There are a few variations of the Tlingit story of how they came to inhabit their lands. All are fairly similar, and one will be detailed here. They vary mostly in the location of the events, with some being very specific about particular rivers and glaciers, others being vaguer. The particular one presented here involves some interesting relationship explanations between the Tlingit and their inland neighbors, the Athabaskans. Note that the particular Athabaskan group is not noted, and it seems to be indeterminate. It may in fact refer to a time before the Athabaskans had developed into the multiplicity of peoples that they are today.
All stories are considered property in the Tlingit cultural system, such that sharing a story without the proper permission of its owners is a breach of the Tlingit law. However, the stories of the Tlingit people as a whole, the creation myths, and other seemingly universal records are usually considered to be a property of the entire tribe, and thus may be shared without particular restriction. It is however important to the Tlingit that the details be correct, for if not this can lead to perpetuations of error and worsen the transmission of the information in the future, as well as degrade the value of the knowledge.
The story begins with the Athabaskan (Ghunanaa) people of interior Alaska and western Canada, a land of lakes and rivers, of birch and spruce forests, and the moose and caribou. Life in this continental climate is harsh, with bitterly cold winters and hot summers. One year the people had a particularly poor harvest over a summer, and it was obvious that the winter would bring with it many deaths from starvation. The elders gathered together and decided that people would be sent out to find a land rumored to be rich in food, a place where one did not even have to hunt for something to eat. A group of people were selected and sent out to find this new place, and would come back to tell the elders where this land could be found. They were never heard from again. However, we now know that these people were the Navajo and Apache, for they left the Athabaskan lands for a different place far south of their home, and yet retain a close relationship with their Athabaskan ancestors.
Over the winter countless people died. Again, the next summer’s harvest was poor, and the life of the people was threatened. So once again, the elders decided to send out people to find this land of abundance. These people traveled a long distance, and climbed up mountain passes to encounter a great glacier. The glacier seemed impassable, and the mountains around it far too steep for the people to cross. They could, however, see how the meltwater of the glacier traveled down into deep crevasses and disappeared underneath the icy bulk. The people decided that some strong young men should be sent down to follow this river to see if it came out on the other side of the mountains. But before these men had left, an elderly couple volunteered to make the trip. They reasoned that since they were already near the end of their lives, the loss of their support to the group would be minimal, but the loss of the strong young men would be devastating. The people agreed that these elders should travel under the glacier. They made a simple dugout canoe and took it down the river under the glacier, and came out to see a rocky plain with deep forests and rich beaches all around. The people followed them down under the glacier and came into Lingít Aaní, the rich and bountiful land that became the home of the Tlingit people. These people became the first Tlingits.
Another theory of Tlingit migration is that of the Beringia Land Bridge. Coastal people, in general, are extremely aggressive; whereas interior Athapascan people are passive. Tlingit culture, being the fiercest among the coastal nations due to their northernmost occupation, began to dominate the interior culture as they traveled inland to secure trading alliances. Tlingit traders were the “middlemen” bringing Russian goods inland over the Chilkoot Trail to the Yukon, and on into Northern British Columbia. As the Tlingit people began marrying interior people, their culture became the established “norm.” Soon the Tlingit clan and political structure, as well as customs and beliefs dominated all other interior culture. To this day, Tlingit regalia, language, clan structure, political structure, and ceremonies including beliefs are evident in all interior culture. The Athapascan way of life is now embedded in the Tlingit people’s lifestyle.
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