The Wetaɬ (Tsetsaut) were an Athabaskan people who lived inland from the Tlingit along the western coast of British Columbia and southern Alaskan panhandle. Apart from Nisga’a oral tradition and the linguistic research of archaeologist Franz Boas, little is known about the Wetaɬ, whose population was decimated by war and disease in the 1800s. The last Wetaɬ-speaker died in 1927.
During the 1830s, the Wetaɬ left the Plateau region (see Indigenous People: Plateau), moving west across the southern waters of the Stikine River and the northern headwaters of the Nass, Iskut and Skeena rivers, as far as the Pacific coast. The main area they inhabited was in the vicinity of the Portland Canal.
According to oral history, the Wetaɬ relocated after the Łingít (Tlingit) threatened to kill Wetaɬ men, and enslave their women and children (see Slavery of Indigenous People in Canada). The Wetaɬ were also harassed and raided by their neighbours, the Tahltan. During their migration, the Wetaɬ saw their numbers reduced; they subsequently fell under the control of the Nisga’a by the late 1800s.
The Wetaɬ economy was based on inland game hunting. Though they never fully adapted to the environment of the river systems or to the coast, the Wetaɬ occupied the area surrounding Meziadin Lake where they fished for salmon.
The Gitxsan and Nisga’a called the Wetaɬ Tsetsaut, a Tsimshian word meaning “those of the interior.” The term also generally referred to the various Athabaskan-speaking peoples in the interior of northern British Columbia, including not only the Wetaɬ, but also some of the Sekani and Tahltan peoples.
The Wetaɬ language was Athabaskan in origin, spoken in the Portland Canal area of northwestern British Columbia (see Indigenous Languages in Canada). The language is said to be similar to that of the Tahltan, but there is evidence that they were most closely related in culture to the Kaska.
When Franz Boas visited the Wetaɬ in 1894, their total number was 12, reduced from an estimated population of 500 just 60 years earlier. In 1895, the few remaining Wetaɬ survivors were assimilated into the Nisga’a. The Nisga’a’s Eagle clan chief, Sganism Sim'oogit (“mountain chief”), took them under his protection. Today, there are no persons identified as Wetaɬ.
Franz. Boas, "Fifth Report on the Indians of British Columbia," British Association for the Advancement of Sciences, Annual Report (1895).
J. Helm, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 6: Subarctic (1981).
Franz Boas and Pliny Earle Goddard, “Ts'ets'aut, An Athapascan Language from Portland Canal, British Columbia," International Journal of American Linguistics, vol. 3, no. 1 (1924): 1–35.
Reginald Dangeli, "Tsetsaut History: The Forgotten Tribe of Southern Southeast Alaska," Alaska Native Writers, Storytellers & Orators: The Expanded Edition, ed. by Ronald Spatz, Jeane Breinig and Patricia H. Partnow (University of Alaska, 1999), 48–54.