The Woman of Power: The Chieftess, Entering Goypax or the Exalted State Among the Tsimshian

(Hanamus Fanny Johnson, Chieftess of the Fireweed house, Gitsegyukla Village, date unknown)

The Chilkat Robe is made of woven mountain goat wool, with naturally dyed wool wefts, woven over wool spun with cedar bark warps. In the photograph, Hanamus wears an exquisitely detailed Chilkat blanket, exhibiting the fine work of a skilled weaver. Her headdress has a copper frontlet with sea lion whiskers which is traditionally filled with eagle down. The Chieftess would then sprinkle eagle down over people as a peaceful blessing as she moved and danced in ceremonies and festivities. The Chilkat blanket was made famous by the Chilkat Tlinget who established an economy of trade with the Europeans who settled nearby and became very famous for their skill as weavers. The art form was first developed by the Tsimshian.

Woven clothing was worn much more often because it lasted longer than animal hides in the humid Pacific Coast weather.  In the summers, men went nude and women often wore cedar bark robes that were wrapped over one shoulder and cinched at the waist.

My mother used to say, “You are royalty. Don’t ever forget this. Your great-great grandfather was a Chief and Shaman, your great-great grandmother a Shaman and Healer. We come from a long line of Chiefs, Chieftesses, Healers, and Shamans. You must always be proud of who you are. You will have a good role in society. You can be anything you want to be.”

I come from a culture of very strong, independent women. Our culture, the Tsimshian culture is matrilineal. That means names and crests are passed down through the woman. Legitimacy was never a question in the matriline. Future chiefs or leaders were chosen because of who their mothers were, not who their fathers were. There were many women Chiefs and Tsimshian women figure very largely in most traditional stories. There are stories that the Tsimshian were once completely matriarchal as well, but it changed gradually over history. Even in recent traditional stories, unlike Western History, women are certainly not left out at all. As the name and status came from the woman, the mother was very important in society. There were both Chieftesses and Chiefs and sometimes Chieftesses or Chiefs had multiple husbands or multiple wives.

Tsimshian means, “inside the Skeena River.” Skeena means, “river of mists,” or, “rainbow mist river.” Nass means, “snake.”

There are fourteen Tsimshian tribes, or galts’its’ap: Ginaxangiik, Gilusts’aaw, Ginadoiks, Gispaxlo’ots, Gitando, Gitlaan, Gits’iss, Gitwilgyoots, Gitzaxlaal, Gitga’ata, Kitasso, Kitkatla, Kitsumkalum, and Kitselas.

Two other tribes that are included in the Tsimshian language family and considered to be very close relatives, and once were considered part of the same tribe are, the Gitksan who lived north of the Tsimshian, on the Skeena River, and the Nisga’a who lived at the mouth of the Nass. I am also related to the Gitksan and part Nisga’a, and our family gets its wolf crest from the Nisga’a on the lower Nass.

The most difficult, unclean and demeaning jobs were generally done by slaves. Slaves were not always stuck as slaves, and had opportunities for upward mobility, but it was generally very difficult to gain status unless one was born into status and already had rank in their home tribe. There is a ceremony where the slave can eat deadly poison, and if he or she does not die, they can become commoners. They were often taken during war with bordering groups like the Tlinget or Haida or other Tsimshian groups.

This story is about a young Tsimshian slave girl who maries a prince, and who has a mother who is Chieftess in another village.

She Who Has a Labret on One Side
A slave girl covered in scabs mysteriously appears in a village and marries a Tsimshian prince. The mother of the slave girl is a rich Chieftess from a nearby tribe. She announces her visit and then arrives and bestows great riches on the new husband and her daughter. When the husband leaves on a trading trip, it is rumored that he is bringing home a new wife. The girl who was a slave decides that this is not acceptable and she doesn’t want the husband anymore if he wants another wife. She then washes the awkward brother of the prince. She gives him red paint to go inland and trade for weasel skins. On his journey he becomes very strong and handsome because he was washed by a woman of power. He becomes very wealthy with the trades, and when he returns home she marries him. Her mother returns and brings much more wealth to her daughter and the new husband.

There were definitely gender roles, but these did not determine status, i.e. women’s’ roles were not considered lesser than than the roles of men, unlike European societies who do not respect traditional womens’ roles. Gender roles were also not as static as some assume. Men carved and women wove, but it was not unheard of for a man to weave or a woman to carve. The first famous very skilled totem pole carver, Freda Diesling, was a Haida (Haida are neighbors of the Tsimshian, also famous for very strong women and woman chieftess’) woman. Royal women, noblewomen and women of power were quite often Chieftesses, Healers, or Shaman, and post-contact, often worked as go-betweens or mediators to negotiate with the Europeans, speaking for their tribes and groups.

It isn’t just the wife who nags. Husbands can nag too, as the story of Beaver Woman, also called, the Nagging Husband, indicates:

The Nagging Husband  
The first beaver was a woman who had a husband that constantly nagged her about doing work around the house. To get away from the nagging husband, she dammed up a stream and spent most of her days swimming.The more he nagged, the more time she spent in the water. One day fur grew all over her body. Her leather apron turned into a flat beaver tail that slapped the water surface as she dove. After that, she never returned to the husband and lived happily inside her dam as a beaver.

The first Tsimshian Shaman was a girl.

The First Shaman  
The Tsimshian children in one village were making a lot of noise when they played. Soon all the villages were filled with children playing, making lots and lots of noise. The Great Chief of the Skies grew very annoyed and sent a supernatural glass-beaked being to kill the children by splitting them in half in a greusome way. Soon, almost all the children were dead. One girl who had just had her first menses (time of power) was in isolation, and escaped death. When she came out of the menstruation house, she found all the children dead and the adults all mourning. It was very sad. She cried and started singing a song. She took a feather and waved it over the bodies of the dead children and soon, they came back to life. She resurrected all the children from the dead and became the first shaman.

Here is Shannon Thunderbird‘s description of the traditional colors used and the significance of their placement on the Traditional Tsimshian button robe:

“Red border represents supernatural (spiritual) power also interpreted as the ‘winter ceremonial Red Cedar Bark Ceremony’. It also means wealth and nobility;

Black background was thought to render the wearer invincible, it also represents death (in a good way!), when letting go of negative thoughts and behaviour, is a form of dying and being reborn;

White buttons represents peace, spirituality, harmony and balance.

Blue duffle related to Father Sky, Flying Beings.

Purple duffle represents wisdom of the ages.”

Most Tsimshian stories clearly illustrate the egalitarian nature of historical Tsimshian society. This next story took place in Temlaxham. Temlaxham means, “Prairie Town.” It is a town on the plains where the Tsimshians used to live before a great flood and a mountain rock side destroyed it. Stories of the founding of Temlaxham relate a group of sky people who arrived in flying machines. They instructed the Tsimshian on how to build giant wooden houses and paint them holy colors: red and white. The sky people married Tsimshian women, received names and crests and status within society, and they used their flying machines to fly all over the world.

Rotten Feathers
The story of Rotten Feathers starts with the children being too noisy again. The Chief of the Skies sends down magical feathers. A little boy puts them on his head and is lifted up into the air. Another child grabs his legs and is lifted up too. All the children, one by one, trying to save the other children, are lifted up into the air. One girl is in the menstruation house and is the only child who survives. She creates children from some wedges, some wood, a grindstone, a knife, and some mucous, and gives birth to them all, one by one, five boys and one girl. Each child is named for what they were made from. Soon, they start making too much noise again, and the feathers come down. As they are lifted up, they transform themselves into trees, mountains and mucous. Knife Girl then climbs her brothers bodies and cuts off the feathers. The boy with the feathers in his hair is called Rotten Feathers.  The bones of the first generation of children who had all been taken up, soon fall down. Knife Girl uses a feather to revive them. Grindstone then eats some berries and turns into a  mountain. Rotten-Feathers cuts his way through the mountain with a feather and encounters the Great Goose. Rotten Feathers soon marries the daughter of a Chieftess who tries to cut off his head with her sharp hands. He switches headdresses with his wife, and his mother-in-law kills her daughter in his place. He abducts the wife of Sleep and escapes in a canoe that needs no oars and moves on its own. Sleep wakes up and tries to stop Rotten Feathers by throwing a mountain to block his way. Rotten Feathers cuts a way through the mountain with a feather. Then Sleep throws a comb which becomes an impassable thicket. Rotten Feathers again uses the feather to cut his way through the thicket and escapes with his new wife.

Tsimshian society had three main classes: nobles, commoners, and slaves. The nobility included the immediate families of the chiefs of each tribe. Among the most privileged were the chiefs and the chieftesses, and their children. Tsimshian social structure was complex, one of the most complex in the Northwest, very organized, and somewhat like the European system with the Chief and the royal family enjoying the most status.

Next were the wealthiest familes, considered the noblemen and noblewomen. Next were the commoners, who did most of the heavy labor work and depended heavily on the Chief or Chieftess and the clan for status and support. At the bottom were the slaves. The majority of people were commoners who traded their labor for the support (military as well as material) of their chief and whose status and prestige was dependent on the success of the chief or chieftess in potlatch gifting, ceremony, trade, and warfare.

Head binding was also traditionally practiced among the noble class, where babies had their foreheads artificially flattened from infancy. Ear spools, nose piercings, and labrets and hand tattoos for women were symbols of high rank.

Society was divided into several Phraeties, a little different, and was a little more complex of a system than the Tlinget and Haida Moity. Phraeties and moities originated from animals. The animal that each clan is named for is considered to be a spiritual ancestor. For example, My clan is Eagle, so the Eagle is my close spiritual relative through the matriline. My house is the wolf house. This means that the wolf is also my close spiritual relative.

Wealth depended on how much one could give away. A Chieftess or Chief was given much and would give much away. This was done during a yaawk, or potlatch ceremony. Everyone brought gifts to yaawks, and this was a way of cementing political and social relations with neighbors, and taking care of those who could not provide for themselves so that everyone lived a somewhat comfortable life. It was a very organized social structure where no one experienced too much hardship because everyone was taken care of. Often carvers or weavers would carve or weave exclusively for the Chieftess or Chief, or for an upcoming event, and the Chieftess or Chief would then distribute these carvings and weavings to others.

(Drawing of Mawlaken, by W. Langdon Kihn, 1924)

Mawlaken was a Chieftess of the Raven lineage in Gitsegyukla. On her head, she wears a headdress with a raven image on the frontlet and ermine skins on the side. On the top, a circle of sea-lion whiskers hold eagle down.

The Tsimshian did not worship deities, but worked to keep the self in balance with the many powers of nature. The Lord of the Skies, or Chief of the Skies was the foremost deity, but was not worshipped in any way. Rather, one left the Chief of the Skies alone unless there was a natural disaster, life or death situation, and prayed and supplicated to him only as a last resort. He was a fickle character that did not always mete out justice in the way that one would expect or like, and it really depended on his mood whether one would benefit in any way from his intervention.

The veil between physical and spiritual is considered to be very thin among the Tsimshian. The yaawk or potlatch, giving, generosity, taking care of the elderly or sick, and purification of the body through fasting or ritual bathing were how one prepared for the afterlife, and resurrection in the flesh. The resurrection from the dead is considered to be very real among the Tsimshian, and within the realm of the shaman or healer or person of power. It results in a state called Goypax, which means, “light,” or, “heaven.” It is an exalted state of great joy that one could enter when the two powers in the self are brought together in ceremony, and ritual, and with spiritual cleansing.

When I supplicated myself to my ancestors, they showed me how to enter Goypax. It is a very specific and difficult process, where the heart opens and every aspect of life changes in a very dramatic and joyful way. The visualizations work in a similar way to meditation and prayer. It is considered to be the same as samadhi, or great bliss and nirvana. Every major religion has its corollary. After entering Goypax, I moved to the cabin to study comparative religion and work on Naxnox power. This is a way of removing attachments from all beings. We take on the attachment and enact its effects and basically develop a personal process of exorcising, subduing or killing the attachments in all other living beings, thereby removing ailments, infirmity and suffering.

12 thoughts on “The Woman of Power: The Chieftess, Entering Goypax or the Exalted State Among the Tsimshian

  1. Do you mind that I would give the advice to split the article in more articles so that per article there can be a concentration on one subject and remarks according to that subject?The stories are too important to put all together in one big article and as such perhaps missing some readers (who do not take time to go through the full article.)

    A Category and Tag list could also be a helpful thing to scroll through the several articles and to find points of interest.
    Looking forward to learn more from your culture. Wishing you lots of success with your articles on your ancestry.

  2. This is very interesting. It would be great to know more about these kinds of cultures through history. You are right. Our collective history (all over the world) seems very unbalanced. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. I am From the only Tsimshian village in Alaska. Who are you? I have never heard of you or any Kroll family. Which family do you come from?

    • Thank you for asking Jerry. You are very lucky to live in such a beautiful place surrounded by so much history and culture. (I have never heard of you either.) My grandmother Irene was the granddaughter of Ernie and Emily Fawcett. Ernie Fawcett was a Wolf Chief and Shaman from the Lower Nass. Emily Fawcett was an Eagle Shaman, Healer and Herbalist originally from Old Metlakatla. My grandmother (grew up Eagle – adopted into the Wolf House so she could receive her grandfather’s crest and songs to protect her as a young widow) grew up in New Metlakatla and lived in Ketchikan. My traditional carvings and weavings are featured on
      The Kroll family is an old Alaskan family. My grandfather, Henry Kroll grew up on the Lapwai Reservation, moved to Alaska at age 18 and became known as Alaska’s Mad Trapper. He homesteaded this place in Tuxedni Bay that I purchased almost fifteen years ago.

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