The Tlingit are a people who are part of the Na-Dene phyla, and reside in the southeast Alaska panhandle and inland Canada. They are a matriarchal society, receiving their lineage of crests from their mothers’ clans. From time immemorial they have been a powerful people living on the edges of the boreal forests, using cedar as their medium for longhouses, canoes, utensils, and clothing. They are known for their pot-latches and were fierce warriors. Their subsistence was derived mainly from the ocean: salmon, halibut, seal, shellfish, and seaweed. With the introduction of Europeans (first Russians, then Americans) to the
Tlingit homeland, many confrontations, challenges, and changes took place among the Tlingit people. Diseases such as smallpox and the measles were new to the Tlingits, and the ravages of these illnesses nearly eradicated entire villages. Totem poles and other artifacts were either taken or burned, English was enforced, corporal punishment was administered for speaking Tlingit, and the potlatch was forbidden. Today the Tlingit are a modern people who are politically strong, and who are embracing their culture once again.
In times of antiquity, the Tlingit were a dominant people known for their warriors who wore wooden helmets and leather tunics or wooden slat armor; for their longhouses made from thick planks of cedar and carved house posts and screens, which housed several families and slaves; for the totem poles carved with the details of ancestral lineage and natural and supernatural beings; for the canoes, especially the huge war canoes with elaborate clan carvings; for the potlatches that would last for about a week; and for the woven Raven’s Tail and Chilkat blankets (later button blankets). These were mostly a seminomadic people who had their winter homes where their longhouses and totems were situated. There were fishing camps, berry gathering areas, bird-egg islands and rookeries, and areas where the herring spawned, as well as camp areas made during hunting, trapping, and war, or during trading times. Camp areas were owned by clans and individuals and were considered property to be distributed during potlatches.
The Tlingit are a matriarchal society, and claim their crests from their mother’s moiety. The two main moieties are Crow/Raven and Wolf/Eagle; Crow and Wolf are from the inland Tlingits who are closer to the Athabascans; it may also be an earlier form of Raven and Eagle. Within these clans are subdivisions of various clans and houses. Marriages were arranged, and it was taboo to marry within your own clan, so care was taken to know the clans of the people. This clan knowledge was especially important when giving a potlatch.
A boy of 8 to 10 would be sent to his maternal grandfather or uncle to be trained until he reached manhood, not only as a hunter and fisherman, but also as a warrior. Girls lived in solitude for up to a year when they started their menses, during which time they would learn to weave and perform other skills that would prepare them for womanhood.
The raising of the totem, which illustrated their lineage and legends, was part of the memorial pot-latch ritual, as well as one of the ways a new keeper/owner/chief of the house would prove that he was worthy of the position. There were many reasons for a potlatch, but unlike the Kwakiutl who sought to “bury” their guests with their wealth in competitive potlatches, the Tlingits focused on the memorial, since a high-caste person could have several memorial potlatches. Events in a potlatch could include oratory of ancestry and the rights of connections to the supernatural, songs and dances, name giving, feasts, gambling, and destruction of property (for example, canoes, copper shields, or slaves).
When a person died the remains were cremated, along with articles that would assist his or her journey in the spirit world, such as clothing, weapons, and at times a canoe or slave. Food and water were also thrown into the fire, to ensure that the person would not be hungry or thirsty en route to “Raven’s house.” A shaman was embalmed and placed in a memorial house or on a platform built in a tree. Usually his shamanistic articles lay beside him, for example, specific ritual clothing, rattles, and carved spirit guards that had watched over him as he slept in life.
Salmon runs started in late spring and lasted until early fall; stone and stake weirs were set at the mouths of streams to catch returning salmon. Stakes dating over 1,350 years old have been found at the Klawock River. Salmon was mainstay of the Tlingit diet and was supplemented by halibut, seal, sea lion, shellfish, herring eggs, seagull eggs, deer, bear, and beached whales. A variety of berries were gathered in intricately woven spruce root baskets, then dried and pressed into cakes and packed into bentwood boxes for storing. Eulachon or “candlefish,” commonly known as “ooligan,” was processed to make the oil for food and trade. Stone tools were crafted for hammering stakes as well as stone weaponry and sacred items. Petroglyphs and carved rocks were made to show clan ownership and placed along the shoreline. There are also petroglyphs of sailing ships, from when the first Europeans arrived.
When smallpox and the measles spread from village to village after contact with Europeans, some villages were abandoned; those not sick buried their dead and left their homes to regroup in nearby villages, in an attempt to maintain their lineages. This was a time when many of the old customs were modernized, for example, memorial poles were replaced with headstones and the accompanying potlatch was replaced with a lunch or dinner. Despite conversion to Christianity, however, at.dow (clan crest artifacts) were still burned after the death of one known to be high caste.
The aboriginal peoples of the northwest captured the imagination of Europeans as museums of natural history opened throughout America, and tribal information and artifacts were in high demand. This prompted many to write about the Tlingits and other First Peoples they had contact with, for example, George Thornton Emmons, who was on active duty with the Navy, and Salisbury, a principal of the Klawock School on Prince of Wales Island. Some writings from these amateur ethnographers prove to be windows into the past of the Tlingit; others, like Salisbury’s Quoth the Raven: A Little Journey into the Primitive, also revealed the “white man’s” mindset pertaining to the civilizing of the “savages.” Throughout the northwest there were parttime “collectors” of Native American artifacts who were not above grave robbery. Louis Shotridge (Tlingit) was hired by the University of Pennsylvania’s museum to obtain Tlingit tribal artifacts with documentation and provenance on each item. To this day he has been praised for the quality of the artifacts, and especially the thorough information on each article; he proved to be superior to any other ethnographer working among the Tlingit people. However, he also angered his fellow Tlingits, to the point where some would hide their artifacts when he came to town. Affluent businessmen from Seattle would take voyages to the “wilds” of Alaska or Canada to gather artifacts from seemingly abandoned villages. A case in point is the pilfered totem standing in Pioneer Square in Seattle, which was stolen from the winter house of Tongass while the residents were living at their fishing camp.
When the American saltries and canneries started appearing, the local Tlingit clans proclaimed their rights to fishing areas and imposed a fee, which for about a decade some did honor and pay, but with the increase of fellow Americans, and as the military’s presence became stronger, the claims were no longer honored. In 1899, Jefferson Moser, an agent of the U.S. fisheries, noted the confusion the “Indians” felt about the lack of honor concerning the refusal to pay tribute for the use of the Tlingit’s fishing areas. The mid-1800s to early 1900s, when the missionaries and schoolteachers started arriving and the United States assumed ownership of Alaska, became a time of great change within the Tlingit tribes.
In 1938 the Indian Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), with the collaboration of the U.S. Forest Service, employed Tlingit carvers from southeast Alaska to restore and re-carve the totems in an effort to preserve the cultural art and make them more accessible to the general public. Some of these carvers had once lived in the very abandoned villages from which these totems had been removed. Anthropologist Viola E. Garfield researched and documented the stories of these totems and presented her findings in Wolf and the Raven. The craft of totem carving was thought to have been a thing of the past; the CCC project, however, did much to revive and stimulate the skills as part of a series of events of cultural restoration. Also, Bill Holm recreated the form-line art design system traditionally followed by the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Bella Bella that had almost been lost due to the various forces of acculturation working against the traditional clan artists. Holm’s Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form created a revival in Northwest Coast art among the Tlingit artists, and serves as a part of many a new carver’s curriculum. In 1976, when the Klukwan Frog House artifacts were sold, Klukwan’s leaders created a law forbidding the sale of Klukwan artifacts.
Left: Replacement “Raven’s Adventures” totem, in process of being recarved by Master Carver John Rowen. Right: The original totem carved by the CCC carvers at Klawock, Alaska.
Left: Simon P. Roberts and Adrian Guthrie embark on the first Tlingit banishment in over 100 years. Right: One of the Combined Tribal Court of Thlingit Law Judges and a member of the Thlawaa Thlingit Nation Council of Elders, former Chief Theodore Roberts seated by grandson Simon P. Roberts, during banishment period.
There have also been unsettling events, such as the burning of regalia in 1992 when a Tlingit Evangelist, Flo Ellers, challenged a congregation as to what is not permissible for a Christian by stating, “There will be no Chilkat dancers dancing in Heaven.”
In 1994, an unprecedented event attracted international attention when a judge in Everett, Washington released two teenage Tlingit boys to the Combined Tribal Court of Thlingit Law. The Tribal Court sentenced the boys to banishment, which had not taken place in over one hundred years. This caused a division among the Tlingit people: some said “there never was such a thing,” while others rejected the leader of the project, and therefore rejected the banishment. However, many of the younger generation recognized it as a step toward sovereignty. One of the boys later stated, “There was nothing negative about my banishment. It was a time for self-respect, introspection, and purification. It helped me get back to my roots.”
Since the first contact with Europeans, the Tlingit have adapted and adopted a new way of life. Their Tlingit culture, once denied them, is now being embraced; potlatches are being held; Tlingit art is flourishing; the sound of the adze is heard throughout the land; carvers are creating heraldic clan totems; tribal justice is taking its rightful place for the people; the language is being taught; and Tlingit clan conferences are being held to assist the people in making connections to their tribal past. There is also an increase in the number of Tlingit politicians, anthropologists, lawyers, and scholars. In ancient times, Raven taught the Tlingits, “the people,” to adapt to change, a lesson that the Tlingits have learned well.
- Dombrowski, K. (2001). Against culture: Development, politics, and religion in Indian Alaska. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
- Emmons, G. T. (1991). The Tlingit Indians. Edited with additions by Frederica de Laguna. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
- Hope, A., III, & Thornton, T. F. (2000). Will the time ever come? A Tlingit source book. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Knowledge Network, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska Fairbanks.