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The Tlingit Indians of Alaska: respect for nature and ancestors marked the Tlingit culture.

For centuries, the Tlingit (CLINK-it) Indians of Southeastern Alaska believed that the salmon teeming in their waters belonged to a sacred race of people. The "salmon people" swarmed up the rivers in invisible canoes each spring, offering themselves to humans as food. The Tlingit showed their gratitude with songs and ceremonies. Afterward, they returned the bones of the salmon people to the sea to be reborn.

The Tlingit, whose name means "people of the tidelands," migrated from Asia across the Bering Land Bridge thousands of years ago. They settled in the Alexander Archipelago, a small chain of windswept islands along the coast of the Alaska Panhandle (see map, p. 11). In this region of rolling waves, rugged coastlines, and lush rain forests, they created a unique culture.

From the forests they cut towering red cedar trees. They used the wood to build houses and canoes, and to carve totem poles, becoming master woodworkers. From the sea and land they fed and clothed themselves with the meat and skins of seals, sea otters, deer, beavers, and other animals.

No animal was killed needlessly or wasted. The Tlingit believed that every creature had a soul. Giving thanks and treating animal remains (dead bodies) with respect ensured that their spirits would return.

The Raven and the Eagle

Among the creatures the Tlingit held most sacred were the crafty raven and the noble eagle. The Tlingit themselves were divided into two groups, or moieties (MWAH-eh-tees). One side was represented by a raven, the other by an eagle.

The strongest bond in Tlingit life, however, was with an individual's clan, or extended family. Each clan considered itself related through a legendary ancestor. Each had its own stories and its own crest, an animal symbol that represented the family history. In ceremonies, it was used to symbolize or communicate with ancestral spirits.

The Tlingit culture was one of the few where lineage (family descent) was passed down through the mother, rather than the father. Normally, a man's wealth would be inherited by his sister's children instead of his own.

All children had to go through initiation rites. When a boy was about 10 years old, he went to live with his mother's brother. The boy's uncle instructed him in the history of his clan and taught him how to carve wood, hunt, and fish. Lighting the fire in the home each winter morning was the boy's special responsibility.

Girls learned their clan's legends and skills such as cooking and basket weaving from female elders.

The Winter Village

Traditional Tlingit life revolved around the seasons. In late spring, people traveled to hunting and fishing camps, where they remained until the fall.

In autumn, the Tlingit gathered again in their villages. Each Tlingit village held several large houses. Such buildings, called longhouses, could accommodate a number of families from the same clan. The longhouse was the focal point of Tlingit social life, with the clan's noble family living in the back, near a storeroom of the clan's sacred treasures.

The eldest man in this family led the entire household. Other families from the clan lived along the sides of the house. The Tlingit also kept slaves, many of whom had been captured in war, who slept by the front door. In the middle of the house was a large hearth where meals were cooked for the house chief or for guests attending celebrations.

The most important celebration was the potlatch, a great feast usually given by the clan chief to mark a significant event. Potlatches were held at weddings, house raisings, totem pole raisings, and funerals. Each potlatch featured dancing, singing, feasting, and storytelling.

The potlatch was also an expression of the chief's status. (The word potlatch comes from the Chinook word for "giving.") Many gifts were offered at a potlatch, including furs, rare shells, and blankets. A chief's prestige (importance), in fact, depended on how much he gave away!

The Old Way Vanish

The Tlingits' first contact with whites came with the arrival of Russian traders in the mid-1700s. Europeans and Americans soon followed. The Tlingit built a strong trading economy, based in part on their skill with canoes.

For a long time, they fiercely resisted attempts to control them. But diseases brought in by settlers devastated the tribe, especially the smallpox epidemics (widespread outbreaks) of 1835-1840. About half of the roughly 15,000 tribal members died from the disease.

By then, some Tlingit had married the new settlers and adopted their ways, which included joining the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 1867, Russia "sold" Alaska--including Tlingit lands--to the United States. Americans soon descended on the Indians' homeland and took control. U.S. companies seized the major salmon streams and built canneries (canning factories). Later, in the "gold rushes" of the 1880s and 1890s, thousands more outsiders overran the area.

In a relatively brief time, the Tlingit lost their traditional way of life. Villages were abandoned as people moved to the cities to seek work in the canneries. At first, even these jobs were denied them.

The 20th Century

Despite setbacks, however, the Tlingit never gave up their claims to their ancestral lands. Beginning with the work of a Tlingit lawyer named William Paul in the 1920s, they fought for their rights and won some victories. When Alaska became a state in 1959, the Tlingit joined with other Alaska Natives to stop even more land from being taken by the state government.

In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act gave the combined tribes of Alaska a settlement of money and land. Instead of establishing reservations, the act made the Indians stockholders in corporations that manage the land for profit. When the process is complete, the Tlingit will have reclaimed some 500,000 acres through about 11 corporations.

The 2000 Census estimated the number of Tlingit in Alaska to be fewer than 10,000. Among some tribal members there is a growing effort to reclaim their language and traditions. Frederick "Eric" Lauth, 13, (see cover) is proud of his Tlingit heritage. He performs Native dances at a cultural center in Saxman, Alaska. "For me," says the eighth-grader, "love of family and respect for elders are what matter most."

Words to Know

* archipelago (AHR-kuh-PEHL-uh-goh): a group of islands.

* crest: an animal or plant used as a symbol for a family or clan.

* totem pole: a collection of crests carved from a single log.

Your Turn

1. crest A. family descent

2. clan B. feast

3. lineage C. importance

4. prestige D. animal symbol of
 a family or clan

5. potlatch E. extended family


1. What did Tlingit boys learn during their initiation rites? What did Tlingit girls learn?

2. Do you think the Tlingit could ever regain their traditional way of life? Why or why not?


Students should understand

* The Tlingit are an American Indian people who established settlements in the southeastern region of Alaska.


archipelago: a group or chain of islands

* totem pole: a collection of crests carved from a single log.


During a Tlingit potlatch, guests feasted on seals, berries preserved in oil, and dried fish. The celebration would continue until the guests became sick, which was viewed as a great honor for the host. A potlatch that failed to make a guest ill would be seen as a failure and be a considerable embarrassment to the host.


COMPREHENSION: Why did the Tlingit celebrate their natural surroundings? (The Tlingit performed ceremonial songs, dances, and feasts to honor the living spirit of nature. The Tlingit believed they were the beneficiaries of the environment, which had willingly contributed its plants and animals to ensure the survival of the Tlingit communities.)

MAKING INFERENCES: The Tlingit people did not have a written language. How did they remember their history? (They carved animal symbols that represented family or clan history, and also told their history at potlatch feasts.)


RITE OF PASSAGE: Remind students of how Tlingit boys and girls performed initiation rites that marked their acceptance as full members of a tribe. Instruct students to draw an image or write a paragraph that describes a modern initiation rite that celebrates a person's acceptance into a social or family group.



* People, places, and environment:

How the Tlingit developed a close relationship with the natural resources that they relied upon for survival.

* Power, authority, and governance:

How the territorial expansion of the U.S, helped contribute to the decline of the Tlingit people in southeastern Alaska.



* Beck, Mary G., Heroes and Heroines in Tlingit-Haida Legend (Alaska Northwest Books, 1990). Grades 5-8.

* Mikaelsen, Ben, Touching Spirit Bear (HarperTrophy, 2002). Grades 6-8.


* Tlingit


* Tlingit Myths nam/nw/tmt


1. D

2. E

3. A

4. C

5. B
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:American History
Author:White, Deborah
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:Sep 20, 2004
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