Colonization and the Decline of Women’s Status: The Tsimshian Case

Jo-Anne Fiske. Feminist Studies. Volume 17, Issue 3. Fall 1991.

This paper has two goals: to offer a reconstruction and interpretation of the social position of women among the Tsimshian, a fishing-hunting people of the Northwest coast of British Columbia, prior to missionization efforts of the nineteenth century; and to analyze the effects of colonization upon Tsimshian gender relations. By examining Tsimshian women’s productive roles, their access to and control over household and lineage property, and their ceremonial roles integral to exchange and production, I show how the advent of the fur trade in the late eighteenth century and its rise in the early nineteenth century disrupted traditional gender productive roles. I argue that the fur trade enhanced the position of the noble-born males to the detriment of their female peers. As noblemen gained economic advantage they rationalized claims to social and political prerogatives that crystallized around new notions of male stewardship over lineage resources and new assumptions of male authority and leadership.

My interpretation is based upon two key theoretical assumptions. First, it assumes that where women control critical resources and property they will hold key roles in the decisionmaking process. Second, it accepts the premise that where women can dispense patronage they can build personal followings and thus exert political influence. As will be shown, both these situations prevailed in nineteenth-century Tsimshian society and earlier.

Analysis of the relationship between women’s economic roles and their social authority has provoked a lively and informative debate in feminist anthropology. Do lineage societies “offer proof that women’s oppression is indeed the oldest of all forms of oppression” because there is “nothing egalitarian…in relations between men or women,” as Nicole Chevillard and Sebastien Leconte contend? Or was the situation more complex and varied? Were gender relations, in fact, multifaceted, with elite women, in particular, exercising social authority and enjoying status equal to men’s? To locate the Tsimshian in this debate, I will first briefly review both anthropological theories concerning the power or subordination of women and the primary ethnohistorical and ethnographic sources describing the group.

Eleanor Burke Leacock’s classical Marxist position links women’s subordination to the rise of commodification and private property, which undermined collective activities and left women producing for subsistence and providing services to husbands and their kin. In contradistinction, others describe more complex and contradictory gender relations arising from differences in rank (e.g., Christine Ward Gailey on noble versus commoner women); ambiguities in kinship and ensuing contradictions between women’s productive obligations and ownership rights (e.g., Christine Ward Gailey and Karen Sacks on sisters’ and mothers’ authority versus wives’ subordination); and women’s varying capacity to control essential resources (e.g., Judith K. Brown) and to forge client/patron relations (e.g., Irene Silverblatt).

Furthermore, there are some cases where the intrustion of mercantile capitalism and missionization did not destroy women’s prestige, including, most interestingly, the Tlingit, neighbors to the Tsimshian. Although the Tlingit have been regarded as an exceptional case, comparable instances have been documented. The uneven and contradictory impact of colonialism has been attributed to variations in economic transitions and to differences in women’s capacity to resist and subvert colonial processes. The degree to which women were either incorporated into commodity production and exchange or expelled from control over subsistence production varied greatly. The deleterious effects of colonialism, however, were felt keenly by Tsimshian women. Before elaborating on these particulars, a brief comment on the problematic nature of source documents is in order.

Secondary accounts and recent ethnographic descriptions share a common feature—the virtual absence of description of women’s daily lives and social responsibilities. Published excerpts of missionary accounts suffer the same fault. The sole exception is the work of Viola E. Garfield, which nonetheless is marked by contradictions as well as vagueness with respect to women’s social position. George M. Dawson and Albert P. Niblack are useful; however, the first lacks concrete evidence to support general conclusions, and the latter collapses data on the Tsimshian and their neighbors.

Franz Boas, often considered the primary source on the Tsimshian, ignored Tsimshian involvement in the expanding capitalist economy of the nineteenth century in favor of describing traditional practices. It is apparent, therefore, that crucial changes in gender relations went unnoticed by him. Like Boas, Marius C. Barbeau recorded myths and tales which provide considerable insights into indigenous society. George C. Clutesi, Indian artist and author, however, questions Barbeau’s interpretation of women’s status. He states that “Indian women, and especially those of the higher ranking families, were held in high esteem and were greatly respected; these women enjoyed influential and powerful positions in the Indian senate.” Women’s physical labors did not signal a devalued position, as Barbeau intimates; rather, a woman worked hard “on her own initiative, understanding that she was an equal and full partner to her husband.” More recently John Cove, who also reconstructed aboriginal social relations from oral traditions, conscientiously corrected androcentric interpretations. His sensitive reading of Barbeau sheds new light on established understandings of sexual taboos and gender roles.

The ethnographic record is amplified by documents of the Church Missionary Society, which maintained unbroken contact with the Tsimshian from 1856 to 1889. These records provide evidence needed to resolve conflicting perceptions of gender status, namely, Garfield’s conclusion that women were secondary to men in matters of resource control and political leadership and earlier observers’ affirmations of women’s equality and economic independence.

The Tsimshian

The Tsimshian are classified into three discrete groups on the basis of language and cultural distinctions: the Coast Tsimshian of the Lower Skeena, the Gitksan of the Upper Skeena, and the Nishga of the Nass River.

According to George MacDonald, the Tsimshian were engaged in complex trading and raiding relations with their neighbors as early as the first millennium B.C. By the very beginning of the eighteenth century, competition to control access to Asian and European trade goods, in particular iron and metal items, had created social instability. From 1700 to the middle of the nineteenth century, the Tsimshian leaders’ continuous struggle to command trading routes resulted in endemic warfare and widespread population destabilization. Oral accounts consistently attribute the primary cause of warfare to the need to take food and, second, to capture slaves, who became food producers and symbols of wealth and prestige. Women were also captured for wives by both the Tsimshian and their neighbors. MacDonald, however, maintains that warfare was waged to control access to metals and improved weapons and to control fur trade with interior peoples. Slaves were also an object of trade and included individuals sold to the Tsimshian by neighboring peoples as well as women and men seized by the Tsimshian in warfare from Athapaskan, Kwaikiutl, and other Tsimshian groups.

The Tsimshian recognized five levels of sociopolitical integration: the phratry, clan, lineage or house, village, and tribe. Phratries were loose confederations of clans and lineages with a fluid composition that lacked discrete political roles and leaders. Their function was restricted to regulating marriage. The matrilineal clans were corporate kinship units sharing a common ancestry, legends of origins, crests, and property privileges. The dispersal of clans over a vast territory prevented them from coalescing as stable political units.

The most stable political unit was the lineage or house, an independent corporate entity with discrete resource territories. Each group had names for its important personal property, including “dishes used by the chieftainess.” Clans and lineages were ranked according to hereditary status and wealth, giving their leaders differentiated access to social privileges and opportunities for political powers. The Coast Tsimshian had village chiefs who were advised by a council of lineage leaders; the others had clan chiefs. Boas notes that women who headed the noble families were admitted to council. Although the Tsimshian were loosely bound together by tribal membership, the tribal chief, generally the lineage head of greatest rank, could not wield political authority but was curtailed in her or his actions by the interests of the lineage heads who acted as a tribal council. Due to extraordinary wealth and prestige, however, tribal chiefs were unrivaled in their ability to dispense patronage.

Rationalization of social status through ceremonial wealth distribution, known as the potlatch, lay at the heart of political competition and affected the nature of all social relationships. Lineage heads were responsible for directing the productive labor of, and accumulating potlatch wealth from, all lineage members. Tribal chiefs had further claims to wealth and trade goods, which they could expropriate from lineages other than their own or demand in return for favors given. In compensation for providing wealth to their leaders, however, lineage and tribal members could hope to be elevated in status.

Even slaves and their children were able to rise in status. Knowledgeable women were released from bondage when they had demonstrated their proficiency as herbalists and medicine women. Slaves were permitted to marry (but only high-ranking captive women married freemen, almost always chiefs), and their children could advance to lower-ranking commoner status provided the chief granted permission. Children of slave paramours might be adopted as niece or nephew by their father. Nonetheless, an owner’s power over her or his slaves was complete: slaves could be sold, exchanged, or executed at will.

European Perceptions of Women’s Status

Early observers seem to speak with a single voice when they describe the high status of Tsimshian women. In 1792 Captain George Vancouver conducted trade with a small party led by a woman and observed a high-ranking woman traveling with a party dressed for hostilities. Nathaniel Portlock noted that women were treated with affection and tenderness and respected for their trading skills. A century later, Niblack stated that “the rights of women are respected and the terms of equality on which the men and women live are very striking to most visitors to this region.” He remarked on the influence of female “soothsayers” (an important role also described by R.C. Mayne), on the “political and industrial equality of the sexes,” on the “respect shown for the opinion of their females,” and on “the independent position [women] occupy in the social organization of the tribe.” Dawson, his contemporary, also found women to be well-treated and respected members of the councils to the chiefs. Neither of these men were contradicted by William Duncan, who had more contact with the Tsimshian than any other European observer. He referred to women as the main authority in law and “chief in council.”

Unfortunately, none of these authors identifies female chiefs by name, and only a few are identified elsewhere in the historical record. These accounts also fail to clarify the relationship between noble names and the exercise of authority. The nature of this relationship is crucial to the task at hand, for in 1939 Garfield concluded that it was the prerogative only of those who held certain male names to assume lineage and tribal chieftainships. How then did women in the mid-nineteenth century sustain the above-mentioned political equality and their positions as “chief in council”? And why was women’s access to these roles later viewed as an aberration? The answer lies in the transformation of relations of production with the advent of the fur trade and the subsequent introduction of commercial production and wage labor.

Ownership of Resources and the Organization of Production

Descriptions of resource ownership at contact are contradictory. According to Garfield, resource territories were lineage property to be exploited cooperatively by member families. Subsistence resources were accessible to all, and all were subsistence producers. Stewardship over lineage resources, she states, was held by the lineage head, the eldest male with the legitimating male name. Garfield suggests stewardship carried the right to resource control, but her own data show that it granted neither this right nor the prerogative of systematic exploitation apart from slave labor. Lineage heads were required to compensate each person for her or his contribution of potlatch wealth. Garfield states that upon marriage a woman confined her subsistence production to her husband’s territory. Only when widowed or separated did a married woman return to her lineage to resume her resource rights there. However, Garfield also indicates that women owned their own resources, which were inheritable property.

Albert P. Niblack and William Duncan offer a different view, one that strongly suggests sisters’ resource rights were not diminished by marriage. Niblack states that resource properties were owned by a single family and/or severally by two families. He makes no mention of male stewardship. Married women were economically independent of their husbands due to their rights to the resources of their own lineage. Duncan recorded a number of instances of married women returning to their own resource territories to contribute to their lineage production and to produce goods for their own subsistence and exchange needs. Married women retained independence of production; they were compensated for potlatch contributions and traded independently of their husbands. Charles Harrison found that even when women married into neighboring tribes they retained property rights within the natal lineage. Tsimshian women who married Haida men did not necessarily reside continuously with their husbands. Instead, they preferred to return to their lineage resource territories when desirable and to join in seasonal ceremonies there.

Neither widowed mothers nor separated sisters were confined to returning to their natal lineage to enter the household of a son or brother. Rather, they had the option of joining the household of a married daughter or sister, where they obtained usufruct rights. It is reasonable to conclude, therefore, that marriage did not create different relations to the means of production, as Garfield suggests. Rather, inalienable rights to corporate property ensured married women’s economic autonomy.

Although Garfield implies that production and distribution were directed by a male lineage leader, her own and other data suggest otherwise. The work of women was organized under the leadership of the senior women of the household. It is not clear if it was the leading male’s mother (if resident), wife, or sisters who assumed this authority. In any event, senior women collectively supervised labor of junior women and slaves. In addition to food production, women manufactured a variety of household utensils, clothing, and items valued for trade and wealth exchange, the most significant being the Chilkat blanket. Skilled weavers commanded high prices. A wife paid for provisions received from her husband’s female kin.

The hierarchical nature of women’s productive relations allowed those of high rank as well as the ambitious and skillful to manipulate the productive activities of others. Like men of their class, noblewomen elevated themselves and their children through potlatching or “taking rank.” Despite an ideology of hereditary accession, social reality permitted considerable flexibility. This led prominent women to patronize junior members; social elevation could be gained by the junior women in return for their labor and products. Given that the elevation of any individual within the lineage reflected on the status of the lineage as a whole, it follows that senior women enjoyed a vantage point from which they influenced the social and economic life of the lineage and therefore its political relationships.

Domestic Authority and Personal Autonomy

In all likelihood, aboriginal Tsimshian did not distinguish between a domestic (private) and a social (public) realm. Nevertheless, it is useful to consider power relations between spouses and between senior and junior kin separately in order to identify more clearly women’s household decision-making capacities and the connection of these to lineage and tribal affairs. Women arranged marriages for their children and grandchildren, which inextricably linked women’s household interests to the larger political maneuvers of the lineage. Senior wives selected junior cowives, over whom they exercised “domination and authority.” A chief’s senior wife also had authority over her husband’s heir’s wife, other women, and slaves. Mothers gave feasts to establish their daughters’ prestige and to identify inheritance of their own resource tracts and other property. Because women’s personal property was neither transferred to their husbands nor controlled by their brothers, women had firm ownership of a critical portion of the means of production.

Spouses were interdependent, however. The one could not accumulate wealth without the cooperation of the other. Early traders, for example, noted that wives managed the trade of their husbands’ property. Trade among women on behalf of their husbands ranged from the exchange of small items to the purchase of canoes to be used in ritual distribution. Additionally, women traded their own goods in order to acquire wealth that they would later offer to husbands, brothers, and adult sons to support their own wealth accumulations and to supply them with trade items. Mothers and fathers contributed to the costs of elevating their children and both paid for funeral attendance for their deceased children.

Epidemic warfare was tied directly to women’s management of domestic provisions. MacDonald learned from his Gitksan informants that women concealed large quantities of dried provisions within their fortified settlements; these large quantities of fish were a major incitement to war. As Brown has correctly contended, when women control essential provisions they also exert a degree of control over male activities. Unfortunately, we have little documentation of the precise manipulations women may have exerted over male activities. However, it is obvious that men were forced to rely on women’s adept food management and on the women’s willingness to dispense provisions for warfare.

Women’s domestic autonomy is further indicated by their control over slave labor and their sexual independence. High-status women had slave paramours, while others enjoyed sexual freedoms that brought them wealth and prestige. Women regarded as lucky cohabited with hunters, often with their husbands’ encouragement as they were amply rewarded for their services.

Women’s overall authority and personal independence were no doubt augmented by the frequent absence of men on prolonged trading or raiding missions. It is logical to assume that women made important as well as routine decisions in the absence of male chiefs and/or household heads. Margaret Seguin asserts that chiefs

took counsel with holders of ranked names in their houses and phratry in making decisions about resource use, succession, alliance, defence, marriage, and all other matters that bore implications for the power and prestige of the house.

Included in this list of council decisions are several responsibilities executed by women as a function of their domestic roles. Women and chiefs, therefore, operated interdependently; women’s domestic authority was integral to the public manipulations of lineage and village leaders.

The Organization of Distribution

“Remember, the women are not drudges to the men here,” commented Bishop Ridley during a visit to the Tsimshian in 1896. Rather, the industriousness of the women was greatly to their own benefit. It seems that they controlled the exchange and trade of processed foods. Commonly, the crafted goods of women, woven mats, blankets, and so forth, passed through women’s trading networks. Tsimshian women traded with Haida and Tlingit women for small items and then exchanged these goods with Nishga women for items valued for potlatching. Beyond subsistence production and manufacturing activities, women received goods in payment for special ritual services, herbalist and shaman services, and for personal favors. “Old women” engaged in cooperative trade with Europeans, selling them surplus dried salmon and oolachen (“oil-rich,” a small fish). Both William Duncan and R.A. Doolan found themselves forced into lengthy bartering sessions with senior women, a trade that frustrated them because the women drove a hard bargain.

Like noblemen, noblewomen owned slaves, sometimes independently, at other times cooperatively with female household members. Acting as coowners, women not only directed the productive labor of slaves, but they also arranged their marriages and on some occasions freed them. In the nineteenth century, slaves were highly valued as potlatch gifts, bearing a cash value from two hundred to two thousand dollars. Records on noblewomen’s ownership of slaves are unavailable; however, by mid-century their male peers each owned between two and twenty slaves.

Understandably, women’s production and redistribution of both female property and male property led to the protection of other social prerogatives and provided a base from which to secure further economic rights. An important case in point is the combined factors of secured residence rights and home ownership. Garfield argued that houses were either owned by the male household head, or in the case of chiefs’ homes, were held as corporate property by the lineage. Although the former case may have represented an ideal, as perceived in the twentieth century, it does not appear to have obtained earlier. Analysis of a significant magistrate’s court case illuminates the flexibility that attended home ownership. In this instance, two “brothers,” that is, lineage kinsmen raised by the same “parents,” had contributed to the construction of a new home. Their sisters, mothers, and wives had also contributed household goods and as a consequence retained rights to residence. In order to further their claims to residence and ownership, both brothers moved in and brought with them female members of their wives’ lineages. According to Tsimshian testimony describing the subsequent dispute over ownership, these women could not be considered guests but were part of the family. Through ongoing contributions of wealth to the household and its potlatches, the women renewed their claims to residence. Following the death of the brothers it was these women, the affinal kindred (“in-laws”) of the original house owner, who inherited the house. In this way the house passed from one lineage to the other and from the hands of male owners to female owners.

A careful reading of this case not only raises doubts as to the primary right of men to own houses, but it also calls into question female and male roles within the household. One court witness was adamant that affinal female kindred could inherit houses if they had indicated the proper interest throughout their residence. But he also went on to explain that although the voices of the women had to be heard in any ownership dispute, men also should have a say: “A male in the family can speak about the property and his voice must be heard about the disposing of it.” The wording of this statement attributes far greater ownership and disposal rights to women than has hitherto been recognized. Moreover, it implies that precedence was given to women’s testimony. This case indicates that similar disputes brought before Duncan, in which related women were granted precedence over inheriting males, were not aberrant responses to difficult or new circumstances but were in accordance with the traditional rights of women.

Thus, lineage and individual property were not controlled solely by male lineage members nor were they under the exclusive ownership of a male lineage head. Women of high rank owned their resource areas within the lineage territory and independently of men managed women’s productive labor and distribution of their produce. Wives held responsibility of their husbands’ property and this they traded, transforming trading goods to wealth items for potlatch distribution. Given the extensive economic powers of noblewomen, it follows that within the husband’s household, as well as within the natal lineage, women would be central to decision making. Clearly, individuals entrusted with the wealth of the lineage would not only be in a position to dispense patronage, they also could not be barred easily from council.

Female Chiefs

According to Garfield and Boas, a chief was known as sm’oigyet, or “real person.” Adult women of the chief’s family were “chief women,” and chiefs’ daughters were spoken of as “little noblewoman” or “princess.” Despite the fact that “real person” (sm’oigyet) does not have a gender restriction, it is often presumed that prior to colonization women did not assume the position of chief. However, John Cove notes that

women too can become chiefs. Although one informant claimed the latter was due to missionary influences…the narrative corpus does not support this contention. Albeit statistically infrequent, female chiefs are not presented as unusual.

Citing Barbeau, Cove goes on to say that a “woman can hold a name for a deceased brother if no nephew exists,” although Boas and Garfield imply that women assumed the position only in the absence of a male heir. Yet, Boas cites the story of a sister and brother who “were the only two chiefs in the large town,” and Garfield speaks of sisters providing superior leadership to their brothers. Women not only stepped into these positions when men were absent, but they also acquired men’s names, a practice that persists today. Cove relates the story of the widow who “performed the feast requirements, and in revenge against her husband’s people took his names and prerogatives…and as a chief in her own right could give the names and powers away.” Unfortunately, the narrative record does not make clear whether female chiefs had to assume male names. Women’s and men’s names carried different obligations.

It is also unfortunate that we do not have more data on the relationship between Tsimshian gender ideology and the actual unfolding of female/male interaction. Reflecting on informants’ statements, a reader of this paper argues that menstrual blood would destroy chiefly powers, making it difficult if not impossible for women to become chiefs. Nonetheless, there is no evidence in the literature that female chiefs were in fact inhibited by menstruation or that they were menopausal. Moreover, as Cove correctly states, we must view the interpretation of menstrual powers with caution, for there are few distinctly female interpretations in the literature. (The difficulties this poses have been confirmed by Thomas Buckley’s work on the Yurok. He found a glaring discrepancy between accepted notions of menstrual pollution and female perceptions of women’s power. Buckley’s careful reading of Kroeber’s fieldnotes established the veracity of contemporary female versions.) Without further research into female views of social powers and pollution, we are not likely to understand the social tensions and restrictions created by notions of pollution.

Female chiefs were not an aberration, although they may have been few in number. More importantly, however, chiefs’ wives had direct access to public power during the frequent absences of their husbands. Given that these women “would make up an absolute minimum of six percent of the population,” we can safely infer that they exercised considerable public power. In the face of nearly continuous warfare, moreover, it is unlikely that chiefly powers were entrenched. Yet the chiefs’ powers were limited by the interventions of the council, and were further impeded by the authoritative functions of noblewomen that interlocked and overlapped with those of lineage and village leaders. The foregoing analysis of all available data reveals a contradiction between male reliance upon female property management and political rights for male chiefs. Given the consensus among nineteenth-century observers that women were men’s political equals—or even their superiors—it is no longer possible to accept the notion that female accession to chiefly roles was a novel solution to rapid postcontact depopulation.

The Tsimshian and the Fur Trade

The fur trade brought new wealth to the Tsimshian. For forty years, 1785-1825, they profited from the maritime trade and then, when the sea otters were decimated, concentrated on the inland fur trade. It appears that this was the historic moment when the fine balance between female and male economic trade began shifting to men’s advantage. According to Lorraine Littlefield, who maintains that women were engaged in food and fur trade throughout the maritime trade era, women were the principal traders because cultural role definitions barred chiefs from maximizing profits in trade transactions. However, other sources suggest that the offshore trade involved far greater numbers of men than women, and men also traded inland to the Athapaskans, the source of pelts and skins valued by the Europeans. Whereas we know female trade networks existed between Tsimshian women and Haida, Tlingit, and Nishga women, there is no evidence of these extending to the Athapaskans, a factor clearly to men’s advantage. With a male-to-male trade flourishing, women undoubtedly lost a crucial means of directly controlling male property while suffering a disadvantage with regard to their own products. There is no doubt that this situation was exacerbated when the fur traders began hiring men for seal hunting as far away as the California coast.

When Fort Simpson was built in 1834, the breach in gender relations had already opened and was now to be legitimated by the social model offered by the powerful newcomers. Within the fort the female presence was restricted to noblewomen living as partners with the high-ranking traders and to common women employed for mundane domestic labor. Some women were able to use their positions to personal advantage. Neshaki, daughter of a Nishga chief, rose to prominence as a trader following her marriage to Captain William McNeill, commandant at Fort Simpson, and remained an active, wealthy trader following his retirement to Victoria. On the whole, however, women were prized by the Europeans more as mediators between traders and noblemen than as either trading partners or political negotiators in their own right. This may not have had an immediate impact on Tsimshian gender relations, but it did provide a strong model and, at the very least, a suggestion for change.

In other ways as well the fur trade did not favor women. Their utilitarian products were not only not desired for trade, their use value was undermined by European goods. Apart from food production, female productive roles shrank to the production of wealth items, such as the Chilkat blanket, desired for potlatch distribution. Nor did women gain an advantage with respect to trade of food items. Men brought game, fresh fish, and other food items to the fort. Despite the traditional trade between women, trade with Europeans became male dominated. It is reasonable to conclude that the male advantage in trade was reflected within Tsimshian society as men now had immense quantities of wealth. The new wealth was of sufficient measure not only to allow greater competition for names but also to make greater claims for property and prerogatives with the acquisition of those names. Indeed, the best known of the nineteenth-century chiefs, Legaic, rose to power in just this way. He successfully raised himself to effective supremacy by monopolizing trade along the Skeena River and with the Athapaskans until the mid-1860s. And having earned unsurpassed wealth, he easily intimidated the less wealthy who could not contest his claim to increased resources and resource control.

As the European population grew and spread along the Pacific Northwest, the native women turned to prostitution to acquire liquor and trade goods. The Tsimshian were no exception and early on in the fur trade procured goods in this manner. During the mid-nineteenth century, at the time of the Caribou gold rush, opportunities to earn large sums of money in this way were at an alltime high. This novel form of commerce added new strains to the economic balance between the genders. Like the fur trade, prostitution created a new separation of female and male labor, and it also encompassed trade and exchange relations not bound by traditional precedent. As women traveled further afield to earn money and purchase liquor, they were separated from household members and matrilineal kin. Whereas before female labor had been predominantly cooperative, prostitution was an individual enterprise that brought with it private earnings. Mothers and fathers quarreled over the daughters’ profits. Conflict did not erupt from the murky question of rights to profits only. The very nature of prostitution brought new issues of morality and shame to the Tsimshian women that could not be severed from its appalling consequences of disease, infertility, and infant mortality. Despite the easy gains, prostitution could not bring into balance the growing differences between female and male trading and earning potentials. Even with the waning profits of the fur trade, felt from the 1830s on, the advantage gained earlier by men was not to be overcome in this way.

The first effect of the fur trade was to alter the status quo in favor of male wealth accumulation and male elevation through potlatching. It remained only for men to rationalize new social and economic prerogatives in the time-honored potlatch and thereby to attach new significance to their hereditary names and trusteeship prerogatives. The asymmetrical economic and social relations worsened despite the expansion of prostitution as a steady source of female earnings and the decline of the fur trade. The resulting tensions soon were exacerbated by the presence of Christian missionaries and the rise of commodity production and wage labor.


By the time William Duncan arrived at Fort Simpson in 1857, the Tsimshian had experienced seventy years of interaction with the Europeans. Legaic was viewed as the leader of the nine Tsimshian tribes, and his daughter, wife to John Kennedy, a fort resident, was seen as an important personal link to the wealth of her father. The trade was unusually competitive as fur sources were depleted, and the Tsimshian demand for trade goods, liquor in particular, was high. The social milieu of drinking, violence, and apparent sexual license was seen by Duncan as more than sufficient cause for initiating a total reorganization of Tsimshian society. Thus from the outset of the mission, women faced moral censure for their sexual commerce. For the first time, women faced systematic and unrelenting castigation for “sinful,” “shameful,” and “depraved” behavior, a moral judgment that distinguished them from their male peers. Women were shamed collectively and individually for their personal conduct. Men were reproached only for deriving benefit from the “sins of women” but at the same time were entreated to intervene and stop the practice.

The missionary crusade against these sexual practices was based upon rigid Victorian concepts of female subordination. This led Duncan to approach the most prestigious male chiefs as persons of authority over women of their families and tribes. The male chiefs, already enjoying special treatment from the traders, found themselves further exalted by Duncan’s perception of their prestige and authority. Duncan played to their status while they played to his, and in mutual affirmation of the “wickedness” and “shame” of women the chiefs spoke against prostitution. After one meeting with male chiefs, Duncan was sufficiently confident of their support to write that “all favoured my view.” Of the head chief he added: “He begs me to speak strong against the prostitution and to shame them out of it.”

The condemnation by the chiefs created new contradictions for women, because ultimately it was these men who derived the greatest benefit from prostitution earnings. The rich flow of wealth that had sustained the men since the late-eighteenth century had diminished with the depressed fur trade, forcing them to make greater claims on women. Women could neither meet the chiefs’ expectations in this regard nor sustain their own status within the lineage without turning to prostitution. It is clear that Duncan understood well the implications of his actions. He recognized that the need for potlatch wealth motivated the women to prostitution and that one would not end if the other persisted. He also saw that it was the chiefs who stood to make the greatest gain. Therefore, apparently following the advice of three women, in 1862 he instituted a “tax” for the chiefs in the hopes of providing an alternate substantiation of their social rank. In keeping with Duncan’s assumptions of male superordination, even the highest ranking women were excluded from the “tax” benefits.

The missionary campaign against prevailing sexual morals did not end with the assault on prostitution. The entire socioeconomic complex of the Tsimshian rested on other aspects of gender relations equally abhorrent to Christian missionaries. Polygyny was denounced. Female economic independence was viewed as the root cause of women’s “proud” and “haughty” attitudes toward their husbands. With the removal of approximately three hundred Coast Tsimshian to Metlakatla to live as Christians apart from native society, polygyny and female economic autonomy came under attack, and Tsimshian women suffered the further whittling away of their aboriginal status.

Within the confines of the mission village, the roles of wife and husband were turned upside down. Whereas traditionally women managed their husbands’ property, at Metlakatla they were excluded from property ownership and management. Here, land and homes were held in the names of men, who were admonished for weakness if they failed to control it. Formerly wife and husband had held property independently of each other but had cooperated as needed to provide for their families and to potlatch from their own resources. Now new sources of wealth were created for men with the introduction of wage labor at Metlakatla and with the development of commercial enterprises along the coast. Although men were encouraged to avail themselves of these new opportunities, women were condemned for the same behavior. Women who left Metlakatla to work in fish canneries or hop fields were accused of “desertion,” suspected of immoral conduct, and shamed for their haughty independence. They suffered further restrictions with respect to subsistence production. Garden produce was to be divided within a patrilineal cooperative unit, whose membership was defined by Duncan, and the trade of surplus production was placed in the hands of men.

The consequences were severe. Widows suffered the greatest hardships. Isolated from lineage production and denied access to wage labor, they could no longer maintain traditional claims to lineage resources as they could no longer produce potlatch contributions. Without recourse to organizing and supervising the labor of junior women, they lost prestige and self-respect. The solution Duncan introduced was no solution at all. He provided them with a stipend in return for menial community services and thus further undermined their social standing. Wives also found themselves in positions of conflict and dependence. Bitter marital disputes were frequent as wives and husbands disagreed over the appropriate use of women’s labor, the distribution of their subsistence production, and their rights to retain economic autonomy. Within this context, women succeeded in maintaining only a semblance of their former independence. Although Duncan reluctantly recognized the separate nature of spous al property, he refused to sanction collective ownership within the matrilineages and chastised women for persisting in lineage production. Similarly, he urged men to withdraw claims to lineage property in favor of succeeding their fathers, an act which symbolically weakened Tsimshian respect for corporate property.

The acrimonious nature of marital discord that threatened to erupt into violence at Metlakatla, and frequently did elsewhere, forced Duncan reluctantly to accept marital separation in irreconcilable situations. The terms of separation were not, however, consistent with Tsimshian custom but were based on European notions of female dependence. Separating husbands were required to provide shelter and support for their former wives who, in their turn, were not free to leave Metlakatla or to embark on a route of economic self-sufficiency through either subsistence production or wage labor.

Throughout their participation in the mission program, Tsimshian women struggled to resist unwanted change and to persuade Duncan and his colleagues to modify their demands. Apart from pleading their case, the women insisted on acting independently, despite the ensuing tensions and disapprobation from the missionaries. In particular, they continued their subsistence fishing, because without it Metlakatla could not survive. Metlakatla’s reliance on women’s subsistence production finally forced Duncan to introduce wage labor for women, a strategy he had long resisted, fearing the married women would persist in their economic and social independence from their husbands. Wage labor at Metlakatla had little effect, however. The introduction of “suitable” secondary production was limited to extensions of domestic arts, soapmaking and weaving, neither of which had available markets. In the end, the women became skillful at new crafts but remained dependent upon income earned elsewhere. With Tsimshian women from native villages, women from Metlakatla continued their subsistence fishing and worked for wages in the fish canneries and hop fields to the south as well. Nor did they abandon prostitution entirely. Where other sources of income were accessible prostitution decreased, but even with their commitment to Metlakatla and Duncan, the women were reluctant to withdraw completely from the potlatch system. Many still felt compelled to continue prostitution in Victoria and other southern towns.

It was not only within the confines of Metlakatla that women faced disadvantages. The emergence of commercial industry also favored men. Initially, chiefs controlled freighting on the rivers. With the establishment of commercial fishing, men held on to the advantage gained with the fur trade. As before, men entered into the new enterprises as commodity producers, positions offering greater profits and personal control than the work women did in the canneries. It was not only the economic advantage of men in the industry that affected gender relations but the growing spatial separation of labor as well. With each new differentiation of female and male labor, women lost access to male production and rights to its control both within the context of commercial production and within the tradition of the potlatch. In addition to wage labor, women also faced a “triple burden” of subsistence production and childcare that seriously restricted their mobility.

The growing imbalance within household and commercial productive relations had its counterpart in the administration of Metlakatla. Like all European settlements of the colonial era, and the fur trade forts before them, the civic administration of Metlakatla was one of male superordination. All offices of authority and/or prestige within community and church were held by men. As missionary and magistrate, Duncan retained final authority over the affairs of Metlakatla. However, he permitted the men to elect a council whose members were traditional nobles or chiefs, and he appointed other men as constables. Apart from a council of senior women who were held responsible for women’s moral conduct and a church auxiliary, the women had little say in village affairs. Although the administrative structure of Metlakatla likely had little immediate impact on Tsimshian society as a whole, it did parallel the same model of male authority first introduced by the Hudson Bay Company; along with the traders and the colonial government, the Metlakatla council became a reference group of power, prestige, and wealth. There can be no doubt that it had a profound, if indirect, effect on women. In concert, the European prototype of commercial production, civic and colonial government, and church authority communicated to the Tsimshian notions of male superiority and female unsuitability for managing public affairs; together, they systematically conferred explicit advantages on the men. Simultaneously, the ties of corporate kinship production, ownership, and distribution were weakened by commercial enterprises and the nuclear family unit of Metlakatla.

Duncan perceived the potlatch to be central to Tsimshian society, the underlying motivation for prostitution, and the heart of Tsimshian pride and wastefulness, as discussed above. He attacked the potlatch on moral and economic grounds, declaring that it was “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christian or even civilized.” In 1884 the government responded to his and others’ concerns and outlawed it. External opposition to the potlatch did not, of course, eradicate it but forced it underground. Although women from Metlakatla had to face similar pressures before, now all Tsimshian had their traditional means of validating claims to names and prerogatives disrupted. Once more women suffered more than men, for even as state intervention undermined the traditional legitimation of hereditary leadership it also allowed for the continuance of customary chieftainship with a salient proviso: government agents were required to call assemblies of men only for discussion of village or tribal affairs. Moreover, when seeking approval for state actions, the affirming signatures of the respective chiefs did not need to include women in those positions. Thus “custom” was transformed by church and state to become a legitimation of male prerogative and advantage.

Taken together these measures were a serious blow to the prestige and social esteem of Tsimshian women. The extent to which they were displaced is indicated by a look at the aftermath of Metlakatla and the degree of external interventions in tribal affairs at the end of the century. When William Duncan left Metlakatla for Alaska in 1887, many of his noble and chiefly followers broke away and returned to Fort Simpson. Here the men reestablished themselves as traditional leaders and were also incorporated into another church hierarchy established by a resident missionary. Over the years, the church council evolved into a village council, elected by the men and subordinated to the hereditary chiefs. The limited opportunity for the women is reflected in the records kept by the Department of Indian Affairs. In 1900, just seven women of the Coast Tsimshian and Nishga tribes were recognized as chiefs (chieftainesses in the words of the government). At Fort Simpson the three so recognized were all “first chiefs” or “tribal chiefs.” The bands who had departed from custom in favor of elected councils as defined under the Indian Advancement Act had no women in office, for this was denied by law.

The full impact of colonization on Tsimshian women cannot, of course, be measured solely within the terms of authority or access to prestigious names and offices. Other realms of female influence and rights may not have suffered such severe undermining. For example, traditional law required that actions of lineage heads be sanctioned by women through their affirming potlatch and feasting activities. The written record does not tell us if this, too, was pushed aside by church and/or state interference. Yet, given the fact that the practice is described only with reference to the past, this may well have been the case. Similarly, Tsimshian tradition required that the women “who had participated in potlatches and power ceremonies, contributing and receiving gifts,” receive the same degree of ritual honor as men holding traditional names. But this situation does not appear to have continued into the twentieth century nor to have been the case in those villages monitored closely by a resident missionary. In light of the systematic devaluation of women, their independence and their authority, it seems most likely that these aspects of their influence and esteem suffered the same fate as their former economic autonomy and their political equality. In any event, the presence of just seven women in a list of ninety-five is clear evidence that formally at least Tsimshian women were no longer “the chief in council” nor the political equals of men.


The process of colonization has not been kind to Tsimshian women. At the time of contact, women stood in the same relation to the means of production as did men. Women had control over resources vital to the family and the lineage, as did their male peers. Female autonomy within the organization of production and distribution and the additional advantage of trading male property on behalf of men ensured women a position of social and political equality. Early in the fur trade era the relations of production changed. Men became commodity producers for the European traders, controlled the fur trade inland to the Athapaskan tribes, and developed a pattern of trading transactions that precluded women. Acting within traditional precedent the new wealth was used by the men to acquire prestigious names and to rationalize assumptions of power and stewardship in association with those names. What had once been family resource territories, with a gender division of ownership that safeguarded women’s rights over their own resources, were slowly transformed into property held by men by reason of their succession to a noble name. Erosion of women’s social place continued under the intervention of resident missionaries, the penetration of commercial industries, and the interference by the state. As it became easier for men to hold power, given that this was sanctioned by colonial ideal and authority, women found they had to struggle to retain their former prestige. Although noblewomen retained positions of influence and respect well into the nineteenth century, the material basis of their political equality had diminished, precipitating a decline in their status.

A careful reading of the written record, published and unpublished, reveals serious flaws in the commonly held assumption of male precedence in Tsimshian society. Rather than the twentiethcentury succession of noblewomen to chiefly positions being an aspect of “decadent” circumstances, it is consistent with the precontact era when women exercised authority, established sizable followings through dispensing patronage, and enjoyed political and individual equality.h