The Tlingit, an overview

Aboriginal Life

  • North West Coast of North America
  • Rich culture in comparison to other tribes due to the abundance of salmon as a reliable food source
  • Numbered 10,000 in early history
  • Lived in a mountainous, lush, coastal area of many broken islands, deep bays and glaciers
  • Mild temperatures and abundant precipitation created lush and varied vegetation, including red cedar and Sitka spruce

Origin Myth

  • The first people existed without explanation
  • A woman whose brother was killed decided to commit suicide but was ordered by an old man to instead eat a hot pebble.
  • She became pregnant.
  • She gave birth to Raven in human form.
  • The Raven, when older, visited his uncle, a kin slayer, who in turn tried to kill him, but the Raven survived magically.
  • Raven caused a flood, killing all except himself and mother, who put on bird skins and flew into the air.
  • Raven stuck his beak into the sky and remained stationary for ten days, returning to a patch of seaweed once the water had subsided.
  • Raven went to Petrel, an eternal man, and received little water. Raven tricked Petrel into thinking he soiled his bed and while he was cleaning his sheets he drank a great deal of water.
  • Petrel built a fire, turning Raven from white to black.
  • The trickery of Raven created the stars, moon and sun.

Appearance and Clothing

  • Lean, medium to tall in stature.
  • Fair skin, no darker than the inhabitants of southern Europe.
  • Woman wore their hair loose
  • Female body modification: Piercing earlobes, hanging ornaments of shell, stone and teeth, nasal septum pierced for a bone pin, medial labret inserted at puberty, larger inserts as age progressed.
  • Men wore their hair loose and rubbed it with grease, plucked their whiskers.
  • Male body modification: Nasal septum piercing with a suspended ring, similar ear ornaments as women but a great achiever might have small bits of wool or small feathers in addition
  • Facial paints were worn on special occasions and to protect from extreme temperature and insects.
  • Both sexes wore long-sleeved shirts of dehaired skin with sea otter capes
  • Donned moccasins during severe weather styled after neighboring interior Indians or styled in their fashion.
  • Hats, for hunting and ceremonies, woven from roots or bark and were shaped like a truncated cone with a flat top


  • Winter villages were built along bays, inlets and river mouths near good fishing grounds and where canoes could be moored.
  • Square plank-covered houses
    • Entrance floor was at ground level but main living area was borrowed downward three feet.
  • Built in a line facing the water
  • Heated stones to cook food and keep warm
  • Stored hunting tools in roof beams
  • Common among North Tlingit were heraldic screens.
  • Settlements were walled in with palisades for protection.
  • Menstrual huts were addendums to the main buildings.
  • Settlements were littered with pole racks for drying fish
  • Short distance from main settlements were clusters of graves.
  • Summer dwellings were only walled against the windward direction.

Manufactures and Conveyances

  • Famous for artistic skill and manufactures of bone, stone and wood.
  • Made heavy use of carved and painted wooden containers.
  • Containers could become artcraft, treasure boxes shaped in the form of animals and spirits
  • Routinely manufactured dishes, spoons and ladles of mountain sheep or goat horn.
  • Oval lamps of polished stone powered on fish or seal oil burned moss wick.
  • Boiled foods in wooden or woven containers using hot stones.
  • Boiling, roast and drying were methods of preparing food.
  • Built canoes during the winter, built during periods of unhurried production. Used red cedar, burnt out with fire and shaped with an adz.
    • Painted with ornate designs
    • Ranged from small hunting canoes of three people to massive canoes capable of holding sixty.
    • Manufactured paddles for propulsion and an extra large paddle as a rudder.
    • When not in use was covered with mats and blankets and the wood kept fresh with sprinkled water.
  • Snowshoes were essential for overland mobility during the winter for coastal bands.
    • Facilitated inland trade.
  • Dominant materials include flexible such as wool and cedar bark or the root fibers of spruce.
  • Most prized manufactures were Chilkat robe
    • Made of mountain goat wool
    • Adorned with symbolic patterns
    • Took six months or longer to make
    • Dyed yellow and black.
  • Wove baskets based on geometric designs.
  • Men worked hard materials such as red cedar, copper, horn and ivory.

Subsistence Activities

  • Family members gathered around a central fire pit to rest, eat or work during the day.
  • Fish (Salmon, candlefish, halibut, haddock, trout and herring) was the principal food source, supplemented by flesh from:
  • Land (black, frizzly bears, wolves, wolverine, lynx and deer on some islands as well as caribou, mountain goats, sheep, hare, squirrel, ermine, porcupine, muskrat and beaver on the coastal stretch) and…
  • Sea mammals (whales, seals, sea lions and sea otter)
    • Other sporadic food sources included shellfish, vegetable products, fruit and berries.
    • These foods were less important, as the staple food were often in gross abundance, but shellfish became especially important during rough economic patches, as it was a reliable secondary food source.
  • Subsistence cycle ebbed during the winter up until April.
  • In March men repaired canoes, readied fishing gear and prepared for the hunt.
  • Fished where possible in teams of two in a canoe, maintaining lines of baited V-shaped hooks tied to wooden floaters
  • As river ice thawed female teams paddled down river with gill nets of hawhide with inflated bladder floats and stone sinkers to hunt trout.
  • Collected clams and mussels in large quantities and dried and smoked them for turue use or teamed them for immediate consumption.
  • Trapping was common during March
    • Used deadfalls for land animals
    • Harpoon darts against the sea otter
  • Candlefish was a rich source of oil drunk during feasts or used as a dip for dried salmon
  • Deployed traps and dip nets during the spring to catch more fish.
  • During mid-April spawning the herring fish were so numerous that a great measure of food could be collected just by waving tine-studded poles through the water, impaling numerous fish and allowing for easy retrieval.
  • Coastal peoples had their subsistence supplemented even further by ready trade with the inland Athapaskan Indians – acquiring skins, moccasins, sinew and lichens.
  • Loaded massive trading canoes for exchange with the southern Haida and Tsimshian people, trading copper from the Copper River for dentalia, haliotis, shark teeth and slaves.
  • Hunted sea mammals with multi-part harpoon and dart systems, think Jaws.
  • Although many options were presented to the people, land and sea mammal hunting was frequently subordinate to the hunting of fish, the former of which were often clubbed or pierced with spears.
  • In winter the people lived off of abundant food reserves, focusing on ritual, feast, storytelling and recreation.
  • Men dominated as procurers of edibles, women were charged with preparing the dried salmon for winter.

Descent, Kinship and Marriage

  • A particular geographical area was inhabited by a Kwaan, analogous to a tribe, which together comprised a nation. Each Kwaan’s boundaries and resources was strictly defined.
  • The Chilkat was the most powerful Kwaan, comprised of four villages. Klukwan, the largest of these villages, had sixty five houses and about six hundred residents.
  • Each kwaan was divided into two groups, traced through female lines. These groups were the Raven and Wolf (called Eagle in the north), which were further divided into named matriclans. Raven was divided into Frog, Goose, Owl, Raven, Salmon and Sea Lion. Wolf was divided into Auk, Bear, Eagle, Shark, Whale and Wolf.
  • Outsiders were referred to as uncle or son-in-law.
  • Specific characteristics were attributed to these groups – Raven were expected to be wise and cautious, Wolves quick-tempered and warlike.
  • The clan with the most wealth was the most influential.
  • Leadership passed from the man to his sister’s son.
  • Multiple chiefs, but one dominated due to wealth.
  • Marriage was expected to occur with the other group (Wolf marrying Raven).
  • Land was owned by those who traced their lineage by a common female ancestor.
  • Village paths were common property.
  • Individual resources were claimed and defended by particular clans, such as streams, berry patches, fishing spots and groups of animals – but the beach was common.
  • Each clan had a lineage, origin story and mythology.
  • Nuclear family unity did not exist because the parents were of different clans and moieties.
  • Social castes of nobles, commoners and slaves.
  • Dowry was a common feature of marriage.
  • A man ideally married his father’s sister.

Social Dimensions

  • Tlingit means “the people”
  • Their language belongs to the Nadene family
  • The most important social and economic unit was the household.
  • House group was ideally comprised of a male and his brothers, as well as his sister’s sons who were classified brothers, and the sons of the sisters of these individuals, plus the sons of the daughters of these sisters.
  • All were members of one matrilineage.
  • Functioned as an economic unit, members working for the common welfare.
  • The eldest brother was the house chief, the so-called “Keeper of the House,” who settled disputes and made executive decisions.
    • Represented the house in all political and ceremonial matters.
    • When he died the next oldest brother became Keeper.
  • The wealthiest of the local household heads in any clan was designated Rich Man, who made general executive decisions.
  • The Keeper’s wife outranked all members. Older members outranked younger ones, and bastards and slaves were at the bottom of the social ladder.
  • Wealth was the main determinant of clan social status – wealthy clans hosted huge feasts, had special heirlooms and heraldic banners, while the poor clans were subservient to them.
  • Men were the overt leaders, but women held such a powerful behind-the-scenes sway that they were considered the dominant gender.
  • Women were household managers and made critical decisions in social life.
  • Family crests adorned canoes, dishes, garments, totem poles and artifacts.
  • Ornately carved totem poles were constructed by clans:
    • 6 main types: Carved house pillars (to support the house, were carved with clan symbols and spirits), mortuary pole (contained cremated remains), heraldic pole (explained mythology of the clan), ridicule pole (to settle debts), potlatch pole (prestige pole for wealthy clans)
    • Were not common until the late 1800s, especially the potlatch pole.

§  Were difficult to manufacture before iron-based tools were made available through the fur trade

  • Gambling was an important past time, and some men were so addicted they lost their wives in games.
    • The most common game was to guess which hand contained a specially marked stick.
    • Dice and ball games were also common.
  • Wrestled, hunted and swam and entertainment.
  • Were interpreted by outsiders as intimidating, easily angered, offensive and malicious.


  • Conflicts were common among the clans, and were similar in style to European feuds.
    • Economic compensation or a sacrifice of life was necessary to settle disputes.
    • On occasion duels to the death between representative warriors of the clans settled disputes.
  • Only inter-clan crimes were incest and witchcraft, both punishable by death.
  • Political unity did not exist within a moiety, and some of the bloodiest conflicts were between clans of the same moiety.
  • Clans raided to avenge deaths and to obtain slaves.
    • Fasting, bathing in cold water and abstinence from contact with women were preparations for war.
  • Raiding parties pillaged and looted the countryside.
  • A shaman always accompanied the war band to predict events.
  • Attacks were launched at dawn.
  • Rod or skin armor was used, while the face was covered with a mask, the head with a wooden helmet. All men who did not escape were killed with daggers, women and children were enslaved.
  • Cycle of reprisal was common.
  • Enemies were scalped and occasionally beheaded and the heads presented on pikes.
  • Hostages were ransomed for peace and to prevent reprisal attacks.
  • Slavery was institutional and slave sacrifice was involved in ceremonial culture.


  • Believed the world was a flat expanse and he sky was a dome above the earth.
  • Everything was alive – spirits lived on the sun, stars were the lights of distant towns etc.
  • Astrology
  • A rainbow was the path of dead souls to the upper word and northern lights were human spirits playing.
  • Animism – everything is possessed by a spirit quality.
  • Shamans were considered the most powerful on the western coast due to the powerful spirits they controlled.
    • New shamans were inducted by performing a trance around an elder shaman’s dead body and welcoming the spirit to possess him.

§  A sign was interpreted as a confirmation, such as an animal instantly dropping dead.

o   Clan spirits were marked on shaman masks, and these were the spirits he could control.

o   Utilized animal fetishes to enhance his power and cure diseases.

o   Could predict the future and locate food sources.

o   Lived separate from the community in the forest with his family, and took retreats to intensify his powers.

  • Charms were available to the common person and required no shamanistic training.
  • Interesting to note that salmon, the main food source of the people, held no ceremonial or religious significance.
  • Witches were identified by shaman as the source of occasional disease and misfortune and were killed after torture designed to create a confession.

Life Cycle

  • Childbearing was prohibited in the household – as ill fortune would come to the men of the house.
  • Births took place in a hut, aided by a midwife and slaves.
  • The first cry of the baby was captured in a container and buried so as to prevent further crying.
  • Babies were wrapped in skins and were dressed in moss diapers.
  • Babies were nursed for 3-4 years and given their first solids after 1 year.
  • An infant born to a woman without a husband was normally suffocated.
  • Named after a maternal ancestor and the animal associated with the clan.
  • Children were considered to be little adults, to be dignified and aloof.
  • Were taught to take cold baths regularly and were physically punished if they refused.
  • Boys were tutored by uncles and by example in areas of history, hunting, carving and spiritualism.
  • The most important nephew was the oldest, and he inherited the maternal uncle’s titles, wealth and wives.
  • If a mother died, the father was obliged to place the offspring in the custody of the mother’s siblings.
  • Girls who first menstruated were confined to a special compartment attached to the house, covered their faces in charcoal and were attended by female relatives and slaves.
    • Confined for 3 months-year, depending on wealth.
    • Drank water through a bird-bone tube and emerged only at night, wearing a broad brimmed hat so that she could not taint the stars.
    • While isolated she was taught proper female behavior, clan myths and songs by her mother and was pierced by a woman of the opposite moiety.
    • When she emerged she wore new clothes and her slave attendant was freed.

§  Was expected to marry soon while remaining chaste.

  • Moeity exogamy was strictly observed.
    • A suitor courted a would-be wife with gifts to his future father-in-law. Most desired marriage partners were father’s sister, brother’s daughter, father’s sister’s daughter, mother’s brothers daughter.
    • Marriage to near relatives preserved concentrated wealth and provided spouses of equal social rank.
    • The wedding ceremony was held in the bride’s house, involving a feast and ceremony of luring the bride to sit aside the groom. A month later the couple were considered married.
    • Married couples took residence in the wealthiest principal’s dwelling (bilocal).
    • Polygamy was possible, although reserved for the wealthiest men. The first wife had the highest rank, while five wives seems to have been the maximum.
    • Women could have more than one husband, but only when marrying brothers.
    • Widows married the late husband’s brother, if unavailable, her sister’s son.
  • The dead were honored with elaborate funeral ceremonies, memorial feasts and especially memorial potlatches.
    • A corpse was considered dangerous to lineage members.
    • The flesh was considered polluted, while the bones were considered pure intermediates between the physical and spiritual world, containing the ghost of the deceased, so cremation to remove the flesh was common of the dead.
    • The dead were communicated to through a home’s fire, and through burnt offerings.
  • Shortly after death the body was placed in the back of the house surrounded by a treasure horde while the person’s spirit was given up to 8 days to leave the dwelling.
    • The principal mourners painted their faces black and sang crying songs.
    • Burnt offerings were made for the spirit.
    • Members of the opposite moiety would come to offer their condolences.
    • Following a wake the body was removed through a small hole made in the back of the dwelling

§  Males of the opposite moiety cremated the corpse with several belongings.

§  The ashes and bones were collected by opposite moiety females and temporarily placed in a grave house.

o   A series of feasts followed.

o   The remains were buried behind the house of their clan, although especially wealthy men were placed in mortuary poles.

o   Concluded with a memorial potlatch, in which the opposite moiety who aided in the mourning were celebrated and closure was sought in the election of a successor to the dead.


  • Early contact with the Russian Empire, after initial Tlingit attacks on Russian trading posts, created a fur trade and also decimated the population with smallpox, killing as many as half of the population, after the natives rejected Russian attempts at vaccinating them.
  • Europeans came to rely on the Tlingit for sea otter pelts but found them to be dangerous hagglers, cunning and unpredictable.
  • Russian-era attempts to Christianize the people were unsuccessful, due to the Tlingit’s militant disposition and the vast reach of the tribal mythology.
  • By 1867 Alaska was ceded to the United States and the Russian citizens of the area were soon replaced by US military garrisons, who clashed with the locals and threatened to exterminate the native population.
  • By the 1880s the material culture had changed
    • Women no longer wore labrets
    • Intoxicants became a popular item of consumption and of trade
    • Western clothing and commodities were common goods
    • Populations were consolidated as a result of depopulation and federal influence
    • Log cabins replaced traditional dwellings
    • Motored boats replaced canoes
  • Social change
    • Women often worked as domestics for white households
    • Men worked as trappers or commercial fishermen or worked in local goldmines at Juneau, where gold has been found.
    • The Tlingit found the working conditions intolerable, considering work schedules, and being ordered around to be insulting.
    • Found conversion to Christianity to be intelligible

§  The sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of humanity echoes the sacrifice of individuals to maintain peace during inter-clan conflict

§  The notion of it being better to give than to receive echoes the inter-moiety relationships during ceremony.

§  Expected rewards for becoming Christian and for sending their children to school.

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