The Tsimshian: Images of the Past: Views for the Present


343 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7748-0179-4




Edited by Margaret Seguin
Reviewed by James S. Frideres

J.S. Frideres is Associate Dean (Research) of the Faculty of Social
Sciences at the University of Calgary and co-author of Prairie


The material included in this edited text is for only those of sturdy stock, willing to rise to the challenge of deciphering Tsimshian words as well as anthropological, archaeological, and historical jargon. This, coupled with a writing style that would test the patience of even an halaat (medicine man), makes for a book that is most difficult to read and comprehend.

Most of the material is original, emanating from a conference held at Hartley Bay, British Columbia, in 1979. Other papers were added from diverse sources, but the book retains its singular focus on the Tsimshian nations. The papers build upon the work of three ethnographers (Franz Boas, William Beynon, and Marius Barbeau) who studied the area and its people in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Some of the papers reanalyze this early material and attempt to point out alternative interpretations to the data, while other papers treat subject matter not previously dealt with. While most of the contributors to the book are anthropologists, a number of other disciplines are represented (e.g., history, archaeology).

The book begins with a brief overview of Tsimshian culture and location, followed by a brief history of Hartley Bay. From this point on, the topics, while focusing generally on traditional aspects of culture, vary considerably, touching on such topics as “feast names,” Tsimshian basketry (complete with photos), an analysis of stone masks, Native mental maps of Coast Tsimshian villages, and shamanism among the Tsimshian.

Each of the twelve chapters stands alone. Only in the Afterword (eight pages) is there an attempt to integrate the material presented. As with most edited books, the reader is left to his/her own devices to fit the material together. In this respect one would be better off reading the original works of the three above-mentioned ethnographers, since their material is much more integrated and provides a holistic perspective of Tsimshian culture.

Contributions by the various authors reveal their specific knowledge of the Tsimshian. However, the reader quickly becomes lost in the quagmire of jargon and the lack of consistency in the use of various terms among chapters. In addition, the chapters usually have no introduction, no statement of the “problem,” and no conclusion. And for some of those that do have subtitles noting the above, the contents of these sections do not reflect the subtitle. In the end, most chapters read like field notes — comprehensible to those who wrote them or to others who are intimately familiar with the material, but confusing and uninterpretable to others.

We are told that the papers were presented in Hartley Bay in order to engage in a dialogue with the Native people in the region. As noted in the Afterword, this did not occur because academics, whatever they say, tend not to practice what they preach. At any rate, there is no evidence that a dialogue went on. There is no evidence that a researcher changed, modified, or even suspected his/her analysis of the material or non-material culture of the area because of the “dialogue” with the Native people.

Lest I sound too critical of the contents of the book, let me unequivocally state that the authors deserve accolades for their research interests and their diligence in recording information that may be lost very near in the future. But it is unfortunate that the writing style, format, and lack of integration of materials are formidable barriers that the reader must deal with. While the reader is struggling with these issues, the substance of the papers is not really apparent.


“The Tsimshian: Images of the Past: Views for the Present,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 19, 2024,