The Tlingit culture is multifaceted and complex, a characteristic of Northwest Pacific Coast people with access to easily exploited rich resources. In Tlingit culture a heavy emphasis is placed upon family and kinship, and on a rich tradition of oratory. Wealth and economic power are important indicators of rank, but so is generosity and proper behavior, all signs of “good breeding” and ties to aristocracy. Art and spirituality are incorporated in nearly all areas of Tlingit culture, with even everyday objects such as spoons and storage boxes decorated and imbued with spiritual power and historical beliefs of the Tlingits.
Tlingit society is divided into two moieties, the Raven and the Eagle. These in turn are divided into numerous clans, which are subdivided into lineages or house groups. They have a matrilineal kinship system, with descent and inheritance passed through the mother’s line. These groups have heraldic crests, which are displayed on totem poles, canoes, feast dishes, house posts, weavings, jewelry, and other art forms. The Tlingits pass down at.oow(s) or blankets that represented trust. Only a Tlingit Indian can inherit one but they can also pass it down to someone they trust, who becomes responsible for caring for it but does not rightfully own it.
Philosophy and religion
Tlingit thought and belief, although never formally codified, was historically a fairly well organized philosophical and religious system whose basic axioms shaped the way Tlingit people viewed and interacted with the world around them. Tlingits were traditionally animists, and hunters ritually purified themselves before hunting animals. Shamans, primarily men, cured diseases, influenced weather, aided in hunting, predicted the future, and protected people against witchcraft.
Between 1886 and 1895, in the face of their shamans’ inability to treat Old World diseases including smallpox, many Tlingit people converted to Orthodox Christianity. Russian Orthodox missionaries had translated their liturgy into the Tlingit language. It has been argued that they saw Eastern Orthodox Christianity as a way of resisting assimilation to the “American way of life,” which was associated with Presbyterianism. After the introduction of Christianity, the Tlingit belief system began to erode.
Today, some young Tlingits look back towards their traditional tribal religions and worldview for inspiration, security, and a sense of identity. While many elders converted to Christianity, contemporary Tlingit “reconcile Christianity and the ‘traditional culture.'”
The Tlingit language is spoken by the Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska and Western Canada. It is a branch of the Na-Dené language family. It is well known not only for its complex grammar and sound system, but also for using certain phonemes unheard in almost any other language.
Tlingit has an estimated 200-400 native speakers in the United States and 100 speakers in Canada. The speakers are bilingual or near-bilingual in English. Extensive effort is being put into revitalization programs in Southeast Alaska to revive and preserve the Tlingit language and its culture. Sealaska Heritage Institute, Goldbelt Heritage Institute and the University of Alaska Southeast have Tlingit language programs, and community classes are held in Klukwan and Angoon.
Various cultures of indigenous people have continuously occupied the Alaska territory for thousands of years, leading to the Tlingit. Human culture with elements related to the Tlingit originated around 10,000 years ago near the mouths of the Skeena and Nass Rivers. The historic Tlingit’s first contact with Europeans came in 1741 with Russian explorers. Spanish explorers followed in 1775. Tlingits maintained their independence but suffered from epidemics of smallpox and other infectious diseases brought by the Europeans. The Native Americans had no immunity to such endemic Eurasian diseases, which had entered Europe centuries before.
Food is a central part of Tlingit culture, and the land is an abundant provider. Most of the richness of intertidal life found on the beaches of Southeast Alaska can be harvested for food. Though eating off the beach could provide a fairly healthy and varied diet, eating nothing but “beach food” is considered contemptible among the Tlingit and a sign of poverty. Indeed, shamans and their families were required to abstain from all food gathered from the beach, and men might avoid eating beach food before battles or strenuous activities in the belief that it would weaken them spiritually and perhaps physically as well. Thus for both spiritual reasons as well as to add some variety to the diet, the Tlingit harvest many other resources for food besides those they easily find outside their front doors. No other food resource receives as much emphasis as salmon; however, seal and game are both close seconds.
Halibut, shellfish, and seaweed traditionally provided food in the spring, while late spring and summer bring seal and salmon. Summer is a time for gathering wild and tame berries, such as salmonberry, soap berry, and currants. In fall, sea otters are hunted. Herring and eulachon are also important staples, that can be eaten fresh or dried and stored for later use. Fish provide meat, oil, and eggs. Sea mammals, such as sea lions and sea otters, are used for food and clothing materials. In the forests near their homes, Tlingit hunted deer, bear, mountain goats and other small mammals.
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