Tsimshian translates to “Inside the Skeena River.” At one time the Tsimshian lived on the upper reaches of the Skeena River near present-day Hazelton, British Columbia. The majority of Tsimshian still live in the lower Skeena River watershed near Kitimat, as well as northern coastal BC.
There are distinct groups of Tsimshian native peoples: the Nishga, the Gitksan, the Coast Tsimshian, and the Southern Tsimshian. The southern Tsimshian language had more prestige than the others and was often used ceremonially by the Nishga and the Gitksan.
According to southern Tsimshian lore, after a series of disasters befell the people, a chief led a migration away from the cursed land to the coast, where they founded Kitkatla Village, the first of three Southern Tsimshian villages. Kitkatla is still considered to be the most conservative of the Tsimshian villages. The Nishga and Gitksan remained in the upper Skeena region (above the canyon) near the Nass River and forks of the Skeena respectively, but other Tsimshian chiefs moved down the river and occupied all the lands of the lower Skeena valley. Over time, these groups developed a new dialect of their ancestral language and came to regard themselves as a distinct population, the Tsimshian-proper. They continued to share the rights and customs of those who are known as the Gitxsan, their kin on the upper Skeena.
In late prehistoric times, the Coastal Tsimshian gradually moved their winter villages out to the islands of Venn (Metlakatla). They returned to their summer villages along the lower Skeena River when the salmon returned. Archaeological evidence shows 5,000 years of continuous inhabitation in the Prince Rupert region.
Kitkatla was probably the first Tsimshian village contacted by Europeans when Captain Charles Duncan and James Colnett arrived in 1787. Although Captain George Vancouver sailed up the Portland Canal into Nishga territory in 1793, the Gitksan were not subject to settlement pressure until the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers, formerly the site of the Tsimshian village of Kitanmaks, became the new European settlement of Skeena Forks(today known as Hazelton). When the Hudson’s Bay Company moved their fort to modern-day Port Simpson in 1834, nine Tsimshian villages moved to the surrounding area. Many of the Tsimshian peoples in Canada still live in these regions.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, epidemics of infectious disease contracted from Europeans ravaged their communities, as the First Nations had no acquired immunity to these diseases. In 1862 a smallpox epidemic killed many of the Tsimshian people. Altogether, one in four Tsimshian died in a series of at least three large-scale outbreaks.
In 1835, the total population of the Tsimshian peoples was estimated at 8,500. By 1885, the population had dropped to 4,500, 817 of whom moved to Alaska two years later.
In the 1880s the Anglican missionary William Duncan, along with a group of the Tsimshian, left Metlakatla, British Columbia and requested settlement on Annette Island from the U.S. government. After gaining approval, the group founded New Metlakatla on Annette Island in southern Alaska. Duncan appealed to Congress to grant the community reservation status, which it did in the late 19th century.
In 1895, the BC Tsimshian population stood at 3,550, while the Alaska Tsimshian population had dropped to 465 by 1900. After this low-water point, the Tsimshian population began to grow again, eventually to reach modern numbers comparable to the 1835 population estimate. However, the numbers of the inland Tsimshian peoples are now higher than they were historically, while those of the Southern and Coastal Tsimshian are much lower.
In the 1970s, the Metlakatla Indian Community voted to retain their rights to land and water, and opted out of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA); they have the only Native reservation in Alaska. The residents of Arctic Village and Venetie accepted free and simple title to the land within the Venetie reservation boundaries, while all other tribes participated in ANCSA.
The Metlakatla Tsimshian maintained their reservation status and holdings exclusive of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. They do not have an associated Native Corporation, although Tsimshian in Alaska may be shareholders of the Sealaska Corporation. The Annette Islands Reserve is the only location in Alaska allowed to maintain fish traps according to their traditional treaty rights. The use of these were otherwise banned when Alaska became a state in 1959. The traps are used to gather fish for food for people living on the reservation. Legally the community was required to use the traps at least once every three years or lose the right permanently. They stopped the practice early in the 2000s and lost their right to this traditional way of fishing.
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