Lingít Kusteeyí ka Aaní: Tlingit Culture and Land
Lingít haa sateeyí! We are “The People,” and we have owned and occupied Southeast Alaska since time immemorial. Our name is commonly spelled “Tlingit” in English, reflecting the way it is pronounced, but Lingít is the word in our language that we use to identify ourselves.
We live in a rain forest that provides us with rich and renewable resources, and our coastal waters and beaches are teeming with fish and other food sources that are available to us throughout the year. Historically, we harvested more than enough to feed and clothe our people. We accumulated surpluses that we could trade with our neighbors to obtain resources that were not available in our territory. The land and its resources also provided us the material to develop an artistic tradition that is internationally acclaimed.
With these abundant and stable resources, our ancestors developed and bequeathed to their descendants a rich culture. Scientists have thought that civilizations most often emerged from agricultural societies, but our culture suggests that complex societies can also arise from maritime-based hunting and gathering economies.
Another common perception is that societies evolve from a simple to a complex state. However, our culture demonstrates that this assumption is not always correct, as evidenced by our multifaceted social organization. We Lingít are divided into opposing halves—Eagle and Raven—which are called moieties. Each moiety is then divided into large extended families which we identify as clans. The clans are further subdivided into tribal houses. In the past, fifty or more members of a tribal house lived together in a large, elegant dwelling built from spruce or cedar planks. Each clan and house are identified by formal names.
Nathan Jackson dances at Celebration '82 in Juneau.
Photo by Larry McNeil, © Sealaska Heritage Center.
Proper marriages among the Lingít are between individuals who are from opposite moieties. Their children are recognized as members of their mother’s moiety and clan, and they are given names that are owned by their clans. In the past, we lived in our father’s clan house. When boys reached the age of ten, they went to live with their mother’s sister’s brother in his clan house. Girls remained in their father’s clan house until they married.
In the present period, many Lingít people introduce themselves to others by first identifying their Lingít name and moiety—Eagle or Raven—and then by giving the names of their clan and house. We also acknowledge the special relationship that Lingít maintain with their father’s clan by identifying his clan and stating that they are “Children” of his clan.
The underlying basis of our culture is embodied in our core values. Not only do we utilize our land and resources, but we recognize that we have spiritual relationships with our land and wildlife. We believe that animals have spirits, and each clan is associated with different animals. The relationships are evidenced through our crest art, which depicts the various animals and fish, and they are further recorded in our stories, songs and names. These crests, songs, stories and names are exclusively owned and used by clans to depict their common membership. Crest art unites clan members and expresses the spiritual relationship that individuals have with the land and wildlife.
Lingít values also require that social and spiritual balance be maintained between Eagle and Raven clans, to ensure the well-being of society. We also have spiritual obligations to ancestors and to future generations that underlie our concept of Haa Shagóon and which ensure our survival as Lingít people. These traditional beliefs form the basis of our ceremonial rites, which are called ku.éex’, but are commonly referred to as “potlatches.”
The most significant ceremony is associated with memorial rites. When someone of an Eagle clan dies, members of Raven clans come to assist the grieving relatives. A year after the death, the Eagle clan hosts a ku.éex’ and displays its clan treasures, which are called at.óow. Clan members recount the stories about how they acquired their crests. It is a time that clans remember and honor their ancestors as well as the deceased person. The Eagle clan also repays those who had come to their assistance. Balance is maintained as the Raven clans respond by presenting their own clan regalia and ceremonial objects.
The clan was formerly the most important social unit governing the political and economic lives of Lingít people. Today, its primary responsibilities are associated with ceremonial activities and with protecting ownership of clan crests, stories, songs, regalia and names.
The Lingít guarded their territory against intrusion by others. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, Lingít clan leaders met to discuss whether they should wage war against the United States. Realizing that they did not have the military strength or numbers to win, they hired a lawyer to defend the ownership of their land. It took one hundred years, but their claims led to a judicial decision granting them payment of over $7 million for portions of their land and later to the enactment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Today, the Lingít continue to hold their lands under corporations rather than clans.
Many changes have occurred among the Lingít, but the basis of our cultural survival is the maintenance of core cultural values and practices that are associated with our ceremonial life. We remain rooted in our traditional homeland and continue to honor our spiritual relationship to our land and wildlife and to our ancestors.
is an Eagle of the Thunderbird Clan and House Lowered from the Sun of Klukwan. She is a Child of the Lukaax.ádi. She serves as President of the Sealaska Heritage Foundation in Juneau, Alaska.