Kinship of the Tlingit

The Tlingit kinship system, like most Northwest Coast societies, is based on a matrilineal structure, and describes a family roughly according to Morgan’s Crow system of kinship. The society is wholly divided into two distinct moieties, termed Raven (Yéil) and Eagle/Wolf (Ch’aak’/Ghooch). The former identifies with the raven as its primary crest, but the latter is variously identified with the wolf, the eagle, or some other dominant animal crest depending on location; occasionally this moiety is simply called the “not Raven” people. There is a general tendency among younger Tlingits of identifying all Eagle/Wolf clans with eagle in preference to wolf or other crests, something deprecated by most elders but reinforced by modern associations between Tlingit and their Tsimshian and Haida neighbors. Members of one moiety traditionally may only marry a person of the opposite moiety, however in the last century this system began to break down (as a result of violent suppression of Tlingit culture and traditions) and today so-called “double-eagle” and “double-raven” marriages are common, as well as marriages with non-Tlingit people. No word in Tlingit refers to moiety, since referring to a particular person by their clan membership (see below) is enough to determine their moiety affiliation. In colloquial English the term “side” is often used among the Tlingit since “moiety” is a specialized term unfamiliar to most.

The moieties provide the primary dividing line across Tlingit society, but identification is rarely made with the moiety. Instead individuals identify with their matrilineal clan (naa), a large group of people related by shared genealogy, history, and possessory rights. Clan sizes vary widely, and some clans are found throughout all the Tlingit lands whereas others are found only in one small cluster of villages. The Tlingit clan functions as the main property owner in the culture, thus almost all formal property amongst the Tlingit belongs to clans, not to individuals. Due to the decline in traditional knowledge among the younger generations (as a result of violent suppression of Tlingit culture and traditions), many young urban Tlingit people are uncertain of their exact clan affiliation, and may simply refer to themselves by one or the other moiety. If they become more familiar with traditional cultural practice they either discover and research their clan or are formally adopted into an appropriate clan in the area.

18th century Tlingit art: A helmet representing the head of a wolf.(Museum of the Americas, Madrid, Spain).

Because of the heavy emphasis on clan and matrilineal descent, the father played a relatively minor role in the lives of his children. Instead, what Europeans would consider the father’s primary role was filled by the mother’s brother, the children’s maternal uncle, who was of the same clan as the children. This man served as caretaker, teacher, and disciplinarian. The father had a more peripheral relationship with the children, and as such many Tlingit children have very pleasant memories of their fathers as generous and playful, while they maintain a distinct fear and awe of their maternal uncles who exposed them to hard training and discipline.

Beneath the clans are houses (hít), smaller groups of people closely related by family, and who in earlier times lived together in the same large communal house. The physical house itself would be first and foremost property of the clan, but the householders would be keepers of the house and all material and non-material goods associated with it. Each house was led by a “chief,” in Tlingit hít s’aatí “house master”, an elder male (or less often a female) of high stature within the family. Hít s’aatí who were recognized as being of particularly high stature in the community, to the point of being major community leaders, were called aan s’aatí or more often aankháawu, “village master” or “village leader”. The term aan s’aatí is now used to refer to an elected city mayor in Tlingit, although the traditional position was not elected and did not imply some coercive authority over the residents.

The existence of a “chief” for every house lineage in a village confused many early European explorers and traders who expected a single autocratic “chief” in a given village or region. This led to numerous confrontations and skirmishes among the Europeans and Tlingit in early history, since a particular “chief” could only hold sway over members of his own household and not over others in the village. A high stature hít s’aatí could convince unrelated villagers to behave a certain way, but if he lost significant status the community would begin to ignore him, much to the dismay of Europeans who were depending on his authority.

The hít s’aatí is usually the caretaker and administrator of house property, as well as some or most clan property in his region. He may often refer to himself as the “slave” of clan and house valuables and regalia because his position is not one of true ownership. Instead the position is more like that of a museum curator, one who has some say in whether or not a particular item is to be used or displayed, but who does not truly own that item and who may not dispense with it, sell it, or destroy it without the consultation of other family members. The hít s’aatí is also responsible for seeing the clan regalia brought out regularly at potlatches where the value and history of these items may be reconfirmed through ceremonial use and payments to the opposite clans. The funds for these potlatches may come primarily from the hít s’aatí, and as such the regalia that represent his ancestors can be seen as spending his money for him.

Chief Shakes Tribal House, a traditionally constructed Tlingit house in Wrangell, Alaska

Historically, marriages among Tlingits, and occasionally between Tlingits and other tribes were arranged. The man moved into the woman’s house and became a member of that household. He contributed to communal food gathering and had access to his wife’s clan’s resources. Because the children were of the mother’s clan, marriages were often arranged such that the man married a woman of the same clan as his father, though not a close relation. This constituted an ideal marriage in traditional Tlingit society, where the children were of the same clan as their paternal grandfather and could thus inherit his wealth, prestige, names, occupation, and personal possessions.

Because often the grandparents, particularly grandfathers, had a minimal role in the upbringing of their own children, they took an active interest in the upbringing of their grandchildren, and are noted for doting upon them beyond reason. This is usually exemplified by the story of Raven stealing daylight from his putative grandfather, who gave him the moon and the stars, and despite losing both of them to Raven’s treachery, gave him the sun as well simply because he was a favored grandchild.

Any Tlingit is a member of a clan, be it by birth or adoption. Many Tlingits are children of another clan, the clan of their fathers. The relationship between father and child is warm and loving, and this relationship has a strong influence on the relation between the two clans. During times of grief or trouble the Tlingit can call on his father’s clan for support at least as much as he can call on his own. His father’s clan is not obliged to help him, but the familial connection can be strong enough to alienate two clans in the same moiety. This situation is well documented in oral history, where two clans of opposite moieties are opposed in war—one clan may call upon a related clan of the same moiety for assistance only to be refused because of a father’s child among its enemies.

The opposition of clans is also a motivator for the reciprocal payments and services provided through potlatches. Indeed, the institution of the potlatch is largely founded on the reciprocal relationship between clans and their support during mortuary rituals. When a respected Tlingit dies the clan of his father is sought out to care for the body and manage the funeral. His own clan is incapable of these tasks due to grief and spiritual pollution. The subsequent potlatches are occasions where the clan honors its ancestors and compensates the opposite clans for their assistance and support during trying times. This reciprocal relationship between two clans is vital for the emotional, economic, and spiritual health of a Tlingit community.

Source From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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