Amhalaaydm xts'u'utsk | Hawk Headdress
Denis Finnin/AMNH Anthropology catalog 16/252

Selected features from the Northwest Coast Hall.

“Tsimshian” means “people inside the Skeena River.” The Tsimshian, Gitxsan, and Nisg̲a’a people are neighbors along the Skeena and Nass Rivers on the northern coast of British Columbia. These Nations share many traditions and their languages are closely related. Another Tsimshian community is located on Annette Island Reserve, in Metlakatla, Alaska.

Sm’algyax Language

Sm’algyax is the language spoken by Tsimshian people. Use the buttons below to listen and repeat some words and phrases.

‘Niit, nda wila waan | Hello, how are you doing?

gyemsax | feel at home/content/cozy

misoo | sockeye salmon

‘yuusl | small cedar basket

mełiitk | green

Audio credits: First Voices, Ts'msyen Sm'algyax Language Authority

Our language is in danger. When I first moved home 10 years ago there were six Elders who were fluent Sm’algyax speakers in Metlakatla. In 2021, only one is still living. There are probably 80 or 90 more in all of British Columbia. It’s a very precarious situation.

—Huk Tgini’its’ga Xsgiik | Gavin Hudson, Haayk Foundation, Secretary/Treasurer
Tsimshian, Laxsgyiik, Metlakatla, Alaska

One organization working to keep Sm’algyax alive is the Haayk Foundation in Metlakatla, Alaska. According to Co-Founder Huk Tgini’its’ga Xsgiik | Gavin Hudson, its purpose is to save the language, to rapidly create new fluent speakers, and to share, free of charge to the public, any language resources towards that goal.

Woman in a wheelchair surrounded by two men on her sides and a woman behind her. Man on left wears straw headpiece and man on right wears large hat.
Haayk Foundation founders with G̱oodm Nluułgm Xsgyiik, a fluent speaker of Sm’algyax and elder advisor to the project.
Haayk Foundation

Metlakatla Potlatch

Close-up of a person dancing in a large wooden mask with painted features and patterns, as a blurry crowd in the left-hand background watch.
A dancer at a potlatch in Metlakatla, Alaska. This is a Naxnox-style “sleeper” mask, with articulated eyes that rotate open and close. 
Brett Peterson/© AMNH

Social, political, and spiritual life revolves around potlatches, or feasts. The purpose of these events varies—the host may call extended family together to settle a debt, for example, or to name a child. Most important, through theater, dance, and song, the host’s clan tells the stories of its origin, history, rights, and privileges. Performers often wear masks, and their awe-inspiring presentations affirm family identity and pass knowledge to new generations.

At potlatches, a dancer dancing the Chief’s headdress or welcome dance traditionally fills the top of their headdress with eagle down, a sign of peace. As they dance, dipping and tossing their heads, the feathers float away and settle on and around the guests.

In 2019, members of this Museum were invited to attend a potlatch in Metlakatla, Alaska. The large ceremonial feast included local food, singing, dancing, drumming, and the giving of names.

Essential Artistry

Carvers, weavers, and basket makers bring skill and imagination to creating ceremonial pieces. People continue to make such treasures today. Dancing with masks and regalia at feasts brings representations of spirit beings to life.

Despite the importance of songs, in the past, the Tsimshian had few musical instruments. The principal ones were drums, rattles, and whistles—instruments still in use today. In the potlatch video above, you can see dancers with rattles similar to a Raven rattle in the Northwest Coast Hall. 

Click on the 3D model below for a closer look.

Name Giving

Some of the most important potlatches take place when a deceased Chief is mourned and a successor inherits the name and position.

Mangyepsa Gyipaayg | Kandi McGilton, artist and co-founder of the Haayk Foundation, explains how names are placed on people in Metlakatla, Alaska.

Clans and Crests

Tsimshian society is divided into four matrilineal clans—Gisbutwada (Killer Whale), Laxgyibuu (Wolf), Laxsgyiik (Eagle), and G̲anhada (Raven).

Four wooden rectangles, each featuring a stylized painted animal figure, hanging in a row on a white wall.
Four clan crests: Wolf, Eagle, Raven, and Killer Whale.
Brett Peterson/© AMNH

Tsimshian people are born into the clan of their mother. Some carved figures are crests that represent a clan or one extended family within a clan. They include Ancestors, supernatural beings, and other entities important in the history and identity of the lineage.

Headpiece featuring wooden carved eyes and nose, a carved frog where the mouth would be, surrounded by iridescent stone and smaller faces.
AMNH Anthropology catalog 16/249

Only people of high social rank could wear amhalaaydm, or frontlets—elaborate head pieces like the one above, which rest on the forehead and are sometimes trimmed with ermine pelts. They represent family crests and tell the history of family lineage. This frontlet depicts an eagle and frog.

Albert Bolton’s Pole

Roughly 20 people help lift carved pole into upright position using rope, wood pieces and hands as small crowd watches, some on nearby rooftop. Tsimshian people in Metlakatla, Alaska, raised the Albert Bolton memorial pole in 1994.
Lawrence Migdale/PIX/Alamy
Man in fringed boots, skirt, robe and hat and small child in big hat stand in front of memorial pole, which is on the lawn of a low house. In 2019, master carver Niis Bupts’aan | David Boxley refurbished, repaired, and rededicated the pole.
Erin Chapman/© AMNH

Tsimshian culture bearer Niis Bupts’aan | David Boxley first carved and raised a pole in Metlakatla, Alaska to his grandfather, Albert Bolton, in 1994. Twenty-five years later, he rededicated the pole to express his gratitude.

The rededication of my grandfather’s pole was a way for me to say in front of witnesses, again, thank you. Thank you, grandfather, for raising me and giving me the life I have. My grandfather and grandmother, Albert and Dora Bolton, they’re the reason I am who I am.

—Niis Bupts’aan | David Boxley, Master Carver
Tsimshian, Laxsgyiik, Metlakatla, Alaska

 Click through the images to read David’s words about what each section of the pole represents.

Metlakatla Founder’s Day

Each year on August 7, the residents of Metlakatla commemorate the day in 1887 when more than 800 Tsimshian people left British Columbia to form a new community in Alaska. A parade is followed by games, feasting, and dancing.

Map of Tsimshian peoples location, including Metlakatla, Lax Kw'alaams, Hazelton, Gitlax̱t'aamiks, and Gitxsan.

Tsimshian Consulting Curator

Niis Bupts’aan | David Boxley 

The Museum thanks Mrs. Sarah Booth and the Haayk Foundation for the Sm'algya̲x words included in this text.