Oral Traditions Assignment by K. Whitney

Tlingit Oral Traditions

Curtis (c1899) Sunset of Muir Inlet, Glacier Bay, Alaska

Curtis (c1899) Sunset of Muir Inlet, Glacier Bay, Alaska

The Tlingit language is a tone language, and twenty-four of its sounds are not found in English (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1987, p. 41). Written Tlingit was devised in Cyrillic by Russian Bishop Innocent (Veniaminov) in the nineteenth century, but it was later suppressed in the American period. Written form was revitalized in the 1960s with a dictionary of nouns designed by Constance Naish and Gillian Story (p. 39).


So why, in this modern age, with a working written language at our disposal, do oral traditions persist? Perhaps the best answer is that many things are lost in the "translation," or in this case, the transcription. When the story is written, the voice inflections, tone, and character voices are lost. When we record the experience through video and audio, we lose the connection between the storyteller and audience. When we merely listen to the story without the benefit of sight, we cannot see the orator's body language. As Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer (1987) put it, "quotation marks are a poor substitute for the marvellous gift of the human voice" (p. 7). So, Tlingits use oral communication to convey messages of survival, spirituality, physical skills, and philosophy, i.e. "ambiguities of the human condition" (pp. ix; 28). Common themes include stories about loyalty, journeys, encounters of ancestors with animal spirits, and the breaking of taboos (pp. 23-24). This project will deal with the latter as an explanation for glacial advance.


The Dauenhauers (1994) tell us that traditional oral histories are not meant to be a historical accounting so much as to provide a "window" on past cultural context (p. 29). This is one of the reasons that one story may have many different versions; all versions may simultaneously be true (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1987, p. 11). In the telling of the history of Glacier Bay, Tlingit (Chookanedí) tradition-bearers Susie James and Amy Marvin tell the story in two ways. There are discrepancies in names and in the final actions of the woman involved, but neither version is considered "better" than the other. Each story has different emphases on focus and impact. They both describe how, if people do things correctly by manner of thought, speech, and actions, all will go well. In each, a girl breaks menstrual taboos and beckons glacier at.óow informally, like a master to a dog. Both infractions show disrespect for life and energy spirits, essential components of Tlingit lifeways. Each story also describes how loyalties may be challenged, and how people must make individual decisions between personal and community sacrifices (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1984, pp. 11; 23; 407-408).

James' and Marvin's stories diverge as the people escape the ravages of the advancing glacier:

(Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1984, p. 253-254; 271-272)

This example supports the Dauenhauer's explanation of stories as windows on the culture, rather than exact accountings. The ideas can be used to understand life lessons about traditional values and the consequences of ignoring Tlingit lessons.


But oral traditions have value beyond cultural metaphors. In his "Tlingit Oral Narratives and Deep History" 2010 lecture for the Sealaska Heritage Institute, anthropologist Dr. Daniel Monteith highlights the importance of Tlingit stories in corroborating geology, geoarcheology, ethnography, and ethnohistory. Monteith worked together with University of Alaska Southeast students, the Hoonah Indian Association, Hoonah Heritage, the National Park Service, and Hoonah and Juneau community members to explore what he called "the mysteries of Glacier Bay." In essence, western science was having difficulty in finding evidence of villages and other archeological sites near the Hoonah area, and in understanding the movement of glaciers in the area prior to written history.

Geologists had previously come to the conclusion that areas were uninhabited or sparsely settled because there was no evidence of existence in expected places. However, Tlingit oral narratives indicate to the contrary. Combining existing scientific, historic, and traditional knowledge (Tlingit place names and oral narratives), Monteith and his team used GIS and GPS technology to document an existing village, saltery, benchmarks, landforms, tree stumps, and erratic boulders.


The Dauenhauers (1984) find that oral tradition did not originally name the area "Glacier Bay," but "Edge of the Clay," because those were the geographical circumstances preceding glacial advancement. Later it became "Bay where the Glacier Was," then "Among the Icebergs" (p. 410). Also, the stories emphasize that the glacier did not advance at sea level, but from underground. It upset soil and trees, and vegetation collected on top of the ice (p. 422). This is an important connection for Monteith's work, as it helps evidence glacial uplift.


Monteith's team used radiocarbon dating to determine the ages of intertidal stumps and organic materials in an attempt to build a chronology, and found that north-to-south, the materials went from older to younger, showing a dramatic advancement of the glaciers. With renewed understandings of the geological history, new sites were explored and Tlingit habitation confirmed.


The value of native oral traditions is not unique to the Tlingit, nor is the collaboration between native and scientific methods of research. Keith Basso's (1996) Wisdom Sits in Places explores Western Apache place names as "durable symbols of distant events and as indispensable aids for remembering and imagining them" (p. 7). Like the Tlingit "Edge of the Clay," the Apache "Stunted Rising Up" describes a place as it was encountered at the time it was named. In both cases, ancestors left markers as to the remarkable aspects of the world around them. The Western Apache also recognized a variance in oral historical accounts as a necessity; it allows the stories to be placed in a workable context (p. 32).


Native oral tradition aids our greater understanding of the world around us, describing history, culture, and lessons for survival. Its use need not be confined to its native group, but can be combined with non-native narratives to corroborate and expand upon what we already know.


March 27, 2016

Oral Traditions Assignment by K. Whitney

CES 377 Native Peoples of North America

Professor John McNassar

Washington State University