Cultural Overview

This entry largely focuses on the culture of the precolo-nial Tlingit that are categorized as the northernmost of the Northwest Coast Indians. Groups in this category are known for their extensive wealth, complex art, and highly stratified societies. The economy of the region was based on the annual abundant runs of salmon and the resources of the largely evergreen forests. Although in the north of the region, the Tlingit enjoyed a relatively temperate climate with some winter snows, but with most months largely marked by clouds and rain.

The Tlingit characterized themselves as fishing people and people oriented to the sea. Salmon runs in local streams occurred from late spring to mid-fall. During this period people collected tons of fish that were dried and smoked for later use. Other seafoods, notably halibut, eulachon, shellfish, and seals, were also collected and preserved. On land, deer were hunted and plants, especially berries, collected as secondary foods. In a normal year a family was able to collect enough foods during the summer months to feed themselves throughout the year.

However, societal wealth was not based upon ownership of subsistence goods but on the distribution of luxury goods. Using a coastal trade route that extended from more northern Alaska to California and a land route across the Coast Mountains to the interior, Tlingit traders were able to obtain valuables including furs, metals, slaves, and objects of art that were locally unavailable. Astute traders could accumulate significant amounts of such valuables, but these objects, as such, did not confer high status. Items became important when they were given away in a potlatch.

The potlatch was a feast that was given by a clan, or subclan, for another group to witness the confirmation or improvement of social status. Most major Tlingit pot-latches were arranged to honor a recently deceased relative or, perhaps, to confer honors on a young clansman or clanswoman. In a potlatch, which could last several days, the host group fed the guests, danced and sang family songs, told family stories, and presented costly gifts to the guests. Guests received gifts according to their rank, with higher-ranked guests receiving more valuable gifts than those of lower rank. During the event, members of the host family received higher-ranked names, and hence status, while the guests witnessed and accepted these new social positions. At the end of the event, the guests left burdened by their new goods, and praising the wealth of their hosts. Ironically, the houses of the hosts were now empty of valuable goods, but their prestige was raised in the act of publicly giving them away.

The major organizational principle of the Tlingit was matrilineal. All Tlingit were members of one of two moieties, Eagle (Wolf, in the south) or Raven. These categories were further divided into clans, subclans, house groups, and families. There were less than 20 traditional areas with winter villages. Each contained a number of multifamily wooden houses representing both moieties and multiple clans. Houses were organized according to an avunculocal principle and were arranged in a line along a beach. Aside from the moieties themselves, all units and individuals were ranked. The highest-ranked individuals had significant power over those of lesser rank, and titles of house and village heads went to them. Slaves were at the bottom of the status ladder and were not considered to be part of the "real" society.

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