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Christianity is an integral aspect of Native history, not simply an external force acting upon it. Nineteenth-century Aboriginal women and men frequently took the initiative and assume roels of leadership in mission activities and within the churches themselves. While they never entirely directed or controlled their own Christianization, the identities they assumed as part of this process illuminate the extent to which conversion entailed negotiation. The relationship forged between Native and Euro-Canadian missionary was a dialogue of sorts, although not necessarily a mutually beneficial one. One of the pre-eminent themes in this dialogue on Protestant mission work among the Tsimshian of British Columbia’s North Pacific Coast in the late nineteenth century revolved around class.2

This paper explores the blurring of boundaries among spiritual expressions and identities in Protestant missions to the Tsimshian.3 It highlights several ways in which the class implications of work and religious association had profoundly different meanings in Native and non-Native milieus. Pre-existing indigenous understanding on class and spiritual transformation informed Native reception to Christianity. The Tsimshian and their immediate neighbours, the Nisga’a and Gitksan, were socially stratified by ranked class-based systems. When Native peoples participated in the missions, they did not entirely forsake this history. A number of religious forms with industrial working-class associations, such as the Salvation Army, the Church Army, and other evangelical forms of Methodism and Anglicanism, flourished in Tsimshian territories, yet those communities were neither working-class nor urban. In fact, several Tsimshian missions were pioneered by chiefly and noble families who firmly rejected the “working class” identity that some missionaries sought to impose upon them. There is some evidence to suggest that certain Native converts utilized conversion to circumvent the usual social conventions surrounding rank and privilege. However, it is also readily apparent that others sought empowerment by using these new forms of spirituality in order to bolster existing social positions, as demands for literacy, Euro-Canadian education, and new styles of village architecture (especially housing) will aptly demonstrate.


This article was originally published in The Journal of the Canadian Historical Association, 11(1): 51-86. © 2000 Canadian Historical Association