Archaeological Excavation

Tsimshian Society and Culture

Wealth and Rank
Men's Activities
Women's Activities

Tsimshian Villages

Tsimshian Society and Culture

Men's Activities


Dot To Respect the Fish

Fishing Village This picture is of a Nass River fishing village, ca. 1903, with numerous smokehouses and fish-drying racks used for preserving fish. Salmon and eulachon were the most prized catches, but many other kinds of fish and seafood were consumed as well.
British Columbia Provincial Museum (4279)

According to the Tsimshian, fish and people shared the same universal pool of souls. Schools of fish were villages of people in another world. Salmon people migrated yearly from their father's house at the mouth of the river to their mother's house at the headwaters. In the form of fish, they were appropriate food for people, who reciprocated the favour in the next incarnation. Lack of respect could sever this soul exchange and result in human starvation.

Dot The Story of the Salmon Prince

A chieftainess at Kitselas Village kept a dog salmon folded in a box for more than a year. The fish run did not occur on schedule that year, and the people went hungry. Her nephew, a prince, was enticed into a canoe and taken to the house of the Salmon Chief at the mouth of the Skeena River. Each day, after a meal of salmon, he disposed of the bones in the fire. The next morning, he noted a child with an eye or a rib missing. To restore the child to health, it was necessary to find and burn the corresponding piece of the fish that had been missed the night before. The Salmon people returned the prince to his home to teach his people how to respect the remains of the salmon by cremating them. This would ensure their reincarnation into new schools of fish each year. Salmon could thus be caught easily in traps and nets in the rivers.

Salmon Trap - CD94-631-021 - 71-8566
Salmon trap
Families owned specific fishing grounds that were known and respected by everyone.

Salmon Fishing Eulachon Fishing Halibut Fishing

Salmon Fishing

Salmon-trap fence - 
CD94-631-022 - 71-8442
Salmon-trap fence

During their annual migration upriver to spawn, salmon were caught using traps, spears, lines and nets. A wooden trap was placed in the river, and a wooden fence was attached to the trap on either side, forcing fish to enter the trap.

Man spearing salmon - 
CD94-631-023 - 74-11399 A man wearing cedar bark clothing stands on a rocky shore poised to spear salmon. His two-pronged spear is designed so that the tips detach from the shaft when they pierce a salmon. A line attached to the spear tips allows the speared fish to be recovered.

Salmon were also caught by gaff hooks, spears and harpoons in clear streams and rivers, bays and inlets.

CD94-635-056 - S94-37760 The use of hand nets was another method of catching salmon. Fishermen usually stood on a rock platform and dipped their nets repeatedly into the water in order to catch fish.

Eulachon Fishing

Eulachon were caught by men in canoes using nets and rakes. The fish were scooped out of the water and dumped into the canoe.

Canoe full of eulachon - 72-9717 This picture shows a canoe full of eulachon, as well as a second canoe in which two men are standing with nets in hand, as they would when fishing for eulachon.

Dot Herring and Eulachon Raking

Herring and eulachon were so plentiful that they were easily harvested by men who ran a rake through the water to impale the fish.

Halibut Fishing

Deep-sea fishing for cod and halibut required extra-long lines of dried kelp and hooks that were effectively designed for the feeding habits of the fish. Rituals ensured the success of the fishing expedition.

Hook - CD98-19-054 - S97-15218 This hook is carved with an image of Sea-Lion swallowing a fish.

Spirit helpers were often carved on the hooks to lure fish to the line.

Halibut and salmon are large fish. Salmon can weigh up to 13 kilograms, and halibut frequently exceed 88 kilograms. Before pulling these fish into a boat, clubs are used to kill them quickly in order to prevent them from upsetting the canoe.

Fish Club - CD94-635-058 - S94-34744 Fish club for halibut
Collected by Rev. Thomas Crosby, 1886; Fort Simpson

These fish clubs were often shaped and decorated to show respect for the fish who willingly gave their flesh to feed humans.