Change in Attitudes Beliefs and Practices Regarding Gender

Up to this point this entry has focused on the Tlingit of the 19th century, but Tlingit life in the 21st century has globalized and adapted to its U.S. context. Degrees of acculturation vary widely, but many of the old traditions live on in Tlingit towns.

While Russian claims for Tlingit territory dated to 1741, and the Russian Church was prominent in Sitka for a century, it was not until the end of the 19 th century that Europeans entered the land of the Tlingit in significant numbers. At this point, Presbyterian missions, commercial fisheries, U.S. government authorities, and casual tourism came to stay. Moreover, while the Russians tended to stay in a couple of major towns, the Presbyterians and the rest spread their interests to the smaller villages as well. At this point, it became impossible to avoid European cultures and Europeans completely. Myriad changes for the gender system of the Tlingit were broad and deep, but the essence of individual value persisted.

The missionaries were distressed by the behavior of Tlingit women. They saw them as immodest, domineering, and stubborn. The marriage system was a particular target of this church. In order to "save" Tlingit women senior missionary Amanda McFarland established a school for girls. Here she hoped to protect them from unholy marriages to older men and to teach them the arts of cooking, embroidery, and Christian deportment. Other missionaries preached the same womanly ideals and asserted that, unless women learned their rightful places as nurturing mothers and subordinate wives, they could not be real Christians. Since several of these missionaries, including McFarland, were strong and assertive public women, the role models contradicted the messages (Klein, 1980, 1994).

The introduction of commercial fishing and canneries had significant gender implications. Commercial fishing was not the partnership that subsistence fishing was. Processing was separated from fishing. Men continued to fish for their families and for the canneries. The canneries employed local women, as well as Asian workers, in their plants. At first both men and women continued to work in the industry, but in a different way. Over the years, as outsiders took more of the canning work, local women were forced out of the industry. Many took new Western-style jobs that demanded year-round stability. Since fishing remained men's primary employment, they were not available for other work during the fishing months. In many of the villages this has lead to a division of labor that dictates a seasonal work schedule for men and a year-round schedule for women. Men still fish and hunt for their families, and women still gather and preserve foods, but this is generally added to their money-making duties.

The U.S. government, in a number of forms from district to state, imposed a new layer of authority and law in the territory. Traditional forms of leadership remained locally significant and ritually important, but were overshadowed legally by the European American laws and governmental structures. Land and resource rights were not settled until 1971 with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. This complex agreement set up 13 regional corporations and numerous village corporations that represented the Native people of Alaska as stockholders. Tlingit residents made up the majority of the regional Sealaska Corporation. Men and women hold shares in both the regional and village corporations, are employed by them and serve on their boards. The skill to increase wealth and make astute deals still commands high esteem and, while men are also trained in economics today, women are taught that this is a traditional womanly skill.

Tlingit women today live far different social lives than those of their great-grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers. Echoes of the matrilineal system live with local and ritual importance, but it has lost the political and economic structure of the past. Households tend to be based on the nuclear family. Marriages are based on courtship and individual choice. Husbands and wives work together as economic entities. Divorce is common and children normally stay with their mothers. As for their ancestors, however, kinship is still important and families are expected to support relatives whenever they are in need.

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