A Tlingit totem pole in Ketchikan ca. 1901
The Tlingit (pronounced "clink-it") are an Alaska Native tribe and Canadian First Nations people. Their name for themselves is Lingít, meaning "people". The Tlingit are a matrilineal society who developed a complex hunter-gatherer culture in the temperate rainforest along the Pacific coast. The Tlingit language is well known for its complex grammar and sound system, and for using a few sounds which are not heard in almost any other human language.
[Northwest coast people and how Tlingits differ.]
The Tlingit kinship system is based on a matrilineal structure. The society is divided into two distinct moieties, termed Raven (Yéil) and Eagle/Wolf (Ch'aak'/Gooch). The former identifies with the raven as its primary crest, but the latter is split between identifying either eagle or wolf as the primary crest, depending on location. Members of one moiety traditionally may only marry a person of the opposite moiety, however in the last century this system began to break down and today so-called "double-eagle" and "double-raven" marriages are common, as well as marriages with non-Tlingit people.
The moieties provide the major dividing lines across Tlingit culture, but identification is primarily made with the clan (naa), a large group of people related by shared history and family ties. Clan sizes vary from large to small, and some clans are found throughout the Tlingit lands whereas others are found only in one small cluster of villages. The Tlingit clan functions as the main property owner in the culture, and almost all formal property amongst the Tlingit belongs to clans.
Beneath the clans are houses, smaller groups of people closely related by family, and who in earlier times lived together in the same large communal house. The house would be first and foremost property of the clan, but the householders would be keepers of the house and all the material and nonmaterial goods associated with it. Each house was led by a 'chief', in Tlingit ankáawu, a person of high stature within the community.
Because the social system was matrilineal the father played a minor role in the lives of his children. Instead, what Europeans would consider the father's role was filled by the mother's brother, the children's maternal uncle, who was of the same clan as the children. This man would be the caretaker and teacher of the children, as well as the disciplinarian. The father had a more peripheral relationship with the children, and many Tlingit children have very pleasant memories of their fathers while maintaining a distinct fear of their maternal uncles.
[More about ankáawu. Upward mobility vs aristocracy. Describe duties of uncles. How new houses form. Relationships between clans — reciprocal actions and payments. Arranged marriages. Ideal marriages. Grandparents and grandchildren. Inheritance of at.óow.]
In Tlingit society many things are considered property which are not in European societies. This includes names, stories, speeches, songs, dances, landscape features (e.g. mountains), and artistic designs. Note that these notions of property are similar to those considered under intellectual property law. More familiar property objects are buildings, rivers, totem poles, berry patches, canoes, and works of art. The Tlingit have long felt powerless to defend their cultural properties against depredation by opportunists, but have in recent years become aware of the power of American and Canadian law in defending their property rights and have begun to prosecute people for willful theft of such things as clan designs.
It is important to note that in modern Tlingit society two forms of property are extant. The first and foremost is unavoidably that of the American and Canadian cultures, and is rooted in European law. The other is the Tlingit concept of property as described here. The two are contradictory in terms of rightful ownership, inheritance, permanence, and even in the very idea of what can be owned. This is the cause of many disagreements both within the Tlingit and with outsiders, as both concepts can seem to be valid at the same time. The Tlingit apply the indigenous concept of property mostly in ceremonial circumstances, such as after the death of an individual, the construction of clan houses, erection of totem poles, etc. The situation of death can be problematic however since Tlingit law dictates that any personal property reverts to clan ownership in the absence of any clan descendants who can serve as caretakers. This of course contradicts the European legal interpretation which claims that property reverts to the state in the absence of legal heirs. However, the two may be considered to be consistent, in that the clan serves as the essence of a Tlingit concept of state. Obviously such matters require careful consideration by both Tlingit familiar with the traditional laws and by the governments involved.
[Tribe versus clan. Clan versus individual. Slavery. Stories, song and dance. Names. Places and resources.]
[Death and memorials. Birth and coming out. Paying the opposite clan.]
[See Northwest Coast art. Stories and famous deeds. Totem poles, houses, canoes, and masks. Blankets and basketry.]
[Clan conflict. Trading vs raiding vs slavery. Ferocity. Making peace.]
Food is a central part of Tlingit culture, and the land is an abundant provider. A saying amongst the Tlingit is that "when the tide goes out the table is set". This refers to the richness of intertidal life found on the beaches of Southeast Alaska, most of which can be harvested for food. Another saying is that "in Lingít Áani you have to be an idiot to starve". Since food is so easy to gather from the beaches, a person who can't feed themselves at least enough to stay alive is considered to be a fool, perhaps mentally incompetent or suffering from very bad luck. However, though eating off the beach would provide a fairly healthy and varied diet, eating nothing but "beach food" is considered contemptible among the Tlingit, and a sign of poverty. Indeed, shamans and their families were required to abstain from all food gathered from the beach, and men might avoid eating beach food before battles or strenuous activities in the belief that it would weaken them spiritually and perhaps physically as well. Thus for both spiritual reasons as well as to add some variety to the diet, the Tlingit harvest many other resources for food besides those which are easily found outside their front doors. No other food resource receives as much emphasis as salmon, however seal and game are both close seconds.
A particular problem with the Tlingit diet is ensuring enough vitamins and minerals are available. Protein is ubiquitous. Iodine from saltwater life is easily obtained, but important dietary components such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, and vitamin C, are lacking in meat and fish. To ensure that such essentials are available, the Tlingit eat almost all parts of animals which they harvest. Bones used for soup stock provide leached calcium, as do ground calcined shells. Vitamin A is obtained from livers. Vitamin C is primarily found in berries and some other plants, such as skunk cabbage leaves. Bone marrow provides valuable iron and vitamin D. Intestines and stomachs are harvested to provide vitamin E and the B complexes.
Today most Tlingit eat a number of packaged products as well as imported staples such as dairy products, grains, beef, pork, and chicken. In the larger towns all most of the American restaurant standards are available, such as pizza, Chinese food, and delicatessen goods. Ice cream and spam are particularly popular. Rice (koox) has long been a staple, as have pilot crackers (gáatl), and both have specific terms in Tlingit which are adapted from now uneaten foods (Kamchatka lily and a type of tree fungus).
[More beach food descriptions: ribbon kelp, black seaweed, mussels, clams, oysters, etc.]
The primary staple of the Tlingit diet was salmon. It was caught using a variety of methods, but traditionally the most common techniques were fish weirs and traps. Spearing and trolling were common as well. Salmon would be roasted fresh over a fire, or dried and smoked for preservation.
[More about salmon. Species of salmon. Uses. Means of harvesting. Processing and storage. Subsistence versus commercial fishing.]
Herring and Hooligan
Herring (Clupea pallasii) and hooligan (Thaleichthys pacificus) both provide important foods in the Tlingit diet. They are small fish which return in enormous schools to spawn near the mouths of freshwater rivers and streams. Herring are traditionally harvested with herring rakes, long poles with spikes which are swirled around in the schooling fish. An experienced herring raker can bring up ten or more fish with each swing, and deftly flick the fish from the rake into the bottom of the boat. Raking can be enhanced with pens, weirs, and other techniques of condensing the large schools. More modern methods usually involve small aperture nets and purse seining. Herring are processed like salmon, dried and smoked whole. They are traditionally stored in seal oil but in modern times may be canned, salted, or frozen, the latter usually in vacuum sealed bags.
Herring eggs are also harvested, and are considered a delicacy, sometimes called "Tlingit caviar". Either ribbon kelp or hemlock branches are submerged in an area where herring are known to spawn, and are marked with a buoy. They may be unattended during spawning, or the herring may be herded into the area and penned with nets to force them to spawn on the kelp or hemlock. Once enough eggs are deposited the herring are released from the pen to spawn further, thus ensuring future harvests. The branches or kelp are removed and boiled in large cauldrons or fifty-five gallon drums on the beach, often as part of a family or community event. The cooked eggs may be salted, frozen, dried in cakes, or submerged in seal oil to preserve them for use throughout the year.
Hooligan are harvested by similar means as herring, however they are valued more for their oil than for their flesh. Instead of smoking, they are usually boiled and mashed in large cauldrons or drums (traditionally old canoes and hot rocks were used), the oil skimmed off the surface with spoons and then strained and stored in bentwood boxes or plastic containers. Hooligan oil was a valuable trade commodity which enriched kwáan such as the Chilkat who saw regular hooligan runs every year in their territory.
[Halibut. Cod, bullhead, flounder, etc. Shark.]
[Seal. Sea lion, sea otter. Controversy over marine mammal harvest of endangered or protected species.]
Unlike most north Pacific coast peoples, the Tlingit do not hunt whale. Various explanations have been offered, but the most common reason given is that since a significant portion of the society relates itself with either the killer whale or other whale species via clan crest and hence as a spiritual member of the family, eating whale would be tantamount to cannibalism. The Tlingit of Yakutat are the exception, where they hunt whale occasionally. Many Tlingit explain this as an areal influence of the Eyak and the Alutiiq Eskimos of Prince William Sound further north. However, the Tlingit eat beached whales, considering this a gift that should not be wasted. A story in the Raven Cycle relates how Raven was swallowed by a whale and then ate it from inside out, eventually killing and beaching it. However, beached whales are fairly uncommon in Southeast Alaska since the beaches are very rocky and often nearly nonexistent, thus whale forms only a very small part of the Tlingit diet.
Game forms a sizable component of the traditional Tlingit diet, and the majority of food that is not derived from the sea. Major game animals hunted for food are Sitka deer, rabbit, mountain goat in mountainous regions, black bear and brown bear, beaver, and on the mainland moose.
Philosophy and Religion
Tlingit thought and belief, although never formally codified, was historically a fairly well organized philosophical and religious system whose basic axioms shaped the way all Tlingit people viewed and interacted with the world around them. After the introduction of Christianity, both in its earlier Russian Orthodox form and later Protestantism, the Tlingit belief system began to erode. Much of the original belief system, particularly ideas of spirituality and shamanism, was lost due to Christian persecution and governmental attempts to eradicate traditional practices.
Today Tlingit thought is beginning to experience a gradual renaissance as young people become disillusioned with Christian and American thought and look back towards what their ancestors believed for inspiration, security, and a sense of identity. This causes some friction in Tlingit society because most Tlingit elders are fervent believers in Christianity, and have transferred or equated many Tlingit concepts with Christian ones. Indeed, many elders believe that resurrection of "heathen" practices of shamanism and spirituality are dangerous, and are better forgotten. Others have little trouble reconciling the two. These different positions are in large part due to differences between the particular Christian faiths that are found throughout the Tlingit population.
The Tlingit see the world as a system of dichotomies. The most obvious is the division between the light water and the dark forest which surrounds their daily lives in the Tlingit homeland.
Water serves as a primary means of transportation, and as a source of most Tlingit foods. Its surface is flat and broad, and most dangers on the water are readily perceived by the naked eye. Light reflects brightly off the sea, and it is one of the first things that a person in Southeast Alaska sees when they look outside. Like all things, danger lurks beneath its surface, but these dangers are for the most part easily avoided with some caution and planning. For such reasons it is considered a relatively safe and reliable place, and thus represents the apparent forces of the Tlingit world.
In contrast, the dense and forbidding rainforest of Southeast Alaska is dark and misty in even the brightest summer weather. Untold dangers from bears, falling trees, dank muskeg, and the risk of being lost all make the forest a constantly dangerous place. Vision in the forest is poor, reliable landmarks are few, and food is scarce in comparison to the seashore. Entering the forest always means travelling uphill, often up the sides of steep mountains, and clear trails are rare to nonexistent. Thus the forest represents the hidden forces in the Tlingit world.
Another series of dichotomies in Tlingit thought are wet versus dry, heat versus cold, and hard versus soft. A wet, cold climate causes people to seek warm, dry shelter. The traditional Tlingit house, with its solid redcedar construction and blazing central fireplace, represented an ideal Tlingit conception of warmth, hardness, and dryness. Contrast the soggy forest floor that is covered with soft rotten trees and moist, squishy moss, both of which make for uncomfortable habitation. Three attributes that Tlingits value in a person are hardness, dryness, and heat. These can be perceived in many different ways, such as the hardness of strong bones or the hardness of a firm will; the heat given off by a healthy living man, or the heat of a passionate feeling; the dryness of clean skin and hair, or the sharp dry scent of cedar.
The Tlingit divide the living being into several components:
- kaa daa — body, physical being, person's outside (cf. aas daayí "tree's bark or outside")
- kaa daadleeyí — the flesh of the body (< daa + dleey "meat, flesh")
- kaa ch'áatwu — skin
- kaa s'aagí — bones
- x'aséikw — vital force, breath (< disaa "to breathe")
- kaa toowú — mind, thought and feelings
- kaa yahaayí — soul, shadow
- kaa yakgwahéiyagu — ghost, revenant
- s'igeekáawu — ghost in a cemetery
The physical components are those which have no proper life after death. The skin is viewed as the covering around the insides of the body, which are divided roughly into bones and flesh. The flesh decays quickly, and in most cases has little spiritual value, but the bones form an essential part of the Tlingit spiritual belief system. Bones are the hard and dry remains of something which has died, and thus are the physical reminder of that being after its death. In the case of animals, it is essential that the bones be properly handled and disposed, since mishandling may displease the spirit of the animal and may prevent it from being reincarnated. The reason for the spirit's displeasure is rather obvious, since a salmon who was resurrected without a jaw or tail would certainly refuse to run again in the stream where it had died.
The significant bones in a human body are the backbone and the eight "long bones" of the limbs. The eight long bones are emphasized because that number has spiritual significance in Tlingit culture. The bones of a cremated body must be collected and placed with those of the person's clan ancestors, or else the person's spirit might be disadvantaged or displeased in the afterlife, which could cause repercussions if the ghost decided to haunt people or if the person was reincarnated.
The source of living can be found in x'aséikw, the essence of life. This bears some resemblance to the Chinese concept of qi as a metaphysical energy without which a thing is not alive; however in Tlingit thought this can be equated to the breath as well. For example, the shaman's simplest test for whether a person is alive is to hold a downy feather above the mouth or nose; if the feather is disturbed then the person is breathing and thus alive, even if the breath is not audible or sensible. This then implies that the person still maintains x'aséikw.
The feelings and thoughts of a person are encompassed by the kaa toowú. This is a very basic idea in Tlingit culture. When a Tlingit references their mind or feelings they always discuss this in terms of ax toowú, "my mind". Thus "Ax toowú yanéekw", "I am sad", literally "My mind is pained".
Both x'aséikw and kaa toowú are mortal, and cease to exist upon the death of a being. However, the kaa yahaayí and kaa yakgwahéiyagu are immortal and persist in various forms after death. The idea of kaa yahaayí is that it is the person's essence, shadow, or reflection. It can even refer to the appearance of a person in a photograph or painting, and is metaphorically used to refer to the behavior or appearance of a person as other than what they are or should be.
Death and the Afterlife
Heat, dryness, and hardness are all represented as parts of the Tlingit practice of cremation. The body is burned, removing all water under great heat, and leaving behind only the hard bones. The soul goes on to be near the heat of the great bonfire in the house in the spirit world, unless it is not cremated in which case it is relegated to a place near the door with the cold winds. The hardest part of the spirit, the most physical part, is reincarnated into a clan descendant.
[Cremation emphasises hot and dry. Ghosts and spirits. Reincarnation and yakgwahéiyagu.]
Man and Nature
[In the world, not outside of it. Animals, especially totemic animals, are family.]
No description of the Tlingit would be complete without mentioning the Kooshdakaa, the dreaded and feared Land Otter Men.
[All Tlingit fear drowning. Land otter boogeyman. Helpful kooshda.]
The traditional history of the Tlingit people involves the creation myths, the Raven Cycle, other tangentially related events during the mythic age when spirits freely transformed from animal to human and back, the migration story of coming to Tlingit lands, the clan histories, and more recent events near the time of First Contact.
Creation Myth and The Raven Cycle
Stories about Raven are unique in Tlingit culture in that though they technically belong to clans of the Raven moiety, all members of Tlingit society feel free to share them. They also make up the bulk of the fascinating stories that children are regaled with when young. Raven is a trickster god, both at once kind and sly, willing to play sometimes nasty tricks on others but at the same time embodying many good qualities.
[Naas-shúki Yéil, Ax Kinayégi, Raven at the head of the Nass River. Birth of Yéil, Raven. The Box of Daylight. The Flood. Other Raven Stories.]
The Tlingit Migration
There are a few variations of the Tlingit story of how they came to inhabit their lands. All are fairly similar, and one will be detailed here. They vary mostly in location of the events, with some being very specific about particular rivers and glaciers, others being more vague. The particular one presented here involves some interesting relationship explanations between the Tlingit and their inland neighbors, the Athabaskans. Note that the particular Athabaskan group is not noted, and it seems to be indeterminate. It may in fact refer to a time before the Athabaskans had developed into the multiplicity of peoples that they are today.
All stories are considered property in the Tlingit cultural system, such that sharing a story without the proper permission of its owners is a breach of Tlingit law. However, the stories of the Tlingit people as a whole, the creation myths, and other seemingly universal records are usually considered to be property of the entire tribe, and thus may be shared without particular restriction. It is however important to the Tlingit that the details be correct, for if not this can lead to perpetuations of error and worsen the transmission of the information in the future, as well as degrade the value of the knowledge.
The story begins with the Athabaskan (Gunanaa) people of interior Alaska and western Canada, a land of lakes and rivers, of birch and spruce forests, and the moose and caribou. Life in this continental climate is harsh, with bitterly cold winters and hot summers. One year the people had a particularly poor harvest over a summer, and it was obvious that the winter would bring with it many deaths from starvation. The elders gathered together and decided that people would be sent out to find a land which was rumored to be rich in food, a place where one did not even have to hunt for something to eat. A group of people were selected and sent out to find this new place, and would come back to tell the elders where this land could be found. They were never heard from again. However, we now know that these people were the Navajo and Apache, for they left the Athabaskan lands for a different place far south of their home, and yet retain a close relationship with their Athabaskan ancestors.
Over the winter many people died. Again, the next summer's harvest was poor, and the life of the people was threatened. So once again, the elders decided to send out people to find this land of abundance. These people travelled a long distance, and climbed up mountain passes to encounter a great glacier. The glacier seemed impassable, and the mountains around it far too steep for the people to cross. They could however see how the meltwater of the glacier traveled down into deep crevasses and disappeared underneath the icy bulk. The people decided that some strong young men should be sent down to follow this river to see if it came out on the other side of the mountains. But before these men had left, an elderly couple volunteered to make the trip. They reasoned that since they were already near the end of their lives, the loss of their support to the group would be minimal, but the loss of the strong young men would be devastating. The people agreed that these elders should travel under the glacier. They made a simple dugout canoe and took it down the river under the glacier, and came out to see a rocky plain with deep forests and rich beaches all around. The people followed them down under the glacier and came into Lingít Aaní, the rich and bountiful land that became the home of the Tlingit people. These people became the first Tlingits.
[Need to get proper attribution for this story.]
Each clan in the Tlingit society has its own foundation history. These stories are private property of the clans and thus may not be shared here. However, each story describes the Tlingit world from a different perspective, and together the clan histories give the story of the Tlingits before the coming of the Dléit Kaa, the white people.
Typically a clan history involves some extraordinary event that happened to some family or group of families which brought them together and at once separated them from other Tlingits. Some clans seem to be older than others, and often this is notable by their clan histories having mostly mythic proportions. Younger clans seem to have histories that tell of breaking apart from other groups due to internal conflict and strife or the desire to find new territory.
[White Raven on the horizon. Early explorers. Lituya Bay and La Perouse.]
[Russians and Baranov. Orthodoxy and Veniaminov. The Sitka battles. Hudson's Bay Company.]
[The American military rule. Immigration, religious conversion, alcohol, Indian Police.]
The Bombing of Angoon
[Canneries and fish traps. Death payments. Coast Guard retaliation. Waiting for apologies. Angoon memorial in 1982.]
Education and Conversion
[Sheldon Jackson and the Institutes. Presbyterianism. Dismantling the villages.]
ANB and Recognizing Rights
[Creating ANB. Stopping the fish traps. Flexing political muscle.]
[Aleuts among us. Patriotism. Young men at war. Losing cultural connection.]
[Land. Oil. Corporations and shareholders. Land allotments. Natural resources.]
[Saving the culture. Bringing back the children.]
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- ——— (1994). Haa Kusteeyí, Our Culture: Tlingit life stories. Volume 3 in Classics of Tlingit Oral Literature. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-97401-X.
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