Category: Ethnography and Areal Anthologies — Western U.S and Canada

Becoming Tsimshian: The Social Life of Names

By Christopher F. Roth. 2008. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 296 pages. ISBN: 978-0-295-98806-1 (hard cover), 978-0-295-98807-8 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Robert E. Walls, University of Notre Dame

[Review length: 1129 words • Review posted on December 12, 2012]


Folklorists are well-acquainted with the rich ethnographic record that details the narrative, linguistic, material, and ceremonial aspects of Northwest Coast native cultures. To this scholarship, we can now add a remarkably nuanced, well-written, and theoretically sophisticated treatment of hereditary name-titles and the public rituals through which they are validated, by anthropologist Christopher F. Roth.

The author’s work focuses on the Tsimshian, a diversely constituted indigenous people who occupy the northern third of the British Columbian coast and a smaller area of southeastern Alaska. The book is based on over a decade of intensive fieldwork and archival research that began as an applied initiative in 1994 when the author was hired by the Tsimshian Tribal Council to help conduct a genealogy project that could assist the tribe in anticipated treaty negotiations with the Canadian and provincial governments. The final product is an astute study that could only have been accomplished through such rigorous methodology and by entering into a critical dialogue with those who came before: Franz Boas and his disciplinary progeny; native Tsimshian ethnographers Henry Wellington Tate and William Beynon; and a number of scholars who have explored the relationship between exchange and social reproduction—notably Marcel Mauss, Maurice Godelier, and Annette Weiner.

Roth is most intent on addressing “the fundamental question Tsimshians ask about themselves: what makes a Tsimshian person?” (29). Moreover, he is also interested in what roles potlatches (which Tsimshian call “feasts”) and oral histories play in the formal bestowal and assumption of names, and “what the relationships are or should be among the three paths of transmission of identity—biological lineality, reincarnation, and name taking” (29). As in many studies informed by fieldwork, a simple statement by a native consultant often summarizes the answers best. “People are nothing. They’re not important at all. It’s the names that are really real” (30), as one Tsimshian declared. In five chapters, the author does an excellent job explaining the subtleties and complexities of what this statement means. Through the actions of individuals and especially the power inherent in name-titles and traditional naming practices, Tsimshian men and women essentially become their own ancestors, weaving themselves into a series of nested lineage identities, in a process of social reproduction that Tsimshian identify as “keeping our names going” (3). Hereditary name-titles—shared with a succession of matrilineally related predecessors—link each lineage member to both ancient events which explain name and lineage origins and to specific territories and the rights to occupy land and harvest natural resources.

In chapter 2, “Names as People,” the author examines the Tsimshian sense that names themselves, with their own agency and status, are the true members of lineages—standing in stark contrast to the Euro-American ideology of unique, mortal individuals creatively making their way through the world. Here, the spiritual dimension of the dynamics of selfhood and kinship relations plays a pivotal role in the expectation that one is the reincarnation of a specific ancestor, a “quotidian cosmological affirmation of the shared essence with one’s ancestors” (68). Tsimshian name-holders find themselves rooted in cycles of transmigrating souls and transmigrating names; to become a true and complete person, as a Tsimshian, is to negotiate this terrain and become an ancestor.

The social, political, and ceremonial means to re-embody immortal personages in new generations occurs in the feast hall, as detailed in chapter 3. As scholars have long understood, it is during Tsimshian potlatches that hereditary name-titles are formally bequeathed and validated through orchestrated and dramatic displays of wealth. Roth, however, adds new dimensions to this work, engaging with the vast corpus of literature on the potlatch and gift exchange, and arguing that what is withheld or not exchanged—the inalienable wealth of a host lineage (e.g., hereditary prerogatives, crests, territory, names)—is more important than what is so grandly given away to guests. Feasts are proactive attempts to reinforce primary obligations to one’s own lineage ancestors in order to protect their shared “inalienables,” making the potlatch less about material reciprocity than about maintaining symbolic order and preserving “a lineage’s essence and capacity for meaningful social action” (102).

Throughout these chapters there is also extensive discussion of Tsimshian adawx, the sacred oral histories—and intellectual property—of individual lineages; these lengthy narratives of geographic migrations and social fission and fusion serve to structure Tsimshian discourses about place and history. Each adawx is a recited chronicle of a house (neatly listed in Appendix B) and its matrilineal bloodline, with each history possessing its own idiom, perspective, and protocol. However, the adawx is also an open-ended narrative genre, subject to frequent revisions and additions, “co-created by willful actors” (205), and thus has proven eminently useful in Tsimshian reconsiderations of history and the postcontact racial ordering of colonialism that imposed artificial and often humiliating identities such as status under the Canadian Indian Act or blood quantum in the United States.

Folklorists will be particularly interested in Roth’s historical portrait in chapter 4 of previous ethnographic research into Tsimshian culture, a history that is a recapitulation of American anthropological practices. This description began with missionary accounts and Boas’s use of letter correspondence for ethnographic queries to Tate—whose detailed written responses allowed Boas to write both Tsimshian Texts (1912) and Tsimshian Mythology (1916) with a minimum of actual work in the field. Soon after, research into Tsimshian culture continued with Marius Barbeau, whose intensive fieldwork and receptiveness to the critical cultural sensibilities of Beynon allowed the Canadian folklorist to make better distinctions among narrative genres than Boas ever did, particularly the significance of adawx as an accurate documentation of history. Eventually, this anthropological work would mature into the sophisticated and applied research that in 1997 helped neighboring Gitksan and Wet’suwet’en First Nations appeal and overturn the infamous Delgamuukw v. British Columbia land claims decision, wherein oral histories first became acceptable evidence in the legal struggle to recognize that Aboriginal title had never been extinguished. This legal case casts an even brighter spotlight on Roth’s focus on the enduring importance of Tsimshian names, as the plaintiffs listed in Delgamuukw were hereditary titles, not native people with English names.

While I suspect some readers might find the necessary detail of the lengthier chapters a bit dizzying, and others might appreciate a few photographs of Tsimshian territory and hereditary crests for visual orientation, Christopher Roth’s Becoming Tsimshian is destined to emerge as a major contribution to Tsimshianic and Northwest Coast studies, as well as a model for further research into the dynamic and complex processes of social reproduction anywhere in the indigenous world.

Works Cited:

Boas, Franz. 1912. Tsimshian Texts. New Series. Publications of the American Ethnological Society. Vol. 3, Part 2. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Boas, Franz. 1916. Tsimshian Mythology. Thirty-First Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1909-10. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.