Archaeological Excavation

Tsimshian Society and Culture

Wealth and Rank
To Honour the Ancestors
Feasts and Potlatches
Men's Activities
Women's Activities

Tsimshian Villages

Tsimshian Society and Culture

Wealth and Rank

Mother and Daughter - 
CD94-632-004 - 71-5560 Kitwankool mother and daughter wearing high-status regalia.

Tsimshian society had three main classes: nobles, commoners, and slaves.

The nobility included the immediate families of the chiefs of each tribe. Among the privileged individuals were the chiefs and the chieftainesses, and their children.

The majority of people were commoners who offered their labour in support of their chief and whose own prestige depended on the success of the chief in feasting and warfare.

Slaves were owned by the chiefs. They were war captives who were first offered to their own tribes for a ransom. Those not ransomed and their offspring became hereditary slaves.

There was little social mobility through intermarriage between the classes.

Chief Skagwait's house in Fort Simpson, 1879, with a mythical bird called Rotten Gibelk painted on its front. A totem pole of Beaver, which displays a ringed potlatch hat and canoes, can be seen on the beach.
Chief Skagwait's house - 
CD94-631-012 - 68806

Extended families, or lineages claiming descent from a common ancestor, lived in several large wooden houses. The highest-ranking chief's house was generally the largest, and was located in the centre of the village, with the houses of lesser rank chiefs ranged on either side. Families prominently displayed their crests on interior house posts, totem poles, housefront paintings, clothing and many other household and ceremonial objects.

Drawing of Guraklh - 
CD94-632-025 - 62998 Drawing of Guraklh "Small Rat" (Johnny Laknitz) of the Wolf lineage, Kitwanga. Around his head and shoulders, he is wearing woven cedar bands that were believed to protect the body from loss of soul.
(Drawing by W. Langdon Kihn, 1924)

Tsimshian society was based on a matrilineal line of descent: all children would inherit their lineage, or clan affiliation, from their mothers. Inheritance and status were passed on to the oldest son of the father's oldest sister. Boys would live with their biological fathers until the age of nine or ten, when they would go to live with their maternal uncles. Girls continued to live with their parents until they married and moved to their husbands' homes. It was forbidden to marry someone from the same lineage. There were four lineages: Raven, Wolf, Eagle, and Fireweed (for the Gitksan) or Blackfish/Killer Whale (for the Coast and Southern Tsimshian and the Nisga'a).

A drawing of Martha Brown, who held the hereditary name 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 while she danced at festivities.
(Drawing by W. Langdon Kihn, 1924)
Drawing of Mawlaken - 
CD94-632-024 - 63029

Each lineage held territories that included a mix of economic resources, namely salmon streams, intertidal fish-trap sites, clam-digging flats, cod and halibut fishing grounds, and tracts of land for timber and bark harvesting. They also held the rights to family crests, myths, dances and songs.

Drawing of Simedeek - 
CD94-632-026 - 62988 A drawing of Simedeek of the Eagle lineage, head Chief of Kitwanga. He is wearing a Chilkat blanket and a headdress with an Eagle frontlet.
(Drawing by W. Langdon Kihn, 1924)

At potlatches, each person was seated according to rank. The order in which they received invitations and gifts was determined by their position within the hierarchy.

A drawing of "Grouse with Closed Eyes," Fireweed Chief, Gitsegyukla. He is wearing a button blanket.
(Drawing by W. Langdon Kihn, 1924)
Drawing of Grouse with Closed Eyes - 
CD94-632-027 - 63002