Guide to the Tsimshian Language Collection


Language Information

Scope and Content Note

Included in the Tsimshian section of the collection are all works on or in Tsimshian: Coast Tsimshian, spoken on the coast of British Columbia and also (since the late 19th century) in Metlakatla, Alaska; and the other Canadian dialects, rather sharply divergent from Coast Tsimshian but fairly close to each other, Nass (Nisga, Niska) and Gitksan. Although perhaps 90 per cent of the Tsimshian population is in Canada, we have attempted to include as complete as possible c'overage of all three dialects in our collection, since the extent of literature is still quite limited.

Tsimshians in Alaska number about 1,300 (as of 2007), primarily in the community of Metlakatla with some in Ketchikan, with about 30 speakers of the language, none of them children. The Canadian Tsimshians include the following: 2,800 Coast Tsimshian at Hartley Bay, Kitkatla, Port Simpson, Old Metlakatla, Kitsumkalum, Kitselas, and Kitasoo,(Klemtu); 2,500 Gitksan at Kitwanga, Kitwancool, Kitsegukla, Hazelton, Kispiox, Glen Vowell, and Hagwilget; and 2,400 Nisga at Kincolith, Greenville, Aiyansh, Canyon City, and Gitlakdamix, the total population of all three groups being at least 8,000 by 2007. Some children reportedly still spoke Nass and Gitksan as recently as 1980. Recently an importantly divergent fourth variety of Tsimshian was identified with a few speakers surviving at Klemtu.

We have not divided the collection by dialect nor have we signaled the dialect of an item in the call number, but the dialect is generally noted in the annotation. The items authored by McCullagh are all Niska; those by Ridley, all Coast except for one item in Gitksan. Early wordlists may be assumed to be Coast Tsimshian. In some cases we have been unable to ascertain the dialect of a particular item; in other cases the item may include discussion or data from several dialects (e.g. Boas, Beynon).

There are certain lacunae in the collection which should be noted here. The entire stock of several publications printed locally by McCullagh may have been destroyed in a 1917 flood, but copies of some may exist in private collections in the Tsimshian area. The 10,000-page collection of ms. material by William Beynon, noted in the catalogue, has not yet been made available to us, so a detailed description is not possible at this time, though we expect to receive copies of the material within the next year. This is perhaps the most extensive body of texts written by a Native American and will greatly expand in size the Tsimshian corpus. Finally, there are undoubtedly recently produced educational materials both from Metlakatla and from Canada of which we do not have copies. In spite of these significant gaps, this catalogue is certainly by far the most complete bibliography for Tsimshian language to date.

There was some religious literature produced in Tsimshian at the turn of the century, especially Coast (Ridley) and Niska (McCullagh), and then considerable scientific and ethnographic work by Boas, Beynon, and others, but practical orthographies for Tsimshian dialects were established only in the 1970s and an educational literature has been developing.

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