August 14, 2015

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.


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