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The Tlingit People and Their Culture

By Rosita Worl (Tlingit), 2009

(This is shortened version of a longer essay from the Smithsonian book Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)

Sea, Land, Rivers

Lingít haa sateeyí, "we who are Tlingit," have owned and occupied southeast Alaska since time immemorial. When we say haa aaní, “our land,” we are speaking from the heart. Those words mean ownership, which we have had to defend through history. They mean identity, because this is our homeland. They mean the nourishment of body and spirit provided by bountiful rain forests, coasts and rivers. This land and its gifts have sustained us for hundreds of generations.

We believe that animals are our ancestors. Each matrilineal clan has its ancient progenitors. I am an Eagle from the Thunderbird clan, of the House Lowered from the Sun in Klukwan. I am proud to be a child of the Lukaax.ádi, or Sockeye, my father’s clan. The history of our lineages is portrayed by images of ancestral animals and by origin stories, ceremonial regalia, dances, songs and names. These things represent at.óow, or “crest” beings, to which each clan has exclusive rights. Mountains, glaciers and other places on the land are also at.óow, because they are linked to incidents in the birth of our people. For a Tlingit person at.óow embody history, ancestry, geography, social being and sacred connection. They symbolize who we are.

The Tlingit homeland extends from Icy Bay in the north to Prince of Wales Island in the south, some four hundred miles along Alaska’s panhandle. The population is about ten thousand, distributed among a dozen villages, cities and towns. The ocean spreads out before us, with a maze of wooded islands, fjords and channels that Tlingit seafarers historically traveled in cedar-trunk canoes. Behind us are high glaciated mountain ranges that extend inland from the coast.

Fish, especially salmon, is the most important and bountiful resource in the Tlingit region. Harvested in summer and fall and preserved by smoking and drying, it allowed the historical population to grow large, to live in permanent winter villages and to produce surpluses for trade. It is still the year-round staple of our diet. The winter is long, and we look forward to spring and to herring eggs. We pick spring greens as they come up. Through the summer people gather berries and put them away. Summer is the season for hunting seals, which are important both for meat and for their fat. Nutritionists note the exceptional quality of our traditional diet, which includes omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, cancer-preventing antioxidants in blueberries, and the rich vitamins and proteins of wild meats and fish. We’ve always enjoyed the health benefits and superb tastes of those foods.

Community and Family

Tlingit are divided into opposing and complementary halves, Eagle and Raven, which are called moieties. Each moiety is composed of large extended families that we identify as clans. The clans, in turn, are divided into tribal houses. In the present day, many Tlingit people introduce themselves to others first by personal name and moiety—Eagle or Raven—and then by clan name and house. We inherit clan membership from our mothers but call ourselves the “children” of our father’s clan. In the past, children lived in the house of their father. But when a boy reached the age of ten, he went to live with his mother’s brother, who assumed responsibility for the schooling of his young nephew. A girl remained in her father’s clan house until she married.

Although locally organized by village and clan, our region was never politically unified until coming into conflict with the West. When the Treaty of Cession was signed in 1867 our great-grandparents were astonished to learn that Russia had purported to sell Alaska, including our aboriginal lands, to the United States. Tribal leaders sent a lawyer to Washington to tell the government, “If you want to buy Alaska, then buy it from us, its rightful owners.” The struggle for our land continued for more than a century. The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes, established during World War II, litigated for thirty years to reach a financial settlement over tribal property taken by the U.S. federal government to create the Tongass National Forest. In 1968, the Tlingit and other groups unified under the Alaska Federation of Natives to pursue both state and federal claims.

The Tlingit people, like all Alaska Natives, endured a long, hard fight for their civil rights. We were denied U.S. citizenship until 1922 and experienced decades of overt discrimination and segregation. Alaska’s own “Jim Crow” laws excluded us from stores, jobs, schools and public buildings. In 1945, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood, based in southeast Alaska, finally won the repeal of discriminatory laws by the state legislature. To earn his Certificate of Citizenship, my grandfather had to pass an English-language and civics test administered by white schoolteachers and then have his application approved by a judge. To practice his rights as a citizen, including the right to vote, he was forced to show that he had given up his Native language and culture to lead a “civilized” life.

When he was dying my grandfather called me to his bedside. I was fourteen years old. He said, “I want you to build a fire in the clan house.” What he was saying is that my generation had to rekindle the fire of our culture and language. That became our responsibility. We have worked hard to help restore cultural knowledge, practice, pride and fluency among our people. We have had substantial success, as witnessed by the huge public expression of our cultures that takes place every other year during the regional Celebration gathering. Progress has been made with the Tlingit language as well, although I don’t know that we’ll ever speak it the way our ancestors did. I will tell you, though, that the voices of our ancestors will always be heard in our land. And our core cultural values will be maintained.

Ceremony and Celebration

One of our strongest values is the maintenance of social and spiritual balance between Eagle and Raven clans to ensure the well-being of society. In addition, we have spiritual obligations to ancestors and future generations, a concept of cultural perpetuation called haa shagoon. These traditional beliefs form the basis of ceremonies called ku.éex’ or potlatch in English. The most significant ku.éex’ ceremonies are memorials to those who have passed away. When someone of an Eagle clan dies, members of Raven clans come to assist the grieving relatives. They bring food, contribute to the funeral expenses and sit with the body through the night.

A year after the death the Eagle clan hosts a ku.éex’ for the Ravens, who come as guests. The hosts display their clan treasures, or at.óow. In this context, the word at.óow refers to works of traditional art that bear the images of crest beings. They include Chilkat blankets woven from dyed mountain sheep wool, button blankets, headdresses, carved and painted boxes, masks and drums. Clan ownership of these crest objects is revalidated by their presentation in the memorial ceremony, accompanied by a recounting of their histories and the origin stories of the crests themselves. Balance is maintained through the response of the Raven clans by presenting their own at.óow. The Eagle clan repays the Ravens, who came to the Eagles’ assistance, by distributing gifts and acknowledging them in oratory and song.

At a memorial ku.éex’ we name and honor the deceased person, our ancestors and others in the clan who have recently died. We feed these ancestors and departed relatives with their favorite foods, perhaps smoked cockles, gumboots (chitons) or deer meat. We transfer the food to the spirit world by fire or by giving it to the opposite side to eat.

If the person who died was a clan leader, his successor is named and assumes office at the time of the memorial ceremony. Therefore, a ku.éex’ has multiple functions: repaying the opposite moiety and reuniting with them, fulfilling spiritual obligations, and conducting legal and political affairs. This institution, which remains so vital and important in our contemporary lives, is far more complex than a stereotypical understanding of the word potlatch might imply.

Tags: Tlingit, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska


Sea, Land, Rivers: Travelling in cedar canoes

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Canoe model

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Sea, Land, Rivers: Harvesting salmon

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Halibut hook

National Museum of the American Indian

Basket

National Museum of the American Indian

Community, Family: Inside a clan house

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Chest

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Community, Family: Clans gathering

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Warrior's helmet

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Bentwood bowl

National Museum of the American Indian

Ceremony, Celebration: Potlatch guests

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Crest hat

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Ceremony, Celebration: Kake Dancers

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Chilkat tunic

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Box drum

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

The Tlingit People and Their Culture

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Map of Tlingit Territory in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska