Tsimshian mythology

Tsimshian mythology is the mythology of the Tsimshian, an Aboriginal people in Canada and a Native American tribe in the United States. The majority of Tsimshian people live in British Columbia, while others live in Alaska.

Tsmishian myth is known from orally-passed tales. An adaawx is a story concerning animal spirits in human guise and is usually linked to the origin of the Earth and the peoples on it. A malesk, in contrast, is an adventure or history tale that purports to entertain rather than explain.

The raven spirit is known as We-gyet or Txamsem. Txamsem is said to have a brother named Logobola who is responsible for the lack of fresh and clear water as well as the existence of the fog into which Txamsem became lost.

Tsimshian club circa 1750
Tsimshian ceremonial club of carved antler bone, circa 1750. The head carved at top of the club may be the first owner of the Wolf crest, carved on the projecting tine. The club may have been used by Tsimshian shamans in religious ceremonials.

Raven myth

The Raven, known as Txamsem or Giant, is a central figure in Tsimshian mythology, part of the Raven Tales mythology connecting the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The Raven is viewed as the creator of the universe and an intermediary between its physical and spiritual incarnations.[1]:160

Tsimshian creation myth presupposes a dark and still universe populated by a variety of animal spirits.[1]:165 An animal chief pampers his son, causing him to fall sick and die, and his intestines are burned. The next day a new youth appears in the bed, healthy and visible in the darkness, "bright as fire." The boy is adopted by the chief. Initially, this boy does not eat, but slave spirits trick him into eating scabs. This triggers an enormous appetite in the boy, who begins to eat so much that the chief and villagers send him away with a raven blanket. The boy leaves, and becomes Raven.[1]:165

As Raven arrives in the mainland, he is insatiably hungry, causing great disruptions to those he meets. At various points of the myth he serves as a trickster.[1]:171 For example, after creating a slave from rotted wood, he disguises himself as a king and arrives in a village. The villagers tell the slave to invite Raven for dinner, but the slave says Raven is not hungry, and takes the food for himself. Raven builds a bridge from cabbage and as the slave crosses, he falls to his death. Raven descends into the valley to eat the food from the dead slave's belly.[1]:171

As Raven begins to develop a sense of generosity, he hosts a potlatch, in which he shares food with many guests. As he speaks, he wishes they would all turn to stone, and they do, giving form to a previously immaterial world.[1]:176


  1. ^ a b c d e f Jensen, Allan (1980). "A Structural Approach to the Tsimshian Raven Myths: Lévi-Strauss on the Beach". Anthropologica. 22 (2): 159. doi:10.2307/25605046.
Amala (mythology)

Amala is a mythological giant who supports the world in the mythology of the Tsimshian, Nass, Skidegate, Kaigani, Massett, and Tlingit Native Americans. He supports the Earth which he balances on a spinning pole. He receives an annual application of wild duck-oil to his muscles from a servant which brings relief to his muscles. The belief is that when all the ducks are hunted out, there will no longer be any duck-oil available in the world. At this point, Amala dies and the world topples off the pole and comes to an end.

Arthur Wellington Clah

Arthur Wellington Clah (1831–1916) was a Canadian First Nations employee of the Hudson's Bay Company at Lax Kw'alaams (Port Simpson), B.C., who was also a hereditary chief in the Tsimshian nation, an anthropological informant, a Methodist missionary, and an extensive diarist.

Arthur Wellington was his English name. "Clah" is a spelling of one of his hereditary Tsimshian names, Ła'ax. He also held the name T'amks, which carries with it leadership of a matrilineal house-group of the same name in the Gispaxlo'ots, one of the "Nine Tribes" of Lax Kw'alaams.

Clah was born in 1831 at a settlement called "Laghco," near where the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Simpson at Lax Kw'alaams in 1834. He married Catherine (a.k.a. Dorcas) Datacks, of the Laxgibuu (Wolf clan) of the Nisga'a nation. Catherine was niece of the wife of W. H. McNeill, the HBC's chief trader at Fort Simpson. Clah began working as McNeill's house servant but gradually came to be a trader in his own right.

When the Anglican lay minister William Duncan arrived in Port Simpson in 1857, Clah taught him the Tsimshian language in exchange for instruction in English, a mutual education which began through the medium of Chinook Jargon. Clah also became a mediary between Duncan and the Tsimshian. Clah converted to Christianity but never entirely abandoned potlatching. In a famous incident, Clah intervened and saved Duncan's life when Clah's own tribal chief, Ligeex, ordered Duncan at gunpoint (some versions say knifepoint) to cease tolling churchbells on the day of his (Ligeex's) daughter's initiation into a Tsimshian secret society. Ligeex later became a key convert of Duncan's. This incident is described both by Clah himself and by an eyewitness, his nephew the Rev. William Henry Pierce, the Methodist missionary.

For nearly fifty years, from the late 1850s until his death, Clah kept a remarkably detailed diary, which is now housed by the Wellcome Library in London. The diary affords an unmatched insight into daily life in a nineteenth-century Tsimshian community.

In 1903 the anthropologist Franz Boas wrote to Clah, having been referred to him by his Tlingit-Kwakwaka'wakw informant and collaborator George Hunt, expressing an interest in recording Tsimshian culture. Eventually, Clah turned the correspondence over to Henry W. Tate—who, indications are, was his own son—which led to the first detailed descriptions of Tsimshian culture. In 1915 Clah, near death, served as informant to the anthropologist Marius Barbeau, who was collecting information on Tsimshian social organization. Clah's grandson, William Beynon, served as interpreter and facilitator and went on to become a renowned ethnographic fieldworker in his own right. Clah died in Lax Kw'alaams the following year.

Balcón de Montezuma

Balcón de Montezuma, also known as "Balcon del Chiue" (Spanish pronunciation: [balˈkon de monteˈsuma]) is an archaeological site located at the Alta Cumbre ejido, some 18 kilometres (11.2 mi) south of Ciudad Victoria, in the state of Tamaulipas, México. It is situated about one kilometer north of Highway 101, towards San Luis Potosí.

This Huastec site is located some 203 kilometres (126.1 mi) north-west from the Las Flores Huastec archaeological site.

Creation myth

A creation myth (or cosmogonic myth) is a symbolic narrative of how the world began and how people first came to inhabit it. While in popular usage the term myth often refers to false or fanciful stories, members of cultures often ascribe varying degrees of truth to their creation myths. In the society in which it is told, a creation myth is usually regarded as conveying profound truths, metaphorically, symbolically and sometimes in a historical or literal sense. They are commonly, although not always, considered cosmogonical myths—that is, they describe the ordering of the cosmos from a state of chaos or amorphousness.Creation myths often share a number of features. They often are considered sacred accounts and can be found in nearly all known religious traditions. They are all stories with a plot and characters who are either deities, human-like figures, or animals, who often speak and transform easily. They are often set in a dim and nonspecific past that historian of religion Mircea Eliade termed in illo tempore ('at that time'). Creation myths address questions deeply meaningful to the society that shares them, revealing their central worldview and the framework for the self-identity of the culture and individual in a universal context.Creation myths develop in oral traditions and therefore typically have multiple versions; found throughout human culture, they are the most common form of myth.

Franz Boas

Franz Uri Boas (1858–1942) was a German-born American anthropologist and a pioneer of modern anthropology who has been called the "Father of American Anthropology". His work is associated with the movement of anthropological historicism.Studying in Germany, Boas was awarded a doctorate in 1881 in physics while also studying geography. He then participated in a geographical expedition to northern Canada, where he became fascinated with the culture and language of the Baffin Island Inuit. He went on to do field work with the indigenous cultures and languages of the Pacific Northwest. In 1887 he emigrated to the United States, where he first worked as a museum curator at the Smithsonian, and in 1899 became a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, where he remained for the rest of his career. Through his students, many of whom went on to found anthropology departments and research programmes inspired by their mentor, Boas profoundly influenced the development of American anthropology. Among his most significant students were A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, and many others.Boas was one of the most prominent opponents of the then-popular ideologies of scientific racism, the idea that race is a biological concept and that human behavior is best understood through the typology of biological characteristics. In a series of groundbreaking studies of skeletal anatomy he showed that cranial shape and size was highly malleable depending on environmental factors such as health and nutrition, in contrast to the claims by racial anthropologists of the day that held head shape to be a stable racial trait. Boas also worked to demonstrate that differences in human behavior are not primarily determined by innate biological dispositions but are largely the result of cultural differences acquired through social learning. In this way, Boas introduced culture as the primary concept for describing differences in behavior between human groups, and as the central analytical concept of anthropology.Among Boas's main contributions to anthropological thought was his rejection of the then-popular evolutionary approaches to the study of culture, which saw all societies progressing through a set of hierarchic technological and cultural stages, with Western European culture at the summit. Boas argued that culture developed historically through the interactions of groups of people and the diffusion of ideas and that consequently there was no process towards continuously "higher" cultural forms. This insight led Boas to reject the "stage"-based organization of ethnological museums, instead preferring to order items on display based on the affinity and proximity of the cultural groups in question.

Boas also introduced the ideology of cultural relativism, which holds that cultures cannot be objectively ranked as higher or lower, or better or more correct, but that all humans see the world through the lens of their own culture, and judge it according to their own culturally acquired norms. For Boas, the object of anthropology was to understand the way in which culture conditioned people to understand and interact with the world in different ways and to do this it was necessary to gain an understanding of the language and cultural practices of the people studied. By uniting the disciplines of archaeology, the study of material culture and history, and physical anthropology, the study of variation in human anatomy, with ethnology, the study of cultural variation of customs, and descriptive linguistics, the study of unwritten indigenous languages, Boas created the four-field subdivision of anthropology which became prominent in American anthropology in the 20th century.

Henry W. Tate

Henry Wellington Tate (circa 1860 - 1914) was an oral historian from the Tsimshian First Nation in British Columbia, Canada, best known for his work with the anthropologist Franz Boas.

Little is known of his early life in Lax Kw'alaams (a.k.a. Port Simpson), B.C. He was probably the son of Arthur Wellington Clah, an hereditary chief and prominent early Christian convert who had taught the Tsimshian language to the Anglican lay missionary William Duncan in the 1850s.

In 1903 Boas wrote to Clah, on the recommendation of his Tlingit-Kwakwaka'wakw informant George Hunt, expressing an interest in finding someone with whom to work on a description of Tsimshian culture. Clah turned the correspondence over to Tate, and Tate began to send Boas information, especially transcribed oral narratives, through the mail. It seems certain that Boas and Tate never met face to face. The result was Boas's long 1916 monograph Tsimshian Mythology. When that volume appeared, Boas wrote in its preface that "Mr. Tate died in April 1914."

One of the few insights into Tate's life in Tsimshian Mythology comes in a discussion of clan-to-clan adoption, citing Tate's adoption from the Laxsgiik (Eagle clan) into the Gispwudwada (Killerwhale clan) of the Gispaxlo'ots tribe by his maternal grandfather, and his subsequent adoption of his own daughter into the Gispwudwada as well.

Boas and Tate's correspondence is housed at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. It includes complaints by Boas that Tate is resisting his instructions by writing the stories in English first, and then translating into his own Tsimshian, instead of transcribing his informants' Tsimshian first.

In the 1930s, Tate's widow, now known as "Mrs. Sam Bennett," of the Gits'iis tribe, served as a key informant to the anthropologist Viola Garfield during her fieldwork in Lax Kw'alaams.

Aspersions were cast on the reliability or thoroughness of Tate's work by a 1917 review of Tsimshian Mythology written by Marius Barbeau, who had by then done much more extensive, face-to-face fieldwork in Lax Kw'alaams with Clah's grandson, William Beynon. The literary historian Ralph Maud has written at length on the complicated give-and-take which resulted in the publication of Tate's stories and the possible cultural distortions that resulted. Maud has also produced a volume which reformats Tate's stories to bring out the poetry in his English.

Index of articles related to Indigenous Canadians

The following is an alphabetical list of topics related to Indigenous peoples in Canada, comprising the First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.

List of bibliographical materials on the potlatch

Below is a list of books and sources about the potlatch, an Indigenous ceremony from the north west coast of Canada, and the United States.

List of religions and spiritual traditions

While religion is hard to define, one standard model of religion, used in religious studies courses, was proposed by Clifford Geertz, who defined it as a

[…] system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic."

A critique of Geertz's model by Talal Asad categorized religion as "an anthropological category." Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws, or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system", but religion differs from private belief in that it has a public aspect. Most religions have organized behaviours, including clerical hierarchies, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, congregations of laity, regular meetings or services for the purposes of veneration of a deity or for prayer, holy places (either natural or architectural) or religious texts. Certain religions also have a sacred language often used in liturgical services. The practice of a religion may also include sermons, commemoration of the activities of a god or gods, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, rituals, rites, ceremonies, worship, initiations, funerals, marriages, meditation, invocation, mediumship, music, art, dance, public service or other aspects of human culture. Religious beliefs have also been used to explain parapsychological phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and reincarnation, along with many other paranormal and supernatural experiences.Some academics studying the subject have divided religions into three broad categories: world religions, a term which refers to transcultural, international faiths; indigenous religions, which refers to smaller, culture-specific or nation-specific religious groups; and new religious movements, which refers to recently developed faiths. One modern academic theory of religion, social constructionism, says that religion is a modern concept that suggests all spiritual practice and worship follows a model similar to the Abrahamic religions as an orientation system that helps to interpret reality and define human beings, and thus religion, as a concept, has been applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures that are not based upon such systems, or in which these systems are a substantially simpler construct.

Mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas

The indigenous peoples of the Americas comprise numerous different cultures. Each has its own mythologies. Some are quite distinct, but certain themes are shared across the cultural boundaries.

Ralph Maud

Ralph Maud (December 24, 1928 – December 8, 2014) was a Canadian literary scholar. He was a professor at English at Simon Fraser University and was regarded as an expert on the work of poets Dylan Thomas and Charles Olson.

Raven Tales

Raven Tales are the traditional people and animals creation stories of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast but are also found among Athabaskan-speaking peoples and others. Raven stories exist in nearly all of the First Nations throughout the region but are most prominent in the tales of the Tlingit and Tahltan people.

Raven and eagle are known by many different names by many different peoples and is an important figure amongst written and verbal stories. His tales are passed down through the generations of story tellers of the people and are of cultural and historical significance. It's important to note that, from some storytellers' perspective, Native myths such as the Raven Tales, as opposed to tall tales and little stories for children, are not entertainment and are cultural property of the clan or individual that the story originates from. It is customary that others should not tell stories that are owned by another clan, especially if they do not live in the same area.While each culture's stories of the Raven are different, there are even those that share the same title; certain attributes of Raven remain the same. The Raven is always a magical creature able to take the form of human, animal, even inanimate objects. He is a keeper of secrets, and a trickster often focused on satisfying his own gluttony for whatever he desires. His stories tell of how worldly things came to be or offer suggestion to children on how to behave. Raven's creative nature shows itself through circumstance rather than intent, through the desire to satisfy his own needs, rather than any altruistic principles. Raven is both the protagonist among the stories of some groups, and the antagonist of others; he is a hero and an amusement.

Tales that feature the Raven as the hero are specific to areas in the north of the continent such as northern British Columbia and Alaska and their peoples, such as the Tsimshian and the Haida. Similar tales appear in Chukchi cultures in the north-east of Asia and it is probable that they are influenced by Native American stories.The Haida First Nation credits Raven with finding the first humans hiding in a clam shell; he brought them berries and salmon. The Sioux tell of how a white raven used to warn buffalo of approaching hunters. Eventually an angry shaman caught the bird and threw it into a fire, turning it black.


The Tsimshian (; Coast Tsimshian: Ts’msyan) are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Their communities are mostly in coastal British Columbia and far southern Alaska, around Terrace and Prince Rupert in British Columbia, and Alaska's Annette Islands. The Tsimshian people consist of approximately 10,000 members of seven First Nations (including the Kitselas, Kitsumkalum, and the "Allied Tribes" of the Lax Kw'Alaams; the Metlakatla, Kitkatla, Gitga'at at Hartley Bay, and Kitasoo at Klemtu). The Tsimshian are one of the largest First Nations peoples in northwest British Columbia. Some Tsimshian migrated to Annette Island, Alaska, where their descendants in the Metlakatla Indian Community number about 1450.

Similar to numerous Native American peoples, the Tsimshian have a matrilineal kinship system, with a societal structure based on a clan system, properly referred to as a moiety. Descent and property are figured through the maternal line. Early anthropologists and linguists had classified the Gitksan and Nishga as Tsimshian because of apparent linguistic affinities. The three were all referred to as "Coast Tsimshian," even though some communities were not coastal. These three groups, however, identify as separate nations.

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