The Tlingit are the northernmost tribe in the Northwest Coast Culture Area. At the time of European contact, the Tlingit homelands included the coast regions and islands of what is now southern Alaska and northern British Columbia.

Eyak, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian Map

Eyak, Haida,
Tlingit, Tsimshian Map

The Northwest Coast is usually divided into three distinct cultural provinces with the Northern Province including the Tlingit, Tsimshian (Nisg’a), Haida, Haihai, and Haisla tribes. The social structure of these tribes was rigidly organized and hierarchical.

The primary units of social organization were the clan and the village.

German geographer Aurel Krause, in his 1885 book The Tlingit Indians: Results of a Trip to the Northwest Coast of America and the Bering Straits, reports:  “Since fishing supplies the principal subsistence of these people, the choice of a place for settlement depends largely on the proximity of good fishing grounds and safe landing places for canoes.”

Some Tlingit villages consisted of only a few houses which were placed in a single row while other villages might have as many as 60 houses which might be arranged in two rows.

Among the Tlingit, each house had a fixed place in the village and could not be moved to another place. If the house became too small, then annexes were built, but these were considered to be part of the original house.

In the traditional pre-European villages each of the houses within the village was associated with an extended clan and each clan had certain privileges, which included fishing, hunting, and gathering rights as well as ceremonial rights (such as ownership of songs and dances).

Expanding northward for centuries, the Tlingit nation 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 communities were Yakutat and Lituya Bay (now combined with Yakutat);
The Northern region included Hoonah, Chilcat, Auk, Sitka, Hutsnuwu, Taku, and Sawdum;
The Southern region Tlingit tribes were 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.

Clans are named, extended family units which often are corporate in nature (that is, they will have a formal leader and possess property) and are usually exogamous (requiring marriage outside of the clan.)

The clan not only lived under the same roof, but the house served as a clan symbol. The front of the house was often painted with a family crest design.

Among the Tlingit, descent is matrilineal. This means that people belong to the same clan as their mother. Thus, a village leader’s position would be inherited by his nephew (his sister’s son) rather than by his own son.

Tlingit clans are linked together in a phratry system. This means that each clan is linked to another with a set of social and ceremonial obligations.

Each group felt that it was distinct from the others and had its own unique origins and ancestry. Ethnographer Kalervo Oberg, in The Social Economy of the Tlingit Indians, reports:  “The clan has a name denoting its place of origin, a story of its genesis, and a history of its migration.”

Tlingit oral tradition speaks of a gradual migration northward from the mouths of the Nass and the Stikine rivers. According to the stories, the clans would remain near a certain river for a long time.

Then there would be a quarrel—usually over women or wealth—and the village would break apart with one portion going off in search of new territories.

The Tlingit acquired new territory by settling on lands that were unclaimed by any other group, by negotiating agreements to share certain lands, and by conquest.

In their migrations northward, the Tlingit often came into contact with Athabascans who had come down the rivers to the coast. In some instances, the Tlingit simply drove the Athabascans away and in other instances the two groups intermingled.

When they acquired unclaimed land, the Tlingit would give the place a name and settle there. If only one clan settled a new area, they would invite members of a clan from the opposite phratry to join them.

Living on islands and in the coastal region of southern Alaska, the Tlingit are well known for their totem poles, many of which remain standing today.

Hunting game and sea mammals and fishing provided the tribe with food as well as trade goods. The Tlingit traded furs and slaves among their tribes and had a complex social system.

In the 1740s Russian fur trappers and traders encountered the Tlingit. By the early 1800s, the Tlingit were fighting the Russians. The fighting didn’t end even after 1867, when the U.S. purchased the Alaska territory from the Russians.

By the time the first Europeans began to explore the Pacific coast of Alaska in the eighteenth century, the Tlingit had a long history of living in the area.

The Tlingit had their first contact with Europeans in 1786 when a Spanish expedition landed at Lituja Bay. In trading with the Tlingit, the Spanish noticed that they had iron tools and many carried an iron dagger in a leather sheath around the neck. This suggested that they had traded with people from Asia.

By the 1880s most of the land used by the tribe was controlled by the U.S. government, and the Tlingit began being absorbed into the population through religious conversion.



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Culture and organization of the Tlingit Indians

The Tlingit are a tribe, people and culture that are indigenous to the United States. They have owned and occupied Southeast Alaska since time immemorial. They are a federally recognized region-wide tribe under the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. In addition, thirteen Tlingit communities within the Southeast region are federally recognized as distinct tribes. The regional Sealaska Corporation and twelve communities are also organized as Alaska Native village and urban corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.


The Tlingit conceive of themselves as members of one group and distinguish themselves apart from their neighbors. They live within a bounded geographical region within Southeast Alaska. They share social customs and customary laws that apply to all Tlingit whether they live in the Cape Fox in the southern terminus to the Yakutat settlement in the most northern region. Their ancient language was mutually intelligible to all Tlingit.

While they did not have a centralized political organization that unified all Tlingit until the early 1900s, their common set of customs, traditions, and beliefs together with a high level of intermarriage and social and economic interactions served to unify the Tlingit into a distinct social group who share a common identity.

In response to actions that threatened their culture and society, the Tlingit clans formed coalitions. The Tlingit unified to resist the encroachments on their land by the Russians in the early 1800s and the Americans after 1867. Shortly after the American government assumed jurisdiction over Alaska, the Tlingit people hired an attorney to represent their interests in Washington.

In 1912, the Tlingit together with the Haida Indians formalized their unification under a region-wide organization, the Alaska Native Brotherhood. Their region-wide affiliation was further solidified under the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. The Central Council was organized to pursue and to implement the settlement of their aboriginal land claims. Their land claims efforts ultimately led to the establishment of the regional Sealaska Corporation and twelve village and urban corporations.

The Tlingit continue to identify themselves as a tribe and to act collectively under their traditional customs and values, their federally recognized tribes, the Sealaska Corporation and the village and urban corporations. While many of their ancient practices have been altered from their original form, the Tlingit continue to adhere to their ancient values, ideologies and ceremonial practices. The Tlingit culture and society continues to evolve, but their fundamental values and basic traditions persist.

The Clan

The basic property holding unit within the Tlingit Tribe is the clan. Ownership of property resides within the clan as a whole rather than within its individual members. The clan is comprised of separate but interrelated lineages that recognize a common ancestry. Under the Tlingit system, lineages are formed through a line of females and their brothers who maintain ongoing relationships. Descent and kinship are traced through the maternal line or mothers. A Tlingit child is bom into his/her mother’s clan.

The Tlingit clan is comprised of houses whose membership included several closely related families. The Tlingit term “Hit” refers to both the physical structure and the matrilineage associated with a house. The house is a sub-unit of the clan. Its inhabitants included the matrilineally-linked males, their wives and offspring and the men’s maternal nephews.

However, the wives and their children belonged to a different clan rather than that of their husbands or their fathers. The clan is the enduring organization that unifies the Tlingit into a cohesive functioning unit. Additionally, the clan provides the Tlingit with a link to their ancestors and ensures their perpetuation into the future. Tlingit individuals are bom into a clan and remain members through their life and death. Individuals die, but the clan persists.

Clans remain self- perpetuating through the birth of new members to replace those who have died. Infants are given the names of their clan ancestors. The Tlingits belief in reincarnation and their system of naming mean, in essence, that clans retain their original membership through the re-birth of the same individuals. In the present period, clans remain active within the ceremonial sphere. The ceremonies include a series of memorial potlatches to honor deceased clan members and ancestors.

Relationships among clan members, with ancestors, opposing clan members, crest animals and spirits are also reaffirmed and maintained within the ceremonial rites. In addition, ownership of clan property and crests are validated. The office of clan leaders, clan names and clan objects are transferred between generations to ensure the perpetuity of the clan.

The Crest as Clan Property

Crests that appear on clan objects are owned by their respective clans. Sergei Kan (1989, 69) who studied Tlingit memorial potlatches emphasized, “The most important symbols of the matrilineal group, as well as its most jealously guarded possessions, were its crests.” He cited Emmons (1907, 347) who acknowledged that the crest is a birthright, as real as life itself. Halprin (1984, 17), who studied another Northwest Coast group, the Tsimshian who are culturally similar to the Tlingit, wrote that crests were acquired by the ancestors and held in perpetuity by their matrilineal descendants. Crests serve multiple purposes.

They identify a clan and its membership. They distinguish its clan members apart from others and define relationships to other Tlingit. Crests chronicle the origin or other supernatural and significant events in the history of the clan. They serve as title to the object on which it is placed and to the site and geographic region where the event occurred. They symbolize the special relationship a clan member has to the animal depicted on the crest.

The crest embodies the spirit or being depicted on the crest. Crests, the associated oral traditions, songs and names represent intellectual property and are owned by clans. In the recent period, clans have demanded and received payment for the duplication of their crests by westerners, including museums.

Sergei Kan (1989, 70) also notes the sacred aspects of crests. He suggests that the “sacredness” of the crest was indicated by its reverential treatment by its owners. Clan objects embodied with clan crests are addressed as if they are humans. Orators address and speak to clan regalia as if they were an individual rather than speaking to the individual who is actually wearing the regalia. When clan objects on which the crest appear deteriorated, they were burned and mourned as if they were human.

The name of the crest was transferred to a new object. According to Kan’s analysis, the crest remains immortal and survives its temporary representations in the same manner as a person’s spirit survives its body.

Only those individuals who are members of a clan are entitled to use their respective clan crests. As property, crests could be taken or granted as a liability payment. They were sometimes taken in war to satisfy a liability. Clans would, however, do everything in their power to regain their crests.

Clans could also demand payment or even the death of an individual who illegally used their clan crests. Grandparents may extend use rights, but not ownership rights, to their clan crests to their grandchildren who are not members of their clan. The use rights are granted for ceremonial regalia or jewelry, but do not generally apply for use on major objects such as screens, poles or clan hats. This is a use right that is limited to the lifetime of the individual grandchild.

The grandchild has no legal right to extend use or ownership rights to any other individual. These use rights cannot be claimed by the grandchild’s offspring, nor can they be claimed by another clan to satisfy a liability payment that the grandchild or his clan may incur.

Clan Leaders/Trustees

Title is recorded in the name of the head man (Shaadeihani) or trustee (Hits’aati) of the clan. Tlingit law is unequivocal in that this individual acts as the trustee and holds clan property for its membership. He cannot make independent decisions in regards to the alienation of clan property.

Anthropologists who have studied Tlingit property law (Goldschmidt and Haas 1946; Olson 1967) uniformly concur that the trustee does not have the authority to sell or dispose of clan property. Emmons (1991), who conducted extensive study among the Tlingit, points out that the clan leader is highly respected, but his authority is limited and major decisions that involve the interest of the clan are subject to clan consent.

The clan leader represents the clan during formal meetings to plan ceremonial events or in other activities in which the clan is involved. During ceremonies, the clan leader or an esteemed elder of the clan may conduct and lead the rites. The clan leader and elders are responsible for bringing out clan objects and recounting the associated oral traditions. They are also expected to respond to the display of clan objects, speeches and songs offered by an opposing clan (a clan from the opposite Eagle or Raven moiety). The clan leader must ensure that spiritual balance is maintained during ceremonial rites and potlatches.


Tlingit shame pole unveiled


The toughest part about creating a totem pole designed to mock Exxon Mobil on the anniversary of the largest oil spill in U.S. history wasn’t carving the details of dying animals.

No, the toughest part was etching the words “We will make you whole again” from the trunk of yellow cedar, said Alaska Native carver Mike Webber of Cordova.

Webber and others believe Exxon broke that promise, made to Cordova residents by a top company official after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, by refusing to pay affected Alaskans billions of dollars in punitive damages.

“It made me so angry it took me a week to carve those words out,” he said.

An Anchorage federal jury awarded thousands of plaintiffs $5 billion in punitive damages in 1994, but Exxon appealed and the case has been mired in court ever since.

In December, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reduced those damages to $2.5 billion. Exxon is challenging that too.

Webber, who turned to carving after breaking his neck on his fishing boat in 1999, said the 11 million-gallon spill in Prince William Sound devastated his family economically and ruined lucrative herring and salmon fisheries.

He didn’t balk when the Eyak Native village president in Cordova commissioned him to carve a 7-foot-tall ridicule pole last month.

Webber’s Tlingit ancestors carved such poles to embarrass rich people who owed society, but such poles are rare today, he said.

The Exxon pole won’t get money out of the company, but it will remind people what happened, said Webber, 46. The pole’s images of the spill are rife with apocalyptic symbolism and the epic court battle it spawned. It was unveiled at a public ceremony in Cordova on the spill’s 18th anniversary Saturday.

Topping the totem is the upside-down face of former longtime Exxon CEO Lee Raymond, sporting a Pinocchio-like nose.

“So kids can figure out he’s a liar,” said Webber Friday afternoon by phone, as he brushed a sealing coat over the recently painted pole.

An oil slick spilling from Raymond’s mouth bears the infamous words uttered by Don Cornett, formerly Exxon’s top official in Alaska, Webber said.

In figures painted on the pole, sea ducks, a sea otter and eagle float dead on the oil. A herring near the slick has lesions. There’s a boat for sale with a family crew on board, commemorating fishermen who went belly up, and a bottle of booze to remind people that Joe Hazelwood, who was captain of the Exxon Valdez, had been drinking before turning the helm of the ship over.

An e-mail statement from current Exxon spokesman Mark Boudreaux sent Friday said the company was sorry Cordova residents “have decided to take this unfortunate action.”

Exxon knows many Alaskans are still angry over the tragic accident, the e-mail said.

In the past, the company has contended it owes no more than $25 million, having already laid out more than $3 billion for compensatory payments, the cleanup, and settlement of state and federal claims.

It added that no government scientist has released a peer-reviewed study linking the spill to the herring decline, and depressed salmon prices aren’t Exxon’s fault.

“As difficult as this is to accept, we believe these issues are the result of free markets and other factors at work, not as a result of the Valdez oil spill,” the e-mail said.

Cordova author Riki Ott, who has written about the spill and gave Webber ideas for the ridicule pole, said a study by government-sponsored scientists linking the herring crash to the spill is undergoing a peer-review process.

Several peer-reviewed studies show oil causes problems for herring at early life stages, she said.

Bob Henrichs, Eyak tribal government president, paid $5,000 of his own money for the carving. He doesn’t know the last time a ridicule pole went up in Alaska, he said.

The pole will likely stand in the tribal government’s cultural center in Cordova. It’s provoked a lot of anger among residents who visited Webber’s shop, he said Friday.

“A lot of people put it out of their mind and they see this and it brings up all the old emotions,” he said. “They’re not crying, but they’re not very happy.”

The spill’s psychological effects linger, Webber said. Families that lived off the sea were forced into other work, breaking bonds that kept them close. Native subsistence foods like seals and butter clams haven’t returned to beaches still layered with underground oil.

Among the host of images on the pole is a Native crying 18 tears, one for each year since the spill. The ribs are showing and the heart has a hole. “They put a hole in our heart and they’ve taken part of our soul as well,” he said.