The name Tlingit means in the people. These Native Americans continue to inhabit many of their aboriginal village sites along the southeastern coast of Alaska. Foraging people, they were well adapted to hunting and gathering in rugged temperate rain forest and at sea. Tlingit came to depend on income from fur trapping and an active arts and crafts trade. Today they value education and work in business, industry, government, and professions.
Their kinship system was matrilineal, as in the Haida and Tsimshian tribes. Family name and inheritance, as well as rights to property and privileges, including resource sites and ceremonial activities, were passed down through the mother’s side of the family. Each person belonged from birth to either the Eagle or the Raven group and was permitted to marry only a person from the other group. Ravens and Eagles were divided into clans, each with its own animal symbol or crest, and clans were further divided into houses or extended families.
Traditional religion was based on the animistic belief that spirits called jek inhabited people, animals, and objects in the natural world. The environment could be influenced, for good or ill, by human intervention, and that made it important to observe customs that ensured prosperity by placating the souls of animals hunted. The Tlingit also believed in a creator whose name had to be whispered. All members of the tribe were reborn from one of their ancestors, and the ancestors were included as elements of their totem pole designs. A shaman acted as priest, doctor, or counselor. When hundreds died of tuberculosis in the early 20th century, people lost faith in shamans and turned to Christianity for comfort. Russian Orthodox and Presbyterian missionaries made significant impact on the Tlingit. Many gave up their Tlingit names, from which they had derived identity and status, and were given new names when they became Christians.
Contact with Europeans began with explorations in the 18th century. After brief encounters with Russians and Spanish at the beginning of the century, the Spanish set up business at Nootka Sound in 1789, the Russians at Sitka in 1799; British trading companies became well established early in the 19th century. Tlingits suffered from disease and alcohol introduced by Europeans; hundreds died between 1836 and 1840.
Just when Tlingit culture was most vulnerable, European settlers began to arrive. Americans came looking for gold and began to occupy and control Tlingit lands. The U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 brought even more settlers to establish canneries, mines, and logging camps, challenging the Tlingit tradition of taking only resources needed for survival. American military strength silenced Tlingit protest. In 1912, Tlingits joined with other tribes and founded the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) in an attempt to fight for their civil rights and subsistence sources. In 1929, Tlingits initiated a struggle to regain control of their natural resources that led to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 and the return of millions of acres of land.
There has been a revival of interest in Tlingit dances, songs, language, artwork, stories, and potlatch gatherings. The fight for survival of a culture continues. Tlingit ability to live off the land and sea is continually at risk due to logging, overharvesting of fish by commercial fisheries, increasing population, and government regulation, but Tlingits are politically active on local and national levels and remain focused on land and resource claims, self-rule, and cultural resource control.
- Jonaitis, A. (1986). Art of the northern Tlingit. Seattle:
- University of Washington Press. Obery, K. (1973). The social economy of the Tlingit Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press.