Brief Introduction to the Tlingit People

"How Raven Made People" (abridged version of story told by Walter Williams, Tlingit Storyteller, member of the Chookaneidi clan):

One day Raven felt lonely, so he decided to make people. He strutted along the beach looking for a way to make humans. He saw some stones. He piled them up and said, "Now, become human and walk." The stones started to tremble but they quickly tumbled to the ground. "Well, that didn't work," he said to to himself. Then he found some interesting looking sticks and tied them together with grass. Again he said, "Become human and walk!" With only a few clumsy steps they came apart and fell down. Finally he noticed the beach grass (chook) blowing in the wind. It almost looked alive. He grabbed a handful, tied some across to make the arms and legs and shouted "Walk!" Suddenly it came alive and began to move. Sure enough, that was the first person in the world. (Olson, 2004, p. 12)

Geography & Environment

Coastal Tlingit territory reaches from Yakutat, Alaska, at the northern end of the Southeastern Alaska panhandle, to Dixon Entrance at the panhandle's southern tip. The cultural area reaches about thirty miles inland, and also includes the islands of the Alexander Archipelago. It is bound on the east by the Coast Range Mountains, and on other edges by water. Water cuts the coast with deep straits and passages, creating rich fishing and complicated transportation routes. This project focuses on an area near present-day Hoonah and what is now known as Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, which has many glaciers (Klein, 1975, pp. 34-35).


Southeast Alaska has a mild climate and major wetness. Japanese currents bring rainy weather, where it is trapped in the panhandle by the Coastal Range. Winters tend to be cold but not frigid, and summers are warm (Klein, 1975, pp. 37-38).


Among the common land and sea mammals are various types of bears, deer, goats, seals, sea lions, otters, porpoises, and whales. Ducks and geese migrate along the coast, and eagles and ravens dwell there. Fish are tremendously important to the Tlingits. There are halibut and five species of salmon, as well as trout, cod, and red snapper. Tlingits also harvest crabs, clams, gumboots, and shrimp (Klein, 1975, pp. 38-39).


The traditional Tlingit diet is light on plants, but heavy on berries, including blueberries, strawberries, nagoon berries, salmon berries, huckleberries, shockberries, Russian currants, wild red currants, and wild raspberries. Labrador tea is picked from shrubs and seaweeds are collected from the shores (Klein, 1975, pp. 39-40).


Wood is a critical source of fuel, building materials, tools, and art. In the region grow many evergreens, such as western hemlock, Sitka spruce, mountain hemlock, and yellow cedar, and deciduous trees such as alder, willow, and black cottonwood (Klein, 1975, p. 40).

Political & Social Organization


Tlingits are divided into two moieties, Raven and Eagle (sometimes known as Crow and Wolf, respectively). They do not represent political organization and do not have moiety-level leadership, but serve to facilitate exogamy and the reciprocation of rituals between moieties. Another organization descriptor is the kwáan. This is a non-political, geographic term to describe where a group of Tlingit live. For instance, the Hu'na kwáan denotes the people from Hoonah (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 5-6).[1]


Within each moiety are many clans, which form the political powers of the Tlingit. Clans may span multiple communities, and each clan has traditional leaders, including a house leader, clan leader, elder leadership, and military leader. Because of the difficulty of pronouncing some clan names, English speakers have popularized clan reference by major animals found on a clan crest.  (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 6-8).


House groups indicate where one originally lived in the winter, so it combines idea of kinship and residence. Tlingit society is organized matrilineally, meaning that kinship flows through maternal ancestry, so an ancestral house would be traced through the women's lines. Women held high positions in Tlingit culture, and had influence and respect (Klein, 1975, p. 66).[2] While not the basis for kinship, a father's clan is as significant as the mother's, and is referred to in oral literature. Many house groups make up a clan. However, lineage has become difficult to trace due to the growth and divisions of houses, the creation of new houses, and confusion from missionary and government interference (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 5; 8-9).



At.óow is the most important spiritual and cultural concept in Tlingit culture. Literally translated, it means "an owned or purchased thing or object." It may refer to land and sky, spirits, names, designs, ideas, or any other identifiable "thing." For example, certain songs or stories may contain at.óow. Non-material things may be owned by an individual or clan, such as a story. That ownership may be gifted to another, who or which receives it as a "purchase," or makes a sacrifice for it (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 15-16).

Contemporary Issues


The first recorded contact between Tlingits and whites took place in 1741 when Alexei Chirikov arrived at latitude fifty-five. He sent men ashore for water, but they disappeared. The next day, Chirikov spotted two Tlingit canoes, but Chirikov returned to Kamchatka without his men, and without meeting with the natives (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 31).


Next, the Spanish came to Tlingit territory in 1774 after trading with the Haida, though one cannot determine if the Spanish descriptions were of Tlingit or Haida people of the area. The Spanish explored more extensively in 1779, and the communities of Craig and Klawock consider that the year of the first Catholic Mass. The Spanish are thought to have had little impact on the Tlingit, except for a smallpox epidemic (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 31-32).


By 1792, American, French, and Portuguese ships were engaged in the fur trade (otter pelts) along the Southeast coast. American trade eventually dominated, though Tlingit social and intellectual culture does not appear to have greatly changed during the eighteenth century. Tlingits controlled the trade and protected their power structure until later Russian impacts (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 32-33).


In 1796, Alexandar Baranov expanded Russian control of Alaska from Southwest Alaska to the Southeast, partly to block French, Spanish, British, and American expansion into the territory. They established a fort in Yakutat, followed by a fort in Sitka. After some conflicts, Sitka became the headquarters of the Russian American Company and the capital of Russian America in 1804. Tlingit culture began to change after this point, as the natives selectively adopted and adapted Russian technology and ideas. However, the traditional social system remained intact (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 34-35).


The Tlingit experienced dramatic changes after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. An influx of settlement and prospectors brought a variety of conflicts and destruction. Native lands were diminished, access to traditional subsistence was restricted, and resources were depleted. Americans attempted to replace Tlingit religion, language, and culture with Victorian versions, and laws were passed in favor of rights for citizens and potential citizens, while explicitly excluding native populations (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 35-40).


In 1912, Southeast natives joined together to form the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), "to afford mutual help, to encourage education among Indians, and to secure for themselves more of the benefits of civilization." The ANB (and later the Alaska Native Sisterhood) provided government and leadership training to its members, which were then used to fight for human rights and dignity for natives. The ANB helped gain access to legal remedies through the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, and the Tlingit and Haida Jurisdictional Act of 1935. The ANB established the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska in 1941, which gained legal claims to some lands in 1959, just nine months after Alaska statehood. In the following years, the Tlingit and Haida were awarded damages from the United States for lost lands, and shared in some of the profits from North Slope natural resources. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed in 1971, to share revenues from money and land investments among regional and village corporations. It created a new kind of native leadership based on western values, and while some native corporations have been successful, the non-traditional approach to Tlingit world view is open to criticism (Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, 1994, pp. 83-84; 97-100).


[1] Nora Marks Dauenhauer is a Tlingit elder and scholar, a Raven of the Lukaaxh.ádi clan.

[2] Klein accounts for traditions and customs observed around the mid-nineteenth century.

March 27, 2016

Oral Traditions Assignment by K. Whitney

CES 377 Native Peoples of North America

Professor John McNassar

Washington State University