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Edited by Margaret Seguin. Vancouver, University of Vancouver Press, c1984. 343pp, cloth, $37.95, ISBN 0-7748-0179-4. CIP

Reviewed by Adele Case

Volume 13 Number 1
1985 January

The Tsimshian is a collection of scholarly papers edited by anthropologist Margaret Seguin. These papers were the culmination of an on-site study/conference held at a fishing settlement in Douglas Channel in August, 1979. The authors compare their findings with the published work of earlier ethno-historians, archaeologists and anthropologists, not to denigrate the work done by the earlier scholars, but to weigh and add to the body of knowledge of a proud, complex, but little-studied people.

Hartley Bay, the location chosen for the conference, is not quite one hundred years old and is situated on the southern fringe of the territory of the Damela-hamid, or "people of the cane," as the Tsimshian refer to themselves. (It was said that an early chieftain had planted his cane in the ground "in a bay, between two mighty rivers," and in this way had chosen the tribe's home.) Traditionally, the principal territory of this northwestern tribal people was on and near the Nass and Skeena rivers. The Hartley Bay Kitka'ata, some eighty miles south of Prince Rupert, are considerably removed from urban centres and look to the village elders for guidance, much as their forebears did. The decision to meet at Hartley Bay was sensible as these coastal Indians were initially a hunting and gathering tribe, and camps, summer villages and winter settlements dot the channels and islands near what is now called the inland passage to Alaska.

Sections of the book cover the tribal phratries (blackfish, eagle, raven, wolf); line of descent (traditionally matrilineal); religion (mainly Christian); mythology; occupations (fishing, lumbering, and mining); and avocations (choral and instrumental music). A very interesting paper by Laforet covers the basketry of the coastal and up-river Indian tribes. Materials, colours, decoration, capacity, weaving elements and designs are meticulously explored. The baskets, an integral part of village life, were used for carrying berries, fish or foodstuffs, and served as cradles, or shaded the faces of pubescent females.

Although the book delves deeply into the background of the Tsimshian of the coast, MacDonald's paper traces the epic of Nekt, a legendary warrior who held sway in the interior, at Kitwanga Fort. Other reports explore the complex view of the universe held by these Indians. Any sort of gift or power possessed by a person or object (halait) is believed to have spiritual or superhuman qualities. A grand structure or cosmology covers all animals and people, including everyday and ceremonial activities of the tribe (e.g., hunting, feasting, and dancing). No one can look into this book without surprise at the subtlety of different aspects of the lives of those whom many have mistakenly thought to be primitive.

The book is illustrated with many graphs, diagrams of family names, lists and black-and-white photographs. It is an important addition to the knowledge of the Tsimshian, who comprise four language groups. These independent and hardy people have made their homes in territory that is frequently remote and (at least in winter) climatically inhospitable. This book will likely never reach the best-seller lists. An afterword by Carole M. Farber regrets the limited interaction the conference participants had with the Hartley Bay residents, and one feels it unfortunate that so few of the papers were written on subjects of immediate concern to the local inhabitants. Why do so few Indians study their own culture and tribal roots? We do not find the answer in this book. One difficulty could be with the level of communication: this book is densely written and text-like in layout; the technical vocabulary would daunt the casual reader.

Notwithstanding problems with the reading level of the book, the focus is timely. We know the Nishga and other native peoples of the northwest coast are going through a period of change. There is now a resurgence of interest in tribal languages, traditions, culture, and land-rights questions. This book will help prove the claims these people make of their rich and fascinating history.

Adele Case, Britannia S.S., Vancouver, B.C.
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