Meanskinisht Cemetery

Meanskinisht Cemetery, Statement of Significance


The Meanskinisht cemetery is a 1.0 hectare level plot of land on a bench above the Skeena River in the community of Cedarvale, about 70 km north of Terrace and 18 km west of Kitwanga, in northwestern British Columbia. Marked and unmarked graves, some enclosed by decorative fences, are surrounded by a mixed forest of poplar, birch, hemlock, cedar and spruce. The property is legally described as Lot 1, District Lot 7, Plan 1319, Cassiar Land District.

Heritage Values

Located on a high bench on the south bank of the Skeena River, Meanskinisht Cemetery is valued for its spiritual, cultural and historical significance, particularly as the historical burial site of the founders and members of Meanskinisht Mission.

The Meanskinisht cemetery is significant for its connection to the Meanskinisht Mission, a utopian, cooperative, Christian community. Originally a Gitxsan First Nation settlement, Meanskinisht (meaning under the pitch pines) was founded in 1888 on opposite banks of the Skeena River by Robert Tomlinson Sr. Tomlinson, a medical missionary with the Anglican Church Missionary Society, arrived on the Skeena with his family after serving at various missions in northwest BC including Metlakatla with his mentor William Duncan. Though he would resign from the Church due to conflicts with Church leadership, the experience inspired Tomlinson to model Meanskinisht after those missions.

Tomlinson’s vision of self-sufficiency and adherence to religious values attracted some First Nation people from surrounding villages to join the mission and follow its rules: attend church, send their children to school and renounce First Nation traditions. Community members farmed, sold garden produce, operated a general store and held the government contract to deliver the mail. A primary source of income for the mission was its sawmill on the north bank of the Skeena. This was the first sawmill in the area, supplying timber for many buildings in the region.

In 1913 the construction of Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTP) required the removal of the sawmill, which resulted in the loss of the community’s economic base. The GTP brought an influx of settlers and a change to the community’s name – Cedarvale. Tomlinson’s death that year, combined with these events, changed the community’s spiritual nature and communal structure.

Meanskinisht Cemetery is significant as being representative of the missionary movement across Canada, while at the same time the mission was unique in its resistance to the concept of the Indian reserve. Tomlinson was against reserve status for land adjacent to his mission and for many years unsuccessfully petitioned the provincial government to allow First Nation mission members to pre-empt and own land. He finally resolved to lease 5-acre parcels of his own District Lot 7 to First Nation community members for 999 years. Without legal status, the leases were cancelled after Tomlinson’s death. Some leaseholders were able to buy the properties from the Tomlinson estate and several are still owned by descendants of the mission’s First Nation pioneers.

The cemetery is significant for its association with the community’s two mission churches, an 1891 pioneer-style log structure and its 1907 replacement, a community-built, Carpenter Gothic-style church constructed from lumber milled at the community’s sawmill and with stained glass windows from England. The churches’ prominent position on the high bench next to the cemetery made each, in turn, a landmark of Tomlinson’s “Holy City” until a fire destroyed the latter building in the 1950s.

Meanskinisht Cemetery is significant for its illustration of ways First Nation peoples renegotiated their identities and traditions after contact. The cemetery reflects changes in First Nation burial rituals, including granite headstones and fences within a maintained landscape. Traditionally, a burial was accompanied by a death feast, or potlatch. When the potlatch was outlawed in 1884, some First Nation people circumvented the law by adopting European-style memorials.

Today, only direct descendants of the mission’s original inhabitants can be buried in the cemetery. The Meanskinisht Historical Society, which operates a museum, also maintains the cemetery and consults on all burials that occur there. This connection between spiritual and historical values is significant to both the past and future of the cemetery, and reinforces the faith-based history of the community.

Character Defining Elements

Site, Setting and Landscape

  • Location of the cemetery on a bench above the Skeena River
  • Mixed native forest vegetation surrounding the land
  • Flat topography
  • Maintained lawn
  • Rustic access trail

Design Features

  • Entry sign identifying private burials
  • Decorative wooden  and metal enclosures around some of the burial sites
  • Mix of freshly painted and weathered enclosures
  • In-ground and vertical granite grave markings including those of the Tomlinson family

Selected Sources

Bennett, Norma V. Pioneer Legacy: Chronicles of the Lower Skeena River, Volume II. Terrace: Dr. R.E.M. Lee Hospital Foundation, 2000.

Dalen, Mary. Personal correspondence. 2011.

Degerness, Judy. Personal correspondence. 2012.

Durbin, Susan. Personal correspondence. 2012

Hobenshield, Peggy. Personal correspondence. 2012.

Johnson, Agnes. “Now You Are My Brother” in Budd, Robert (ed). Voices of British Columbia. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2012.

Large, R. G. Skeena, River of Destiny. Sidney, BC. Gray’s Publishing Ltd. 5th edition 1981.

Murray, Peter. The Devil and Mr. Duncan: A History of the Two Metlakatlas. Winlaw, B.C.: Sono Nis Press, 1985.

Peake, Frank A. The Anglican Church in British Columbia. Vancouver: Mitchell Press, 1959.

Neylan, Susan. "Longhouses, Schoolrooms, and Workers’ Cottages: Nineteenth-Century Protestant Missions to the Tsimshian and the Transformation of Class Through Religion." Journal of the Canadian Historical Association Vol. 11, No. 1, 2000.

Royal British Columbia Museum. Living Landscapes.

 Soosay, Garvey. Gitksan Cultural Retention In Christianized Houses And Space. Integrated Studies project submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, Integrated Studies. Athabasca, Alta.: Athabasca University, 2010.

Tomlinson, George D. and Judith Young. Challenge the Wilderness: A Family Saga of Robert and Alice Tomlinson, Pioneer Medical Missionaries. Seattle: Northwest Wilderness Books, 1993.

Viellette, John and Gary White. Early Indian Village Churches: Wooden Frontier Architecture in British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1977.

First Meanskinisht Church c.1900s  (BC Archives e_06573)
Second Meanskinisht Church built in 1907 (Tomlinson Collection)
Second Meanskinisht Chruch destoryed by fire in the 1950s (Tomlinson Collection)
Robert Tomlinson Sr. gravesite with second Meanskinisht Church in background c. 1940s (Tomlinson Collection)
Interior of second Meanskinisht Church.  (Tomlinson Collection)
Meanskinisht Village with first church in background c.1900s (Tomlinson Collection)
Robert Sr. and Alice Tomlinson Gravesite c.2011
Early gravesite of Robert Tomlinson Sr. with Skeena River in background. (Tomlinson Collection)
Meanskinisht Cemetery c.2011
Meanskinsht Cemetery looking toward former site of Meanskinisht Church.  c.2011