Metlakatla is a small Tsimshian community located on the northern shore of Metlakatla Pass, about 87 miles (140 km) southeast of Ketchikan and 5 miles (8 km) west-northwest of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The village is one of the seven remaining Tsimshian communities and the only village not associated with any of the 14 constituent Tsimshian nations. The name Metlakatla, also spelled Metlakahtla, was derived from the Tsimshian ‘Maaxłakxaała’, which means ‘saltwater pass’. Metlakatla Pass is a narrow protected ocean channel at the northern entrance to Prince Rupert Harbor. The pass was traditionally the place where the Northern Coast ‘Nine Tribes‘ of the Tsimshian people established their winter villages. Archeological sites on Pike Island, adjacent to present-day Metlakatla, date to 5,000 years ago and record the development of social complexity on the northern coast of British Columbia. This evidence is supported by the presence of an additional 46 historical and pre-contact archeological sites along the shoreline of the pass. By the late 1830s, the Tsimshian had moved from Metlakatla Pass to new wintering quarters at the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post at Fort Simpson, which is present-day Lax Kw’alaams. In 1862, William Duncan, a young Anglican Missionary, initiated a move back to Metlakatla Pass to establish a model community and acculturation experiment.
In 1854, William Duncan attended the Church of England’s Missionary Society College in Islington, North London, England. In 1856, the church sent Duncan to the North Pacific coast of Canada, and he arrived at Vancouver Island in June 1857 and spent the summer in Victoria where he met many of the colonial gentry. On the insistence of Governor James Douglas, in late September he took up residence at Fort Simpson. About 2,300 Tsimshian were living in the immediate area and he began to study the Tsimshian language. The church policy required that missionaries such as Duncan become keen observers of the society they wished to change. They should recognize the power of the traditional governments but consider that one of their most important tasks was to create a native leadership, a pastorate for the new ‘native’ church. By the early 1860s, many Tsimshian had allied themselves with Duncan and were discussing the possibility of returning to Metlakatla Pass to escape the alcohol and loose morals of the trading port. Duncan was cautious about the proposal but also recognized that the creation of a separate Christian village would be his most significant life accomplishment. In the spring of 1862, Duncan led 60 Tsimshians to Metlakatla Pass and began building a new utopian Christian community. By the end of the summer, several hundred more joined the community, and Metlakatla was officially established. That same year, the Pacific Northwest smallpox epidemic killed 500 in Fort Simpson but only 5 died in Metlakatla, and Duncan did not hesitate to attribute this to divine providence. The utopia that he established at Metlakatla was to endure from 1862 to 1887 and attracted attention and adulation throughout the missionary world. It enabled Duncan to acquire and exercise enormous personal power, both within the settlement and representing the community to the church and to various governments. It also brought prestige and prosperity to those Christian Tsimshian who modified their lifestyle. Over time, Metlakatla took on the appearance of a European settlement with a large church, schoolhouse, and jail. A small cannery and sawmill produced goods for export and for building, and a trading store operated by Duncan replaced dependence on the Hudson’s Bay Company. Duncan was appointed a magistrate, thus acquiring additional powers of persuasion, not only over the Tsimshian but over non-natives such as liquor sellers who posed a threat to the settlement. Duncan divided the Tsimshian men and women into ten social units whose purpose was to provide mutual assistance and keep each other under observation. Duncan justified this structure as a way to integrate new arrivals and enhance economic cooperation, but it also showed emerging authoritarian practices that were to characterize his enterprise. Until 1880, his efforts were celebrated in England and in British Columbia for the model society he appeared to have created. He enforced his Metlakatla system with a rigid and at times harsh discipline. His forcefulness was transformed into a self-righteous and ill-advised truculence that led in part to the destruction of his utopia.
The Church Missionary Society became increasingly concerned by the Metlakatlans’ resistance to episcopal authority, and that Duncan’s public success at Metlakatla masked the dependence of the Tsimshian on their missionary. Schooling, literacy, economic activity, social cohesion, and growing Europeanization had not produced the objective of a native church but a Tsimshian Christianity led and maintained by Duncan. At the same time, external influences were challenging the power and place of Duncan, such as commercial salmon canneries, overland telegraph, and increasing boat traffic. The relative isolation of Metlakatla would soon become more difficult to maintain in the changing social and economic circumstances. Additionally, the Church Missionary Society was becoming less impressed by the heroic individualism of courageous missionary adventurers and asked Duncan to return to England for consultation or to resign. In 1881, Duncan was expelled from the church, and he responded by creating his own non-denominational Independent Native Church. From 1882 to 1887, Metlakatla was a divided community. The majority of the Tsimshian, unaccustomed to challenging their missionary, supported Duncan, and perhaps a hundred supported the original doctrines of the church. Duncan went to Washington, D.C., and asked the U.S. government to give his group land in Alaska. President Grover Cleveland gave them Annette Island near Ketchikan, Alaska after a Tsimshian search committee in seagoing canoes discovered its calm bay, accessible beaches, nearby waterfall, and abundant fish. In 1887, Duncan led about 800 Metlakatla Tsimshians on an epic canoe journey to start the community of “New” Metlakatla. The school, cannery, store, sawmill, and social organization were reproduced and continued to attract the favorable attention of influential outsiders including Henry Solomon Wellcome and John William Arctander who both published highly flattering accounts of Duncan and his work. In 1888, Duncan returned to Washington and lobbied the U.S. Congress for an Indian Reservation on Annette Island. Although the reservation system had not been used in Alaska, Congress granted his request in 1891. By the turn of the century Duncan, now nearly 70, had become crippled by rheumatism, increasingly parsimonious, and markedly intransigent. He drew the reins of financial power closer to himself, opposed education beyond the age of 14 or outside the village, and fiercely resisted the attempts of the United States government to reduce his authority in the settlement. Duncan remained at Metlakatla until his death in 1918. Read more here and here. Explore more of Metlakatla here: