Keyt-Gooshe “Killer Whales Dorsal Fin”

By: Louis Shotridge

Originally Published in 1919

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The picturesque ideas of the Tlingit people of Southeastern Alaska are well illustrated by the painted batons used in conducting ceremonial dances. To illustrate these batons I have selected one obtained by me at Sitka and now in the University Museum. It is called “Keyt-gooshe” and was fashioned to represent what it sname implies—”Killer whale’s dorsal fin.” The idea of fashioning batons of this type came from the Tsimshian people of Northern British Columbia. The Tlingits in turn made it to be a popular object for use in conducting dance songs in an imitation of Tsimshian festival dance.

Killer Whales Dorsal Fin Tlingit dance baton watercolor by M. Louise Baker
Dance Baton.
Image Number: 171579

Aside from sacred ceremonial dances there are many kinds of festival dances among the Tlingits. During important festivals, such as might be held for the purpose of dedicating a memorial of a distinguished person, two kinds of dances are most popular. One is called Ayon-ootea “Imitating Faminite.” (Ayon=”Faminite” is a term applied to an Athapascan tribe inhabiting the upper region of the Yukon territory, because these wandering people were always subject to famine.) The other dance is called Tsoodzhan-ootea “Imitating-Tsimshian.” The purpose of these dances is to mimic the habits of the tribes named. They are performed only at big festivals, where a large body of performers are available to take the various parts.

In order to make clearer the different dances, in which the symbolic devices are usually exhibited and the order in which these dances are performed, it will be necessary to touch upon the organization of the Tlingit people. As is known to those who have taken up the study of the North Pacific Coast peoples, the Tlingits were separated socially into two sides, each strictly exogamic with descent through the mother. One side is known as Raven while the other is called Eagle. Each side consists of several clans each having its definite order of rank and right of special crests.

Besides this social division the Tlingits had wandered apart into two geographical divisions. The groups who now occupy the head of Lynn Canal are spoken of, collectively, as “Northern inhabitants” while those occupying the lower region of the coast are called “Saltwater inhabitants.” Each of these geographical divisions contain members who are Eagles and members who are Ravens. The geographical divisions will be referred to here as “Northern” and “Southern.”

The northern people are in some ways modified by their contact -with the interior Athapascans, and the southern people are very much influenced by the Haida and the Tsimshian, the two different stocks who live within the Tlingit territory at its southern end.

In festivals the guests always consist of groups of the same side, that is, in the event the clans of the Raven side should hold a feast the clans of the Eagle side would be the guests. In spite of the fact that the guests are of one side, they form into rival parties. The eagles from the north would arrange themselves against the eagles from the south, and their performances would be in the nature of contests. The northern party would give an exhibition of an improvised Faminite dance and the southern party would compete with an exhibition of their Tsimshian dance.

The Faminite dance, as danced by the Chilkats, is the most picturesque of all. In this the performers make a display of incidents that naturally fall to their lot during their hunts and adventurous life. For example: a certain selected dancer, somewhere in the front row of the dancing party, would be imitating a lynx, showing all the movements of the animal in its last moment in a hunter’s trap, while next to him would be a pair going through their parts as follows: one, taking the part of a hawk, would be mimicking the ravenous bird flying at its prey, the mountain goat, whose part is being cleverly performed by his partner, who imitates the animal as holding its own on a supposed steep precipice, and so on. These dancers, of course, are dressed up and each supplies a make-up to look his part.

The Tsimshian dance is, in formation, similar to the Faminite dance and differs only in characteristics of parts and ornamentations of the performers. In both dances the time is well observed, which is always kept by beating a drum. All the dance songs are sung in chorus, but the parts are only by octaves.

The baton, called keyt-gooshe, as used by the Tlingits, is always carried by a song conductor, a man who is chosen from a leading family to conduct the singing part. With peculiar movements of the baton the conductor gives his signals for the changes to be made in the dance songs. The appearance of the baton at the entrance to the room where the dancers are already entered, is a sign to the singers that the end of the “entering-dance” is at hand. As the conductor approaches his place on the elevated platform he utters “wayehow,” a Tsimshian expression, which means to cease for an immediate change of song to the one that is to follow. Immediately following a brief intermission the conductor, who is now in his place, repeats the “wayehow” Holding the baton toward the dancers, he signals the drummer the time in advance for the song, by slight jerking motion. In case the song opens with a solo this motion continues, and at a tilt of the baton, sideways, the chorus joins.
Batons of this class are made in various lengths and sizes, but always flexible so that they appear as if alive when put to use. The designs on each baton are usually painted to represent the crest object of the party for whom it is made.

The specimen chosen for this article is one of the oldest found among the Tlingits. It is said that it was made for Prince Tahshaw of Sitka, who was appointed head song-conductor at the time his people were “called” to participate in the ceremony of dedication of the Whale Family house of Chilkat. The baton is made of selected clear red cedar, dressed down to a tapering form. From one inch at the butt end the thickness is gradually reduced to about one-fourth of an inch at the tip, and the width from about nine to five inches. The length is twelve feet.

The row of fringe-like ornamentation, along part of the back edge, consists of branches of human hair, said to be a collection taken from the heads of slaves. The fringe represents the breath of the killer whale whose head is shown at the butt end, next to the handle. Since the killer whale is here presented only to designate the name of the baton, there are no other parts of the animal shown.

The yellow wool fringe under the carved head represents water, and the circle near the middle of the baton, which is shown by the solid red, is supposed to be a hole, by which the killer whale, when used in a design, can be readily identified, but to avoid weakening the baton and to prevent an accident of breakage the hole is not cut through. The design painted on both sides of the baton is an eagle, the crest of the Eagle side.

On the obverse the figure next to the killer whale is the eagle, pictured as sighting a salmon in a stream. The salmon is at the extreme tip end, shown by the head motif combined with the flipper, and the figure next to this, the body and tail of the fish. The artist pictured here, the salmon as swimming leisurely in a current of running water. The live fish ascending the current is indicated by the leaning of the back part toward the advance of the belly part. The closed position of the flipper and tail shows the salmon is not excited and unaware of its foe.

On the reverse the same eagle is pictured in a contracted position. The wing motif is raised and the head drawn in, indicating the eagle is now on the verge of its attack. The same salmon is pictured showing his teeth. The expansion of the flipper and tail is a sign that the fish is now aware of danger and that he is ready to defend himself.

Although the same design is more natural when drawn on a broader field, it exhibits on the baton the conventionalism demanded by the shape of the field.


Cite This Article

Shotridge, Louis. "Keyt-Gooshe “Killer Whales Dorsal Fin”." The Museum Journal X, no. 4 (December, 1919): 213-216. Accessed June 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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