There are few places you can travel in the United States where the indigenous culture is quite so prevalent as it is in Southeast Alaska.
Pretty much everywhere we went during our 8-day small ship cruise of the Inside Passage, the art and cultural traditions of Alaska’s Tlingit people were a near-constant presence.
This was in large part because the company through which we booked our cruise, AdventureSmith Explorations, recommended we travel with local tour operator Alaskan Dream Cruises on their 8-day Last Frontier Adventure.
The family-owned company is run by Alaska natives; our expedition leader, Joe, was a Tlingit man active in tribal leadership; there was a Tlingit storyteller brought in for our welcome dinner at Orca Point Lodge; and our 3 days cruising through Glacier Bay National Park was accompanied by Mami, a Hoonah Tlingit cultural heritage ambassador.
Even our shore excursions were filled with Tlingit culture and history. From the exceptional Tlingit art at the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau to Tlingit totem poles and storytellers at the national park’s Huna Tribal House, we were constantly learning about Alaska’s indigenous people.
So here are 30 fascinating facts about the native art, language, clothing, food, and history of the Tlingit tribe, from their ancient migration to the traditions and celebrations they observe today.
TLINGIT ART & CULTURE GUIDE
- Ancient Tlingit History
- Modern Tlingit History
- Tlingit Culture
- Tlingit Art
- Tlingit Blankets & Clothing
- Tlingit Language & Food
- Tlingit Potlatches
ANCIENT TLINGIT HISTORY
1) The history of the Tlingit people in Southeast Alaska dates back more than 10,000 years. These “People of the Tides” tended to live at the mouth of rivers, with a hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle that included abundant fish, wildlife, and berries.
2) There are several theories as to where this most widely known of Alaskan indian tribes originated. Some scholars of Tlingit history believe there was a coastal migration across the Bering Strait lands from Asia. Genetic evidence suggests they may descend from the Ainu people of Japan.
3) Another popular theory is that the Tlingit’s ancestors may have migrated from Polynesia by island-hopping. The ancient Tlingit people were known to travel in massive canoes made out of red cedar, which averaged up to 60 feet long.
4) More than 40 ancient petroglyphs have been found in Wrangell’s Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, some of which date back 8000 years. Carved into boulders and bedrock, these depictions of Whales, Salmon, and community members are some of the world’s oldest known Tlingit art.
5) The Tlingit tribe has historically been linked with the Haida and Tsimshian tribes of Canada, with whom they traded for centuries. Tlingit blankets, baskets, and jewelry were known for extraordinary craftsmanship, while the Haida had sturdy cedar trees and canoes. But these tribes did occasionally fight and raid each other’s villages.
MODERN TLINGIT HISTORY
6) By the 18th century the Tlingits had settled much of Southeast Alaska. Coastal tribes controlled the mountain passes into the Yukon interior, including the Chilkat and Taku Rivers. Inland tribes lived along the Alsek, Tatshenshini, and Stikine rivers as well as Atlin, Teslin, and Tagish Lakes.
7) The Tlingit didn’t make contact with Europeans until 1741, when the first Russian explorers arrived. Some settled the area peacefully a few years later, but eventually the Russians took advantage and tried to change local trade routes. This led to years of Tlingit-Russian conflict.
8) The arrival of Spanish explorers in 1775 arguably made things worse. The Tlingit people remained independent of European control. But nearly half of the native American tribe fell victim to Eurasian viruses, including a smallpox epidemic and other infectious diseases.
9) After the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the Klondike gold rush of the late 1800s brought thousands of new settlers to the area. Many Tlingit felt powerless as their land was taken from them, with miners and loggers exploiting the burgeoning state’s natural resources.
10) In 1971 President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the largest land claim settlement in US history. This established indigenous claims to the land by transferring titles to 12 Alaska Native regional corporations and 200+ village corporations. The Tlingit region is controlled by the Sealaska Corporation, which operates the excellent Sealaska Heritage Museum in Juneau.
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11) Tlingit culture is largely focused on family and kinship. The Tlingit people have a matrilineal system: Kids are born into their mother’s clan, with all hereditary roles and property passed down through the mother’s line.
12) The Tlingit are divided into two moieties– Raven (Yéil) and Eagle/Wolf (Ch’aak’/Ghooch)– who would traditionally only be allowed to marry someone of the opposite moiety. Each of these moieties is divided into various clans, which are in turn divided into lineages, or houses.
13) These groups all have heraldic crests, which are displayed on totem poles, canoes, feast dishes, house posts, weavings, jewelry, and other art forms. The most traditional of these may be Chilkat blankets, which are worn by high-ranking tribal members and are passed down through generations.
14) Like most native Alaskan tribes, the Tlingit people have a rich storytelling tradition. This originally served as a means of passing down tribal traditions and histories orally, usually imparting lessons on life and/or cultural heritage. As an animist culture, many stories incorporate Alaskan animals.
15) Tlingit art and spirituality are inextricably tied: Even everyday object such as utensils and storage boxes were decorated and believed to possess spiritual power. Shamanism was historically common, and there was/is great respect for the animals they hunt.
16) Totem poles are arguably the most iconic type of native artwork in the Pacific Northwest. Using knives traditionally made of shell, stone, or bone, the totems are usually carved from yellow or red cedar. Each animal on the pole represents family crests or tells a specific story from clan history.
17) Quite a lot of Tlingit art is functional in nature. Carving of everything from canoes, masks, and storage boxes to dishes and fishhooks is common. Wood was most frequently used (especially alder wood for bowls, plates, and utensils), but abalone shells and sheep or goat bones were also carved.
18) One of our favorite forms of Pacific Northwestern native art is cedar bentwood boxes and chests. Ranging in size from a few inches to several feet, they typically consist of just two pieces of cedar. One is the flat bottom, the other is a single plank that is steamed and bent to create four side. They are then carved, painted, and/or inlaid with elaborate, colorful designs and intricate motifs.
19) Even Tlingit and Haida housing is a work of art. Large tribal houses for extended families and/or community events are typically made with spruce support posts and hemlock slab siding (both of which are often painted and/or carved with traditional clan imagery. The doors are typically carved or painted with animals, symbolizing rebirth as you enter.
20) The Sealaska Heritage Museum in Juneau is an exceptional attraction for anyone interested in learning more about Tlingit culture. In addition to extraordinary exhibitions, they also offer classes, workshops, and lectures on Tlingit language, art, and education. They’re currently raising funds to build a Native arts campus at Heritage Square in downtown Juneau.
TLINGIT BLANKETS & CLOTHING
21) Worn primarily by high-ranking tribe members for civic or ceremonial occasions, beautiful Tlingit blankets are made using Chilkat weaving, one of the world’s most complex weaving techniques.
22) Taking one to five years to create, these priceless works of art feature classic curvilinear and circular formlines within the weave to create highly stylized clan crests, animals, and other figures from the tribe’s oral history. Horizontal and circular patterns are popular.
23) Traditional ceremonial Tlingit clothing includes Chilkat robes (often made from mountain goat wool and strips of cedar bark), Raven’s tall robes (which combine geometric and herring bone styles for weaving), and headdresses ranging from simple to extravagant (and even Russian-influenced) styles.
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TLINGIT LANGUAGE & FOOD
24) Documentation of the Tlingit language was relatively sparse until the early 20th century. Russian Orthodox missionaries were the first to record/translate it, using Cyrillic script. But English-speaking missionaries from the U.S. began developing a written version of the language in the Latin alphabet after the Alaska Purchase in 1867.
25) Led by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, there are extensive efforts being put into programs to preserve the Tlingit language, which has five dialects. SHI sponsors a free lecture series presented by scholars and professionals, who share teaching techniques for perpetuating Native languages.
26) If you’ve ever had smoked salmon (or cod, halibut, herring, etc), you’ve had a taste of traditional Tlingit food. The tribe relies heavily on the sea, with seaweed, clams, crab, and LOTS of fish (including roe) making up the core of their diet. But salmon is their favorite, usually smoked and dried over the course of a week to preserve it for the harsh Alaska winters.
27) Other traditional staples of Tlingit cuisine include fry bread, berries and venison, as well as the occasional seal. But their modern diet also includes typical American foods, as well as international influences, such as rice (brought by Filipino immigrants) being served with almost every meal.
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28) Though it features similar elements to a Native American pow-wow, potlatches are generally more focused on displaying wealth, paying debts, and showing respect. An integral part of Tlingit culture, potlatches are giant feasts held to celebrate adoptions, naming young tribe members, building a house or lodge, raising a totem pole, etc.
29) The most common Tlingit potlatches are held to honor loved ones who have passed on, which requires a three-stage process. Stage one includes a funeral and burial; stage two a party for the clan of the deceased; and stage three a memorial potlatch, which usually happens a year after their death. This marks the final release of the departed to their future life, with happy stories and song.
30) Potlatches are elaborate affairs that may be planned a year in advance. These tribal ceremonies usually include lengthy preparations, attendees wearing traditional Tlingit clothing, and formal speeches presented both in English and the Tlingit language. Regardless of the circumstance behind the celebration, potlatches are always an affair to remember. –by Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Allie Love unless otherwise noted, featured image of Glacier Park National Park Hoonah Tlingit Tribal House interior via Pi3.124 CC BY-SA 4.0
Our trip to Alaska was partly hosted by AdventureSmith Explorations. But our opinions remain our own, and we will never compromise our integrity to our readers. To learn more about planning an Alaskan Vacation, contact AdventureSmith Explorations at 877-720-2875 or email@example.com.