|The Tlingit are an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Bearers of an extensive history and rich culture, Tlingit communities continue to flourish today and maintain a strong presence in their region of southeast Alaska.
The Tlingit Region
Situated south of Anchorage and north of Seattle, from Yakutat to Ketchikan, much of the Tlingit region is a temperate rainforest comprised of deep evergreen forests, fjords and islands. Few roads connect Tlingit communities. Many areas in the region are designated National Park lands such as the Tongass National Forest (http://www.stateparks.com/tongass.html), Glacier Bay National Park (http://www.nps.gov/glba/index.htm), and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve (http://www.nps.gov/wrst//index.htm).
In 2010, the total population of Alaska is under 600,000 and approximately 86,000 are native Alaskan. The Tlingit population numbers 16,771. Major Tlingit communities include Skagway, Haines, Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Sitka, inland communities of Teslin, Carcross and Atlin in the Yukon, and urban cities at Whitehorse, Canada, Juneau, Anchorage, Seattle, and San Francisco. Much of the population is settled in urban environments, but many Tlingit continue to live in rural areas and maintain strong ties to the landscape and a subsistence lifestyle.
Mark Jacobs, Jr. 2003 Tlingit Leaders from Angoon at the Penn Museum, 2003
Tlingit (Lingít) is the ancestral language of the Tlingit people. A branch of the Na-Dené language family, Tlingit is related to other northern Athabaskan languages and to southern Athabaskan languages spoken by native people in the Southwest. Lingít is a tonal language with many sounds that are not found in English. Due to the traumatic effects of acculturation, the language is endangered. There are few young speakers of Lingít today and probably less than 500 fluent speakers. In 1914 Louis Shotridge assisted Franz Boas in developing the first written Lingít phonology and this was published by Penn’s Department of Anthropology in 1917. Today, Lingít is taught in most Tlingit communities, through the Sealaska Heritage Institute, and at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Several Lingít publications and online language resources are now available.
Many Tlingit people follow a subsistence economy with strong ties to their land through hunting and fishing. And given the area’s rich natural resources, many make a living from Southeastern Alaska’s major commercial fishing and logging industries. There is a booming tourism industry in the region as well and cruise ships draw thousands of tourists each year as they come to view the beautiful Alaskan coastline. The Tlingit value education and many members work in business, government and various professions.
Although foreign missionaries originally established most formal schools in Southeastern Alaska, Tlingit people have become increasingly established in academia. Elaine Ramos Abraham of Yakutat, a bilingual educator, made a profound impact in nursing, and served as the dean of Native Alaska studies at the University of Alaska. Nora Marks Dauenhauer of Juneau is a world renowned poet, author of short stories and scholar of Tlingit language and tradition. Together with her husband, Richard Dauenhauer, Nora has written the bilingual editions Haa Shuka, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives (1987), and Haa Tuwunaagu Vis, for Healing our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory (1990), Haa Kusteeyi, Our Culture: Tlingit Life Stories (1994). Andy Hope III (1949-2008) was an author and educator who established the Sharing Our Knowledge Clan Conferences in the early 1990s. He pioneered the concept to bring together native and non-native cultural experts, students and scholars in a multi-disciplinary and cross cultural spirit. Hope published Will the Time Ever Come: A Tlingit Source Book (Hope and Thornton editors) in 2000, and a new edition edited by Sergei Kan and Steve Henrikson is forthcoming.
The Tlingit are traditionally organized by ranked matrilineal clans of two exogamous moieties (Raven and Wolf/Eagle). The approximately 30 clans are each lead by a clan leader and made up of houses that trace their genealogies to each other and to a founding ancestor. Today the traditional clan system is enjoying a strong resurgence in many communities. Local tribal governments recognized by the United States Government are present in Tlingit communities as well, and many of these were developed under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (http://www.ccthita.org/) represents approximately 26,000 Tlingit and Haida people in Alaska, the United States, and throughout the world. Located in Juneau, Central Council originated 50 years ago in response to land disputes with the United States Government, and it continues to protect the legal rights of Native peoples in the present day.
Tlingit artistic traditions are strong and remain central in Tingit culture. Many Tlingit artists have devoted their lives to this work and are masters of their craft. Totem pole carving, wood carving, weaving, basketry, and metal working are popular, as are newer art forms in paper, fabric, glass and other media. Well known Tlingit artists include Jennie Thlunaut (1892-1986), a renowned Chilkat weaver, Anna Brown Ehlers, a Chilkat weaver, Teri Rofkar, a traditional weaver of baskets and Raven’s Tail style textiles, Clarissa Rizal, a weaver and textile artist from Klukwan; silversmiths Sue Folletti of Haines, Ed Kasko and Louis Minard, both from Sitka; wood carvers Tommy Joseph of Sitka, Nathan Jackson of Ketchikan, Norman Jackson, a silversmith and mask maker of Ketchikan, Odin Lonning carver, a silversmith and drum maker of Vashon, Washington, Robert Davis Hoffmann of Sitka, and Nicholas Galanin of Juneau.
Other Points of Interest
Sealaska: The Sealaska Corporation, located in Juneau, is a native for-profit corporation formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) and owned by over 20,000 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribal member shareholders. Since 1980, the company has gained revenues from timber harvesting and currently owns 290,000 acres of surface estate. The corporation plays a major role in local communities by offering programs to assist Native youth with internships and scholarships (http://www.sealaska.com/page/home).
The Sealaska Heritage Institute was established in 1981 to administer Sealaska Corporation’s cultural and educational programs. It is a native nonprofit organization for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska.
Celebration: Celebration is a festival of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes arranged every two years by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Originating in 1982 from a desire to showcase Native cultural traditions and customs, Celebration gathers individuals, clans, and communities for one of Alaska’s largest and most vibrant gatherings of Southeast Alaskan song, dance, and art. (http://www.sealaskaheritage.org/celebration/index.htm)