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. 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. Also see: Tsimshian Legends
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.
For the first time in modern history, a shame totem pole has been erected in Alaska. This totem pole is to commemorate the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.