Alaska Native Collections – Sharing Knowledge


The Tsimshian

Donna May Sumner-Roberts

The Past. The Present. The Future. These three elements are essential in order for a people and a culture to survive. The past reveals the strength and resilience to survive; the present is a vehicle to demonstrate what has been learned; the future is dependent on how we embrace the past and how we live in the present.

The Tsimshian have four phratries, Raven (Ggan-haa-da), Wolf (Lack-gi-boo), Eagle (Lack-sh-geeg) and Killerwhale (Gish-bud-wa-da). Our language is called Shim-al-gyack, which translates as “The True Language.”

Tsimshian stories and mythology attempt to answer questions that all mankind has asked: Who am I? Who sends the wind? Who sends the salmon rushing upstream year after year? Who made the sun? Who made the moon?

In traditional society, industriousness was valued and laziness was not tolerated. Everyone contributed to the good of the whole and high standards for living were upheld. Since theirs was not a nomadic life and their environment easily provided a wealth of fish, game and timber, our ancestors had time to develop their talents and abilities during the winter months.

Tsimshian dancers perform at Celebration '98 in Juneau.

Photo by Art Such, © Sealaska Heritage Center.

Respect for all things is evident in the stories, legends and songs. Paramount was respect for Elders. It was understood that their life experiences had equipped them to live in the present, yet provided them with the vision to embrace the future with anticipation and hope.

Although the story of the Tsimshian community in Alaska began in one sense with its founding in 1887, the Tsimshian people had always traveled much of the coastline of Southeast Alaska and northwestern Canada in their hand-crafted canoes. The Tsimshians are known for many things, but their ooligan fish grease (‘kaw-tsi) and Chilkat blankets in particular were renowned as trade items in the indigenous economy of the region. In 1834, three years after the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post at Fort Simpson, British Columbia (Canada), the Tsimshians moved to that post from their ancestral village of Old Metlakatla, BC to establish themselves as middle-men in the rich fur trade.

The move to Fort Simpson did much to improve their economic standing, but the overall cost was a bitter one. Alcohol, firearms and disease wreaked havoc.

It was at this point in our history that a lay-missionary sent by the Church of England Missionary Society arrived in Fort Simpson, BC. In October 1857, William Duncan disembarked the HMS Satellite, a British warship commissioned to protect and defend the forts established by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Duncan felt that his calling was to reach the inner life of the Tsimshians, and he realized that the way to do this was to understand their language. About eight months later, Duncan presented his first sermon in Shim-al-gyack to about eight hundred Tsimshians. With Duncan’s leadership came a turn toward Christianity and a vision for the future. The Tsimshian People transitioned successfully based on three things: faith in a God that would help them realize their hopes and dreams; love for their God and for each other; and loyalty to a man they believed to be trustworthy, William Duncan.

From that point their story astounded those who read or heard it. In May 1862 six canoes carrying about 350 Tsimshians left Fort Simpson, bound for the ancestral village they had abandoned in 1834. Old Metlakatla soon became totally self-sufficient, with 87 new homes, a school, a church that seated 700, and various businesses. By 1874 they dedicated a new church that seated 1,000, making it the largest house of worship north of San Francisco.

The Missionary Society turned against the enterprise, and over the next five years many tactics were employed in an attempt to destroy the successful economy of the village. This effort culminated in a land claim that eventually went to the court in Victoria, BC, which ruled in favor of the Society.

On January 6, 1887, Duncan traveled to Washington, DC to seek help from President Cleveland, and on March 25, 1887, New Metlakatla (on Annette Island, Alaska) was selected as the site for a new home. Six months later more than 800 Tsimshians boarded canoes and left for Alaska. August 7th is recognized as “Founder’s Day” and those who made that journey were thereafter known as the “Pioneers.”

Metlakatla is located at the southernmost end of Southeast Alaska. It is a flat, boggy island of about ten square miles, approximately 25 miles south of Ketchikan. Rich in natural resources, it provided everything needed for the people to subsist off the land and become an independent, thriving community.

The village was again built from the ground up. In 1940 an airfield was constructed on the south end of the island by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was later used by the Coast Guard, Alaska Weather Bureau and commercial airlines.

Today about 1,375 people reside in the town of Metlakatla, which stands as a tribute to the foresight and determination of those Pioneers who gave up their ancestral home to build a new future in Alaska. Today’s generation, whether they live in Metlakatla, other parts of Alaska, or the Pacific Northwest, complete the circle by embracing the past thorough the revival of the arts, reestablishing the ceremonies, and rekindling the language.


Donna May Sumner Roberts is Tsimshian from Metlakatla. She is a linguist and co-founder of Dum-Baal-Dum, an organization supporting the teaching of the Tsimshian language.

Top of page