“Tsimshian” means “people inside the Skeena River.” In this historic hall, the Nisg̱a’a, Gitxsan, and Tsimshian people are referred to together as “Tsimshian.” In the past, anthropologists categorized these three distinct nations as one people because they speak related languages.

Population: Approximately 10,700 (as of 2016)  Language: Sm'algya̱x, two dialects


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“If you look up Metlakatla, Alaska online or in history books, it’ll say that we’re assimilated and that we followed the missionary William Duncan to Alaska. But we know our history to be completely different. From the time that we moved from British Columbia until the 1970s, our songs and dances were done secretly. My generation is really the first generation to grow up with them out in the open. Dance became my first love.”

—Dr. Mique’l Dangeli (Sm Łoodm ’Nüüsm) Ph.D., art historian, dancer, and choreographer

Image credit: G. Lawson









Drums keep rhythm at singing and dancing performances, especially at potlatches—large ceremonial feasts hosted by a chief. The complex design painted on the drum may represent a clan or family affiliation. An eagle at the center is circled by human figures—with the eagle’s tail forming one of the human heads.

This drum is from Tsimshian territory in northern British Columbia, Canada.

AMNH 16/748, acquired 1869–1890




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Family Crest

Kitsumkalum, British Columbia

Tsimshian families are matrilineal—descent is traced through the mother’s line—and are organized into four clans. Each clan is represented by its crest, or symbolic animal: Eagle, Killer Whale, Wolf, and Raven. Click on the button below to listen to a raven’s call.

Glenn Bartley/AGE Fotostock



Spirit Bear

Princess Royal Island, B.C.

On Princess Royal and Gibbell Islands, a fraction of the black bears are actually white, an inherited trait. The nearby Tsimshian communities of Gitga'at and Kitasoo/Xai'xais hold these white spirit bears as sacred. In 2016, most of the Great Bear Rainforest, which stretches across Tsimshian territory and beyond, was designated off-limits from logging, protecting the future of this bear and its vital forest.

Morales/AGE Fotostock





Image credit for lead photo: A. Davey