Most native villages in Southeastern Alaska are Tlingit, but in the southern part of the Panhandle there are only a few left. The Tlingits were a unique culture, not like any other Alaskan culture. They lived together in clans. They ate off of what the land provided, and traded for what they couldn't hunt or grow. The Tlingit natives were also the ones to invent the potlatch, which is similar to the modern day potluck.
The Tlingit people lived together in clans and villages. Originally there were around 13 to 14 villages and 50 clans. A clan consisted of one family including cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and such. The clans were divided up into two large groups, either the Raven or Wolf (in the north Eagle) moiety. They were then divided further into say the Frog clan belonging to the Raven moiety.
Each of the clans had a story and an animal that went with it. The clan's story would be carved onto totem poles using symbols. They would put these totem poles by their doors. Every time a chief died they would put up a totem pole in his memory. The eagle and the raven were the signs used most often. There were also other signs such as the bear, wolf, owl, grouse, orca whale and halibut. Some of them were unusual like the frog, thunderbird, and starfish.
The household head was usually an elderly, respected, and wealthy man. Since people were related to each other through their mothers, the men related to the household head were not his sons, but rather his nephews and younger brothers.
The climate in the Panhandle (Southeast Alaska) was much milder than the rest of Alaska, and food was plentiful there. This meant that the Tlingits' didn't have to become nomadic. They established permanent villages. They lived in longhouses that were usually 20x30 feet. These longhouses were usually made out of large planks. The roofs were made of split cedar logs. In the interior of the home there were usually two or three levels. On the lowest level there was a dirt floor, that is where the fire was built. On the other two floors the people lived. Several families lived in each house with up to an average of 50 to 60 people in each house. Their slaves would live in the house with the family as well. However, in some villages, clans were to big for all the members to fit into one house. In those cases, the clans were represented by more than one house in the village.
Tlingits travelled in canoes that were about 11-17 feet long. When they would go hunting they used long (20-50 feet) canoes. The longest canoes could be up to 65 ft. long. To make the canoes a tree trunk would be hollowed out. It was then filled with water heated by hot stones. (This softened the wood.) Then the hollow trunk was spread out to make the sides wider. They built their canoes well to last. These canoes, often taking at times up to 3 months to build, lasted through several years of hard use.
The main part of the Tlingits diet was fish, which they would catch from their canoes, but they also ate porcupines, marmots, Sitka deer, and bears. They also gathered berries and wild plants, shellfish and seaweed. The women would cook meals for her family with the other women at a central fire pit.
The Tlingits would trade with the Athabaskans for the things that they didn't have, such as caribou skins and sinew. They traded with the Haida for things such as shells and sharks teeth to be used in jewelry.
The clans held special celebrations known as potlatches which were held after someone died, for weddings, and for other special occasions. If the clan putting on the potlatch was from the Eagle group, all of the guests would have to be Raven, if the clan was from the Raven group the guests would all have to be Eagle. The clan would get together with their guests for a celebration. Which would include dancing, feasting, and various other things.
The clothing worn by the Tlingits was very scanty. Most of it was made from woven vegetable fiber, furs and skins of animals. The men wore loin cloths similar to aprons that were made from skin and bark. The women wore shirts and petticoats made of roots, bark or animal skins. Both the women and the men would wear nose rings and ankle bracelets. And it was common for women to have tattoos. They would at times wear decorated blankets made from dog hair and mountain goat's wool.
Marriage decisions were mostly based on social status. The whole family was involved in choosing a mate for one of their members, because it would be risking a lot if they married someone of a lower social status. The males would have to pay a "bride price" before they could get married. This did not necessarily mean that she was being sold to him like property, for her family still kept a close eye on her welfare. If she were mistreated they would instantly take action. Marriage was between different clans of the same moiety. The children belonged to the mother's clan. The daughters of the family were taught by the mother and the sons by the mother's brother.
© Copyright 1997 Elizabeth Beckett and Sarah Teel
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