the people well and judiciously. From predicting the hunt to accurately naming a child to healing the physically infirm to repairing the mentally infirm to welcoming the first salmon of the season to sending warriors to war, it fell to the Spirit Doctor to underwrite the survival of the people. It takes, as it does with anyone who has the responsibility of maintaining groups of people, tremendous physical stamina, strength of purpose and courage of conviction to carry on, walk in one’s own truth and stay true to one's destiny. It was not unusual therefore, for stress and burnout to occur. Hence, the spirit doctor would have to withdraw from the community for extended periods to recharge her batteries.

The Spirit Doctor embodies the warrior, healer, teacher and visionary archetypes. They represent the four directions on the medicine wheel and accurately describe the kind of person a Spirit Doctor must be as the backbone of healthy tribal life.

In summary, the primary purpose of the Spirit Doctor is to help others; by helping patients transcend their ordinary realities, the she can help them rise above their view of themselves as sick or diseased.  When they can do this, the Spirit Doctor knows from the results of her work that she has become a true Spirit Doctor.

There are five Main Symbols used by Spirit Doctors:

DRUM: Referred to by the Tsimshian as a 'horse', or 'canoe'. Such references imply a vehicle of sorts.  In other words, on the heartbeat (Mother Earth) drum rhythm, the drum, while keeping the Spirit Doctor grounded in the present world, carries him to the unseen worlds where he must travel to find the necessary properties for healing purposes.  The drum calms his body and provides a focus of sound.

RATTLE/SHAKER: A higher, sharper pitch of sound, the rattle serves to  keep the Spirit Doctor connected to her Ancestors (grandmothers/grandfathers, Ancestor Spirit Doctors) and is used to call them to come and assist. Often the Ancestors are sleeping or traveling, and must be called back gently from their deep sleep, the shaker serves this purpose. While the intensity of the sound recedes the further down/up she goes, it is vibrant enough for the Spirit Doctor to hear it in the background. Its secondary use of the shaker also helps to keep her connected in the present world.

STAFF OR WALKING STICK: Used to direct and receive the higher spiritual energies.  It is often decorated with symbols of his personal power; feathers, fur, small bells, animal teeth, hair, coloured ribbons, anything deemed important to spiritual connection. While other items may come and go, the walking stick is a permanent tool, once it has been completed.

MEDICINE BUNDLE/BAG: When beginning her life as a Spirit Doctor she must undergo visionquests that allow her to find her true power, her guardian spirits (which may number to several hundred depending on her age and experience).  The guardian spirits may vary; she might have a power animal(s), plants, inorganic objects such as stones or gemstones, all of which fulfill certain functions and aid her in her journey of discovery. She must also have the knowledge of medicines, history of her people, good oratory skills, dancing and singing ability.  She also has assistants who will drum and rattle for him as she journeys.

SOUL CATCHER: The Soul Catcher was used for healing work, not necessarily for use after the patient had gone to his/her day of quiet. In death, it was expected that the soul would leave and find its way to the light. There were other ceremonies to ensure this happened.

The Tsimshian, Inuit, Tlingit Spirit Doctors used soul catchers as an important part of their healing work, as physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health are all intertwined. They make up the four realms of human existence. A healthy spirit (soul) anchored the other three parts. If the soul became lost while separated from the body during a dream, or was driven out by sorcery (either self-inflicted or by someone else), the body was now empty. A spirit doctor was engaged to find the lost soul, capture it in a soul catcher and restore it to the patient. Soul retrieval is a very complex and special ceremony.

Once the soul was found, the Spirit Doctor then placed one end of the soul catcher near the solar plexus and blew the person’s spirit back into them. This prevented illness from invading the "empty" body. Loss of soul can also be considered a metaphor for some sort of mental or emotional breakdown.

Soul Catchers were most often carved from the leg bone of a grizzly or brown bear. Because bear femurs were large, much bigger soul catchers could be created to plug the smoke hole of the healing house just in case the soul tried to make a premature getaway! There were also 'plugs' made from cedar bark to plug the holes at either end of the soul catcher to hold the soul until it was blown back into the patient. (Photo right, is a male Spirit Doctor)

WITCHES AND SORCERERS -Like all cultures, the Tsimshian were not immune to those within their midst who sought to inflict negative influences on others. In the case of the witches and sorcerers, these were, in fact, charlatans who did not go through the rigorous years of purification, self-sacrifice to become Spirit Doctors.  They simply set themselves up as such by turning to the dark side of their souls. Sorcerers could also be former Spirit Doctors who were simply burned out and angry. Whatever, their background, they caused great harm to others anything from causing illness to death were employed. In some cases, payment was made to the sorcerer from someone wishing ill on another. The only way of curing witches and sorcerers was through an extended period of 'exorcism' and if that didn't work outright banishment from the tribe. Banishment was the worst of punishments. Without the support of the community these people wandered aimlessly in the wilderness until they went quite mad and their own death was the end result.

This picture is of a Tlingit Medicine Doctor tying up a witch.  A lot of psychological work had to take place between the person bewitched and a real Spirit Doctor. The medicine doctor would spent hours to days trying to convince the afflicted person that they were stronger than the witch and as a result would be able to overcome the negative seeds planted in his mind. So, you can see that there was the possibility of a high burn out rate among Spirit Doctors.



Shamans Figure  sold at auction for:  $251,000 and the Polychromed wooden Mask went for $1,808 million dollors!

Interesting Story: Reverend Robert Dundas made a short visit to Tsimshian territory, Metlakatla in 1863. He demanded that the Tsimshian hand over their 'pagan artifacts' in the name of Christianity.  Dundas promptly gathered up over forty artifacts and took them back to Scotland, his collecting greed overcoming his Christian sensibilities. Some hundred and thirty or so years later after the theft of the items under false pretenses, Simon Carey, Dundas' great grandson stopped his grandmother from tossing the collection into the garbage when she thought it was a box of old wooden crapola. Canadian institutions couldn't afford Carey's asking price, and eventually, in 2006, Southeby's auctioned the collection, expecting perhaps $3-4 million for the lot; they ended up with over 7 million dollars for the artifacts, including a million bucks for the above mask! It was a record for Indigenous art. Dreadful irony is that the Dundas' family are now millionaires and the Tsimshian are not.




1. The house and clan of the deceased person paid for the funeral.

2. Preparation of the body rested with the House Chief and also included conducting the ceremony.

3. The body was cremated; a clear day was chosen in order that the smoke from the funeral pyre could rise to the unseen world unimpeded.

4.  Cremation of Chiefs, in particular, assured his heirs of their right to his title and the authority that went with it. Occasionally, the heart would be buried and the rest of the body cremated OR the corpse was placed in a box that was secured high in a tree and his internal organs burned.

5.  A Black Feast was held (Tsimshian version of a wake); black paint was warn to signify mourning to compensate the Father's house.

6.  One year later a Red Feast was held to commemorate the deceased and to also confirm his/her successor.  People wore red paint to signify the end of the mourning period.

7. Depending on how someone died. Old age or disease, for example, the soul went to the west and crossed water barriers (usually rivers). Shaman's souls went to an island (Haida); certain powers remained with the body which is why they were not burned.

8. To some extent the souls depended on their surviving relatives for food and clothing. The latter was chiefly supplied at the time of the funeral, but food was sent frequently by placing it in the fire.

SPIRIT DOCTOR. A Spirit Doctor's internal organs were buried and body, along with all his medicine artifacts were placed in grave house above ground or taken to a remote place such as a cave. Often their hearts were buried, and the rest of the body cremated. Along with the heart, all the Spirit Doctor's sacred objects were buried with him because his spirit permeated everything and it was considered the worst of crimes to reuse his things. Only the closest family members knew where the Spirit Doctor was buried. It was believed that supernatural power remained in the vicinity of his grave house. His soul was said to go to a special house in the sky.


A second death was believed possible so that the soul passed from the first place of the deal to another place, either below the first place or farther to the west. Most souls were reborn into the same family.

Each birth of a Tsimshian child was accompanied by the expectation that certain cycles of death and rebirth would continue. A woman would dream that a deceased relative was coming for a visit and thus know that the baby was a reincarnation of that person. Tsimshian also believed in prestige associated with death and therefore the transmutation of the soul (reincarnation) was a natural extension of that belief. For example, if a person drowned at sea, it was though they would be reincarnated as a killer whale, the most powerful of the ocean creature.

There were particular rituals performed that ensure that a reincarnated soul returned to a particular person - some rituals included placing a bit of the corpse in her belt, leading her around the funeral pyre eight times.

NOTE: belief in reincarnation is relatively common among many different tribal communities, Delaware believe that babies are reincarnates of dead relative. Tribes such as the Navajo, Apache and other Athapaskan tribes have a negative attitude toward death so reincarnation is not part of their practices.





The outlawing of all tribal ceremonies by an amendment to the Indian Act in 1884 nearly spelled the death-knell for the Feast tradition on the Northwest coast. Moreover, the arrival of the explorers, followed by fur traders, missionaries, the British Navy, and settlers brought unparalleled human tragedy, opportunities and dilemmas to every Native family on the coast. 

The adoption of Christianity led many tribal units to come to believe that ceremonies such as the Feast were the work of the devil. As more settlers came to the region, the influence of European culture grew and Native traditions began to fade. The Tsimshian, for example, did not hold a single feast for over one hundred years. If any are held today, they are usually very modest affairs with few invited guests. Christianity is very strong among many Tsimshians.

The last years of the eighteenth century represented a period of innovation, change, resistance, unbearable loss due to white diseases, recovery and ultimately survival. 










"The Button Blanket is post-European contact regalia and is worn for ceremonies, such as Feasts, Naming Ceremonies, Memorials, Totem Pole Raisings, Weddings, and given as gifts within the Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit, Nuxulk, Kwakuitl, and Nisg’a tribes. A widely used term for the blankets is Feast Wear. Dancing in the firelight the dancer will come alive portraying a particular figure or event.  Although the red, black and white colours have spiritual meanings (see below), the button blanket was really designed for "temporal reasons rather than spiritual - in other words, they represent family crests, proclaim rank, and the social status of the wearer. That status was and is reinforced by the robe's acclamation of cosmic support - power - the history of which has been validated properly and perpetuated through time." (Robes of Power, by D. Jensen and P. Sargeant)

The button blanket, needlesstoday is post-European regalia, and  is usually made from blue or black duffle and edged in red stroud (or reversed); Both are felt-like materials and quite heavy.  As time has gone on, the red and purple has been introduced as a background colour with black as the border. Lighter materials have also been introduced.


(All above blankets/aprons were made by Shannon Thunderbird)

This material is also used for the main design. Depending on the clan the designs include raven, killer-whale, eagle, wolf. The blankets are decorated with white buttons originally brought by European traders; prior to the buttons, copper plates, dentalium and abalone shells as well as ‘bullet casings’ were sewn on the edges of regalia because they made a tinkling, rustling noise when the wearer danced. In the early days, the scarcity of the white buttons limited their use to filling in particular areas of a design element. As the buttons proliferated, they were used in more elaborate ways, both as the outline and the fill-in. 

The blankets are made with a variety of themes in mind, which range from very simple to extensive decoration. The design depended on the artist and who it was made to represent. The Button Blankets are highly prized 'give-away's at feasts.


  • Red border represents supernatural (spiritual) power also interpreted as the "winter ceremonial Red Cedar Bark Ceremony". It also means wealth and nobility.

  • Black background was thought to render the wearer invincible, it also represents death (in a good way!), when letting go of negative thoughts and behaviour, is a form of dying and being reborn.

  • White buttons represents peace, spirituality, harmony and balance. Blue duffle related to Father Sky, Flying Beings.  Purple duffle represents wisdom of the ages.

Woven Red Cedar Hat, usually worn by royalty and nobility. The Clan or Crest is usually painted on it. (Photo left is Shannon's hat)



An individual given the right to portray Raven, for example and wear a mask must be a member of the nobility or royalty and initiated into a secret society. Upon initiation, he or she could practice halaayt, the ritual manifestation of power. The Privilege portion of halaayt, therefore is simply being a member of the elite and therefore having the right to practice halaayt. The Naxnox Wonder is the mask and the mask wearer considered to be a single entity. The right to wear a mask was passed down through families, and a Yaawk was usually held to acknowledge the ‘changing of the guard’ if a wearer died or retired. Nothing was left to chance, in other words. 

"The wearing of masks is ultimately a statement that one accepts that ultimate transformation -- the one transformation that occurs without human choices -- and the wearing of the mask is literally an embracing of that fate." (Crumrine, N. Ross & Halpin, Marjorie, Eds., The Power of Symbols: Masks and Masquerade in the Americas, pg. 75).

Masks symbolize what they are designed to depict: animals, heroes, characters in a drama, wind, rain, supernatural beings, spirits of good and evil, Ancestors, spirits of nature, and so forth (Mask left: White Bear by Tsimshian Carver, David Boxley). They have also been used for satire and buffoonery, for terrorizing others, as emblems of special groups, to cause laughter or fear, to cure disease, and to impersonate people or supernatural beings. On the Pacific Northwest coast, for example, Masks were an integral part of the dance dramas at Feast ceremonies. They were elaborately carved. Masks were always carved with eyes that dominated the mask. This was meant to convey the importance of being able to see and use insight into understanding the Tsimshian world view.

"The eyes of the mask look to see the spirits that hid behind material reality. Seeing and hearing are important to our culture; people who do not take the time to look and listen mindfully are considered unworthy. Seeing and hearing properly lead to understanding wisdom." (Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the Pacific Coast. Washington: National Museum of  the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, pg. 104.)

 FRONTLETS  are masterpieces of Northwest Coast art, and many of the finest were produced by the Tsimshian. The frontlet formed part of an imposing decorative headdress worn by both men and women as the crowning feature of a ceremonial outfit that indicated wealth and status. This one is a rare, round example were the principal representation of Naxnox. Mostly they were stylized versions of birds and animals, and sometimes humans as indicated by the two masks below:

Mastering the intricacies of the ceremonies took years and years of training, never mind the sheer physical requirements of wearing awkward and heavy masks, or headpieces carved from red cedar. In the case of transformation masks, i.e., Raven changing to a human, there was usually a mask within a mask, the outer one opening and closing using a series of ropes. It requires enormous physical prowess to hold the masks upright. The mask above, has a four foot beak!

The great dance dramas of the Feast, were heightened by the inclusion of fabulous regalia and intricately carved masks created to depict supernatural characters being performed in the dance. Dance, Music and Art were inseparable, in other words.

 Hamatsa Dancers

Some famous modern-day Tsimshian Artists include: Bill Helin, Leanne Helin, David Boxley, Roy Henry Vickers, Edward Bryant




The pre-cursor to the aforementioned Button Blanket was the magnificent Chilkat Blanket. It was the Tsimshian and Tlingit who first introduced to the world the beautifully designed Chilkat blankets and leggings woven from cedar and mountain goat hair. 

For thousands of years Art and Spirit were woven together into the aprons, leggings and blankets that depicted the ancestral history of the Tsimshian and Tlingit Nations. These wondrous blankets emerged through age-old techniques, from the gathering of cedar bark, dyeing of wool and weaving, to their integral role in ceremony.

It is said that a young woman and her grandmother were living in a small village suffering through a food shortage. The young woman stopped eating so the other villagers would have a bit more to eat. As a result of her fast she had a vision of weaving, and started threading a piece of wool through cedar-bark dance apron. She lost herself in the weaving of an apron. Later her hand was sought by the son of the chief and, in the exchange of presents, her handiwork was given to the father-in-law, who honoured the occasion by a great feast, at which he wore the apron.

One blanket can take years to make, carrying with it a living history that embodies the dances and ceremonies they were made for. Needlesstosay, they were and are prized possessions because very few master chilkat weavers remain today. These blankets were only worn by persons of high rank such as Nobles or Royalty.  Accompanying picture is of a mother and daughter.


  Blanket; Men wearing a Chilkat Blanket, Chilkat Dress





It is a strict law that bids us dance. It is a strict law that bids us distribute our property among our friends and neighbours. It is a good law.
Let the white man observe his law, we shall observe ours."

Anonymous Kwakwaka’wakw chief addressing the anthropologist, Franz Boas, 1896, Ray, Arthur J., I have Lived Here Since the World Began, pg. 222.

The summers were cool and rainy, and the winters mild. My Ancestors spent the summer months collecting and preserving food, and during the winter months great ceremonies, the main one being the Feast, were hosted e.g. (Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw, Tlingit, Wet'suwet'en) up and down the coast. The Feast, often called by the Chinook Trading Language, 'Potlatch' which means 'to give'. The Feast was the Oral History and cultural grounding of the Northwest coast. It was an event that brought many tribes together and was the legal and political system which defined First Nation's groups along the coast for thousands of years. 

While a regular feast was simply a large communal meal, the Yaawk was not only an elaborate communal meal with many courses and rare foods served in decorated containers, but also an occasion for the exchange of gifts. Feasting and gift-giving were the means by which prestige and hereditary rank among the Tsimshian were established and validated. There were two main reasons to hold this elaborate ceremony: (a) to publically claim property and rights such as names, territory, crests, marriages, deaths of high ranking people. (b) The winter ceremonies were devoted to retelling the exploits and activities of supernatural beings, animals and humans through halaayt and naxnox. (Wyatt, Gary, Mythic Beings: Spirit Art of the Northwest Coast, pg. 7.)

Everyone who attends a Feast was compensated for witnessing the claims of the Host Family. The quality of the gifts depended on the rank of the guest, For example, Chiefs and other nobles, would receive button blankets, coppers, intricately carved bowls and other utensils.

COPPERS:  A post-European contact practice that denoted the high rank of their owners and were the most highly prized symbol of wealth and gift to a ranking guest. The coppers indicated that the Host could afford to give them away. Faces were often engraved on the upper half of a copper, and there was always a horizontal and a vertical line forming a "T" shape on the lower half. This "T" shape represented the "bones" of the copper.

Yaawk is an event in which Halaayt melds with the Tsimshian. The Feast was vitally important to the Pacific Northwest coast People because it was the venue in which business was conducted, authority established by the recitation of a Tribe's or Family's Oral History. The Host family, in front of witnesses, recited the history of their family (or tribe) and laid claim to Clans, Names, and Crests unique to that family. Such recitations were critical to the cultural grounding of the Northwest Coast peoples.  Many gifts were given in thanks for witnessing this "verbal contract" and participating in the ceremony. As noted, gifts were given in accordance with the rank of the person attending, with gifts such as the 'Copper's and later, Hudson's Bay Blankets reserved for the most important people (i.e., other Chiefs).  The ceremony itself was a disciplined and structured event; even the seating was arranged in order of importance of the guests.  Post-European contact history saw the Button Blanket become the principle regalia.

Feasts were held for a variety of reasons: Weddings, a girl's first moon time, the giving of names, the establishment of titles, robes, succession of titles, crest and sub-crest names, raising a totem or house pole, the claiming of territory and other property, births, deaths, Naming of a Chief were celebrated. The Feast was also a venue to settle disputes or any breaches of Tsimshian law that may have occurred.  The elaborateness of the Yaawk depended on who was hosting it. Royal and Noble feasts involved invitations to other tribes; commoner feasts usually only involved local people and families.

Story:The Gilusts’aaw Sm’ooygit (Chief) has decided to retell the Gisbutwada Clan Story and to celebrate the tribes newest child. He also wishes to celebrate his family, and reaffirm territorial claims. It is also to be a time of appeasing the powers of nature and giving thanks for the bounty they enjoy and to confirm ages old adawx (stories). The fourteen Tsimshian tribes have been invited to celebrate this grand event. The appointed day arrives and beautifully carved canoes start arriving. They make an impressive sight as the flotilla moves towards shore. As they step on shore, the ranking family are sprinkled with eagle down by the Host Chief as a sign of peace, harmony and welcome.

There was storytelling (see below), lots of food, and the elaborate, fabulous and famous dance dramas that told Creation stories representing both the Seen and Unseen worlds in hugely entertaining and dramatic ways.  It was also one of the few opportunities for people to gather together in a large group, visit and exchange information.

The Feast, as was all ceremonies was outlawed in 1885 by the Canadian Government, although it continued to be practiced in secret by some very brave tribes and as a result, the teachings around the ceremony were saved.  It once again came out of the shadows in 1951 when some of the oppressive laws under the Indian Act were changed.

NOTE 1:  The term 'potlatch' is seldom used today, 'Feast' is the preferred term. 'Potlatch' is Chinook slang or trading language meaning, 'to give'.

NOTE 2: Often the ‘give away’ portion of the Yaawk takes precedence when discussing this most important event. It was by no means the most important aspect of the ceremony. Do not lose sight of the fact that the Tsimshian constructed their total identity around a number of important social, political and cultural factors:

  • How they related to halaayt through the use of dzapk (crests) and naxnox. How they related to and respected the incredible power of nature, both to harness it for the wellbeing of the community and acknowledge the spirits that directed its life.

  • How they related to each other in terms of respect, behavour, courage, wisdom.

  • How the wellness of their cultural grounding related to their respect for the Land.

  • How they ranked socially and politically within tribal cultures on the Northwest coast through accumulation of wealth and displaying that wealth during a yaawk.

  • How not to bring shame of any kind to the tribe. Theft and murder, for example, which were rare, were dealt with swiftly, either through the taking of the offending life or outright banishment from the tribe.

  • How to bring shame to another tribe in order to increase prestige.


Food served at Feasts depended on the season of the celebration and ranged from luscious Pacific salmon, whale, seal, otter, moose, deer meat, clam, blueberries, blackberries. The was usually more food than could possibly be consumed and guests were given the excess as gifts. This was the hosts way of letting his guests know that he was wealthy and could afford to put on lavish celebrations.

The food was invariable dipped in Oolichon oil, a tiny, pungent fish that was considered a delicacy and highly sought after trade item (trust me, it is not the faint of heart to consume!) The oil is so rich it can be burnt. The choices meats and berries were served to the highest ranking guests first and they used the most beautifully decorated bowls, spoons, ladles.

Here is one of my Ancestral Stories

Port Simpson was established by the Hudson's Bay company in 1834. Nine separate Tsimshian tribes, over 2000 people almost immediately switched their winter quarters to Port Simpson. (Metlakatla on the coast was the normal site). My Ancestor, Legeex (there were six of them), a high Ranking tribal leader held the right to trade with the Gitskan. Being a shrewd politician, he also married his daughter to Port Simpson’s Chief Trader. No other Native leader on the coast could claim such prominence which presented a problem.

While each noble family knew where it stood within its own ancestral village, no mechanism in Tsimshian culture served to fix the status of families from different villages all amassed in the same place; so they each tried to out-feast one another and to humiliate each other hence, the bad rap that was given to the Feast as it became a giant piddling contest among Chiefs as they vied for power and influence.

A Couple More Ancestral Stories

1. Rival Chief Tsibasa had ‘revolving steps’ in his house.  Legeex always typically entered last at a feast to show off his superiority. As he stepped onto the stairs, they revolved and he was unceremoniously thrown down the stairs in front of everyone. Now that's funny.

2. Legeex dressed a slave who looked like him in his regalia who was then killed and cremated at The Feast. Legeex then arose from the box containing the ashes where he was hiding and was restored to life. His version of reincarnation. 

Although some of the "old traditions" still remain, much of it was shattered with the arrival of the Europeans, and small pox in the 1860's which devastated upwards of 70-80% of many tribal groups.





Much like the Haudenosaunne peoples of Ontario, the Tsimshian and other Pacific northwest coastal people had a "Tree of Life", Smgan, the Western Red Cedar.  It was "life blood", and one of the main cultural grounders for my people.  There still are, today, these magnificent groves of ancient cedars that symbolize my culture as places for the Ts'ap Smgan (people of the cedar) to come together for ceremonies, to sing, drum, meditate.

Again, like most other tribal communities, all parts of anything taken from nature were used.  In the case of the Plains, for example, Tatanka (Buffalo), everything from the hide to the horns to the hoofs was put to use.  It was considered a great breach of sacred knowledge, not to use everything.  Waste, in other words, was not an option.  In the case of Smgan, magnificent plank houses, household items, clothing, totem poles were constructed from whole trees. 

The outer bark is a mass of strips, which could be pulled upwards in a long string, and used to create capes, dresses, hats. These items were so tightly woven as to keep the rain off.  Other items such as clothing, bentwood boxes, rope, even fishing nets, utensils, various kinds of tools, weaponry such as spears (also used for whaling, catching fish), Cedar Tea an internal cleanser of the body. And of course, the awesome canoes that could seat up to fifty warriors! It is no wonder that Smgam was also called by some as smgam snxsoo (canoe cedar). IIt was an arduous task, to say the least to fell a whole tree (upwards of 70 metres in height) prior to having access to trade items like axes, saws and eventually the electric saw. It boggles the imagination.




The totem pole, although not originally an art form as its practical use was as a marker to indicate a family's history, enjoyed a rebirth as an easily recognized and powerful art form after European contact; it was during this period that carving poles became much easier to carve with the acquisition of knives, chisels, adzes and other useful trade items.

Totem poles are one of the universally recognized art forms unique only to the Pacific Northwest coast. Although universally accepted as representing ALL Native peoples who live on the West Coast, the carving of poles was really only Indigenous to six Middle and Northern tribes of British Columbia: Tsimshian, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Kwakwaka,wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth people.  Over time the art form has evolved and been adopted by many west coast tribes. For example, Coast Salish people in Southern British Columbia and western Washington also carved large human figures representing ancestors and spirit helpers on interior house posts and as grave monuments. 

Usually carved out of Red Cedar trees, their forms depicted humans, birds, and other animals lf the sea and forest. Poles were carved for the above reasons to mark historical events.

 There are six types of Totem Poles:


House post can either be a false house pillars or an actual part of the plank house that supports the roof. More often than not they are found on the ends of large communal big houses.


Mortuary/Memorial Poles were simply painted poles on top of which was placed a box containing the ashes of the deceased (sometimes the ashes were buried under the pole). Later they would be removed and replaced with a totem.  Memorial Poles were raised to honour both the living (Chiefs) and the dead.  (Photo left: Chief Skedans mortuary pole).




Heraldic  or Family Poles were placed in the middle front of a house. The pole was carved with the mythological history of the clan within. Much like a British coat of arms, for example, its purpose was to advertise, claim and exalt the family's lineage. The photo could depict a family who owns the Thunderbird crest.



Portal Poles were placed at the front of the house with a hole near the base which served as a doorway. Pole at front is a family pole.



Feast Pole was designed to record and validate important events at Yaawk's. These are the tallest and most elaborately decorated poles. They are often distinguished by having one to three watchman on the top wearing high hats. Beneath the watchmen is the chief's totem, followed by his wife's totem. Photo shows the raising of a Feast pole carved by Tsimshian Artist, David Boxley.


Ridicule or Shame Pole was erected to force some person of high standing to meet or recognize an obligation. Many white men were carved on these poles. "Another form of shaming a person was to carve his totem upside down.: (Keithahn, Monuments in Cedar, pp. 512). To the left is a pole carved to shame Exxon for the terrible oil spill some years ago.



MYTH: Totem poles are post-European artifacts.

FACT: There was a renaissance of pole carving in the 19th century when European carving tools became readily available as trade items which making the carving much easier. The proliferation of poles during this time period has led to a paternalistic belief that the poles were carved as a result of post-European contact. In other words, Native societies did not exist until they were "discovered" by the whites. In fact, Native Northwest Coast oral histories speak to the contrary; that, in fact, the carving of the poles is an ages old practice that goes back to antiquity.  Besides, it makes zero sense to think that the instant the Europeans landed, Natives ran out of their plank houses and decided to cut down Red Cedars and carve their family totems into them! Get a grip, people!

The poles were also carved from red cedar trees, as opposed to stone or some other long-lasting element, making their lifespan relatively short, between 60-100 years as they fell to the ground and decayed. The poles are akin to any other ancient artifact of Turtle Island's Native people, i.e. Incan and Mayan temples in terms of longevity and meaning. 

ORIGIN OF TOTEM POLES: The original poles were smaller and could be carried by one or two people and placed inside their houses. With the acquisition of European woodcarving tools, the poles have definitely grown in height!

There is an ancient Haida story about An-o-wat and Sta-th  who went canoeing and came upon an underwater village that had tall poles with elaborate carvings on them; they decided they wanted to carve a pole just like the ones they had seen and went looking for a suitable cedar tree. It took them many days, but they carved the pole just as they had seen in the underwater village.  Eventually they brought it to the attention of their people. There was much feasting, celebration and dancing when the pole was raised.




There is a basic humanness of the universe which is confirmed in Tsimshian art, more so that most other Pacific Northwest coast art.  (Moon mask left).

The elaborate two-dimensional Tsimshian decorations, utensils, painting, cavings, coppers, totems, of the Pacific Northwest coast were a direct reflection of an elaborate and intricate culture. In fact, so refined and sophisticated is the art and the fact that it has survived the ravages of post-European contact suggests great longevity and stability.

The work, it it was baskets or wood was full of symbology and meaning.  Nothing was ever undertaken on a whim.  There was great skill in creating artifacts that represented a family or tribe, i.e. totem poles, bentwood boxes, tools, masks, headdresses, drums, carved house columns, gorgeous carved chests that held household goods, dishes and, of course, the magnificent canoes. Everything was for practical purposes, but no one said that practical could not be beautiful.

It is important to remember that the Supernatural played a huge role in everyday life, so much of the work reflected that relationship. Stories were preserved in the art both as remembrances and honourings of the specific characters in the tale. Line, form, negative and positive space, shape, colour were critical elements in producing two-dimensional work. Space was never uncovered.  Whatever the design was it usually took up all the space available.  In other words, you can never have too much shape and texture!

WOMEN worked with weaving and red cedar/spruce root basketry. Although today the work is considered 'art', back in the day it was used for practical purposes. As notd, there was simply no reason why it couldn't be beautiful as well.
Gorgeous Baskets by  Tsimshian Weaver,  Loa Ryan    Tsimshian Weaver, Lindarae Shearer


Ah, the wonders of Pacific Northwest Coast Carving.  Back in the day, this was not an art form that was found in any other Indigenous area. Now, it has spread about B.C., and points beyond, but the "real" art belongs to the Pacific Northwest Coast and those dedicated to understanding how and why it was done and seek to emulate it in order to keep the vibrancy of our northern cultures alive.  It is magical, mystical, takes years to master and is an extraordinary art form.  It comes in many forms, masks, rattles, bentwood boxes, utensils, totem poles, plank house frontals, benches, anything that could be carved from red cedar and was useful, beautiful, supernatural in scope was created.  (Photo: Bentwood Box by David Boxley.  Right: Tsimshian Carver, Bryan Paul, 1934).

MEN worked in two-dimensional forms with wood and stone. The work was often abstract yet with representational overtones.  The following  were created by Tsimshian Artist, Edward Bryant


Left to right: Chief's Rattle, Wolf Bowl,

The following Utensils were created by Tsimshian Artist, Edward Bryant


Gispudwada Salmon Thunderbird Spirit Doctor's
Red-Tailed Hawk





As note above, like most Indigenous art, it was originally produced initially for practical purposes. Bentwood boxes, spoons, knives, bowls, dishes all all sort of other household goods were decorated with family crests, totems and other artwork that was unique to a particular family. After the arrival of the Europeans the beauty of the work became highly collectible and many tribes were looted of their precious things (i.e. Reverend Dundas) which now reside in museums. It was a terrible testament to the rampant theft that occurred.







Much like the notion of goypax (light, heaven), the world was also assumed to be already in existence albeit in chaos. It required Transformation  figure (Culture Hero), Raven to organize the world into a cohesive format which he gleefully undertook using all means at his disposal to accomplish the task. As a transformer, Raven was highly intelligent and also a shapeshifter, altering  his appearance as the situation dictated. Therefore, a Raven mask as naxnox is a complicated creation made with a series of ropes that could open and close showing a face within a face.

Raven is one of the most important supernatural figures in Tsimshian adawx (‘oral narrative’). Without a written language stories handed down through the ages were the cultural grounding of The Originals. The Tsimshian’s gatgyet  (‘the strength of the people’), were manifested by virtue of adawx. In other words the lineages history when told through oral recitation at a Yaawk perpetuated the very fabric of Tsimshian society.

Raven is the culture hero and a very talented transformer. He is naxnox. He organized the world, putting the four elements, the plant world, the animal and human world in some semblance of order. ‘Wonders’, are a subsection of naxnox, and are humans who culturally recognize and accept Raven as (a) also human. (b) his right to act through dramatic presentations on their behalf. It is an incredible exercise in trust, listening skills and patience on the part of the guests which is why they were richly compensated at the end of a ceremony that could last several weeks.

Frequently, but not always, Raven was treated as a comical character who engaged in buffoonery while stealing light (to free the world in the clutches of the ghost people), fire (to provide warmth for humans), water, food, animals and even humans; Raven often lost them or set them loose to help bring order in the world. Raven was, therefore, tagged with the negative term, "Trickster." The term was a post-European insult probably borne from the closed minds of the missionaries who were appalled at the thought that powerful Raven could be thought of on the same level as Jesus Christ, therefore the alternative was for Raven to be considered a child of Satan, tricky, unreliable, and generally not to be taken seriously.

On the contrary, In the Tsimshian world view, Raven existed to show humans how to do what was right; he gave them their first conscious thought; he showed them how to become human; and not to take themselves too seriously lest they become mired in the imposition of dogmatic will. For example, Raven cured a girl in order to gain sexual favours from her. This was a lesson for The Originals not to place blind trust in authority figures. In other words, Raven taught the people how to protect themselves from being taken advantage of. As well, he genuinely loved the weak humans and went out of his went to ensure their safety. Raven was kind, generous, compassionate, wise, funny, rude, irreverent, deceitful, witty, prankster. In other words, Raven was human!



KNOWLEDGE: Storytelling, World of Light, Salmon, Animals

As is the case with most Native beliefs, the Pacific Northwest Coast people do not explain how the world came into being.  It was simply assumed. 

Many of the Northwest coast peoples, particularly the Tsimshian, believed in reincarnation. It was believed that only a sheer white veil separated the seen from the unseen worlds.  Reincarnation is a direct reflection of the belief that all living beings at one point could easily cross back and forth between the two.

Like most Indigenous cultures, in ceremony all animals and plant life were thanked with rituals for ‘giving’ themselves so that humans could live.

LIGHT The Sun is the most important deity in the Tsimshian belief system. Therefore, crests and wonders were extreme modes for handling light as was Raven, the Transformer figure who brought order to the Northwest coast by, among other things, stealing the Sun so that humans could see, and the world was no longer controlled by the ghost people,

SALMON: There are five species, each with their own stories:

  1. O. tshawytscha (chinook, king, spring, quinnat) up to eight pounds, spawns in large streams or rivers, sometimes with spring and fall subspecies.

  2. O. Kisutch (silver), usually 6-23 pounds, up to 30 pounds, runs in early fall but may not spawn until late fall in smaller streams far from the sea

  3. O. Gorbuscha (pink), 3-10 pounds, spawns early fall, smaller streams near the sea.

  4. O. Keta (chum, dog), 8-18 pounds, spawns late fall, smaller streams near the sea, lean and smokes well.

  5. O. Nerka (sockeye), usually a few pounds, fattest species, spawns upriver in lakes; when landlocked, known as kokanee

It is important to keep in mind that Native attitude toward animals was and is very different from other non-Native culture. Back in the day, for example, animals were never hunted for sport, but for survival and the hunt was always undertaken with great respect, pomp and ceremony. Reverence was shown to the environment, and thanks given for the bounty of food and shelter.  For example, the bones of the first salmon (the most sacred of all food stuffs) were returned to the sea, so that the spirit of the salmon who gave itself to The People would live on and come back the following year.

Northwest coast tribes considered all fish, birds, land and sea mammals similar to human beings but with varying degrees of supernatural power. Each animal, however, had its own teaching and healing medicine. All of them were capable of taking human form; or better, they possessed a human form, and assumed their other forms when consorting with humans. The shape of a killer-whale for example was thought to be a canoe in which her human form was accustomed to travel; There were salmon people, herring people and grizzly bear people.

In Tsimshian lore, for example, frequent references are given to a time when animals were humans, gifted with the power of speech and other human attributes. People believed that animals had souls which are immortal and they are reborn after death. Animals were considered the equals of humans in general intelligence, and to surpass humans in the particulars for which the animal in question was especially noted. For example, Eagles' eyesight could see into the soul.


The Pacific Northwest coast have a strong belief in the Supernatural (the Unseen World) and believe that both Humans, Animals, Elements, Plant world are the same; each has a voice. Animals are able to transform from one realm to another. Numerous stories speak of the interrelationship ‘powers’ between humans and animals.

Salmon People, Killer Whale People, Wolf People, etc, are viewed as having their own houses where they take off their animal cloaks and lived parallel lives as humans. Because Salmon People, for example, ‘voluntarily’ left their homes to feed the humans they were honoured and respected. All tribes practice the Spring Rite of welcoming the first salmon by placing it in the Chief’s house and sprinkling it with Eagle down. After the flesh is consumed, the bones are carefully returned to the water so the salmon will come again the following year.

The elaborate dance dramas that were an integral part of the great Feast ceremonies were not just good theatre, but re-enacted ancestral encounters with supernatural beings, particularly when important rights were transferred to the human world, thereby further cementing a families claims to certain crests, rights and privileges. Beautiful masks, and other regalia were made by skilled artists to enhance the images of supernatural presences.





Male dominance in the colonial era eroded the high status of Tsimshian women, as indicated by their positions as Sigamahana'a (Princess/Matriarch) and Sm'ooygit (chief); prehistoric control of critical resources; dispensing of patronage and involvement in decision-making. Although men primarily held the rank of chief, it did not preclude a woman from becoming one. Women were the holders of property, economic matters and food. As well, their influenced in who inherited crests and wonders, was pivotal in tribal communities.

Important note: Male names always outranked female names. If there was no male heir, then a male name was conferred on a female in order to retain the rank and privileges associated with that name. A woman holding a man’s name was always treated as a male at feasts.

Despite denigration and criticism in the post European era, women remained the backbone of Tsimshian society. Their quadruple burden of leadership (negotiators & mediators), general labour, cooking and child care sustained their importance. While modern Canadians and government officials tried to curtail their involvement in the public arenas of church, council and commerce, their voices remain strong. "Because the whites tried to silence us in the hall, we had to speak louder in the house." And so we have.






Frederick Alexcee - 1853-1940s


William Beynon  

Gitlaan and ethnographer

David Albert Boxley Sr 1952- Totem Pole and Mask Carver, Git-Hoan Dance Leader, Arts and Language Teache

Heber Clifton  

hereditary chief of the Gitga'ata and community leader

Marcia Crosby

Art Historian

Alfred Dudoward -1850-1914

hereditary chief of the Gitando, and leader of the Port Simpson Methodist Movement. co-founder of the Native Brotherhood

Phil Gray Artist, Carver
Henry Green Master Carver

Benjamin Haldane

Photographer from Metlakatla Village

Bill Helin


Calvin Helin

Ginaxangiik, Lawyer, Businessman, Author

William Jeffrey
1899-death unknown

Gitwilgyoats, Hereditary Chief, Activist, Carver

Paul Legaic
Late 19th Century

Gixpaxlo'ots, Hereditary Chief, Trader. First Police Chief of New Metlakatla

Rev. Edward Marsden


Charles Menzies


Odille Morison

Translator and Art Collector

Jeff Morris

Speaker of Pro Tem, Representative, Washington State House of Representatives

Rev. William Henry Pierce - 1856-1948

Missionary and Diarist.

Peter Simpson (1871-1947)

Activist for Alaska Native Rights, First to own a business.

Henry W. Tate

Gispakloats, Oral Historian, Tribal Headman

Shannon Thunderbird
Still kickin'

House of Nii'gumiik, Gilut'sau, Lax Kw'alaams, Artist/Educator, Author, Singer/Songwriter, Recording Artist, Outspoken advocate of Women's Rights.

Roy Henry Vickers

Artist, Carver. Leader in the First Nations community, and a tireless spokesperson for recovery from addictions and abuse.

Arthur Wellington Clah

House of Tamks, Gispaxlo'ots. Translator, first to teach Rev. Duncan the Sm'algyax language, Diarist.




Simedeek of the Eagle lineage head Chief of Kitwanga. He is wearing a Chilkat blanket and a headdress with a Eagle frontlet.

Mawlaken, female chief of the Raven lineage in Gitsegyukla. On her head, she is wearing a headdress with a bird image on the frontlet and ermine skins on the side. On the top, a circle of sea-lion whiskers hold eagle down, which she sprinkled over guests when she danced at ceremonies

Grouse with Closed Eyes, Gitsegyukla, Fireweed Chief,  He's wearing a button blanket.


Drawings are from

Ligeex (Legaic) is probably the most famous Chief's name and was handed down (there were six Legaic's in 150 years); Ligeex in the 1700s met Captain Cook, was a very shrewd trader, with a real sense of his own elitist importance. The Ligeex of around 1834 provided the land for the second Hudson’s Bay Co. post at Fort Simpson, and his daughter married the chief factor. Yet when the HBC built a trading post at Lake Babine, Ligeex and a thousand warriors went upriver and destroyed it. The name Ligeex has not been used since the mid-1900s, after the last of the line joined Missionary, William Duncan's group.

Victoria Young (Su-dalth)  

Tsimshian Sigidmhana'a, Su-dalth (Victoria Young) was a skilled mediator between her people and the church, among other things. For more on her, see below.

Wife of Legeex. Instrumental in helping Missionary Thomas Crosby spread the word of Christianity through the Tsimshian. She was one of the first to be baptized. "Her leadership in community health matters as head of a committee of home-visitors she fulfilled what Crosby must have considered an appropriately feminine role by attending the sick and poor. Crosby's awe of her prestige and rank surfaced throughout his relatively brief profile. Su-dalth/Young frequently was called upon to address large congregations assembled to discuss vital matters and possessed a speakers role on the platform alongside other influential village elders." (Crosby and the Tsimshians)

Ts’ibasaa  Chief of Kitkatla and by extension Southern Tsimshian. Early chiefs of this line were haughty. He also controlled some trade routes and was a very skilled trader as were most of the Chiefs of the time.

Nekt  was Chief of the Gits'kan at the time of the emergence of the High Chief of the Coast Tsimshian, Legeex in the late 1800s. His fancy fort was attacked and destroyed about the time the first Ligeex took over the Skeena River trade. Nekt rose to prominence within his own group and attained almost mythical status. His armor was the Grizzly Bear made from hardened hide and lined with pitch and slate. He was thought to be impervious to arrows, and magical in his fighting skills. People were so enamored of him that they believed him to be Grizzly Bear in battle. He was very successful as a trader and controlled a wide expanse of trade routes.  but had a less than stellar manner, for the most part he was arrogant and belligerent and routinely raided and terrorized his neighbours. No doubt he inherited his general 'mean-ness from his Mother, who at one point was captured and married off to a Haida. She eventually beheaded him and escaped with her son who was kept quiet by suckling on the tongue of the slain Father. Hokey Dokey, enough about Nekt!





The basic unit of Northwest coast society was the household; a "House" in the same sense as the House of David or House of Windsor was a home to a large number of people not necessarily related by blood. There were three resident social classes of 'nobles, commoners, and slaves' who resided in the house. In post-contact history a fourth level acknowledged as "Royal" status was adopted in deference to the Great White Mother in England, Queen Victoria  This is a good example of how Indigenous history is a living history, always adapting and evolving. It is also rather humorous.

The physical house was massive and  was the visible and vital representation of economic, social, political, and spiritual bonds among families and tribal groups.

The House usually constructed of carved red cedar trees in a long rectangle that faced the water, the source of all life. The building was a large rectangle with cedar planks set along the sides and a low-sloping, peaked roof held up by four decorated corner posts and a ridge beam (the main support) of the dwelling. The designs usually depicted the crests and clans of the owners. The door would be painted. Inside, the floor was dug down so the sides of the house could hold two or more levels of benches, a platform where people sat and a higher sleeping compartments divided by wooden partitions.

At the rear of each house, lived the members of the nobility who owned the house along with a secluded storeroom holding sacred treasures. Their eldest man was the leader of the household, but his mother and sisters provided the links among all the members. Important Note:  This did not prevent women from becoming Chiefs. Along the sides lived families of commoners who attached themselves to that house as kin or labour. Beside the oval front door slept slaves, taken in war or the children of such captives, whose lives belonged to their owner.

Along the sides of the house where they lived, families kept their own open fires for cooking and heating. In the middle, however, was a large public hearth used to cook meals for the noble owners or for guests attending a celebration.

Fishing was the major source of food for most northwest coast tribes. Strong canoes made better fishing possible. Red Cedar Dugout Canoe building quickly developed into an art form and canoe carvers were trained by their ancestors with the style past down from generation to generation.

In the summer months, Northwest Coast Native people travelled in cedar dugout canoes to temporary camps where they would fish, hunt and gather food.  The canoes were often elaborately carved and painted.

Cedar trees can grow over 80 feet tall quite easily. Cedar trees are tall, wide, with strong trunks and bodies. This makes them perfect for splitting into two long sections. Some canoes that were 50 feet long and 8 feet wide. These were whaling and warrior canoes. Each canoe could hold 20 warriors and 10,000 pounds of cargo, such as fish.

They also carved boats that were much smaller and used by a single family.




The Tsimshian and other northern tribes had been trading for thousands of years, initially with the people who lived in Siberia and Russia. Dozens of trails and trade routes controlled by various chiefs, in particular, Legaic existed all over the Pacific northwest coast. These routes linked the various villages dotted along the coast and created a network for fishing, hunting, general food-gathering. Items that were traded included: rare gemstones such as jade, quartz crystal and the Apache Tear (Obsidion), plants for medicinal use, rare wood, animal furs, smoked meats, shellfish and berries. Oolichon oil from the tiny fish was particularly prized by the tribes in the interior who did not have access to it. Chilkat blankets, rattles and drums were also highly prized items for trade. After European contact, copper, buttons, beads, flint, steel, iron, guns and ammunition were added.

They were skilled and ruthless traders. My Ancestors were quite familiar with strangers coming to their shores so it was no real surprise when the first European, Captain James Cook sailed into the now misnamed Nootka Sound in 1778.



There were a variety of reasons that tribes clashed from time to time. Much like all cultures since the beginning of time, disagreements over territory, stores of food, ritual privileges all combined to cause the occasional war. The Pacific Northwest coast was particularly sensitive to righting past wrongs, and so the taking of slaves because part of the mix as well.

The term "Warfare" is a bit of misnomer. There never was all out full-scale warfare but more a series of nasty skirmishes and raids, particularly between the Haida and the coastal peoples, such as the Tsimshian. Just as serious they caused loss of life and the taking of slaves, among other things.  The Tsimshian were always on alert for raids from interior tribes who were driven by hunger. Also, the Haida and the Tlingit also routinely tried to raid Tsimshian trading routes. 

During the times of invasions much like the Haudensaunne who built fortess-like palisades around their communities, Tsimshian men also built enclosures to protect their families. The Tsimshian were more creative however, and warriors such as Nekt, a highly feared Kitwanga warrior built spiked palisades around his houses. At opportune moments these logs would be released to roll down and crush the enemy. Ouch! That has to smart!

As noted, at times raids were intense, particularly after European contact because of increased competition over trade routes; Raiding was commonplace and frequently were in the form of revenge responses to insults or injury, or to take slaves. Pacific Northwest coast tribes were very sensitive in this regard.  Shaming was often used in the form of carving 'Shaming Totem Poles' or hold a 'shaming feast'. 


Warriors, such as Nekt, wore 'armour' made from dried animal hide smeared with pitch to make it as hard as rock. Post-European contact saw the acquisition of metal, and so headpieces that covered the face were also fashioned. Upon first glance the clothing looks like it is straight out of the middle ages, doesn't it?



There were also elaborate carved war canoes, Nothing like showing up to a skirmish in style! The canoes were huge as you can see, some of which could carry up to fifty warriors and all their gear.


Photos from




One meeting between the Tsimshian and white people was described as follows: A sea monster, covered with hairy beings (James Cook (Left) and his crew), sailed up the coast inside a large spider (long boat with oars). The Tsimshian phrased the meeting in terms of Naxnox, and the whites were shiftless drifters associated with ghosts, whose bones were bleached driftwood. I thoroughly enjoys this description!

Tsimshian Culture and Native Cultures were all outlawed by the Canadian Government in 1884 and not revived until part of the Indian Act was repealed in 1951. The main reason that B.C. cultures remain as intact as they are is because of those brave souls who defied the law and continued to practice their traditional ways in secret.

Christian Tsimshians were adamant about not acknowledging the existence of the old ways.  My Grandmother was one such person.  Modern Christian Tsimshian's continue to dismiss Naxnox as a passing fancy and the masks simply as fetishes to be worn for the tourist trade.  In the past, the masks and the dance dramas were symbols of a powerful people and belief in the connections between the seen and unseen worlds.  Even so, many Tsimshian carry quite a bit of superstition surrounding the magic of Naxnox and even in this modern day and age, they are nervous about invoking the power of the ancestors. It’s a tragedy.




WILLIAM DUNCAN (1832-1918)  arrived at Fort Simpson in 1857, and immediately began learning Tsimshian language. His delivery of sermons in Sm'algyax began in 1858 which quite impressed the Tsimshian so they listened. He was successful in his divide and conquer methods; he managed to hive off a portion of the Tsimshian people (eventually 800-1000) to form a sort of Christian cult for himself. In 1862 just before devastating small pox outbreak, he led converts back to the central winter site of Metlakatla to found a Christian community. Duncan has been attributed with helping to save the Tsimshian race by this timely move.  Small pox killed over 85% of the Tsimshian.

He was nonetheless a demanding, paternalistic control-freak with many issues about dominance. Duncan's demands to the Tsimshian for the "privilege" of living in the Metlakatla community were as follows: Give up Indian devilry; Cease calling on Spirit Doctors when sick; cease gambling; cease giving away their property for display (feast not practiced for over 100 years as a result); cease painting their faces; cease indulging in alcohol; rest on the Sabbath; attend religious instructions; send children to school; to be clean, industrious, peaceful, liberal and honest in trade; build neat houses and pay the village tax. He died a broken man when the iron-fisted control he enjoyed for so long was finally wrested away.

WILLIAN HENRY COLLISON (1845-1922)  was the first to preach to the Haida, Nishga and Tsimshian in their own languages.  He was the founder of the first mission in Hazelton. He was sent to Tsimshian territory, Port Simpson in 1873 to assist William Duncan. He was also the husband of the first white woman to call Metlakatla home, and father of the first white child born there. 

He eventually couldn't stand being around William Duncan and in 1876 he became the first missionary to work on Haida Gwai'i.  He thoroughly understood the feast system and was the only white to travel as an equal with the famous Edenshaw family on their trading voyages.  Chiefs, slaves, spirit doctors all knew Collison as their friend. 

Personal Story:  My Tsimshian Grandmother, Mary travelled with Collison and assisted in training the famous Tsimshian brass bands that would routinely travel to Victoria for competitions and kick the butts of the British Marching Bands at their own game. It's quite the visual isn't it!! (Photo above is of a Tsimshian Coronet Band)