Archaeological Excavation

Tsimshian Society and Culture

Instruments of War
War Canoes
The Warrior
Wealth and Rank
Men's Activities
Women's Activities

Tsimshian Villages

Tsimshian Society and Culture


Instruments of War

Instruments of war included bows and arrows, spears, daggers, clubs, fist clubs, canoe breakers, and atlatls (boards that add propulsive force in throwing a spear).

A whale-bone club found at an ancient Tsimshian village site, near Prince Rupert. It has been dated at approximately 2,000 years old.
Club - CD95-761-090 - S93-8980

Bows and Arrows

Bow - CD96-021-057 - S93-14530
Yew-wood bow decorated with Raven-head design
Collected by W.E. Gordon, 1853; Fort Simpson

Bows used in war were made of yew wood and decorated with the owner's crests. Ceremonial versions of these bows were inset with abalone shell. War arrows were made of Saskatoon berry branches obtained from the interior. Quivers consisted of tubes of red cedar, often elaborately decorated.


Dagger - CD95-762-012 - S93-9024 Steel war dagger with an eagle crest on the pommel
Collected by A. Mackenzie, 1884; Haida, Masset, Queen Charlotte Islands

Copper and steel daggers were obtained from Siberian fur traders for hundreds of years. Some were double-bladed like the knives of Siberian bear hunters. A steel dagger was as valuable as a slave and was the prized possession of a chief. The pommels of daggers provided a special field for artistic decoration.


Club - CD95-762-020 - S93-9041 Stone war club in the "Skeena River" style, decorated with a fantastic monster combining fish and mammal elements
18th century
Collected by I.W. Powell, 1879; Metlakatla village

Hand-to-hand fighting favoured the use of clubs. One ancient form that can be traced to Siberia and Shang China was made from caribou antlers armed with stone tips and decorated with geometric or zoomorphic designs. These clubs came to symbolize power among the Tsimshian, in particular, and miniature varieties were made as non-functional badges of achievement.

Tsimshian stone clubs were the most elaborately carved on the coast, a tradition that developed during a period of intense warfare in the first millennium B.C. The animal and human figures that decorate them are unlike any known crests produced later. Whalebone clubs, which could be very large, were sometimes carved with delicate designs and inlaid with shell.

Fist Clubs

Fist Club - CD95-762-019 - S93-9038 Stone Fist Club
ca. A.D. 1
Lachane site, excavated 1973

The witnessed histories (adawk) mention that warriors concealed pointed stones in their fists for surprise attacks on their enemies.

Canoe Breakers

Canoe Breaker - CD95-762-048 - S93-9094 Canoe Breaker
Collected by C.F. Newcombe, 1895-1900, Haida, Queen Charlotte Islands

According to the witnessed histories (adawk), large boulders were thrown at attacking canoes, then retrieved for reuse by means of a rope run through a hole in them. Straight-grained cedar canoes split easily if large boulders were thrown at them with great force. The enemy could also throw the boulders back, with destructive results.


Atlatl - CD95-762-030 - S93-9060 Atlatl of yew wood
Collected from the Tlingit in the late 18th century

An atlatl (an Aztec word) is a throwing board that served to extend the arm and add propulsive force to spears. Used throughout North and South America before the introduction of the bow, it was retained on the Northwest Coast until the introduction of the gun.