Archaeological Excavation

Tsimshian Society and Culture

Wealth and Rank
Men's Activities
Women's Activities
Gathering and Preserving
Basketry and Clothing

Tsimshian Villages

Tsimshian Society and Culture

Women's Activities

Gathering and Preserving

Woman - 74-11404 The main economic contribution made by women was the collecting and processing of food for long-term storage. A large supply of preserved food ensured that village populations could survive the winter.

Fish was the dietary staple. Large quantities of it were split or filleted to be dried in the sun or smoked in sheds. The fish could then be stored for up to twelve months (depending on the fat content of particular species). Mammals and birds were also important sources of food. Their meat was usually smoked and dried. Berries, roots, bark and greens supplemented the diet.

Wild vegetable roots were collected for food and spruce roots gathered for weaving into hats and baskets.

Cooking The Clam

Preserving Berries

Maul - CD96-007-096 - S93-10831 Maul for pounding roots and berries
Provenance unknown

The berries were picked, crushed, and cooked.

They were then spread on a rack covered with leaves (usually salmonberry leaves) and smoked over a smudge fire until they no longer felt sticky.

The sheets of berries were rolled up and a stick threaded through each roll, which was placed upright or hung up until completely dry. The sheets were then unwound, sliced into cakes, and stored in boxes for future consumption. Other berries preserved by drying included huckleberries, saskatoon, and soapberries. Berries such as cranberries and crabapples were too juicy to dry; these were preserved in eulachon oil instead.

Preserving Eulachon

Eulachon - CD94-630-024 - 72-10075 After the fish were netted, they were left to decompose in bins, pits, or canoes. As the fish softened, oil began to ooze out.

Next, the fish were boiled until the oil rose to the surface and was skimmed off. The residue was scooped up and the remaining oil pressed out by putting the fish remains into a basket.

Long kelp stems were used as storage containers for the oil. The tubes of oil-filled kelp were either coiled into a box or hung on the wall for storage.

Eulachon oil was a necessary dietary supplement for the Tsimshian people; it contained fat, iodine, and many essential vitamins and trace elements. The oil was used to preserve fruit, was eaten with fresh fruit as a dessert, and was also served as a sauce.

Eulachon - CD94-630-027 - 61251 Eulachon were also dried and smoked.

Smoking Salmon

Salmon - CD94-630-029 - 49443 Split salmon drying on racks, ca. 1920.

Women cleaned the fish, removed the heads, and hung the fish by the tails until the slime evaporated.

The fish were filleted flesh-side-up into 3/8-inch-thick slices so that the salmon dried evenly and efficiently.

Smokehouse - CD94-630-030 - 65602 Smokehouse for salmon, Kitwanga, 1925.

The fish were then hung on cedar racks in the smokehouse to dry over a smudge fire.

Once the fish were dried, they were tied into bundles and hung on storage racks high in the smokehouse.


There were three basic methods of cooking:

  1. grilling over an open fire

  2. steaming or baking in a pit

  3. boiling (the cook dropped red-hot stones into the container of water to bring it to the boil before adding food).

Ladle - CD96-007-079 - S93-10795 Ladle of red cedar, for stirring food being cooked in bentwood boxes
Ca. A.D. 1
Lachane site, excavated 1973

The Clam Digger

Mud Flats Clams, dug from the mud flats at low tide, were a village staple in winter, and their shells make up the bulk of the Prince Rupert middens.

Clam Digger As the tide receded, women and girls headed for their family collecting areas on the intertidal flats. The women wore skirts and capes of shredded cedar bark, with hats of woven cedar bark or spruce root. They used a digging stick to pry out the clams, which were collected in open-work spruce-root baskets that allowed the clams to drain on the way home. Cockles, mussels, urchins and abalone provided a reliable food supply that could be dried and stored for use throughout the winter.