Saturday, June 4, 2011

Tsimshian Life Before European Contact

The Tsimshian occupied their region for centuries. They had an innate knowledge of nature and it was a cornerstone in every part of their life. Clans were the most important social structure for the Tsimshian people. The four clans of the Tsimshian are the Ganhada (Raven Clan), Laxsgiik (Eagle Clan), Laxbiguu (Wolf Clan) and Gispwudwada (Killer Whale Clan). The four clans are then divided into two halves: 1.) the Killer Whale and Wolf Clan and 2.) the Raven and Eagle Clan.
Marriage within a half-group- for example a Raven and an Eagle- was incestual and never occurred. Marriages could only exist between members of different halves. Clans gave individuals a sense of where they belonged in society. Hierarchy was an intrinsic part of society with nobles at the top and commoners and slaves at the bottom. Indeed they had a very advanced social structure.

Art has always been the Tsimshian people's main way of expressing themselves. Grand totem poles were situated in the Tsimshian villages and they usually depicted elaborate and dramatic legends. Red and black were the favored paint colors and nearly all art had a natural element. The Tsimshian included Ravens, Killer Whales, Salmon and animals that had meaning to their culture. In this way the Tsimshian were very dependent on the wildlife and resources that surrounded them. Crests for clans were made using intricate carvings and paintings. Clan based art was everywhere-on totem poles, shields, the walls of long houses and on cutlery.

Typically each tribe would have a winter settling village and then they would go on seasonal rounds for the spring and summer, taking advantage of the variety of seafood and wildlife available. Winter houses were made from red cedars and were typically 50 feet long and 55 feet wide. Inside the house was a five foot deep pit and a main fireplace. Extended families and clans shared these long houses.

Ceremonies and performances were important to Tsimshian life. It served as entertainment but it also conveyed the messages of legends and myths. large potlatches and feasts would be enlivened with song and dance. Special masks and clothing were made for these performances. These large performances were also an opportunity for individuals to celebrate their clans or hierarchy.

Salmon was an important part of the Tsimshian life. They would have feasts to celebrate a good salmon run and they used advanced fishing methods like nets. Berry and shrubs were used as adornments for the main feast and were also popular in warm summer months.

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