The Tlingit are Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. Their language is Lingít, meaning “People of the Tides”. The Russian name Koloshi (Колоши, from a Sugpiaq-Alutiiq term kulut’ruaq for the labret worn by women) or the related German name Koulischen may be encountered referring to the people in older historical literature, such as Shelikhov’s 1796 map of Russian America.
The Tlingit have a matrilineal kinship system, with children considered born into the mother’s clan, and property and hereditary roles passing through the mother’s line. Their culture and society developed in the temperate rainforest of the southeast Alaska coast and the Alexander Archipelago. The Tlingit maintained a complex hunter-gatherer culture based on semi-sedentary management of fisheries. An inland group, known as the Inland Tlingit, inhabits the far northwestern part of the province of British Columbia and the southern Yukon Territory in Canada.
The greatest territory historically occupied by the Tlingit extended from the Portland Canal along the present border between Alaska and British Columbia, north to the coast just southeast of the Copper River delta in Alaska. The Tlingit occupied almost all of the Alexander Archipelago, except the southernmost end of Prince of Wales Island and its surroundings, where the Kaigani Haida moved just before the first encounters with European explorers.
The Coastal Tlingit tribes controlled one of the mountain passes into the Yukon interior; they were divided into three tribes: the Chilkat Tlingit (Jilḵáat Ḵwáan) along the Chilkat River and on Chilkat Peninsula, the Chilkoot Tlingit (Jilḵoot Ḵwáan) and the Taku Tlingit (Tʼaaḵu Ḵwáan:) along the Taku River.
Inland, the Tlingit occupied areas along the major rivers that pierce the Coast Mountains and Saint Elias Mountains and flow into the Pacific, including the Alsek, Tatshenshini, Chilkat, Taku, and Stikine rivers. With regular travel up these rivers, the Tlingit developed extensive trade networks with Athabascan tribes of the interior, and commonly intermarried with them. From this regular travel and trade, a few relatively large populations of Tlingit settled around Atlin, Teslin, and Tagish Lakes, whose headwaters flow from areas near the headwaters of the Taku River.
Delineating the modern territory of the Tlingit is complicated because they are spread across the border between the United States and Canada, they lack designated reservations, other complex legal and political concerns make the situation confusing, and there is a relatively high level of mobility among the population. They also overlap in territory with various Athabascan peoples, such as the Tahltan, Kaska and Tagish. In Canada, the modern communities of Atlin, British Columbia (Taku River Tlingit), Teslin, Yukon (Teslin Tlingit Council), and Carcross, Yukon (Carcross/Tagish First Nation) have reserves and are the representative Interior Tlingit populations.
The territory occupied by the modern Tlingit people in Alaska is not restricted to particular reservations, unlike most tribes in the lower contiguous 48 states. This is the result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which established regional corporations throughout Alaska with complex portfolios of land ownership rather than bounded reservations administered by tribal governments. The corporation in the Tlingit region is Sealaska Corporation, which serves the Tlingit as well as the Haida and Tsimshian in Alaska.
Tlingit people as a whole participate in the commercial economy of Alaska. As a consequence, they live in typically American nuclear family households with private ownership of housing and land. Many also possess land allotments from Sealaska or from earlier distributions predating ANCSA. Despite the legal and political complexities, the territory historically occupied by the Tlingit can be reasonably designated as their modern homeland. Tlingit people today consider the land from around Yakutat south through the Alaskan Panhandle, and including the lakes in the Canadian interior, as being Lingít Aaní, the Land of the Tlingit.
The extant Tlingit territory can be roughly divided into four major sections, paralleling ecological, linguistic, and cultural divisions:
The Southern Tlingit occupy the region south of Frederick Sound, and live in the northernmost reaches of the Western Red cedar forest.
Northern Tinglit live north of Frederick Sound to Cape Spencer, and including Glacier Bay and the Lynn Canal; they occupy the warmest and richest of the Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock forests.
The Inland Tlingit live along large interior lakes and the drainage of the Taku River as well as in the southern Yukon territory, and subsist in a manner similar to their Athabascan neighbors in the mixed spruce taiga.
The Gulf Coast Tlingit live along a narrow strip of coastline backed by steep mountains and extensive glaciers, north of Cape Spencer, and along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska to Controller Bay and Kayak Island. Their territory can be battered by Pacific storms.
The trade and cultural interactions between each of these Tlingit groups and their disparate neighbors, the differences in food harvest practices, and dialectical differences in language contribute to these identifications. These academic classifications are supported by similar self-identification among the Tlingit.
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