views updated May 08 2018


by Diane E. Benson ('Lxeis')


Alaska is a huge land mass that contains many different environments ranging from the frigid streams and tundra above the Arctic circle to the windy islands of the Aleutians to the mild rainy weather of southeast Alaska. Alaska consists of over 533,000 square miles, with a coastline as long that of the rest of the continental United States. The southern end of the Alaska coastline, a region known as Southeast Alaska, is home to the primary Tlingit (pronounced "klingit") communities. This area covers the narrow coastal strip of the continental shore along British Columbia; it is similar in size and shape to the state of Florida, but with few communities connected by road. Tlingit communities are located from just south of Ketchikan and are scattered northward across islands and mainland as far as the Icy Bay area. Tlingit people also occupy some inland area on the Canadian side of the border in British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. The mainland Tlingit of Alaska occupy a range of mountains from 50 to 100 miles inland. The northern portion of Tlingit country is glacial with the majesty of the Fairweather and Saint Elias mountains overlooking the northern shores of the Gulf of Alaska. Fjords, mountains that dive into the sea, islands, and ancient trees make up most of this wet country that is part of one of the largest temperate rain forests in the world.

The total population of Alaska is just under 600,000. Approximately 86,000 Alaska Natives, the indigenous peoples of Alaska, live there. The Tlingit population at time of contact by Europeans is estimated to have been 15,000. Some reports include the Haida in population estimates, since Tlingit and Haida are almost always grouped together for statistical purposes. Today, Tlingit and Haida Central Council tribal enrollment figures show a total of 20,713 Tlingit and Haida, of which 16,771 are Tlingit. Most of the Tlingit population live in urban communities of southeastern Alaska, though a significant number have made their homes all across the continent. Euro-Americans dominate the Southeast population, with the Tlingit people being the largest minority group in the region.


The name Tlingit essentially means human beings. The word was originally used simply to distinguish a human being from an animal, since Tlingits believed that there was little difference between humans and animals. Over time the word came to be a national name. It is speculated that human occupation of southeast Alaska occurred 11,000 years ago by Tlingit people. Haida people, with whom the Tlingit have frequent interaction, have only been in the area about 200 years, and the Tsimpsian migrated only recently from the Canadian interior mainland.

Tlingit legends speak of migrations into the area from several possible directions, either from the north as a possible result of the Bering Sea land bridge, or from the southwest, after a maritime journey from the Polynesian islands across the Pacific. Oral traditions hold that the Tlingit came from the head of the rivers. As one story goes, Nass-aa-geyeil' (Raven from the head of the Nass River) brought light and stars and moon to the world. The Tlingit are unique and unrelated to other tribes around them. They have no linguistic relationship to any other language except for a vague similarity to the Athabaskan language. They also share some cultural similarity with the Athabaskan, with whom the Tlingit have interacted and traded for centuries. There may also be a connection between the Haida and the Tlingit, but this issue is debated. Essentially, the origin of the Tlingit is unknown.

Tlingit people are grouped and divided into units called kwan. Some anthropological accounts estimate that 15 to 20 kwan existed at the time of European contact. A kwan was a group of people who lived in a mutual area, shared residence, intermarried, and lived in peace. Communities containing a Tlingit population may be called the Sitkakwan, the Taku-kwan, or the Heenya-kwan, depending on their social ties and/or location. Most of the urban communities of Southeast Alaska occupy the sites of many of the traditional kwan communities. Before the arrival of explorers and settlers, groups of Tlingit people would travel by canoe through treacherous waters for hundreds of miles to engage in war, attend ceremonies, trade, or marry.

Through trade with other tribes as far south as the Olympic Peninsula and even northern California, the Tlingit people had established sophisticated skills. In the mid-1700s, the Spaniards and the British, attracted by the fur trade, penetrated the Northwest via the Juan de Fuca Islands (in the Nootka Sound area). The Russians, also in search of furs, invaded the Aleutian Islands and moved throughout the southwestern coast of Alaska toward Tlingit country. The Tlingit traders may have heard stories of these strangers coming but took little heed.


Europeans arrived in Tlingit country for the first time in 1741, when Russian explorer Aleksey Chirikov sent a boatload of men to land for water near the modern site of Sitka. When the group did not return for several days, he sent another boat of men to shore; they also did not return. Thereafter, contact with Tlingit people was limited until well into the 1800s.

Russian invaders subdued the Aleut people, and moving southward, began their occupation of Tlingit country. Having monopolized trade routes in any direction from or to Southeast Alaska, the Tlingit people engaged in somewhat friendly but profitable trading with the newcomers until the Russians became more aggressive in their attempts to colonize and control trade routes. In 1802 Chief Katlian of the Kiksadi Tlingit of the Sitka area successfully led his warriors against the Russians, who had set up a fort in Sitka with the limited permission of the Tlingit. Eventually the Russians recaptured Sitka and maintained a base they called New Archangel, but they had little contact with the Sitka clans. For years the Tlingit resisted occupation and the use of their trade routes by outsiders. In 1854 a Chilkat Tlingit war party travelled hundreds of miles into the interior and destroyed a Hudson Bay Company post in the Yukon Valley.

Eventually, diseases and other hardships took their toll on the Tlingit people, making them more vulnerable. In a period between 1836 and 1840, it is estimated that one-half of the Tlingit people at or near Sitka were wiped out by smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis. At about this time, Americans came into Tlingit country for gold, and in the process sought to occupy and control the land and its people. The Tlingit loss to disease only made American occupation more swift, and Americans became firmly established in the land with the 1867 Treaty of Purchase of Alaska. The Tlingit continually fought American development of canneries, mines, and logging, which conflicted with the Tlingit lifestyle. Disputes between the Americans and the decreasing Tlingit people proved futile for the Tlingit, since Americans displayed impressive military strength, technology, and an unwavering desire for settlement and expansion. The destruction of the Tlingit villages of Kake in the 1860s and of Angoon in 1882 by the American military (due to a disagreement involving the death of two Native people) further established American power and occupancy.


The Treaty of Cession (1867) referred to indigenous people of Alaska as "uncivilized tribes." Such designation in legislation and other agreements caused Alaska Natives to be subject to the same regulations and policies as American Indians in the United States. Statements by the Office of the Solicitor in the U.S. Department of Interior in 1932 further supported the federal government's treatment of Alaska Natives as American Indians. As a result, Tlingit people were subject to such policies as the 1884 First Organic Act, which affected their claims to land and settlements, and the 1885 Major Crimes Act, which was intended to strip tribes of their right to deal with criminal matters according to traditional customs. By the turn of the century, the Tlingit people were threatened politically, territorially, culturally, and socially.

In response, the Tlingit people organized the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB). The ANB was founded in Sitka in 1912 by nine Tlingit and one Tsimpsian. The ANB's goals were to gain equality for the Native people of Southeast Alaska and to obtain for them the same citizenship and education rights as non-Natives. In 1915, due to the efforts of the ANB (and the newly organized Alaska Native Sisterhood), the territorial legislature adopted a position similar to the Dawes Act to allow Natives to become citizens, provided that the Natives became "civilized" by rejecting certain tribal customs and relationships. As a result, few Native people became citizens at this time; most did not become American citizens until the U.S. Congress adopted the Citizenship Act of 1924.

Tlingit people also actively pursued the right to vote. Unlike many Alaska Native people at the time who wanted to continue living as they had for many generations, Tlingit leaders sought increased political power. In 1924, William Paul, a Tlingit, won election to the Territorial House of Representatives, marking the beginning of a trend toward Native political power.

In 1929 the ANB began discussing land issues, and as a result Congress passed a law in 1935 allowing Tlingits and Haidas to sue the United States for the loss of their lands. By this time large sections of Tlingit country had become the Tongass National Forest. Glacier Bay had become a National Monument, and further south in Tlingit country, Annette Island was set aside as a reservation for Tsimpsian Indians from Canada. In 1959the same year that Alaska was admitted as a statethe Court of Claims decided in favor of the Tlingit and Haida for payment of land that was taken from them. The Tlingit-Haida land claims involved 16 million acres without a defined monetary value; an actual settlement took years to conclude. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed, which called for the settlement of all claims against the United States and the state of Alaska that are based on aboriginal right, title, use, or occupancy of land or water areas in Alaska.

Tlingit individuals did not receive title to lands as a result of ANCSA. Instead, lands claimed by southeast Natives under this act were placed under the control of the ANCSA-established regional corporation, Sealaska, and the ANCSA-established village corporations. Some village corporations had the option to provide individuals with land in some cases, but most villages designated the land for future development.

The Native Allotment Act of 1906 did result in some Tlingit lands being placed in the hands of individual Tlingits. This law provided for conveyance of 160 acres to adult Natives as long as no tract of ground contained mineral deposits. Only a few allotments were issued in southeast Alaska. The Native Townsite Act of 1926 also provided only for the conveyance of "restricted" title lands, meaning such property could not be sold or leased without the approval of the Secretary of the Interior. Despite these gains, lands re-obtained this way by the villages or by individuals failed to sufficiently meet the needs of a hunting and fishing people.

The issues of Native citizenship, their right to vote, fishing and fishing trap disputes, and the activities of ANCSA contributed to the rising tensions between the Tlingit and the newcomers. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, it was not uncommon to see signs that read "No Indians Allowed" on the doors of business establishments. The Alaska Native Brotherhood did much to fight these prejudices and elevate the social status of the Tlingit and Haida people as American citizens. Today, although Tlingit people are much more accepted, their fight for survival continues. Their ability to subsist off the land and sea is constantly endangered by logging, pulp mills, overharvesting of the waters by commercial fisheries, government regulations, and the area's increasing population.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Throughout the nineteenth century, many Tlingit communities were affected by the influx of various industries. Fish canneries were established in Sitka and Klawock, gold mining began at Windham Bay, and a Presbyterian mission station was constructed at the place now known as Haines. New settlements like Juneau (1880) and Ketchikan (1888) dramatically changed Tlingit lands and economic systems. A mixed cash-subsistence economy developed, changing traditional trade and material acquisition systems. Missionary schools determined to acculturate the Tlingit and other Alaska Natives instructed the Tlingit in English and American ways and denied the indigenous students access to their traditional language, foods, dances, songs, and healing methods. Although change was overwhelming and Americanization pervasive, Tlingit clan structures remained intact, and traditions survived in the original communities. At the turn of the century it was not uncommon for southeast factories to employ clan leaders to prevent disputes and keep order between their employees and the Native communities.

The destruction and death brought on by disease caused many to abandon their faith in the shaman and traditional healing by the turn of the century. Smallpox and other epidemics of the early nineteenth century recurred well into the twentieth century. A number of communities, including Dry Bay and Lituya Bay, were devastated in 1918 and thereafter by bouts of influenza. Important and culturally fundamental traditional gatherings, or potlatches, became almost nonexistent in Tlingit country during the tuberculosis epidemics of the 1900s. These epidemics caused hundreds of Tlingit and other southeast people to be institutionalized; many of those who fell victim to these diseases were subsequently buried in mass graves. Tlingit people turned to the churches for relief, and in the process many were given new names to replace their Tlingit names, an important basis of identity and status in Tlingit society. Demoralization and hopelessness ensued and worsened with the government-sponsored internment of Aleut people in Tlingit country during World War II. Some Tlingit families adopted Aleut children who had been orphaned as a result of widespread disease and intolerable living conditions.

When they were established, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood accepted acculturation as a goal for their members, believing that the abandonment of cultural traditions was in the peoples' best interest. Their organizational structure, however, reflected a traditional form of government to manage tribal and clan operations. Social and clan interactions and relationships continue to exist to this day despite all outside influences and despite the marked adaptations of Tlingit people to American society. The relatively recent revival of dances, songs, potlatches, language, and stories has strengthened continuing clan interactions and identities.


Tlingit people believe that all life is of equal value; plants, trees, birds, fish, animals, and human beings are all equally respected. Clans and Clan Houses have identifying crests; a clan is equally proud whether its crest is a killer whale or a snail. There are no recognized superior species. When any "crested" living being dies, homage is expected, and appropriate respects are paid. Today, some communities of the southeast are still very sensitive to this tradition.

Tlingit people do not tolerate misuse or misappropriation of their crests, names, songs, designs, stories, or other properties. Each crest has stories and songs associated with it that belong to the crest and thereby to its clan. Ownership recognition of these things among the Tlingit is profound. Almost a century ago, two clans began a dispute over who owned a particular crest. This conflict is discussed in detail in Frederica de Laguna's 1972 work, Under Mt. St. Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakatat Tlingit. The issue developed into a social, political, and legal battle that ensued for decades, and in many ways remains unresolved. Using a killer whale song, story, or crest design without acknowledging the owning clan or without its permission, for example, can be considered stealing. Crest ownership sometimes conflicts with American notions of public domain. This conflict, along with a growing interest by the general public in Tlingit art and culture, has raised concerns among the clans about how to protect their birthrights from distortion and acquisition.

Tlingits demand that respect be shown toward other individuals and clans. When a person feels insulted by another, payment must be made by the person or clan who was responsible for the insult, or a process performed to remove the damage publicly. If this does not happen, bad feelings persist, negatively affecting relationships between clans. In the old ways, if a Tlingit person was seriously harmed or murdered by another Tlingit person, the "eye for an eye" philosophy would determine punishment: someone from the opposing clan would have to die. Today, that philosophy is adapted to remain within legal boundaries. Criminal cases are tried strictly by American law, but the family of the perpetrator is subject to social ostracism. Payment by the perpetrator's clan to the harmed clan for the wrongdoing is also conceivable.

Many newcomers to Tlingit country, including some missionaries, erroneously reported that the Tlingit people worshipped totems, idolized animals or birds as gods, and held heathen rituals. As a result some religious leaders instructed their Native congregations to burn or destroy various elements of their art and culture, and a good deal of Tlingit heirlooms were destroyed in this way. These misconceptions undermined the complexity and power of Tlingit culture and society.


Potlatches are an integral part of Tlingit history and modern-day life. A potlatch is a giant feast that marks a time for showing respect, paying debts, and displaying wealth. Tlingit people give grandly at potlatches to raise their stature. The respect and honor held toward one's ancestry, name, house crest, and family, and the extent of one's wealth might determine how elaborate a potlatch would be; these ceremonies are not, however, forms of worship to any gods. Potlatches are given for various reasons and may be planned for years in advance. The most common potlatches given today are funeral potlatches, the 40-Day Party, memorial potlatches, adoption potlatches, naming potlatches, totem-pole-raising potlatches, and house- or lodge-building potlatches.

A person's death requires a three-stage potlatch process to properly attend to the deceased person's transfer to the spirit world or future life. The first potlatch includes the mourning and burial of the deceased, lasting from one to four days. George Emmons reports in his book The Tlingit Indians that this process traditionally took four to eight days. During this time, the body is prepared for cremation or burial (which is more common today). Attendees sing songs of grief; sometimes the family fasts. Feasts are prepared for guests of the opposite clan (see below for explanation of opposite clans); afterward the person is buried. During the second stage, a party is held for the deceased person's clan. The third stage, or memorial potlatch, which can take place at any time, usually occurs about a year later. The memorial potlatch is a ritual process of letting go emotionally of the deceased. It marks the final release of the deceased to their future life as well as the final mourning, speeches, and deceased person's clan's payments to the opposite clan. The conclusion of the potlatch is a celebration of life and happy stories and song.

Sometimes less elaborate potlatches are held to give names to youngsters, or to those who have earned a new or second name. Naming potlatches may be held in conjunction with a memorial potlatch, as can adoption potlatches. Adoption ceremonies are held for one or more individuals who have proven themselves to a clan by their long term commitment to a Tlingit family or community and who have become members of the clan. The new members receive gifts and names, and are obligated from that day forward to uphold the ways of that clan. For whatever reason potlatches are held, ceremony is ever present. Participants wear traditional dress, make painstaking preparations, give formal speeches in Tlingit and English, and observe proper Tlingit etiquette.


The traditional diet of the Tlingit people relies heavily on the sea. Fish, seal, seaweed, clams, cockles, gum boots (chitonsa shell fish), herring, eggs and salmon eggs, berries, and venison make up the primary foods of most Tlingit people. Fish, such as halibut, cod, herring, and primarily salmon, (king, reds, silver, and sockeye) are prepared in many formsmost commonly smoked, dried, baked, roasted, or boiled. Dog, silver, humpy, and sockeye salmon are the fish best utilized for smoking and drying. The drying process takes about a week and involves several stages of cleaning, deboning, and cutting strips and hanging the fish usually near an open fire until firm. These strips serve as a food source throughout the year, as they are easily stored and carried.

The land of southeastern Alaska is abundant with ocean and wildlife, and because of this the Tlingit people could easily find and prepare foods in the warmer seasons, saving colder months for art, crafts, and elaborate gatherings. Today, although food sources have been impacted by population and industry, the traditional foods are still gathered and prepared in traditional ways as well as in new and creative ways influenced by the various ethnic groups who have immigrated into the area, especially Filipino (rice has become a staple of almost any Tlingit meal). Pilot bread, brought in by various seafaring merchants, is also common as it stores well, and softens, for the individual, the consumption of oil delicacies such as the eulochon and seal oils. Fry-bread is also an element of many meals and special occasions. Other influences on diet and food preparation besides standard American include Norwegian, Russian, and Chinese foods.

Other foods of the Tlingit include such pungent dishes as xákwl ́ee, soap berries (whipped berries often mixed with fish or seal oil), seal liver, dried seaweed, fermented fish eggs, abalone, grouse, crab, deer jerky, sea greens, -suktéitl ́ goose tongue (a plant food), rosehips, rhubarb, roots, yaana.eit (wild celery), and s ́ikshaldéen (Hudson Bay tea).


Traditionally Tlingit men and women wore loincloths and skirts made of cedar bark. Because of the rainy weather in southeastern Alaska, raincoats were worn, which were also made from natural elements such as spruce root or cedar bark. Today, Tlingit people no longer wear loincloths and cedar bark skirts, dressing very much as other contemporary Americans. Although modern, Tlingit people display their clan or family emblem on clothing or through jewelry, as has been the custom for centuries.

The most distinctive form of ceremonial dress prior to Americanization and still the most admired is the Chilkat robe. Although called the Chilkat robe after the Chilkat tribe of Tlingit who specialized in weaving, its origin is Tsimpsian. The robe is made from mountain goat wool and cedar bark strips and generally exhibits an emblem of the clan. This garment takes a weaver one to five years to make. The technique not only involves a horizontal weaving similar to that found in other cultures, but also a symmetrical and circular (curvilinear) design as well. This complex art form came dangerously close to extinction in the twentieth century, but through the perseverance of individuals in and outside the tribe there are now several weavers, elder and younger, in Tlingit and other northwest nations today. This is also true of the recently revived art of the Raven's Tail robe, another complexly woven garment of black and white worn over the shoulders in the same cape fashion as the Chilkat robe. Raven's Tail weaving of geometric and herring bone patterns is a skill that had not been practiced in nearly two centuries, but with the resurgence of cultural interest is now being practiced throughout the northwest coast. Chilkat and Raven's Tail weaving is also used to make leggings, medicine bags, dance purses, dance aprons, tunics, and shirts.

In 1982 the Sealaska Heritage Foundation in Juneau began what is called Celebration. It occurs every even year as a gathering to celebrate culture. At Celebration today, many Chilkat robes can be seen. Chilkat robes are never worn as daily dress, but are worn with pride at potlatches, celebrations, and sometimes for burial, if the person was of a particular social stature. Chilkat robes are a sign of wealth, and traditionally if one owned such an item, he was generally a clan leader of great prestige. Giving away a Chilkat robe meant greater glory since only the wealthiest could afford to be so generous.

Modern regalia today consists primarily of the button blanket, or dancing robe, which although time consuming and expensive to make, is much more available to the people than the Chilkat or Raven's Tail robe. Russian influence played a great part in the evolution of the button blanket, since trade provided the Tlingit people with felt of usually red, black, or blue from which the button blanket is made. These robes are often intricately decorated with one's clan emblems through appliqué variations and mother of pearl (shell) button outlines or solid beading of the design. These robes are worn to display one's lineage and family crest at gatherings, in much the same way as the Chilkat robe.

Robes of any type are almost always worn with an appropriate headdress. Headdresses can be as varied and simple as a headband or as intricate and rich as a carved cedar potlatch hat, displaying one's crest, decorated with color, inlaid with abalone shell, and finished with ermine. Russian influence inspired the sailor style hat that many women wear for dancing. These are made of the same felt as the button blanket and completed with beaded tassels. Ornamentation traditionally included some hair dressing, ear and nose piercing, labrets, bracelets, face painting, and tattooing. Most of these facets of adornment are practiced today, excluding the labret.

The formal dress of the Tlingit people is not only a show of power, wealth, or even lineage, but is an integral part of the social practices of the Tlingit. Tlingit people practice the respect of honoring the opposite clan and honoring one's ancestors in the making and handling of a garment. Importance is placed also on the maker of the garment, and the relationship of his or her clan to the clan of the wearer. Dress in Tlingit culture is an acknowledgment of all who came before.


Existing traditional health-care centers consist primarily of physical healing through diet and local medicines, although this practice is rather limited. A few people today still use teas brewed from the devil's club, Hudson bay tea leaves, roots, leaves, and flowers of various plants that cleanse the body, boost the immune system, and even heal wounds and illnesses. Overall, the Tlingit people primarily use modern medical treatment through the existing federally established health-care systems.

Contemporary health-care methods are only marginally effective. Some of the Tlingit believe that people have a relationships with spirits, can communicate with animals and birds, and can learn from all life forms. Those who vocalize these experiences or abilities, however, feel vulnerable about being labelled as mentally ill. Still considered a radical idea by most modernized Tlingit and mental health specialists, this aspect of Tlingit culture is only now beginning to be discussed.

Health problems among the Tlingit are not much different than they are with other Alaska Native peoples. Extensive and continuous Indian Health Service data demonstrate their susceptibility to such illnesses as influenza, arthritis, hepatitis, cancer, and diabetes. Alcoholism is a more common disease that has taken its toll on the people, and although suicide is not as high amongst the Tlingit as it seems to be in more northern Native communities, it too has caused havoc and despair for some Tlingit communities. Providing social and emotional support for individuals as well as for the family structure has become a concern for health-care professionals and concerned tribal citizens. Since the Alaska Natives Commission's 1994 report was released stressing the link between health and culture, more and more communities are discussing the psychology of various forms of cultural and social oppression and how to recover spiritually, mentally, and physically.


The Tlingit language is a tone language that has 24 sounds not found in English. Tlingit is phonemic in that the difference in meaning between words often depends entirely on tone. Much of the Tlingit language is guttural and some of the sounds are similar to that of German. Almost all Alaska Native languages have guttural or "back-in-the-mouth" sounds. Tlingit is unique in that it is not only guttural but has glottalized stops and a series of linguistically related sounds called glottalized fricatives. The sounds of Tlingit are difficult and varied and include not only the more familiar rolling and drawn out vowel sounds and deeper guttural sounds, but also pinched and air driven sounds with consonants which are "voiceless" (except for the "n" sound, as in "naa"). Many of the consonants have no English equivalents.

In the nineteenth century, the first attempts were made to communicate in Tlingit through writing. The Russian Orthodox Church through Bishop Innocent (Veniaminov) created the first alphabet for the Tlingit language and developed a Tlingit literacy program. The Orthodox Church supported bilingual education in its schools, but the Americans discouraged it, and ultimately sought to suppress the use of the language completely. It was not until the 1960s that a Native language literacy movement was resumed through the efforts of such linguists as Constantine Naish and Gillian Story. These linguists created the Tlingit alphabet that is more commonly used today.

Unlike the English alphabet of 26 letters, the Tlingit language has at least 32 consonants and eight vowels. The alphabet was created with not only the familiar lettering of English but also with periods, underlines on letters, and apostrophes to distinguish particular sounds. For example; the word yéil means Raven, and yéil' (with the apostrophe) means elderberry.

Tlingit grammar does not indicate concern with time, whereas English conveys some sense of time with almost any verb usage. Tlingit verbs may provide the information about an action's frequency or indicate the stopping or starting of an action. The grammatical and phonological features of the language make it a difficult one to learn if it has not been taught since birth, but it is not impossible. Unfortunately, due to past efforts to suppress the language there are not many young speakers, although the need to keep the language alive is crucial. The need to maintain indigenous languages is urgently stated in the 1994 Final Report of the Alaska Natives Commission: "At the core of many problems in the Alaska Native community are unhealed psychological and spiritual wounds and unresolved grief brought on by a century-long history of deaths by epidemics and cultural and political deprivation at others' hands; some of the more tragic consequences include the erosion of Native languages in which are couched the full cultural understanding, and the erosion of cultural values."


Tlingit people do not use such greetings as hello, good-bye, good afternoon, or good evening. Some common expressions are: Yoo xat duwasaakw my name is; Gunalchéesh Thank you; Yak'éi ixwsiteení It's good to see you; Wáa sá iyatee How are you (feeling?; Wa.éku.aa? Where are you going?; and Haa kaa gaa kuwatee It's good weather for us.

Family and Community Dynamics

Tlingit society is divided into two primary ("opposite") clans or moieties, subclans or clans, and houses. The moieties are Raven and Eagle, and all Tlingits are either Raven or Eagle by birthright. The structure is matrilineal, meaning each person is born with the moiety of their mother, which is typically the opposite of the father: If the mother is Eagle, then the father is Raven or vice versa. Traditionally moiety intramarriage was not allowed even if the two Ravens or two Eagles were not at all blood related. Today, although frowned upon, moiety intramarriage occasionally occurs without the social ostracizing of the past.

Clans exist under the Raven moiety and the Eagle moiety. Clans are a subdivision of the moieties; each has its own crest. A person can be Eagle and of the Killer Whale or Brown Bear Clan, or of several other existing clans; Ravens may be of the Frog Clan, Sea Tern Clan, Coho Clan, and so forth. Houses, or extended families, are subdivisions of the clans. Prior to contact houses would literally be houses or lodges in which members of that clan or family coexisted. Today houses are one of the ways in which Tlingit people identify themselves and their relationship to others. Some examples of houses include the Snail House, Brown Bear Den House, Owl House, Crescent Moon House, Coho House, and Thunderbird House.

Tlingits are born with specific and permanent clan identities. Today these identities and relationships are intact and still acknowledged by the tribe. Biological relationships are one part of the family and clan structure; the other is the reincarnate relationships. Tlingit social structures and relationships are also effected by the belief that all Tlingits are reincarnates of an ancestor. This aspect of Tlingit lineage is understood by the elders but is not as likely to be understood and acknowledged by the younger Tlingit, although clan conferences are being held to educate people about this complex social system.

In Tlingit society today, even though many Tlingits marry other Tlingits, there exists a great deal of interracial marriage, which has changed some of the dynamics of family and clan relationships. Many Tlingit people marry Euro-Americans, and a few marry into other races or other tribes. Some of the interracial families choose to move away from the Tlingit communities and from Tlingit life. Others live in the communities but do not participate in traditional Tlingit activities. A few of the non-Tlingit people intermarried with Tlingit become adopted by the opposite clan of their Tlingit spouse and thereby further their children's participation in Tlingit society.

Traditionally boys and girls were raised with a great deal of family and community support. The uncles and aunts of the children played a major role in the children's development into adulthood. Uncles and aunts often taught the children how to physically survive and participate in society, and anyone from the clan could conceivably reprimand or guide the child. Today the role of the aunts and uncles has diminished, but in the smaller and dominantly Tlingit communities some children are still raised this way. Most Tlingit children are raised in typical American one-family environments, and are instructed in American schools as are other American children. Tlingit people place a strong importance on education and many people go on to receive higher education degrees. Traditional education is usually found in dance groups, traditional survival camps, art camps, and Native education projects through the standard education systems.


Traditionally, spiritual acknowledgment was present in every aspect of the culture, and healing involved the belief that an ailing physical condition was a manifestation of a spiritual problem, invasion, or disturbance. In these cases, a specialist, or shaman-ixt', would be called in to combat spirit(s) yéiks, or the negative forces of a witch or "medicine man." Today, anyone addressing such spiritual forces does so quietly, and most people are silent on the subject. The Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978, but to date has had little effect other than to provide some legal support for Tlingit potlatch and traditional burial practices.

Institutionalized religion, or places of worship, were not always a part of the traditional Tlingit way of life, although they are now. The Russian Orthodox and Presbyterian faiths have had the longest and most profound impact on Tlingit society and are well established in the Tlingit communities. Other religions have become popular in southeast Alaska, and a few Tlingit people are members of the Jehovah Witnesses, the Bahai's, and the fundamentalist Baptist churches.

Employment and Economic Traditions

The Tlingit economy at time of contact was a subsistence economy supported by intense trade. The cash economy and the American systems of ownership have altered the lifestyle of Tlingit people dramatically; however, many Tlingits have adapted successfully. Job seekers find occupations primarily in logging and forestry, fishing and the marine industry, tourism, and other business enterprises. Because of the emphasis on education, a significant number of Tlingit people work in professional positions as lawyers, health-care specialists, and educators. The Sealaska Corporation and village corporations created under ANCSA also provide some employment in blue collar work, office work, and corporate management. Not all positions within the corporations are held by Tlingit and Haida, as a large number of jobs are filled by non-Natives. The corporations provide dividendsthe only ANCSA compensation families receive for land they have lost, but these are generally rather modest. Some of the village corporations have produced some hefty lump sum dividends out of timber sales and onetime sale of NOL's (net operating losses) sold to other corporations for tax purposes, but these windfalls are infrequent.

Since the ANCSA bill passed in 1971, differences in wealth distribution among the Tlingit have arisen that did not previously exist. Some of the Tlingit people are economically disadvantaged and have less opportunities today to rely on subsistence for survival. Welfare reliance has become an all-too-common reality for many families, while those in political and corporate positions seem to become more financially independent. As a result shareholder dissension has increased annually and become rather public.

Politics and Government

Tlingit and Haida people have been and continue to be very active in both community and clan politics and tribal governments as well as in state and city issues. Many Tlingits since the 1920s have won seats in the Territorial legislature, setting in motion Tlingit involvement in all aspects of politics and government. Tlingit activist and ANS leader Elizabeth Peratrovich made the plea for justice and equality regardless of race to the territorial legislature on February 8, 1945 that prompted the signing of an anti-discrimination bill. Her efforts as a civil rights leader became officially recognized by the State of Alaska in 1988 with the "Annual Elizabeth Peratrovich Day." She is the only person in Alaska to be so honored for political and social efforts.

The ANCSA-created corporations wield a great deal of political power, and Tlingit and Haida corporate officials are often courted by legislators and businessmen. The corporations are a strong lobby group in Alaska's capital since they not only control lands and assets but represent over 16,000 Tlingit and Haida shareholders. Tlingit people cast their individual ballots based on their own choices and results show they tend to support the Democratic party. Tlingit people running for office also tend to run on a Democratic ticket.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 provided the first real means for traditional Tlingit law to be practiced and recognized by American government. Since 1978 several tribal courts have been created and tribal judges placed. A very active tribal court exists in Sitka with Tlingit judges presiding over civil matters brought before the court. Tribal courts in Tlingit country are not yet active in determining criminal cases as might be found in other tribal courts of the continental United States, but tribal councils are considering such jurisdiction. Tribal councils and tribal courts are much more a part of the communities than they were 20 years ago, and many issues today are addressed and resolved by Tlingit communities at this level.

Although no statistics are immediately available, many Tlingit men have fought in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Tlingit participation in the U.S. armed forces is common and generally supported by the families and their communities.

Individual and Group Contributions

In the twentieth century the Tlingit people have made many contributions. The following mentions some notable Tlingit Americans and their achievements:


Elaine Abraham (1929 ), bilingual educator, was the first Tlingit to enter the nursing profession. In her early years she cared for people on the Navajo reservation during a diphtheria epidemic, and in Alaska, patients of tuberculosis and diphtheria during a time when many indigenous tribes feared modern medicine. Thereafter she served in major hospital supervisory positions and initiated such health programs as the original Southeast Health Aid Program and the Alaska Board of Health (now called the Alaska Native Health Board). An outstanding educator, she began as assistant dean of students at Sheldon Jackson College and was appointed vice-president in 1972. In Fairbanks she cofounded the Alaska Native Language Center and went on to become Vice-President of Rural Education and Extension Centers (1975). Abraham also established the Native Student Services office for Native students while teaching the Tlingit language at the Anchorage Community College. Her work in student services and indigenous understanding continues as Director of Alaska Native Studies for the University of Alaska in Anchorage.


Elizabeth Peratrovich (1911-1958), civil rights activist, is recognized by Alaskans for her contributions to the equal rights struggle in the state of Alaska. February 17 is celebrated as Elizabeth Peratrovich Day. She is also listed in the Alaska Women's Hall of Fame (1989) and honored annually by the Alaska Native Sisterhood (which she served as Grand Camp President) and by the Alaska Native Brotherhood. Roy Peratrovich (1910-1989), Elizabeth's husband, is also honored by the Alaska Native Brotherhood and other Alaskans for his dedication to bettering the education system and for actively promoting school and social integration. His efforts frequently involved satirical letters to the newspapers that stimulated controversy and debate.

William L. Paul (1885-1977) began as a law school graduate and practicing attorney and became the first Alaska Native and first Tlingit in Alaska's territorial House of Representatives. He contributed to equal rights, racial understanding, and settlement of land issues. Frank J. Peratrovich (1895-1984) received a University of Alaska honorary doctorate for public service, serving as the Mayor of Klawock and as a territorial legislator in the Alaska House and Senate. He was the first Alaska Native not only to serve in the Senate but also to become Senate President (1948).

Andrew P. Hope (1896-1968) was an active politician and contributed to the advancement of Tlingit people and social change. He was instrumental in the development of the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) and was one of Alaska's few Native legislators. Frank See (1915 ) from Hoonah was also a notable legislator, mayor, and businessman, as was Frank Johnson (1894-1982), a teacher, legislator, and lobbyist. Frank Price was also elected to the territorial legislature.


Nora Marks Dauenhauer (1927 ), poet, scholar, and linguist, has dedicated her work to the survival of the Tlingit language; she has stressed the importance of story in culture. Besides such published works in poetry as The Droning Shaman, she has edited a number of works with her husband, Richard Dauenhauer, including the bilingual editions of Tlingit oral literature, Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives (1987), and Haa Tuwunaagu Yis, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory (1990). Together they have developed Tlingit language instruction materials, Beginning Tlingit (1976), the Tlingit Spelling Book (1984), and instructional audio tapes. She has written numerous papers on the subjects of Tlingit language oratory and culture, and she has co-authored many other articles. Another active writer is Andy Hope III, essayist, poet, and editor of Raven's Bones Journal.

Orators and storytellers in Tlingit history and within the society today are numerous, but some of the noteworthy include Amy Marvin/Kooteen (1912 ); Chookan Sháa, who also serves as song-leader and as a lead drummer for the Mt. Fairweather Dancers; Robert Zuboff/Shaadaax' (1893-1974) traditional storyteller and humorist; Johnny Jackson/Gooch Éesh (1893-1985), storyteller, singer, and orator; and Jessie Dalton/Naa Tlaa (1903 ), an influential bilingual orator. Another well-respected orator was Austin Hammond/ Daanawáak (1910-1993), a traditions bearer and activist. Hammond dedicated a song to the Tlingit people just before he died for use in traditional gatherings and ceremony as the Tlingit national anthem.


A widespread interest in Tlingit dancing, singing, and stories has generated the revival and development of a large number of traditional performance groups. The renowned Geisan Dancers of Haines have scheduled national and international engagements as have Kake's, Keex' Kwaan Dancers, and Sealaska Heritage Foundation's, NaaKahidi Theatre. Other major dance groups include the Noow Tlein Dancers of Sitka, led by Vida Davis, the acclaimed children's group, Gájaa Héen Dancers of Sitka, and the Mt. Fairweather Dancers (led for many years by the late T'akdeintaan matriarch, Katherine Mills). Other notable performance groups include the Tlingit and Haida Dancers of Anchorage, the Angoon Eagles, the Angoon Ravens, the Marks Trail Dancers, the Mt. Juneau Tlingit Dancers, the Mt. St. Elias Dancers, the Seetka Kwaan Dancers, the Killerwhale Clan, the Klukwan Chilkat Dancers, and the Klawock Heinya Dancers.

Gary Waid (1948 ), has bridged the Western stage and traditional performance for nearly two decades, performing nationally and internationally in such productions as Coyote Builds North America, (Perseverance Theatre, as a solo actor), and Fires on the Water (NaaKahidi Theatre, as a leading storyteller); he has also performed in educational films such as Shadow Walkers (Alaska State Department of Education and Sealaska Heritage Foundation). Besides performing regularly in Alaska and on tour, Waid performed in New York with Summer Faced Woman (1986) and Lilac and Flag (1994), a Perseverance Theatre Production coproduced with the Talking Band. He also performs Shakespeare and standard western repertoire. David Kadashan/Kaatyé (1893-1976) was an avid musician in both Tlingit and contemporary Western music during the big band era, and became a traditional orator and song leader of standing. Archie James Cavanaugh is a jazz musician and recording artist, best known for his album Black and White Raven (1980), with some selections recorded with the late great Native American jazz saxophonist, Jim Pepper.


Nathan Jackson is a master carver who has exhibited his workstotem poles, masks, bentwood boxes and house frontsin New York, London, Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Seattle. His eagle frontlet is the first aspect of Native culture to greet airline passengers deplaning in Ketchikan. Two of his 40-foot totem poles decorate the entrance to the Centennial Building in Juneau, and other areas display his restoration and reproduction work. Reggie B. Peterson (1948 ) is a woodcarver, silversmith, and instructor of Northwest Coast art in Sitka, sharing his work with cultural centers and museums.

Jennie Thlunaut/Shax ́saani Kéek' (1890-1986), Kaagwaantaan, award-winning master Chilkat weaver, taught the ancient weaving style to others, and thereby kept the art alive. Jennie has woven over 50 robes and tunics, and received many honors and awards. In 1983 Alaska's Governor Sheffield named a day in her honor, but she chose to share the honor by naming her day Yanwaa Sháa Day to recognize her clanswomen. Emma Marks/Seigeigéi (1913 ), Lukaax.ádi, is also acclaimed for her award-winning beadwork. Esther Littlefield of Sitka has her beaded ceremonial robes, aprons, and dance shirts on display in lodges and museums, and a younger artist, Ernestine Hanlon of Hoonah creates, sells, and displays her intricate cedar and spruce basket weavings throughout southeast Alaska.

Sue Folletti/Shax ́saani Kéek' (named after Jenni Thlunaut) (1953-), Kaagwaantaan, silver carver, creates clan and story bracelets of silver and gold, traditionally designed earrings, and pendants that are sold and displayed in numerous art shows and were featured at the Smithsonian Institute during the Crossroads of the Continents traveling exhibit. Other exceptional Tlingit art craftsmen include Ed Kasko; master carver and silversmith from Klukwan, Louis Minard; master silversmith from Sitka; and developing artists like Norm Jackson, a silversmith and mask maker from Kake, and Odin Lonning (1953 ), carver, silversmith, and drum maker.



Naa Kaani.

The Sealaska Heritage Foundation Newsletter; provides updates on Sealaska Heritage Foundations cultural and literary projects. English language only.

Address: 1 Sealaska Plaza, Suite 201, Juneau, Alaska 99801.

Raven's Bones Journal.

A literary newsletter; contains reports and essays on tribal and publication issues along with listings of Native American writers and publications. (English language only.)

Contact: Andy Hope III, Editor.

Address: 523 Fourth Street, Juneau, Alaska 99801.

Sealaska Shareholder Newsletter.

A bimonthly publication of the Sealaska Corporation. The primary focus is on corporate and shareholder issues, but also reports on Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimpsian achievements and celebrations. Each issue provides a calendar of cultural, corporate, and social events. (English language only.)

Contact: Vikki Mata, Director of Corporate Communications.

Address: 1 Sealaska Plaza, Suite 400, Juneau, Alaska 99801-1276.

Telephone: (907) 586-1827.



A local radio and television broadcast station; does a 15-minute Native report five mornings a week. "Raincountry," a weekly program on television deals with Native affairs in Alaska focusing on issues in Tlingit country and the southeast as a whole. On Mondays the station airs the "Alaska Native News," a half-hour program, and Ray Peck Jr., Tlingit, hosts a radio jazz show. No Tlingit person is otherwise on staff for these programs.

Contact: Scott Foster.

Address: 224 Fourth Street, Juneau, Alaska 99801.

Telephone: (907) 586-1670.

Organizations and Associations

Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB)/Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS).

ANB (founded in 1912) and ANS (founded in 1915) promote community, education, and justice through a governing grand camp and operating subordinate camps (local ANB and ANS groups). Native education and equal rights are some of the many issues addressed by the membership, as are Tlingit and Haida well being and social standing.

Contact: Ron Williams, President.

Address: 320 West Willoughby Avenue, Juneau, Alaska 99801.

Telephone: (907) 586-2049.

Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA).

Founded in 1965. Provides trust services through Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to Tlingit and Haida people and Tlingit and Haida villages in land allotment cases, operates health and tribal employment programs, and issues educational grants and scholarships.

Contact: Edward Thomas, President.

Address: 320 West Willoughby Avenue, Suite 300, Juneau, Alaska 99801-9983.

Telephone: (907) 586-1432.

Organized Village of Kake.

Founded in 1947 under the Indian Reorganization Act. Contracts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to provide services to the tribe such as counseling referral, general assistance, assistance in Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues, education and cultural development, scholarships, and housing improvement. Through a Johnson O'Malley BIA contract they provide supplemental education and culture/language classes. The organization also handles its own tribal land trust responsibilities.

Contact: Gary Williams, Executive Director; or, Henrich Kadake, President.

Address: P.O. Box 316, Kake, Alaska 99830.

Telephone: (907) 785-6471.

Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA).

Chartered in 1938 under the Indian Reorganization Act as the Sitka Community Association, STA is a federally recognized tribe and operates contracts under the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). STA has an extensive social services program, providing counseling, crisis intervention, employment services, housing improvement, youth and education programs, economic development, and historic preservation. STA also supports a tribal court.

Contact: Ted Wright, General Manager; or, Larry Widmark, Tribal Chair.

Address: 456 Katlian Street, Sitka, Alaska 99835.

Telephone: (907) 747-3207.

Yakutat Native Association (YNA).

Founded in 1983. Provides family services to the tribe through Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) contracts. YNA's Johnson O'Malley program provides dance instruction, runs a culture camp in the summer, and is in the processes of developing a language program.

Contact: Nellie Valle.

Address: P.O. Box 418, Yakutat, Alaska 99689.

Telephone: (907) 784-3238.

Museums and Research Centers

Alaska State Museum.

Houses a varied collection of southeast Alaska Indian art, with elaborate displays of traditional Tlingit regalia, carvings, artifacts, and totem designs.

Address: 395 Whittier Street, Juneau, Alaska.

Telephone: (907) 465-2901.

Sheldon Jackson Museum.

Houses Tlingit regalia, a canoe, a large spruce root basket collection, and other traditional items and artifacts including house posts, hooks, woodworking tools, bentwood boxes, and armor. The museum also contains a large variety of Aleut and Eskimo art. The museum's gift shop sells baskets and other Tlingit art.

Address: 104 College Drive, Sitka, Alaska 99835.

Telephone: (907) 747-8981.

Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center.

Shares the history of Haines, the gold rush era, and Tlingit art in the displays. The center provides books and flyers on different aspects of Tlingit art and history, as well as live demonstrations in traditional crafts.

Address: P.O. Box 623, Haines, Alaska 99827.

Telephone: (907) 766-2366.

Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center.

Displays a model panorama of the Tlingit battles against the Russians in 1802 and 1804, elaborate carved house posts, and artifacts. The center shows historic films and has a large totem park outside the structure. Classes are conducted in Tlingit carving, silversmithing, and beadwork, and artists remain in-house to complete their own projects.

Address: 106 Metlakatla, Sitka, Alaska 99835.

Telephone: (907) 747-8061.

Totem Heritage Center.

Promotes Tlingit and Haida carving and traditional art forms and designs by firsthand instruction. The center maintains brochures and other information on artists in the area as well as instructional literature.

Address: City of Ketchikan, Museum Department, 629 Dock Street, Ketchikan, Alaska 99901.

Telephone: (907) 225-5600.

Sources for Additional Study

Case, David S. Alaska Natives and American Laws. University of Alaska Press, 1984.

Cole, Douglas. Captured Heritage: The Scramble for Northwest Coast Artifacts. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985.

Dauenhauer, Nora Marks, and Richard Dauenhauer. Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories. Seattle: University of Washington Press; and Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1994.

Dauenhauer, Nora Marks, and Richard Dauenhauer. Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory. Seattle: University of Washington Press; and Juneau, Alaska: Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1990.

Emmons, George Thornton. The Tlingit Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991.

Garfield, Viola E., and Linn A. Forrest. The Wolf and The Raven: Totem Poles of Southeastern Alaska. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.

Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northern Tlingit. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1986.

Langdon, Steve J. The Native People of Alaska. Anchorage, Alaska: Greatland Graphics, 1987.

Samuel, Cheryl. The Chilkat Dancing Blanket. Seattle: Pacific Search Press, 1982.

Steward, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.


views updated May 21 2018



The name Tlingit (pronounced KLING-kit; sometimes TLING-kit or TLING-git) means “human beings.” Over the course of history the tribe’s name has been written many different ways: Clingats,Klinket,Thlinket, and Tlinkit. The Russians called them Koloshi or Kaliuzhi, which came from the Aleut word kalu kax, meaning “wooden dish.” This nickname came from the women’s practice of putting a labret, or wooden ornament, in a piercing in their lower lip.


The Tlingit traditionally lived along the Pacific Coast in what is now southeastern Alaska and northern British Columbia and the southwestern Yukon in Canada. In the early twenty-first century Tlingit communities are scattered throughout those areas.


The Tlingit population numbered about fifteen thousand prior to European contact. This figure may have included the Haida people because some early European writers believed the Haida and Tlingit were the same peoples. Following the outbreaks of disease in the 1800s and early 1900s, the Tlingit figures dropped to 3,895 in 1920. In a census (count of the population) done in 1990 by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, 14,417 people identified themselves as Tlingit. According to the 2000 census, 9,340 Tlingit lived in the United States, and 17,219 people claimed some Tlingit heritage. In 2007 the three Tlingit reserves (Canadian name for reservation) in British Columbia had a combined population of 1,533.

Language family

Athabaskan (Na-Dene).

Origins and group affiliations

The Tlingit most likely lived along the southeastern coast of Alaska for thousands of years, since the time when the land was covered with glaciers (large sheets of ice). Major Tlingit tribes include the Sitka, Auk, Chilkat, Huna, Stikine, Yakutat, and Tongass. According to Tlingit oral history, when the Athabaskans faced hunger, they sent out a group to explore the south. Historians believe these are today’s Apache and Navajo tribes. An older couple volunteered to explore the dangerous meltwater below a glacier and found a beautiful land; these explorers were the ancestors of the Tlingit. Present-day Tlingit have close ties with the neighboring Haida; both have interests in the Sealaska Corporation.

Over thousands of years the Tlingit developed a way of life that helped them survive in the rain-drenched area of Alaska known as the Panhandle. Tlingit men burned, steamed, and carved cedar wood to make canoes for fishing because they obtained most of their food from the sea. Before the arrival of European explorers and settlers, groups of Tlingit people traveled by canoe through treacherous waters for hundreds of miles to engage in war, attend ceremonies, trade, or marry. In recent times the Tlingit have led the fight for Native rights and have become involved in politics.


Relations with the Russians

The first Europeans in the Northwest were the Spanish, British, and Russians who came seeking furs in the mid-1700s. In 1741 Russian explorer Aleksey Chirikov (1703–1748) sent two boatloads of men on a search for drinking water in Tlingit territory near the site of present-day Sitka, Alaska. Neither boat returned, and there were few attempts to explore Tlingit land again until the 1800s.

During the nineteenth century the Tlingit people, who controlled trade in their area of southern Alaska, began trading with the Russians. Relations were friendly until the newcomers tried to settle and control trade routes. The Tlingit objected, and in 1802 Chief Katlian led a successful war party against the Russians in Sitka. They killed many Russians and Aleuts and took thousands of furs; they believed these pelts belonged to them because the animals had been hunted on tribal land. The Russians, however, soon recaptured the site, and a few years later built a new fort that became the headquarters of the Russian-American Company, a fur trading center as well as a government center, until the United States purchased Alaska in 1867.

Important Dates

1741: The Russians lose two boats in Tlingit territory.

1852: Chilkat Tlingit warriors burn Fort Selkirk.

1867: The United States purchases Alaska from Russia.

1882: The Angoon Tlingit seize boats, weapons, and hostages to force U. S. Navy to compensate them for the deaths of two of their people.

1912: The Tlingit organize the Alaska Native Brotherhood to establish equality.

1959: Alaska becomes a state.

1968: The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida receives a $7.5 million land claim settlement.

1971: The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) is passed.

1973: The U.S. government offers $90,000 settlement for Angoon casualties.

1991: The ANCSA is amended.

United States takes control

In time European diseases and other hardships weakened the Tlingit. Between 1835 and 1840 nearly one-half of the population living at or near Sitka was wiped out by epidemics (uncontrolled outbreaks of disease). About this time Americans, who came into Tlingit country looking for gold, began to occupy and control Tlingit lands. The U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 brought even more settlers. They established canneries (factories for canning fish), mines, and logging camps—businesses that went against Native traditions of taking only the resources necessary for survival. The Tlingit protested, but they were no match for American military strength and technology. The tribe was further weakened by the destruction of two of their villages in the late 1800s by the American military, caused by a disagreement over the deaths of two Native people.

Tlingit face threats

Over time the American government subjected the Alaskan Natives to the same regulations and policies as American Indians in the United States. (Alaska was not yet a state, but its white citizens enjoyed many U.S. citizenship rights.) Natives were deprived of land, and they lost their right to deal with criminal matters according to traditional customs. By the beginning of the twentieth century their way of life was eroding.

In response the Tlingit people joined with other tribes in 1912 to found the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB). Among its goals were the same citizenship and education rights enjoyed by non-Natives in Alaska. Their wish for citizenship was granted in 1915, on condition that they become “civilized” and give up certain tribal customs. Few Alaska Natives were willing to accept these conditions, so they did not become citizens. In the early 1900s, smallpox, influenza (flu), and tuberculosis epidemics struck some Tlingit villages, and the population dropped to less than four thousand.

Tlingit regain some land

At the urging of the ANB, Congress passed a law in 1935 allowing the Tlingit to sue the United States for the loss of their lands. By this time large sections of Tlingit country had been claimed for the Tongass National Forest and Glacier Bay National Monument. Farther south in Tlingit country, Annette Island had been set aside as a reserve for Natives. Some lands were returned to the Tlingit, but not enough to meet the needs of a hunting and fishing people.

The Tlingit people also actively pursued the right to vote. Unlike many Alaska Native people at the time who wished to continue living as they had lived for many generations, Tlingit leaders sought increased political influence.

Modern conflicts

In the first half of the twentieth century disputes developed around such issues as Native citizenship, the right to vote, fishing methods, and discrimination. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, signs reading “No Indians Allowed” were a common sight on the doors of Alaska businesses. The ANB did much to fight prejudice and raise the social status of the Tlingit people as American citizens.

In the 1940s the Tlingit people, along with a neighboring tribe, actively pursued land claims. The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida fought for an $80 million settlement, claiming that the money the United States paid the Russians to buy Alaska rightfully belonged to them. After an almost thirty-year court battle, in 1968 they received $7.5 million.

In 1959 Alaska became a state. Soon afterwards oil was discovered there, and companies wanted to build a pipeline across Native lands to carry oil south. In 1971 the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) allowed Alaska Natives to retain 44 million acres of their land and gave them $962.5 million. In exchange they gave up all claim to other lands in Alaska—in all, nine-tenths of Alaska. The ANSCA also resulted in the formation of twelve regional corporations to be in charge of Native Alaskan economic development and land use.

In the early twenty-first century, although Tlingit people enjoy much more acceptance, their fight for survival continues. Their ability to live off the land and sea is constantly endangered by logging, overharvesting of the waters by commercial fisheries, government regulations, and the area’s increasing population.


The Tlingit were closely tied to nature. They believed that everything had a soul, so they respected all of nature. Ignoring or neglecting other inhabitants of the world could bring disaster, so they were careful to always treat animals and inanimate (non-living) objects well.

Other beliefs centered on a creator and spirit helpers who influenced the weather, hunting, and healing. Raven, who was not only a bird, but a human and a spirit, assisted in creation. Another being called Shagoon was the supreme god, but also represented many other things—ancestors, history, creation, and future destiny. Shagoon, however, remained distant and took little interest in human affairs. Traditionally the Tlingit believed that all members of the tribe were reborn from a common ancestor.

Changes occurred in Tlingit religion during the early 1900s as hundreds of Tlingit died in tuberculosis epidemics and were buried in mass graves. Many Tlingit lost faith in the healing powers of their medicine men, called shaman (pronounced SHAH-mun or SHAY-mun), and traditional Native ceremonies that had brought the people together nearly died out. Tlingit people turned to Christian churches for comfort. When they converted to Christianity, many Tlingit were given new names to replace their Tlingit names, which were an important basis of identity and status in their society.

The Russian Orthodox and Presbyterian faiths have had a great impact on Tlingit life and are well established in their communities. Smaller numbers of the people belong to other Christian churches. Those who continue to practice the old tribal religion usually do so privately.


The Tlingit language is not closely related to any other language. Because many Tlingit sounds are made in the back of the mouth, the language sounds similar to German. It has 24 sounds not found in English, and the difference in meaning between words often depends entirely on the tone of the speaker’s voice.

In the nineteenth century a Russian Orthodox priest created the first Tlingit alphabet and developed a program to teach the Tlingit to read and write. He based his alphabet on Cyrillic, or Russian, letters. Soon after that, in their desire to have the Tlingit adopt white ways, Americans tried to suppress the use of the Tlingit language. A Native movement to teach the language to the young began in the 1960s, when language experts created the Tlingit alphabet that is commonly used today. This alphabet contains letters used in the English language as well as other symbols such as periods and apostrophes to indicate sounds not found in English.

The Tlingit Language

Unlike the English alphabet of twenty-six letters, the Tlingit language has at least thirty-two consonants and eight vowels. The alphabet was created with not only the familiar lettering of English but also with periods, underlined letters, and apostrophes to distinguish particular sounds. For example; the word yéil means Raven, and yéil’ (with the apostrophe) means elderberry.

Tlingit people do not use such greetings as hello, good-bye, good afternoon, or good evening. Some common expressions are:

  • Yoo xat duwasaakw … “My name is”
  • Gunalchéesh … “Thank you”
  • Yak’éi ixwsiteení … “It’s good to see you”
  • Wáa sá iyatee … “How are you feeling?”
  • Wa.éku.aa? … “Where are you going?”
  • Haa kaa gaa kuwatee … “It’s good weather for us.”


Tlingit leaders were the chiefs who headed the various clans and their close relatives (see “Tlingit social system”). In the early twentieth century Tlingit leaders sought power in state politics. A Tlingit named William Paul was elected to the Alaska Territorial House of Representatives in 1924, marking the beginning of a trend toward Native political power in the state.

In modern times corporations created as a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (see “History”) have a great deal of political power. Their power comes from their ownership of valuable lands and the fact that they represent more than sixteen thousand Tlingit and other Natives. They use their power to influence state lawmakers to pass laws favorable to the Natives.

In the United States a city council headed by a mayor governs most Tlingit villages. A few villages, though, have tribal councils organized under the Indian Reorganization Act. In Canada the Taku River Tlinglit are led by a spokesperson and four clan directors, two each from the Wolf and Crow clans. Carcross Tlingit have four councils: Executive, General, Elders, and Youth. The Teslin Tlingit Council has a twenty-five member General Council with five representatives from each of the five clans, elected to four-year terms. They also have an Administration to carry out Council decisions. Administration and Council decisions are guided by advice from the Elders Council, composed of all members age 58 and older.

In addition to the tribal governments, each clan also has a leader. The clan leader is called Kaa Shaa du Heni (“headman standing up”). Clan leaders are chosen based on their character, abilities, social standing as well as their commitment to clan welfare.

Tlingit Population

In 2000 U.S. Census takers asked people in the United States to identify the groups to which they belonged. Many of those who identified themselves as Tlingit lived in the villages listed below. Some of these villages also contain non-Natives or other tribes; the total shows the combined number of Tlingit residing in all 14 villages as well as elsewhere in the United States. These numbers do not reflect the 1,533 Tlingit living on three reserves in British Columbia and Yukon, Canada. In 2007 the population figures for those reserves were: Taku River Tlingit, 374; Teslin Tlingit Council, 558; and Carcross/Tagish First Nations (combined Tagish and Tlingit), 601.

Tlingit Population: 2000 Census
GroupPopulation in 2000
Chilkoot (Haines)1,811
Craig (Tlingit-Haida)1,397
Kake Circle710
Sitka Tribe of Alaska293

“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.


For centuries the Tlingit economy centered on trade. The people traded food, furs, canoes, shells, fish oil, and the beautiful woven Chilkat robes (see “Weaving”) with other tribes. The price of a Chilkat robe in the mid-1800s was about $30—a very large sum at that time. Only caribou hides, copper, and later, guns, came close to the value of the Chilkat robe. An elderly woman who was a good bargainer often accompanied a trading party; she also kept track of exchange values.

By 1900 many Tlingit worked in canneries, and their economy came to be based on work for wages and commercial fishing (fishing for profit, not food). A number of people moved from small villages to larger towns where this work was more available.

Although the American way of life has greatly altered the Tlingit lifestyle, many of the people have adapted. Most Tlingit work in logging and forestry, fishing, tourism, and other business enterprises. Because the tribe emphasizes the importance of education, a number of Tlingit work in professional positions as lawyers, health-care specialists, and educators. Corporations created after the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act provide some employment in manual labor, office work, and business management.

Daily life


Before their first contact with Europeans Tlingit families belonging to the same clan lived together in large homes made of spruce or cedar planks. They painted crests (family symbols) on the front of the house and decorated the interior with intricate carvings and pictures of birds and animals. The only openings were a small oval doorway and a hole in the center of the roof that allowed smoke to escape.

Inside their houses the Tlingit dug out the center of the floor for the fire and placed platforms around it to make benches for eating. The highest bench was reserved for the head of the household; it also served for funerals (see “Death”). Another layer of higher platforms formed sleeping compartments; wooden partitions divided these. They built floors of smooth wooden planks and hung large woven mats from the ceiling to separate living areas. Outside walls could be removed to turn the house into an amphitheater for large celebrations.

A house could hold six families plus their slaves, in all, a total of forty to fifty people. The rear of the house was reserved for nobility, the people who owned the house. A carved and painted wooden screen usually hid this area from view. Commoners (poorer kin or laborers) had beds along the sides of the house. Slaves (usually war captives) slept by the front door. Each family had its own small fire, but the central fire was used to cook meals for the nobles or for guests at celebrations.

The four posts that held up the roof were carved and painted with totem or ancestor figures. Dark areas under the benches served as prisons for witches, who were tied up and left to starve until they confessed. Girls were also confined there during their puberty rituals. A trapdoor near the fire led to a small cellar for steambaths. Outside on the beach families kept canoes, fish drying racks, and fish smoking sheds. Palisades (high fences made of sharpened logs) surrounded some villages. In summer the people moved to fishing camps where they lived in temporary shelters.

Europeans influenced the Natives to build their houses on raised wooden posts, but the Tlingit kept their custom of carving wood figures on the posts. They added windows, multiple doors, inside walls, stoves instead of fireplaces, and porches. In modern times many Tlingit live in cities. Those who remain in villages live in single-family homes of various styles.


Tlingit men and women traditionally wore loincloths (two pieces of cloth hanging from the waist in front and back) and skirts made of cedar bark. Because of the frequent rainy weather, they made raincoats from natural substances such as spruce root or cedar bark. The Tlingit wore hair ornaments and bracelets and practiced ear and nose piercing, face painting, and tattooing. The wealth of a Tlingit woman could be determined by the size of her labret, a wooden disc inserted in a slit cut into the lower lip. As a woman grew older and richer, larger and large discs were inserted, until finally her lip might flap loosely on her chin.

People wore various types of highly decorated robes (see “Weaving”) for ceremonies. In modern times many people wear a button blanket, or dancing robe, made from red, blue, or black felt. Women appliqué intricate designs of clan emblems outlined with mother of pearl (shell) buttons. These robes are worn to display one’s lineage and family crest at gatherings, in much the same way as they once used the Chilkat robe.

Headdresses ranged from simple headbands to colorful carved cedar hats inlaid with pretty shells and finished with ermine fur. The wealthy often wore carved hats stacked high with wooden rings; each ring represented a time the headpiece had been given at a potlatch. Today, most Tlingit people dress in modern clothes, but they often display their clan or family crest on clothing or jewelry.


The traditional Tlingit diet centered on foods from the rivers and sea, including seal, seaweed, clams, herring, salmon eggs, and fish (primarily salmon, plus halibut, cod, and herring). Fish was smoked, baked, roasted, boiled, or dried for later use. Berries, seaweed, and deer meat were also important. Bear provided food and fur for robes. The men also hunted mountain sheep and goats, birds, gulls, and ducks. Ocean catches included seal, sea lion, sea otter, and sometimes small whales. Only poor families ate porpoise, because it gave people a bad body odor.

Before leaving on a hunt, a man purified himself by bathing and fasting (going without food or drink). His wife and children had to stay quiet at home while he was gone to avoid disturbing his luck. After killing an animal, hunters prayed to it to ask forgiveness. The Tlingit never killed land otter because that was the shape a shaman’s spirit usually took.

Women gathered roots, ferns, sweet potatoes, cow parsnips, and the sweet inner bark of the hemlock (a special treat). They cooked in watertight boxes or baskets by dropping in hot rocks. Other cooking implements were spits over fires and earth ovens lined with leaves. To start a fire, they used a wooden hand drill or iron pyrite and quartz to make a spark. To help the fire catch quickly, they put wax from their ears on the tinder.

In modern times the Tlingit use cooking methods learned from the Norwegians, Russians, Chinese, and Filipinos who have immigrated to Alaska, and rice has become one of their most common foods. Fry-bread is used for everyday meals and for special occasions, and certain fish oils are still considered a luxury.


Traditionally uncles and aunts taught Tlingit children how to survive and how to participate in society. Anyone within the clan could reprimand or guide a child. Today most Tlingit children are raised in typical American one-family homes, and the role of the aunts and uncles is not as great. In the smaller Tlingit communities, however, some children are still raised according to the old ways.

Beginning in 1905, two separate systems of education were set up in the Alaska Territory—one for Natives run by the federal government and one for whites run by the territorial government. It was not until 1949 that schools in Alaska were integrated.

Many Tlingit go on to receive degrees in higher education. In addition to regular schooling, children sometimes attend dance groups, traditional survival camps, art camps, and Native education projects.

Healing practices

The Tlingit believed that sickness was the sign of possession by an evil spirit, and shaman had to drive out the evil spirits. Shaman’s spiritual helpers were called yeks. Each yek had its own special name and could assume both animal and human forms. A shaman’s success at healing depended on the number of yeks he controlled and the quality of his relationship with them. Shaman were paid in advance for their services. If they failed to cure someone, they often claimed that bad spirits interfered with them and requested further payment to continue their services.

While many shaman were men, some powerful women also became healers. Shaman never cut or combed their hair. They wore aprons of animal hides and decorated their shoulder robes and crowns with animal claws and carved bones. When engaged in healing dances, they often wore masks that looked like one of their yeks. They shook rattles and charms, and chanted, groaned, and hissed themselves into a trance-like state.

When a shaman died, he or she passed healing powers on to a younger clan member. These junior healers knew they had been chosen because they would become dizzy or ill following the funeral; they might also faint or have seizures. An assistant then took this novice into the woods to encounter an animal spirit. A land otter was the spirit most of the time. The shaman would get its power by killing it and cutting off a slice of its tongue. Every time he went into the woods after that, he would obtain other spirit helpers.

In the early twenty-first century Tlingit people have access to modern medical treatment, but healing through diet and traditional local medicines still takes place.



Dances were performed at potlatches (special gift-giving ceremonies) or around the evening fire. People told stories, made fun of people, or extended apologies through dance movements accompanied by the music of drums and carved rattles. One Tlingit dance told the story of a funeral. The “corpse” was dressed in fancy clothing with his back against the wall and another man danced the part of his widow. He would cry sorrowfully and throw himself on the “corpse” and tickle it. As the dance ended, the “corpse” sat up and grinned.

Dancers wore masks carved and painted with animals and mythical figures. They also wore headdresses made of sea lion whiskers and birdfeathers that they showered down on guests to show good wishes. Dancers sometimes put on beautiful Chilkat robes (see “Weaving”) with fringe that made a wonderful visual effect as they moved.


Two types of traditional ceremonial dress, Chilkat and Raven’s Tail robes, are still worn today. The intricately designed Chilkat robe is made from mountain goat wool and cedar bark strips. It can take a weaver up to five years to complete one robe. The Raven’s Tail robe is woven of black and white fibers in geometric patterns. Both types of robes were signs of wealth. These art forms nearly died out, but during the twentieth century the skill revived when elderly weavers were encouraged to pass down their knowledge to younger ones. Chilkat and Raven’s Tail weaving techniques are also used in leggings, medicine bags, dance purses and aprons, tunics, and shirts.

Totem poles

The Tlingit carved totem poles in the shape of animals and humans. Totems could be as high as 90 feet (145 kilometers) tall and told family stories and legends. They honored chiefs or loved ones and commemorated events such as a birth or a successful hunt. Memorial totems held the ashes of deceased loved ones. Occasionally, totems were created to make fun of someone who had wronged the clan or village.

Leaders often hired a carver and selected crest designs from their elite ancestors. They placed the finished pole in a doorway or used it as a pillar honoring a dead relative or as a memorial on the beach. After the totem pole was completed, the owner gave a potlatch. His guests helped him erect the pole. Then everyone feasted, gifts were dispensed, and the owner told the tales of each figure on the totem.

Tlingit rock art often has the same clan crests found on totem poles. Other rock art designs include sailing ships, mythological figures, ancestors, and symbols of wealth or victory.


Tlingit social system

The Tlingit social system was very complex. From birth each person belonged to the same group as the mother, either Eagle or Raven, and was only permitted to marry a person from the other group.

The Raven and Eagle groups were divided into clans. Each clan had its own crest (an animal symbol). A person could be Eagle and belong to the Killer Whale or Brown Bear Clan, or to several other existing clans; Ravens could belong to the Frog Clan, Sea Tern Clan, Coho (Salmon) Clan, and so on.

Clans were further divided into houses or extended families. Before the Tlingit had contact with Europeans, “houses” were real houses or lodges in which members of that clan or family lived. Today “houses” are one of the ways in which Tlingit people identify themselves and their relationship to others. Some examples of houses include the Snail House, Brown Bear Den House, Owl House, Crescent Moon House, Coho House, and Thunderbird House.

Beyond family and clan groupings, the Tlingit were divided into units called kwan, which were communities of people who lived in a mutual area, shared residence, intermarried, and lived in peace.


Potlatches have always been an important part of Tlingit life. A potlatch is a great feast where people show respect, pay debts, and display their wealth. The host of the potlatch gives gifts to everyone present. In modern times potlatches are held for a variety of occasions such as funerals, adoptions, the naming of a baby, raising a totem pole, or building a lodge. They may take years of planning; in the past they lasted four weeks or more, but they seldom last that long today.

War and hunting rituals

The Tlingit were a warlike people who raided neighboring tribes and other clans to seek revenge for insults or injury. Tlingit warriors wore shirts of untanned moose hide covered with armor made of wooden slats that covered the body from the neck to the knees. They sometimes took women and children as slaves, but men were considered too dangerous and were instead slain and their heads or scalps taken.

Courtship and weddings

Marriage was viewed by the Tlingit as a way to strengthen the family’s social and financial position, and parents chose spouses for their children. The boy’s family gave the girl’s family valuable gifts. If her family found the gifts acceptable, they gave generous gifts in return. Gift exchanges continued throughout the couple’s married life.


The Tlingit believed that people who died naturally went through a thorny forest and crossed a river to reach the Town of the Dead (the cemetery). They stayed warm from the heat of the cremation fire and ate the food and drink their relatives put in the fire. They were also fed by food people ate in their memory at potlatches. Anyone who died by violence went to heaven, while evil people went to Raven’s Home or Dog Heaven.

Relatives mourned a man’s death for eight days. The clan met to sing songs and give money toward the funeral. Men from the opposite moiety painted the clan symbol on the deceased’s face, dressed him in ceremonial clothing, and propped him up on the highest bench in the house with his treasures. His body stayed there for the four days until cremation. Sometimes important chiefs remained on this bench of honor until they decomposed.

Mourners, wearing old clothes and rope around their waists, sang clan songs every morning and evening. Widows cut off their hair and burned it in the cremation fire. They also fasted (did not eat or drink) for eight days, except for a little food in the evening every other day. They always put some of each meal into the fire to feed their dead husbands. People from the opposite moiety cheered up the deceased’s family with songs and games. It was considered dangerous to cry too much because grief might cause another relative to die.

On the day of cremation men removed a plank from the wall, and took the body out to be burned. They threw the deceased’s most valuable possessions, and sometimes a slave, on the funeral pyre. Afterwards they collected the ashes in a blanket and put them in a grave box or mortuary totem pole. Then everyone feasted at a potlatch.

For the Tlingit, three potlatches (feasts and giveaways) were required to properly send a deceased person off to the spirit world. During the first, they prepared the body for cremation or burial (more common today), cooked food for the feast, and disposed of the body. Then later they held a potlatch in honor of the deceased person’s clan. The third potlatch took place a year later; it ended with a celebration of life and happy stories and songs.

The Ghost Land

Lacking a written language, the Tlingit used storytelling and plays that included music and dancing to pass down their history. In the following story a young man whose wife has died does not participate in her funeral potlatch ceremony. Instead he follows the Death Trail, and his unusual action leads to strange results.

The young wife of a chief’s son died and the young man was so sorrowful he could not sleep. Early one morning he put on his fine clothes and started off. He walked all day and all night. He went through the woods a long distance, and then to a valley. The trees were very thick, but he could hear voices far away. At last he saw light through the trees and then came to a wide, flat stone on the edge of a lake.

Now all the time this young man had been walking in the Death Trail. He saw houses and people on the other side of the lake. He could see them moving around. So he shouted, “Come over and get me.” But they did not seem to hear him. Upon the lake a little canoe was being paddled about by one man, and all the shore was grassy. The chief’s son shouted a long while but no one answered him. At last he whispered to himself, “Why don’t they hear me?”

At once a person across the lake said, “Some one is shouting.” When he whispered, they heard him.

The voice said also, “Some one has come up from Dreamland. Go and bring him over.”

When the chief’s son reached the other side of the lake, he saw his wife. He was very happy to see her again. People asked him to sit down. They gave him something to eat, but his wife said, “Don’t eat that. If you eat that you will never get back.” So he did not eat it.

Then his wife said, “You had better not stay here long. Let us go right away.” So they were taken back in the same canoe. It is called Ghost’s Canoe and it is the only one on that lake. They landed at the broad, flat rock where the chief’s son had stood calling. It is called Ghost’s Rock, and is at the very end of the Death Trail. Then they started down the trail, through the valley and through the thick woods. The second night they reached the chief’s house.

The chief’s son told his wife to stay outside. He went in and said to his father, “I have brought my wife back.”

The chief said, “Why don’t you bring her in?”

The chief laid down a nice mat with fur robes on it for the young wife. The young man went out to get his wife, but when he came in with her, they could see only him. When he came very close, they saw a deep shadow following him. When his wife sat down and they put a marten skin robe [a marten is a weasel-like mammal] around her, it hung about the shadow just as if a person were sitting there. When she ate, they saw only the spoon moving up and down, but not the shadow of her hands. It looked very strange to them.

Afterward the chief’s son died and the ghosts of both of them went back to Ghost Land.

Judsen, Katharine Berry, ed. “The Ghost Land.” Myths and Legends of Alaska. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1911.

Current tribal issues

An important issue for the Tlingit is having their own tribal courts and judges. One of the reasons this is so important is that American courts do not understand traditional Tlingit values. Most sentences do not reflect Tlingit ideas of justice. In deciding cases in tribal court, they try to choose consequences that will help the accused learn a lesson and modify future behavior.

Tlingit culture has undergone a rebirth that began in the 1970s. There has been a revival of dances, songs, potlatches, language, artwork, and stories. Discussions are taking place about discrimination: how it can actually make people feel sick and what can be done to help the victims.

Notable people

Elaine Abraham (1929–), the first Tlingit to enter the nursing profession, went on to a career in education. Her accomplishments include co-founding the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks, teaching the Tlingit language at Anchorage Community College, and working as Director of Alaska Native Studies for the University of Alaska in Anchorage.

Tlingit activist Elizabeth Peratrovich (1911–1958) made a moving plea for justice and equality for Alaska Natives in 1945 that led to the passage of an anti-discrimination bill. The State of Alaska officially recognized her efforts as a civil rights leader in 1988 with “The Annual Elizabeth Peratrovich Day.”

Beck, Mary G. Heroes and Heroines: Tlingit-Haida Legend. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 2003.

Bial, Raymond. The Tlingit. New York: Benchmark Books, 2003.

Brown, Tricia, and Roy Corral. Children of the Midnight Sun: Young Native Voices of Alaska. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 2006.

Grinev, Andrei Val’Terovich. The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741–1867. Tran. Richard Bland and Katerina G. Solovjova. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Hancock, David A. Tlingit: Their Art and Culture. Blaine, WA: Hancock House Publishers, 2003.

Liptak, Karen. North American Indian Ceremonies. New York: Franklin Watts, 1992.

Nichols, Richard. A Story to Tell: Traditions of a Tlingit Community. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1998.

Steward, Hilary. Looking at Totem Poles. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993.

Swanton, John R. Social Condition, Beliefs and Linguistic Relationship of the Tlingit Indians. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2006.

Thornton, Thomas F. Being and Place among the Tlingit. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.

Carcross Tagish First Nation. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

Central Council: Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

“Language Resources.” Sealaska Heritage Institute. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

Nicholas Galanin.(accessed on September 9, 2007).

Sealaska: A Native Corporation. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

Taku River Tlingit First Nation. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

Teslin Tlingit Council. (accessed on Septmeber 9, 2007).

The Tlingit Language. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

“Tlingit Tribes, Clans, and Clan Houses: Traditional Tlingit Country.” Alaska Native Knowledge Network. (accessed on September 9, 2007).

Edward D. Castillo (Cahuilla-Luiseño), Native American Studies Program, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California

Laurie Edwards

Daniel Boxberger, Department of Anthropology, Western Washington University

Laurie Edwards


views updated Jun 08 2018


LOCATION: United States (Alaska)
POPULATION: 17,200 enrolled members
LANGUAGE: English; Tlingit
RELIGION: Christianity; native Tlingit


Tlingit (meaning "the people") is the name given to a native group of the Northwest Coast, whose original homeland was located in the Alaskan panhandle. With the exception of a part of the Prince of Wales Island, the thirteen tribes that make up the Tlingit group occupied the land of the panhandle south of Yakutat Bay. The Tlingit developed as a coastal culture, well adapted to the rugged, heavily forested coastal areas that they inhabited.

Beginning in the 18th century, the Tlingit tribes experienced frequent conflicts with the early Russian fur traders who first entered the area at that time. In 1799, Russian adventurers built a fort on one of the islands that makes up the southeastern archipelago. But three years later, in 1802, they were driven out by Tlingit warriors. Some time later, however, a Russian trader by the name of Aleksandr Andreyevich Baranov was successful in recapturing the fort. Baranov turned the fort into a trading post that, over time, grew into the present-day city of Sitka. By 1867 the United States had won control over Alaska and opened Tlingit lands to settlers and prospectors searching for gold.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Tlingit, like other Alaskan natives, have fought for their civil rights and for control over the natural resources of their ancestral lands. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act transferred about 100 million acres of land back to native Alaskans, including the Tlingit, who were organized into a regional corporation called Sealaska, with the title to 330,000 acres of land and 660,000 acres of mineral rights. Today Tlingit work in industry, business, government, and the professions. In 1994 the Tlingit gained media attention when two Tlingit youths from Alaska who had attacked a pizza delivery man in Washington state were turned over to an ad hoc tribal court, which imposed a traditional punishment of banishment to an isolated island off the coast of Alaska.


In the 18th century, at the time of the initial European entry into the area, the total number of members of the thirteen Tlingit tribes was estimated to be about 10,000. Over the course of the next one hundred years, their numbers dwindled; at one time only about 4,500 remained. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, the number of tribally enrolled Tlingit in the United States was 17,200. Almost all contemporary Tlingit live in the state of Alaska. Many of their original villages on the southeastern Alaska coast between Ketchikan and Yakutat are still populated. This is an area of rugged mountains with snow-capped peaks, offshore islands, and plentiful streams.


The language of the Tlingit Indians belongs to the Dene linguistic family. Dene is the largest language family in North America and includes Yak, Tlingit, and Athabaskan. Tlingit is a highly endangered language, meaning that younger people are no longer learning Tlingit as a mother tongue, or first language. The best estimates for number of speakers of Tlingit in Canada and the United States is between 300 and 500 (in 2008).

In 2008, a proposal to link the Yeniseian languages of central Siberia and the Na-Dene languages of northwestern North America into one large language family was presented by Edward Vadja of Western Washington University.

The Yeniseian language family, which only has a few remaining living languages, did not show any genetic relationship with any of the other language families of the Old World. The most well-known language of this family is Ket, which has only about 200 speakers. Many different attempts to link Ket to the languages of the Old World have been proposed during the latter half of the twentieth century. Veda's proposal has been supported by many linguists who specialize in the Na-Dene languages as well as the Siberian languages.


The most important character in Tlingit mythology is the trickster figure Raven, who is also considered the ancestor of the Tlingit. The power of animal spirits in general and communication between the spirits of animals and humans are also themes in Tlingit myths, as is reincarnation. Traditional beliefs encompassed an afterlife spent in one of two domains, corresponding roughly to the Judeo-Christian Heaven and Hell: Kiwa-a was the heaven for the virtuous, while those who had been morally deficient went to a place of torment called Ketl-kiwa, or Dog Heaven.

A common Tlingit folk belief was that if a girl going through puberty looked at the sky, she would cause a storm. A special hood with tassels was worn by girls of this age to shroud their eyes.


Like the other native peoples of the Northwest Coast, many Tlingit belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Tlingit forebears were converted the Orthodox Church by the Russian missionaries who followed the traders that arrived in the area in the 18th century.

The traditional religion of the Tlingit, like that of most hunting and gathering cultures, was based on animism, the belief that spirits—which the Tlingit called jek—inhabit people, animals, and objects in the natural world. They believed that the environment can be influenced in magical ways, either for good or ill, by human intervention, a belief that led to the development of a whole constellation of customs and taboos intended to ensure prosperity and prevent disaster. Many such customs and taboos were designed to placate and mollify the souls of the animals that were the chief prey of the Tlingit. The Tlingit are also thought to have believed in a creator, called Kah-shu-goon-yah, who controlled both the heavens and the earth, and whose name—which means "divisible-rich-man"— was always whispered rather than uttered aloud. Each Tlingit clan had a totem animal with which it identified, and erected totem poles as tributes to their totem animals. The Tlingit also paid homage to their ancestors and included them as elements of totem pole designs.

The most important human figure in Tlingit religious belief was the shaman, who served many vital roles within Tlingit society. The Tlingit shaman could be either male or female and functioned as priest, doctor, and counselor to his or her people.


Today many Tlingit observe the holidays of the Russian Orthodox calendar. Within traditional Tlingit society, by far the single most important occasion was a gathering called a potlatch, a communal ceremony that centered on feasting and gift-giving and that accompanied almost every major event in Tlingit life. A potlatch might be given by a retiring chief in honor of the occasion of his role being taken over by a new leader. Potlatches were held to celebrate birthdays and to legitimize adoptions and marriages. Sometimes a potlatch would be held for no other reason than to demonstrate in no uncertain terms the wealth and status of the host or to make a good impression on guests or visiting dignitaries. At other times, a Tlingit might host a potlatch as a means of saving face and restoring dignity following an embarrassing public failure or a personal disappointment.

The potlatch is a form of redistributive exchange. Redistributive exchange involves a complex level of social organization within a society. Modern taxation is an example of redistributive exchange. In redistributive exchange, a centralized authority accumulates wealth and then through culturally defined rules, distributes that wealth to members of the society. These traditional potlatches were later replaced by "destructive potlatches" that developed after European colonization of the region. In particular, it was the availability of trade goods that were incorporated into the system of Tlingit wealth that changed the nature and structure of the potlatch. The destructive potlatch was an ostentatious display of wealth and prestige, which called for as much showing off as possible, the entire point of the ritual being to waste or destroy publicly as much of the host's wealth as possible. The goal was to demonstrate that the host was so wealthy that even such large-scale waste could not damage his economic situation. The potlatch simply served to establish and reinforce his standing within the community. The host of a potlatch might throw precious oil on the fire until the flames leap out to singe the surrounding guests. A wealthy chief might kill a valuable slave with a special club known as a "slave killer" and then fling the slave's scalp to his rival. Many beautiful things were made by Tlingit craftspeople simply in order that a chief or other notable person might give them away or destroy them at a destructive potlatch.


Major life events of the Tlingit were traditionally marked by the potlatch (also called a koolex). Such events included the transfer of ancestral names to children; the point at which a daughter became eligible for marriage; a son's coming-of-age (also marked by the erection of a memorial totem-pole and the construction of a new house); a marriage; and funeral rites.


Unlike that of most other American Indian groups, Tlingit society evolved as an aristocracy. At the top of the Tlingit social ladder were the chiefs, who were considered to be of royal blood. Directly beneath the chiefs in rank and privilege were members of the nobility, and beneath them were the working-class (or common) people, the majority of the population. At the bottom of Tlingit society was a slave class made up of members of other tribes who had been captured in war. Tlingit society equated wealth with the right to rule; chieftainship, along with the rights, advantages, and prerogatives that accompany it, was passed on from one generation to the next of the same wealthy family. Tlingit chiefs and nobles controlled all the tribe's wealth, determined the social rank of the members of the tribe, laid claim to the best fishing and hunting areas, and maintained the exclusive right to practice certain highly esteemed crafts.

Even today, class and social status are important in Tlingit villages.


The Tlingit have three advocacy organizations that promote their culture, rights, and welfare. The Alaska Native Brotherhood is concerned with cultural preservation; the Tlingit-Haida Association (Haida are a neighboring tribe) address housing and other social welfare issues; and the corporation Sealaska lobbies for economic and political power. Some Tlingit villages have their own city officials, police forces, and school boards.

The Tlingit have access to, and use, modern medical services. Traditionally, they had a system of folk medicine that included principles of hygiene and a knowledge of herbs. When necessary, they consulted with a special healer who had more advanced knowledge of medical practices.


Arranged marriages were formerly the norm, but this practice continues to diminish during the early 21st century. Divorce was rare in traditional Tlingit culture, as it was considered an affront to the clans of both the husband and wife. The Tlingit had an elaborate system of kinship by which their society was divided into two halves, or moieties, called Raven-Crow and Eagle-Wolf. Although the various rules and prohibitions attached to this system are still upheld theoretically, in practice they are often broken, and its terminology has fallen into disuse among the younger Tlingit. A child's lineage is linked to the maternal rather than the paternal side of the family, so maternal relatives traditionally played an important role in a child's upbringing. Traditionally, sons learned how to hunt, fish, and fight from their maternal uncles; daughters learned domestic skills from their maternal grandmother and aunts, who also prepared them for childbearing and taught them the history of their clan. The family elders still hold a high level of respect and influence among the Tlingit, including those who are college educated.


In the summer, Tlingit men traditionally wore no clothes, or only a breechcloth made of animal skin. In the winter, they wore shirts with trousers or leggings made from deer, caribou, or other animal skins. These were decorated with fringes at the sides and bottom and with rows of porcupine quills. Women wore cedar-bark skirts and capes in the summer and skirts or tunics of buckskin during the cooler seasons. Both men and women went barefoot much of the time, even in snow during the winter. On especially rough terrain, they wore moccasins, or snow-shoes with webbing or spikes. Women wore their hair loose or in braids, with ornaments of wood or shells and beads, and both men and women wore feathers in their hair. People who became shamans were forbidden to cut or even comb their hair. A fur cap was a common form of winter headgear. Both men and women painted their faces, either the entire face or only the upper or lower part. Black and red were the colors most often used. Often, rings were painted around the eyes. Tattooing was also common. Mourners wore old clothes and cut their hair short.

The Tlingit of today wear modern, Western-style clothing appropriate to their northern climate. Traditional clothing, masks, and headdresses are still worn on ceremonial occasions, and by dancers and other performing groups. Traditional Tlingit garments are known for their intricate beadwork, typically in white on a red background. Chilkat blankets, with their abstract animal designs, are valued by collectors of folk art.


The traditional Tlingit diet consisted of fish, meat, and wild plants. Given their resource-rich environment, they rarely experienced times of deprivation. The rivers of their Alaskan homeland abound with salmon, halibut, herring, candle-fish, and other fish, which the Tlingit caught with nets and traps, speared, shot with bow and arrow, or sometimes simply stunned with a club. Skimming the open sea in their enormous dugout canoes, they hunted whales, seals, sea lion, and walrus. On land, they hunted deer, mountain goats, bear, and small animals and availed themselves of the bounty of bird's eggs, berries, and edible plants that were theirs for the taking.

Although today's Tlingit eat typical modern-day American fare (including packaged convenience foods), salmon, their traditional staple, still plays a prominent role in their diet, along with other fish, including halibut, herring, and cod, as well as crabs and other shellfish. Salmon is eaten both fresh and dried, and salmon grilled over a smoking fire is especially popular. Oil from the euchalon, or candlefish, is used as a dip with many foods.


Modern Tlingit young people attend public schools, where, much like school-aged children everywhere in the United States, they are taught basic subjects like math, history, spelling, reading, science, social studies, and the use of computers. But Tlingit teachers are also concerned that their students learn something about their culture and old traditions before this knowledge is lost completely. The Tlingit place a high value on education, and many work in business, industry, government, and the professions.


An elaborate woodcarving tradition can be seen in Tlingit homes and on their boats, and Tlingit ceremonial costumes are decorated with individualized crest designs. Characteristics of Tlingit art include stylized conventional forms and the practice of filling in any blank spaces. The most favored colors are red, black, and green. Perhaps the most famous form of Tlingit art is the elaborately patterned Chilkat blanket.

Although the dancing societies that were important to other tribes of the Northwest Coast did not hold a prominent place among the Tlingit, they did have a dance tradition. Special dance aprons that were like miniature Chilkat blankets were worn by shamans, chiefs, and other tribe members. Other elements of the traditional dance costume included belts made from ropes of shredded cedar bark, headbands also made from cedar bark, special collars or bibs, and headdresses with eagle feathers. Shamans in particular were known for their wild dancing, characterized by spirited gesticulation. Today, dancing groups still perform for local ceremonies and for visitors in several Tlingit villages.


Traditionally, the Tlingit worked at hunting and gathering the food they needed to survive. However, this way of life declined after 1880, and the Tlingit began to participate in the Western cash economy. World War II and the discovery of large oil reserves in Alaska created many opportunities for employment in construction and other jobs for the Tlingit and other native groups in Alaska. Instead of engaging in traditional fishing practices, many of today's Tlingit drive diesel-powered boats with hydraulic hoists and industrial-size nets. Tlingit women often work in fish canneries or produce crafts for sale. Many Tlingit work in urban areas, some of them settling permanently in large towns and cities and working in government, business, and the professions.


Tlingit men enjoy engaging in contests of strength such as wrestling.


Traditional Tlingit feasts and dances usually took place in the winter. The frequent potlatches held in Tlingit villages provided the major source of entertainment. Today the Tlingit enjoy modern types of recreation, such as watching television or renting movies.


The Tlingit are expert carvers and use the wood, especially red cedar, that is so plentiful in their native habitat extensively in their arts and crafts, especially for storage boxes, dishes, and ceremonial masks. They make excellent baskets, some of which are so tightly woven as to be waterproof, and also weave fine blankets of dog hair and mountain goat wool. They are experts at finishing their wooden artifacts with inlays of bone, copper, and shells, which are found in abundance everywhere at the water's edge. All Tlingit crafts are highly ornamented with elaborate and beautiful designs. Since the arrival of tourists by steamship, the Tlingit have maintained an active crafts industry.


Many Tlingit Indians today live in poverty in substandard housing. They face the imminent destruction of their culture and way of life and experience difficulty in adapting themselves to the ways of the prevalent society. As a result, many suffer from alcoholism, drug abuse, and other forms of social distress.


The Tlingit recognize two gender categories: káh (man) and shawát (woman). Gender and rank were the governing categories for behavior in precontact Tlingit society. Rank was indicated by differing styles of dress and bodily adornment. High-ranking senior women wore large labrets in their lower lips.

While rank could change during the course of a person's lifetime, gender was fixed during life but not after death in re-birth. Tlingit traditional belief holds that following death an individual is reborn into his/her clan. It was possible for a man to be reborn as a baby girl or for a woman to be reborn as a baby boy.

Females were important to the perpetuation of the Tlingit matriclans. As such, the puberty rituals for girls were elaborate and lengthy. At the onset of a girl's first menstruation, she would enter seclusion at the rear of the family longhouse or in a small, separate structure built near the family house. She would be isolated from contact with outsiders except for young girls and older women. The length of time spent in seclusion was dependent upon the rank of the girl through her family. Girls of high ranking families could remain secluded for as long as a year. Following the period of seclusion, the girl would emerge from this state as an adult woman who was now ready for marriage.


Dauenhauer, Nora M., and Richard D. Dauenhauer, eds. Haa shuka, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987.

Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northern Tlingit. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986.

Klein, L. Tlingit Women and Town Politics. New York University, Ph.D. dissertation, 1975.

Marquis, Arnold. A Guide to America's Indians. University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.

Obery, Kalervo. The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.

Olson, W. The Tlingit. Auke Bay, Alaska: Heritage Research, 1991.

Osborn, Kevin. The Peoples of the Arctic. Chelsea House, 1990.

Pelton, Mary Helen, and Jacqueline DiGennaro. Images of a People: Tlingit Myths and Legends. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1992.

Straley, John. The Woman Who Married a Bear. New York: Soho Press, 1992.

—revised by J. Williams


views updated May 18 2018


ETHNONYMS: Thlinget, Thlinkets, Tlinkit, Lleeengit


Identification. The Tlingit are an American Indian group located in southern Alaska. "Tlingit" means "in the people."

Location. The Tlingit continue to occupy many of their aboriginal village sites along the southeastern coast of Alaska from Ketchikan to Yakutat54°40 N to about 60° Nand from the coast to Lake Atlin, or as the Tlingit say, the "second mountain range." This area includes many offshore islands, numerous streams emptying into inlets, and rugged mountains that jut up from the edge of the sea and whose snow-capped serrated peaks cover most of the area.

Demography. Conservative population estimates place the precontact population at ten thousand. The present Tlingit population numbers about twenty-five thousand.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tlingit language is classified in the Na-Dene phylum. Among the coastal Tlingit, northern, central and southern dialects are still spoken by the elders.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological data suggest that a Tlingit or proto-Tlingit population inhabited the coast of southeastern Alaska by seven thousand b.c. Oral history traces several migration routes of Tlingit clans down various rivers that flowed from the interior to the sea, and linguistic data reveal a close affinity with interior groups. While the neighboring Haida and Tsimshian tribes were pushing some southern Tlingit northward, the northern Tlingit were expanding in Eyak and Eskimo territory. British, French, and Russian interests vied for control of Alaska with the United States acquiring final control over the rich Alaskan resources in 1867. Gunboat diplomacy instituted by the United States undermined local Tlingit autonomy and opened up the territory to outside settlers and gold prospectors. Alaskan natives fought back by organizing the Alaskan Native Brotherhood in 1912 to fight for their civil rights and subsistence resources. In 1929 the Tlingit began a struggle to regain control of their natural resources, resulting in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 transferring some 100 million acres back to Alaskan natives.


Early Tlingit settlers selected village sites near heavily resourced areas along protected sections of coastline ideal for beaching canoes, digging clams, acquiring drinking water, and catching migrating salmon. An expanding Tlingit population, increasing competition for local resources, and intensifying patterns of warfare contributed to the progressive development of four types of villages: the local household village, the localized clan village, the local moiety village, and the consolidated clan village. In early times, people lived in one large community longhouse, which served as shelter, storage place, and fort. Population increases and mounting tension contributed to the breakup of the large household into several smaller related lineage households sharing a common fort. Later, in a third settlement stage, two intermarrying clans from the two moieties moved together to reduce distances, share resources, and increase village security. Depopulation and depletion of subsistence resources following European contact contributed to the rise of a fourth settlement pattern, the consolidated clan village, composed of two or more clans from both moieties.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Tlingit hunted deer, bear, seals, and goats; fished for salmon, halibut, and herring; and gathered roots, berries, and shellfish. Runs of salmon choked the local streams each year as five species of salmon migrated to their spawning grounds. Fishnets and gaffing hooks were used to haul in large quantities of salmon for smoking and drying for winter consumption. The rapid depletion of the population by foreign diseases and Increased reliance upon proceeds from fur trapping reduced subsistence resources while increasing dependence upon foreign trade goods. Today, the Tlingit value education, resulting in many members working in business, industry, government, and the professions.

Industrial Arts. Carving, basket making, Chilkat blanket weaving, beading, and metalworking were sources of income. Gold and silver coins shaped into bracelets, pendants, and rings were embellished with clan symbols. The active arts and crafts trade that began with the arrival of the early steamship tourists has grown in volume over the years, and several Tlingit villages now have dancing groups that perform for local ceremonies and for tourists.

Trade. An aboriginal trade network flourished between the interior Athapaskans and the Tlingit, between coastal and island Tlingit, and with the neighboring Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian, and Kwakiutl. Native trade goods such as coppers, shells, slaves, canoes, carvings, oulachan oil, and furs were later replaced by European trade goods, including guns, ammunition, knives, axes, blankets, and food.

Division of Labor. Prior to the decline of the traditional culture around 1880, Tlingit men hunted, fished, and carved, and women cleaned fish, gathered food, tanned hides, and wove baskets and blankets. Today, men drive diesel-powered boats equipped with hydraulic hoists and large nets, and women work in modern canneries and make button blankets or beaded moccasins from commercial materials.

Land Tenure. The localized clan was the basic holder of rights to fishing streams, tidelands, and hunting grounds in traditional Tlingit villages. Today, clans own ceremonial and symbolic ritual items. The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act organized the Alaska Tlingit into one large regional corporation, called Sealaska. Sealaska received title to 330,000 acres of land and 660,000 acres of mineral rights; it had total assets of $216 million as of March 1988. Sealaska governs nine village corporations each of which received title to 20,040 acres of aboriginal land and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash payments, depending upon the number of tribal members.


Kin Groups and Descent. Tlingit society is divided into two large exogamous moietiesRaven-Crow and Eagle-Wolf (Crow for Inland Tlingit and Wolf for Southern Tlingit). Each moiety contains some twenty autonomous matriclans. Aboriginally, each exogamous localized matriclan had its own village and formed marriage alliances with other communities. Matriclans that intermarried with considerable frequency within a given region formed a Kwaan, or district, of which there were fourteen. Following depopulation and the depletion of resources, scattered clans within Kwaans moved together to form consolidated clan villages like Angoon, Hoonah, and Yakutat. Local matriclans were corporate groups holding title to property, real estate, and ceremonial objects. A matriclan consisted of one or more community longhouses in which descent was traced matrilineally. Lineage, clan, and moiety affiliations are still important for marriage and ceremonial purposes.

Kinship Terminology. Crow-type kinship terminology, once a characteristic of Tlingit society, is little used by younger members today.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The preferential marriage pattern was patrilateral cross-cousin marriageto father's sister's daughter; the second choice was a member of the paternal grandfather's or great-grandfather's clan; and a third choice was a member of any clan in the opposite moiety. Marriage within one's clan and moiety were strictly forbidden under penalty of death or ostracism. Arranged marriages have rapidly decreased during this century, although patrilateral marriages are still encouraged. Monogamy was the general rule among the lower classes, and polygamy was practiced by a few high-status men and women. Divorce was rare, as it was seen as an offense against the clans of both spouses. Marriage prohibitions within the clan and moiety are still subscribed to in principle, though broken frequently in practice.

Domestic Unit. Until the turn of the century, the lineage community longhouse served as the residential unit. Recent government housing projects have largely eliminated the need for community households. Presently, lineage and clan households have more symbolic than economic significance, serving as the repository for the ceremonial objects and as a symbol of clan identity.

Inheritance. Formerly, property was passed on within the matriclan with much of the wealth going from uncle to nephew. Presently, material possessions are inherited in typical American fashion, although ceremonial goods are still expected to be passed on in conformity with traditional rules.

Socialization. Many elders played an active role in the education of Tlingit youth. Aunts extolled the virtues of respectable clan leaders, and maternal uncles rigorously and rigidly guided their nephews through adolescence, teaching them basic hunting, fishing, carving, and fighting skills. Grandmothers or maternal aunts spend considerable time with pubescent girls, preparing them for childbearing and teaching them clan history and domestic skills such as food preparation, basket weaving, and basic hygiene. Elders still maintain a strong influence even among the large number of members who have attended college.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Tlingit were stratified into three social classes: (1) high-class anyaddi, (2) commoners, or kanackideh, and (3) low-class nitckakaku. Individuals and groups were also ranked within the clan and between clans, depending upon their wealth, titles, and achievements. Highclass people managed and controlled strategic resources and used them to promote individual and group status. Class and rank remain important in Tlingit villages.

Political Organization. Each aboriginal settlement was owned by a localized clan whose claims were documented through stories and symbols, with other clans residing in their village viewed as guests. Leadership and councils at the household, clan, and local moiety levels were traditional political units and remain influential. Today, three ethnic associations address Tlingit concerns. The Alaska Native Brotherhood serves as cultural broker and advocate; the Tlingit-Haida Organization with some 14,500 members of Tlingit descent promotes housing and social welfare; and Sealaska, the largest corporation in Alaska, provides growing economic and political clout.

Social Control. Shame and rank were powerful motivators for enforcing traditional social norms. Individuals were said to define their status by the way they conducted themselves, with all ill-mannered persons bringing shame upon their lineage and clan. Thus, elders held a tight rein on youths. Fear of accusation of witchcraft or ridicule also influenced behavior. Several Tlingit villages now have their own mayor, city council, police force, and school boards along with other administrative services.

Conflict. Aboriginally, conflicts arose over assaults, insults, or damages suffered by individuals and groups to themselves or their property. Such conflicts were usually resolved through payment of wealth or, in some cases, killing the offender. Conflicts with Whites over the past century centered around aboriginal resources, civil rights, and civil liberties. The persistence of these conflicts contributes to alcohol abuse and other drug abuse.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Early records suggest that the Tlingit believed in a creator, Kah-shu-goon-yah, whose name was sacred and never mentioned above a whisper. This primordial grandfather, or "divisible-rich-man," controlled the sun, moon, stars, and daylight in addition to creating all living things. Little more is known of him. The sacred past centers upon Raven (cultural hero, benefactor, trickster, and rascal) who was credited with organizing the world in its present form and in initiating many Tlingit customs. Raven was never represented, symbolized, or made equal with the supreme being who transcended Tlingit legends. The Tlingit inhabited a world filled with spirits, or jek. These spirits could manifest their power through individuals, animals, or things. Since every material object or physical force could be inhabited by a spirit, Tlingit were taught to respect everything in the universe. The penalty for disrespect was the loss of ability to obtain food. Properly purified persons could acquire spirit power for curing illnesses, for protection in warfare, for success in obtaining wealth, and for ceremonial prerogatives. Each Tlingit had a mortal and an immortal spirit.

Religious Practitioners. Two options open to youths were to seek good power and help the community or to seek evil power and threaten the community. Every Tlingit had a personal guardian spirit, or tu-kina-jek. Spirit doctors, or ichet, received more powerful spirits and therefore could treat the sick with herbs, discern the presence of evil, predict the future, and protect the community from evil forces. Witches, or nukw-sati, sought evil power and used it to harm others.

Ceremonies. Dancing societies never gained a major foothold in Tlingit society as they did in neighboring Northwest Coast tribes. The Tlingit sought their power primarily through their clan spirit doctor whom they trusted to help and not to harm them. Politicoreligious ceremonies called potlatches, or koolex, marked significant events in the life of the clan and its members. Sacred songs, dances, symbols, and stories accompanied all changes in social stature, political leadership, and ceremonial objects within the clan.

Arts. Carving of house posts, heraldic screens, chiefs' hats, chiefs' staffs, and weaving of Chilkat blankets were highly acclaimed. Wood-carvers, metalworkers, and blanket weavers continue to use their traditional clan symbols (kotea ) to indicate ownership and identity.

Medicine. Every family possessed a basic knowledge of herbs and principles of hygiene and for the most part were medically self-sufficient. Occasionally, a spirit doctor, who possessed superior knowledge of herbal medicines and special spirit power, was called in for difficult cases after household remedies failed. Contemporary Tlingit do not hesitate to consult modern medical facilities when the need arises.

Death and Afterlife. Spirits of the dead traveled to the appropriate level of heaven commensurate with their moral conduct in this life. Morally respectable people went to the highest heaven, Kiwa-a, a realm of happiness; moral delinquents went to a second level, or Dog Heaven, Ketl-kiwa, a place of torment. Individuals remained in the afterworld for a period of time and then returned to this world as a reincarnation of some deceased maternal relative.


Krause, Aurel (1970). The Tlingit Indians. Translated by Erna Gunther. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Originally published, 1885.

Laguna, Frederica de. (1972). Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Oberg, Kalervo (1973). The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Originally published, 1937.

Tollefson, Kenneth (1976). "The Cultural Foundations of Political Revitalization among the Tlingit. " Ph.D. diss., University of Washington.



views updated May 18 2018

Tlin·git / ˈtling(g)it/ • n. (pl. same or -gits) 1. a member of an American Indian people of the coasts and islands of southeastern Alaska and adjacent British Columbia.2. the Na-Dene language of this people.• adj. of or relating to this people or their language.


views updated May 09 2018

Tlingit Native Americans of the se coast of Alaska. Famous for their totem poles (featuring stylized forms of local wildlife), they rely on fishing, tourism, and government aid.