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Alaskan Tlingit and Tsimshian

Essay by Jay Miller


Tlingit Woman, Wrangell, Alaska
Tlingit Woman, Wrangell, Alaska

Coastal Alaska is spectacular, if rain-drenched, with rugged mountains and fjords. An archipelago of islands, 80 miles wide and scraped up by continental plates, protects the mainland shore. Covered by forests of spruce, hemlock, cedar, and brush, these lands were home to marten, beaver, mink, deer, bear, Dall sheep, and mountain goat, while the sea teemed with seal, sea otter, and many kinds of fish, particularly salmon and halibut.

In native belief of both Alaska and Siberia, the present world owes much of its form and features to an immortal being called Raven, who combined attributes of spirit, human, bird, genius, and fool. A god often known as Heaven had a diffuse and distant interest in the world. Among Tlingit, this being is called Shagoon, with a complex meaning that includes ancestors, heritage, origin, destiny, and supreme deity.

Throughout the North Pacific Coast, except at the far north, red cedar trees provided natives with logs for posts and molded canoes, or straight grained planks for house sides, bentwood boxes, and essential tools. Travel was mostly by water because dense undergrowth, thickets of berries and brambles, obstructed land routes, except along river banks.

In early spring, rivers run with smelt-like candlefish, so named because their bodies were full of oil that was boiled out for use as food. All summer, runs of five different salmon species were processed for storage as winter supplies.

Area resources were generally abundant but varied from one local to another. These fluctuations became evened out by towns working together through elaborate kinship networks, social units like houses and clans, and complex international (or intertribal) relations expressed through rituals.

Expanding northward for centuries, the Tlingit nation most recently consists of three language subdialect regions with 16 component "tribes" (which they call qwaan), each with a primary village. These are, north to south, the Gulf Coast region with Yakutat and Lituya Bay; the Northern region with Hoonah, Chilcat, Auk, Sitka, Hutsnuwu, Taku, and Sawdum; and the Southern region with Kake, Kuiu, Henya, Klawak, Stikine, Tongass, and Sanya. Neighbors to the south were the Tsimshian, to the west were the Haida, and to the east were Athapaskans (who call themselves Dine) of Interior Alaska. Further north were the Eyak, remotely related by language ancestry but adopting Tlingit speech and culture over past centuries.

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The basic unit of Tlingit society was the household, a "house" (in the same sense as the House of David or House of Windsor) that was a home with three resident social classes of nobles, commoners, and slaves (See also: "Slavery among the Indians of Northwest America".) An actual house, the visible form for vital economic, social, political, and religious bonds, was a large rectangle with cedar planks set along the sides and upon a low-sloping, peaked roof held up by four decorated corner posts and a ridge beam. Inside, the floor was dug down so the sides of the house could hold two or more levels of benches, a platform where people sat and a higher one divided by wooden partitions into sleeping compartments. On the beach in front of the house were canoes, sheds for smoking fish, drying racks, and work areas.

At the rear of each house, before or inside its secluded storeroom holding sacred treasures, lived the members of the nobility who owned that house. Their eldest man was the leader of the household, but his mother and sisters provided the links among all the members. Along the sides lived families of commoners who attached themselves to that house as kin or labor. Beside the oval front door slept slaves, taken in war or the children of such captives, whose lives belonged to their owner, along with all their efforts.

Along the sides of the house where they lived, families kept their own open fires for cooking and heating. In the middle, however, was a large public hearth used to cook meals for the noble owners or for guests attending a celebration.

Tlingit Chief Charles Jones Shakes at home with possessions
Tlingit Chief Charles Jones Shakes at home with possessions

Houses owned stories (epics, sacred histories) naming the past people, places, and resources used and thus claimed by clan ancestors. Some of these histories reflect regional patterns over two thousand years old, involved with fishing, berrying, seaweeding, and hunting at locales owned by a specific house. Most stories in the Northwest, therefore, are "copyrighted" by households within clans. Only a few are phrased in such general terms that they were widely known and used to teach a moral.

Each house was like a corporation that held a number of these inherited art forms known as "crests", broadly including myths, names, designs, songs, dances, carvings, masks, costumes (see also "Louis Shotridge, Museum Man: A 1918 Visit to the Nass and Skeena Rivers",) and the locations of houses, graves, and camps near food resources such as berries, beaches, seaweeds, shellfish, fish, and game. Sometimes known as "treasures", each one was "purchased" by a death or other drastic payment. In the famous history of Glacier Bay, a careless girl started a glacier moving that destroyed much of her town until her grandmother sacrificed herself. Since then, descendants in their house and clan have used Glacier as a crest concept and image.

Leaders of houses and clans could be wealthy and generous because they had several wives and slaves to process food and luxury goods needed to maintain a healthy community of contented people. Important knowledge was personally or corporately owned in this region, such that the most important information could be "whispered" only to very close kin. Several corporations may appear to have the same epic, but seemingly minor details or variations (featuring a clam, sea urchin, or crab, for example) were sufficient in the native view to make them different properties, if not completely different myths.

For each tribe, its winter towns had a row of big plank houses facing a beach on a sheltered bay. Some towns were surrounded by a wooden palisade for protection, or nobles had a nearby fort where they could flee for safety and defense. In each plank house, several families lived because they were related through women belonging to named houses, clans, and moieties (halves, sides, pairs). Steeped in the symbolism of everything having at least two sides, these halves were never political or cohesive entities. Instead, both provided the highest, most general category for organizing their universe as pairs.

Tlingit moieties were either Raven and other (Wolf, sometimes also called Eagle). Important Raven crests were Raven, Owl, Whale, Sealion, Salmon, Frog, Sun, Moon, and Ocean; while those of the other were Wolf, Eagle, Petrel, Bear, Orca, Shark, Halibut, and Thunderbird. These images could properly appear on backdrops, posts, canoes, feast dishes, ladles, pipes, clothing, blankets, armor, helmets, drums, staffs, rattles, and graves.

Members of clans in one moiety were expected to marry into clans of the other, with children inheriting the clan and side of their mother. All through life and at death, the father's side helped, served as witnesses, and then buried the children of their wives. Brothers, therefore, more than fathers were vital to the raising of children, as sisters were much more closely related than wives.

Tlingit law was based in the moiety, clan, and house so any injury to members on the other side had to be made good by payment of goods, services, or property. To settle major disagreements, particularly after a war, a crest might change hands. If a low-ranking person killed a chief and the criminal could not arrange compensation from his or her clan, then their own chief might be killed to even the score. Sometimes, hostages known as "deer" were exchanged for eight days as proof of sincere intent to settle differences peacefully. These "deer" rested quietly while all of their needs were anticipated.

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A Lifetime

Tlingits regard a person as a series of layers around a core of mind, soul, and inner feelings. The outer body has eight sections, counted by upper and lower limbs (twice two arms and two legs). Each birth was a rebirth, a reincarnation of some relative of the mother, to carry on her house and clan. When a boy was about eight he went to live with his mother's brother to learn how to fulfill responsibilities to their house. He came of age when he hunted and killed his first game animal. A girl came of age at puberty, when her father's sister, representing his house, closely supervised her eight-day seclusion, while her own mother and grandmother taught her house traditions. A girl of high rank was secluded for two years, then ready for an arranged marriage. The birth of each child was celebrated according to family rank. Finally, at death, the opposite moiety took care of the body, wake, and cremation, while the mourners gave full expression to their grief in dirges. Burning the body released the soul to leave the town through the cemetery and forest before climbing a mountain to go to "the other side". A month later, the mourners potlatched their others in gratitude, expecting the widow or widower to remarry into that house or clan after a year. The bodies of slaves and shamans were treated in other ways.

A Tlingit leader could display the deeds of his predecessors or of himself by hiring a carver. He carefully selected some crest designs from those of his elite ancestors to decorate a log (which Henry Schoolcraft first called a "totem pole" using an Ojibwa concept). Examples of this beautiful art were done in what is called the form-line style because a flowing black frame outlines each figure. Such a sculpted pole could serve as a portal into a house, a supporting pillar for the remains of a deceased relative, or a memorial standing on the beach. When it was finished, a huge celebration known as a potlatch, meaning "to give" was held. A crowd of guests helped to set up the pole and then were fed and entertained with food and the epics telling about the figures shown on this artwork.

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Potlatches were the most distinctive feature of the Northwest, helping to share local bounty, keep track of the shifting loyalties among commoners, and legalize claims to nobly entitled names. Each one involved a formal display of crests, privileges, members, foods, and resources in the presence of elite witnesses and guests, who accepted meals and gifts in return for supporting these changes in the social fabric. During this feast and elaborate give-away, a noble family dramatized their clan crests via songs, dances, masks, effigies, and natural rarities. Later, guests would host their own potlatches to share what they had with their former hosts.

Throughout the Northwest, each nation held its potlatches at various critical life junctures. Tlingit held three major potlatches for piercing the ears of noble children, for funerals, and for memorials when an heir took the place of his mother's brother (uncle). Tsimshian held them to mark the death of a leader, while Haida celebrated the house dedication of a mature leader and then his death.

During winter, houses hosted potlatches and other events that were primarily religious, bringing together spirits, ancestors, and the living to celebrate changes in the status, ranking, and lives of kin. Side partitions were removed from inside the house, converting it into an amphitheater holding guests from near and far. Since everything had a soul, these ritual gatherings showed them respect and asked their help in feeding, clothing, and healing people.

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Each house and clan should have the spiritual, medical, and psychological protection of a native specialist technically known as a shaman, or, more usually among natives, as a doctor. Though most were men, a few were women of great powers. Doctors were noted for curing, healing, controlling weather, bringing luck to a hunt or battle, predicting the future, learning news from far away, exposing witches, and speaking with the dead. At his own death, his spirit powers went to a younger relative, who became dizzy and ill until he or she accepted this burden. To be acceptable to receive this help, both novice and shaman had to be pure through fasting, thirsting, purging, and chastity. Shamans let their hair grow to keep their powers strong, but officers of the US Navy who opposed them once punished them by shaving their heads.

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Unfortunately, officials in the United States and Canada outlawed the potlatch because they did not understand how people could spend years saving up only to then give everything away. In Canada, pressure from Indian Agents, missionaries, and zealous native converts forbid both potlatching and spirit dancing between 1884-1951. Theories of the potlatch have seen it as an elaborate game, as a banking system with doubling interest payments, and as a historical extravagance fueled by fur trade goods, but no one answer can explain this complex event.

Much has happened to native peoples and their traditions. The Northwest Coast was decimated by severe measles, smallpox, and other epidemics. Among these dead were the proper claimants to the limited number of renowned name. After they were gone, commoners took chances to claim titles beyond their former aspirations, amassing property that was used more like bribes than gifts.

After the 1830s, the English Hudson's Bay Company was buying furs with trade goods, so a commoner could work hard to gain property to potlatch and claim a high name. After some villages and tribes gathered around forts and trading posts where, for the first time, they had to meet every day, an extravagant "rivalry potlatch" flared up briefly as a way to sort out the relative positions of these new neighbors as house, clan, and tribal chiefs. While the trading context was not new, these multi-tribal towns were, requiring highly creative solutions for co-existence.

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A vast and ancient trade network linked the Northwest Coast with the interior Athapaskan Subarctic tribes. Certain Tlingit chiefs retained hereditary rights to trade with Athapaskan leaders, marrying their kinswomen to tighten their bond. Each generation, men of particular Tlingit noble houses married Dine women of high degree.

Trade routes went up river valleys (such as the Taku, Stikine, Alsek) and over mountain passes (named Chilkat, Chilcoot). Goods were taken in canoes upriver as far as possible, then switched into male slaves' backpacks made of a large basket with shoulder and forehead straps, holding 100 pounds or more. In large groups, women carried packs weighing about 65 pounds, and saddle bags on dogs held up to 25 pounds. A wise trader always included a shrewd elderly woman to act as bargainer and to keep track of exchange values.

From the interior came moose hides, fine moccasins, birch wood bows wrapped with porcupine gut, dressed caribou hides, leather thongs and sinews, snowshoes, and copper ore. Brought from the coast were cedar baskets, fish oil, shells, and smoked seafoods. More exotic items, like copper and special woods, were even traded from Eskimos (Inuit) in Siberia and Alaska, who received dentalia (tusk shell) from Vancouver Island in exchange. Like all activities, trading had religious aspects. Traders had to prepare by fasting, consulting a shaman, and then hosting a feast. Before leaving, he or she applied face paint to look their most attractive.

Tlingit also traded among themselves. For example, to island peoples, men and women from mainland Tlingit villages traded rabbit or marmot skin blankets, moose hide shirts, skin trousers with feet, dressed hides, cranberries in oil, pressed strawberry cakes, candlefish oil, horn spoons, woven blankets, and spruce root baskets. In return, islanders gave sea otter pelts, dried venison, seal oil, dried fish (halibut, salmon, herring), dried seaweed, clams, mussels, sea urchins, herring spawn, cedar bark, baskets, greenstone, and yew wood for bows, boxes, and batons.

Tlingit profits from the interior increased during the fur trade era when everyone inland wanted manufactured goods, such as guns, powder, shot, hardtack, flour, rice, beans, pants, shirts, yard goods, blankets, tobacco, molasses, steel traps, knives, hatchets, needles and thread, paint, and jewelry.

Tlingits never assumed that Europeans were obviously superior. (See also: "Alaskan Wage Earners in the 19th Century".) Instead, they regarded all strangers as fair game. Natives quickly learned to use tea to dye red fox skins to look like more valuable pelts. Fierce international competition encouraged such tricks. When the Russians tried to use dentalia as a kind of money, the Spanish and Americans glutted the market by bringing many of these shells up from California. Tlingits have long had extensive trade with Tsimshians to their south.

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Tsimshian carver Bryan Paul
Tsimshian carver Bryan Paul

Among those granted religious asylum in Alaska were a thousand Tsimshians, who accompanied their life-long missionary after a heated disagreement with his Anglican bishop at Metlakatla near modern Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

Organized into houses, clans, and four crests divided into Orca-Wolf or Raven-Eagle moieties, all inherited through the mother, Tsimshians controlled the profitable trade in candlefish oil, along with furs and sophisticated art works, long before the arrival of European ships seeking furs. In time, forts replaced ships as trading places. Then, in 1834, nine Coast Tsimshian villages set up separate neighborhoods outside newly built Fort (later Port) Simpson. (See also: "Tsimshian Clan and Society".) In the process, village chiefs appointed heirs to manage these neighborhoods while the older leaders remained in their Skeena River villages, becoming tribal chiefs since each directed at least two villages. Rankings among these chiefs became contested so they too began to hold "rivalry potlatches" in order to sort out their relative statuses.

Finally, the holder of the titled name of Legex emerged from these contests as the Tsimshian grand chief, dominating the Skeena River fur trade. While the medium of exchange had earlier been lush animal pelts, the Hudson's Bay Company two-point blanket became the new currency. Some especially treasured items such as the "copper" became a repository for vast wealth. A copper was a heraldic shield with different values by tribe and nation. The Tlingit assigned to a copper, which they called Din-ne for its Athapaskan sources, a reasonably stable value of five or six slaves.

Major changes came from introduced religions. For several years after 1800, a series of Athapaskan prophets called Bini ("mind") preached an accommodation of European and traditional beliefs for the Northwest, but these attempts did not last long because in 1857, William Duncan, a Victorian lay missionary, settled among Coast Tsimshians, learned their language, and created a model cooperative Christian community that still exists in Alaska, where they moved in 1887. In hindsight, Duncan's success derived from his replacing the converted Legex as head of most Tsimshians.

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Coastal Alaska is known to have been visited by the Russian Alexei Chirikov in 1741, Spanish Bruno de Hezeta in 1775 and Alejandro Malispina in 1791, French Jean Francois Galaup, comte de La Perouse in 1786, and English George Vancouver in 1793. In 1799, the Russian America fur company fortified at Sitka until defeated by Tlingits from 1802, then rebuilt to stay from 1804 until, in 1867, Russia sold Alaska to the United States, with neither native consent or involvement. Dominated by American Presbyterian missionaries, natives were criticized for using Russian letters when they wrote their languages or espoused Orthodoxy. The US Navy shelled the villages of Kake and Wrangell in 1869 and destroyed Angoon in 1882, imposing US control.

Most Pacific Northwestern peoples are now Christians -- primarily Russian Orthodox in coastal Alaska after an 1835-39 smallpox epidemic; Catholic, Anglican, and United Church of Canada in British Columbia; and Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, and Pentecostal in the United States. The bawdiness of Raven has now been muted or denied, while traditional stories of a flood or other events congruent with the Bible have grown in popularity.

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Scanned References

Dean, Jonathan. Louis Shotridge, Museum Man, PNQ 89: 202-210, 1998.

Garfield, Viola. Tsimshian Clan and Society. UWPA 7(3), 1939.

Hunt, HF. Slavery among the Indians of Northwest America PNQ 9:277-283, 1918.

Naske, Claus. Ernest Gruening and Alaska Native Claims, PNQ 82: 140-148, 1991.

Wyatt, Victoria. Alaskan Wage Earners in the 19th Century, PNQ 78: 43-49, 1987.

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Study Questions

  1. Can you describe what these homelands are like?
  2. Who and what is Shagoon?
  3. How much can you say about a native house and all that was and is involved in the life of these people? Is it more than just a roof over their heads?
  4. Who was Louis Shotridge?
  5. How did you trace members of your family? Through the father or the mother or both or neither? How are crests involved?
  6. What are the moiety halves?
  7. How did you act if you were high/low class?
  8. What is a potlatch? How many American holidays include features that are like those of a single potlatch?
  9. How complicated was Tlingit trading? Can you list some of the goods carried to other places?
  10. Why were Tsimshians given religious freedom in Alaska?
  11. Why would native communities need prophets during times of hardship?
  12. Why was the potlatch outlawed? What do you think of outsiders making decisions about other people's age-old traditions?

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About the Author

Jay Miller, PhD, studied at the University of New Mexico, Rutgers, and Princeton, and has researched throughout native North America, particularly among New Mexican Pueblos, Oklahoma Delawares, British Columbia Tsimshians, Washington State Salishans, Nevada Numic, Oklahoma Creeks (Mvskogee), Oklahoma Caddo, Ontario Ojibwa, and Wisconsin Menomini. He has taught at both universities and tribal colleges in the US and western Canada, and is the author of over fifty scholarly articles, a dozen encyclopedia entries, twenty book chapters, ten edited collections, and eight books.

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