The Tsimshian, said “Shim-she-un,” are a Native American and First Nation People who live in the area of the International Boundary—at the most southeastern tip of Alaska and then, going further southeast and crossing into mainland but coastal Canada. This region is part of the archipelago that spans these two nations and is home to several other Northwest Coast Peoples. Of the 10,000 Tsimshian People who live here, 85% live on the Canadian side. They are compromised of 14 bands or tribes, which recognize the greater group, as opposed to peoples of the ‘city-states’ perspective, like the Nuu-Chah-Nulth or Kwakwaka’wka.
The Alaska Tsimshian village of Metlakatla is notable because it voted not to adopt the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in the early 1970’s. Metlakatla became a 'reserve' because of this and is more similar to Native American reservations on the mainland United States than it is to the corporation model all other Alaska Natives formed under. Metlatakla has maintained greater rights over their natural resources and self-determination, while giving up certain cash-economy opportunities.
The marine environment of the Tsimshian is exceptionally wet, with annual rainfall averaging over 100 inches, sometimes exceeding 125 inches. By comparison, ‘rainy’ Seattle averages 39 inches, ‘wet’ Vancouver B.C. 43 inches. The moisture quantity in the lives of the Tsimshian People is respected; the infrequent sunshine is revered.
The Tsimshian have had both the great fortune and misfortune of being bordered by two great societies, the Haida and Tlingit. The fortunate side of it included good trading partners (at times) and rich cultures with whom to share ideas and practices. The misfortune came during raids by those groups or even warfare. Due to this, the Tsimshian also became renowned as fierce warriors, and it is why they understood the need to stay more closely associated as a larger People, rather than being too autonomous as self-reliant local tribes.
The Tsimshian culture has a great number of overall similarities to other Northwest Coast Peoples: the People traditionally harvested halibut and salmon, hunted seals, sea lions, and sea otters; they are a potlatch society following the matrilineal side for self identification and inherited rights; their traditional spirituality is based on both animals and specials creatures; they utilized the forest for making masks, totem poles, houses, and boats; societies were lead by chiefs and spiritually by leaders that we might loosely refer to as shamans; and they went through the same approximate history that other Peoples did upon contact—devastation by diseases, spiritually converted, ‘civilized’ and assimilated, quietly and patiently resisting, eventually recognized and returned some rights after nearly 100 years of oppression.
What makes the Tsimshian a People that require a different perspective, from other Northwest Coast Peoples, is that they had been, for many centuries, one people. Then two outside conquering forces—Canada and the United States—assumed leadership over them and divided the people, put a line between them. Though Tsimshian are able to move and visit across the boundary, they are now either Canadian Tsimshian or U.S. Tsimshian. As adults, if they move away, go deeper into societies that absorb them and lead them to new identities, then they become—‘Canadian’ or ‘American’—and they are no longer the very same people.