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Tsimshian Indian Fact Sheet

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Tsimshian tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Tsimshian website for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Tsimshian pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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    Tsimshian Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Tsimshian"? What does it mean?
Tsimshian is pronounced "tsim-shee-un." This is an English pronunciation of their name for the Skeena River, which runs through their traditional territory.

Where do the Tsimshians live?
The Tsimshian Indians are original people of the Northwest Coast. Most Tsimshian people live in British Columbia in western Canada and far southeastern Alaska. Here is a map of traditional Tsimshian lands.

How is the Tsimshian Indian nation organized?
In Canada, each Tsimshian community has its own reserve, or reservation. Reserves are land that belongs to a Native American tribe and is legally under their control. Each Tsimshian tribe--known as a band or First Nation in Canada--is politically independent and has its own leadership. The Tsimshian First Nations each have their own government, laws, police, and services, just like small countries. However, the Tsimshians are also Canadian citizens and must obey Canadian law.

Tsimshians in the United States do not have reservations. Like most Alaska Natives, they live in Native villages instead. The main Tsimshian village is called Metlakatla (though there are also Tsimshian people living in neighboring Tlingit and Haida villages.) Alaska Native villages do not have the same sovereignty rights that Indian nations in other US states do, but the Tsimshians belong to a coalition called the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska which handles tribal government on behalf of several Native villages including Metlakatla.

What was the government of the Tsimshian tribe like?
Each Tsimshian village was independent from the others and was ruled by a tribal council made up of the leaders of each clan in the village. The highest-ranking clan leader usually served as the village chief. Today, most Tsimshian First Nations are still led by tribal councils, but councilmembers are elected by the citizens of the tribe instead of being appointed by the clans.

What language do the Tsimshian Indians speak?
Almost all Tsimshian people speak English today, but some Tsimshians, especially elders, also speak their native Tsimshian language. Tsimshian is a complicated language with many sounds that don't exist in English. If you'd like to know an easy Tsimshian word, "'niit" (sounds like the English word "neat") is a friendly greeting in Tsimshian. You can also read a Tsimshian picture dictionary here.

Today Tsimshian is an endangered language because most children aren't learning it anymore. However, some Tsimshian people are working to keep their language alive.

What was Tsimshian culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the homepage of the Metlakatla First Nation in Canada.
There you can find information about the Tsimshian tribe in the past and today.


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How do Tsimshian Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Tsimshian children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have dolls, toys and games to play. Like many Native Americans, Tsimshian mothers traditionally carried their babies in cradleboards on their backs--a custom which many American parents have adopted now.

What were men and women's roles in the Tsimshian tribe?
Tsimshian women gathered plants and herbs and did most of the child care and cooking. Men were fishermen and hunters and sometimes went to war to protect their families. Both genders took part in storytelling, artwork and music, and traditional medicine. A Tsimshian chief was almost always a man, but the clan leaders could be either men or women.

What were Tsimshian homes like in the past?
The Tsimshians lived in rectangular cedar-plank houses with bark roofs. Usually these houses were large (up to 100 feet long) and each one housed several familes from the same clan (as many as 50 people.) Here are some pictures of Native American plank houses like the ones Tsimshian Indians used. Today, old-fashioned buildings like these are still made from cedar wood, but they are only used for ceremonial purposes. Tsimshian people live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Tsimshian clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Tsimshian people didn't usually wear much clothing. Men wore breech cloths, and women wore short skirts made of cedar bark. Shirts were not necessary in Tsimshian culture, but people did wear poncho-like capes in colder weather, and men sometimes wore leggings. Even in the snow, most Tsimshian women preferred to go barefoot, but men on winter hunting trips would often wear moccasins and snowshoes. For formal occasions, Tsimshian people wore more elaborate outfits, with tunics, leggings and cloaks painted with tribal designs. One special clothing item of the Tsimshians was the spectacular Chilkat blankets, which were woven from cedar bark and mountain goat hair. Here is a website on Tsimshian Chilkat blankets, and some photos and links about Native American clothes in general.

The Tsimshians didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Instead, both men and women sometimes wore basketry hats made of finely woven spruce root. The designs and patterns of these hats often displayed a person's status and family connections. The Tsimshians painted their faces with different colors and designs for different occasions, and often wore tribal tattoo art. Tsimshian women often wore their hair in two long braids, while men usually left theirs long and loose. Like other Northwestern Indians, Tsimshian men sometimes wore mustaches and beards.

Today, some Tsimshian people still have a traditional cloak or basket hat, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of breechcloths.

What was Tsimshian transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes--the Tsimshian Indian tribe made dugout canoes by hollowing out spruce and cedar logs. The Tsimshian tribe used these canoes to travel up and down the sea coast for trading, fishing and hunting, and warfare. Their most impressive war canoes, which could be more than sixty feet long and withstand ocean storms, were bought from the Haida tribe, who had access to the best cedar trees and were considered the best canoe-makers by the other Northwest Coast tribes. Here is a website with pictures of Northwest Indian canoes. Today, of course, Tsimshian people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes.

What was Tsimshian food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Tsimshian Indians were fishing people. Tsimshian men caught fish and sea mammals from their canoes. They also hunted deer, mountain goats, and birds. Some Tsimshian bands, who lived further inland, relied more on big game like caribou and moose. Tsimshian women gathered shellfish, seaweed, berries, and roots. Here is a website with more information about Native food.

What were Tsimshian weapons and tools like in the past?
Tsimshian fishermen used a variety of tools to catch different types of fish and marine animals, including harpoons, bone fishhooks, nets, and wooden fish traps. Hunters used bows and arrows or spears, and trappers used snares and nets. In war, Tsimshian men fired their bows or fought with spears and war clubs. Some Tsimshian warriors wore bulky armor made of wooden rods lashed together to protect themselves from enemy archers. Here is a website of pictures and information about Northwest Indian weapons.

What are Tsimshian arts and crafts like?
Tsimshian artists are known for their fine basket and carving arts, including totem poles, and for their exceptional Chilkat robes and other weavings. Here is a website about Tsimshian artwork in general.

What other Native Americans did the Tsimshian tribe interact with?
The Tsimshians traded regularly with all the other tribes of the Northwest Coast and the far north, particularly the Haida and Tlingit tribes. The most important Tsimshian trade product was oil, which they made from a kind of fish named eulachon. Other tribes traded shells, blankets, and hides in exchange for this oil. Tsimshian men also liked to trade for canoes from the Haidas, who most Northwest Coast Native people considered the best canoe-makers. The Northwest Coast tribes also fought each other frequently, raiding each other's villages to steal wealth and capture slaves.

What kinds of stories do the Tsimshian Indians tell?
There are lots of traditional Tsimshian legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Tsimshian Indian culture. Here is one Tsimshian legend about the origin of the seasons. Here's a website where you can read more about Tsimshian mythology.

What about Tsimshian religion?
Religions are too complicated and culturally sensitive to describe appropriately in only a few simple sentences, and we strongly want to avoid misleading anybody. You can visit this site to learn more about the Tsimshian religion or this site about American Indian beliefs in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
You may enjoy Children of the Midnight Sun, an excellent book about the lives of contemporary Alaska Native children. One of the eight children profiled is Tsimshian. Potlatch: A Tsimshian Celebration and Meet Lydia are two good picture books for kids about Tsimshian life. Older readers may enjoy Tsimshian Culture: A Light through the Ages, an in-depth book with lots of information about Tsimshian history and culture. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended Native American books in general.

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2015.

Thanks for your interest in the Tsimshian Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Tsimshian Tribe

Tsimshian Indian Tribe
An overview of the Tsimshian people, their language and history.

Tsimshian Language Resources
Tsimshian Indian language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Tsimshian Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Tsimshian Native Americans past and present.

Tsimshian Words
Tsimshian Indian vocabulary lists.



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