No one comes into your land until they’ve got an agreement to come there or have been invited. If you go into anybody else’s land it’s a battle. That’s one of the strongest laws of the Tlingit.
—George Ramos, 2005
Tlingit warriors wore battle helmets depicting crest animals or ancestors, along with wooden visors, thick leather tunics, and body armor made of wooden rods or slats. They armed themselves with bows and arrows, spears, clubs, and daggers. This helmet depicts a wrinkled human face once embellished with bear fur whiskers and human hair. Pierced hands stretch across the front, joined to a stylized body in the back. Helmets were carved from hard, dense spruce burls to withstand blows from clubs and even shots fired from Russian muskets.
Region: Alaska / British Columbia
Object Category: War
Dimensions: Length 27cm
Accession Date: 1893
Source: Herbert Ogden (collector), Bureau of American Ethnology (donor)
Museum: National Museum of Natural History
Museum ID Number: E168157
Examining & identifying
Aron Crowell: [Reads from museum repatriation report.] “In 1893 Herbert Ogden received a wooden helmet in trade from the leaders of the Ishkeetaan clan from the upper Taku River of British Columbia.”
Clarence Jackson: T’aaku yikdax ku.oo awe. Naakee.
(Those people are from T’aaku. Up north.)
Donald Gregory: It looks like it had a lot of hair on it.
Rosita Worl: Yes, beard and mustache.
Clarence Jackson: Yoo.at awe kwshe? Kulagaaw atu saaxwoo aya kwshe?
(Is this what that is? Is this a hat [helmet] used during battle?)
George Ramos: Kulagaw s’aati.
([For] a warrior.)
Clarence Jackson: It’s a helmet.
Rosita Worl: It was initially used in war, but later after they quit using them in war, after they got rifles, they started using them as clan hats in ceremonies.
George Ramos: The equipment that they had, you would say they were fighting all the time, however, Tlingit have one law that is the strongest law, land ownership. No one comes into your land until you’ve got an agreement to come in there, or you were invited in there. If you go into anybody else’s land, it’s a battle because you don’t. That’s one of the strongest laws of the Tlingit. And the code of the warrior, there’s actually five of them. One is you’re not going to make yourself heavier than your fellow man by saying, “I’m the grandson of chief so and so,” or “My great grandfather chief so and so.”
You never say that. You don’t do that in the Tlingit culture. You don’t go around bragging about who you are, you know it. The second one is you will be humble before your people. The third one is you will reach for your fellow man and stand him up with you. The forth one is you will always protect your fellow man. The fifth one is kind of a strange one, it’s not used any more, never talked about any more, but they used to tell me about it. If you know you are wounded and you are going to die, you fight to your last breathe. That’s the fifth one. And once you earned your knife, you will draw that only to protect your fellow man. That goes with the armor and that goes with the warrior. I see a lot people today saying, “I’m a Tlingit warrior,” but they don’t even know the code.
George Ramos: Xees’x sateeyi aya yaanaxaanax yeik gisateen. Heenge hel grain.a. Xees’ aya.
(If it’s a burl you’ll see it from this side. Do you see, there’s no grain, this is a burl.
It is [made from] a burl.)
Donald Gregory: A spruce burl.
Delores Churchill: Why did they use a spruce burl?
Donald Gregory: Because the grain didn’t break.
Clarence Jackson: That’s what I thought.
Peter Jack: Sha wduxeeji tlel kuwal’x.
(When the head is clubbed, it doesn’t break.)
Clarence Jackson: Tlel aade kagwaawaal’i ye.
(It cannot break.)
George Ramos: Ch’aakw awe kunax litseeni kaa axoo.aa kawal’x sha wduxeeji. Yoo aya ax een kadunik. Yee siteen aade kutlawu ye teen ge? Yaat’aa ku.a yei ksikaak tle ldakat a. Yaa diyeex’ kaawahayi aa yaa kaasadaa aayi yaat’aa yax koowoox’. Yaa saka aayi ku.
a ya yei gook’eink’.
(Long ago the strongest man might have broken it. This is how it was told to me. You see how wide it is? This here is thick. Here below that [what] goes around the neck [armor collar] is as thick as this one. The one that goes around the neck is shorter.)
George Ramos: Yaat’at’ ku.as yeedat, moss aya atoox’ yein du. Eich it.
(This here though, moss was put in. This was told to me.)
Clarence Jackson: S’ix’gaa.
George Ramos: Janwu doogu axaawu nadulxash.ch. A eeti yanook kaa shakee . . .
(The hair—fur—would be cut from the mountain goat pelt. The head would hurt where . . .)
Clarence Jackson: Shawduxeechi.
(When hit on the head.)
George Ramos: Aa.a.
[From discussion with Delores Churchill (Haida), Peter Jack, Sr. (Tlingit), Clarence Jackson, Sr. (Tlingit), Anna Katzeek (Tlingit), George Ramos (Tlingit), and Donald Gregory (Tlingit) and Rosita Worl (Tlingit) of the Sealaska Heritage Institute at the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of the American Indian, 4/18/2005-4/22/2005. Also participating: Aron Crowell and Bill Fitzhugh (NMNH) and Suzi Jones (AMHA).]
Tlingit warriors wore carved and decorated helmets, mask-like wooden “collars” over their necks and faces, thick leather tunics, and wooden body armor. Their weapons included bows and arrows, short spears, war clubs, and double-bladed daggers.(1)
This helmet, collected in 1893 from the T’aaku of the upper Taku River in British Columbia, shows a wrinkled human face that was once embellished with bear fur whiskers and shocks of human hair.(2) Its eyebrows are painted brown, the eyes black, and the lips reddish brown against a background of light green. The figure’s pierced hands stretch across the front rim of the helmet, joined to a stylized body that is painted around the back. The helmet was carved from a hard, dense spruce burl.
Tlingit helmets depict human beings or crest animals belonging to the owner’s clan. Tlingit fighters were frightening and impressive to early European explorers, who often described the war helmets they wore as images of ferocious or monstrous beings.
(3) Helmets were carved from tree roots or knots for strength, and were very dense and heavy. Tomas Suria, who was at Yakutat with the Malaspina expedition in 1791, wrote that, “They construct the helmet of various shapes; usually it is a piece of wood, very solid and thick, so much so, that when I put on one it weighed the same as if it had been of iron.”(4) Some type of padding needed to be worn underneath the hat, such as a fur cap.(5)
Russian naval office Urey Lisianskii, who helped the Russian-American Company’s Alexander Baranov fight the Tlingit at Sitka in 1804, noted that the helmets “are so thick, that a musket-ball, fired at a moderate distance, can hardly penetrate them.”(6) Nonetheless, Tlingit helmets and wooden body armor gradually went out of use as firearms became more common on the Northwest Coast. The helmets continued to be important as at.óow, or crest objects owned by clans and presented at potlatches.(7)
Tlingit warfare usually pitted one clan against another, rather than whole tribes or villages.
It often developed from the harm or insult that one individual suffered at the hands of a person from another clan, and escalated into a conflict that involved all of the relatives on both sides.(8) One observer wrote in 1885 that, “For every bodily injury, for any damage to his goods and property, for any infringement by strangers on his hunting or trading territory, full compensation is demanded or exacted by force.”(9) Raiders often attacked their enemies at dawn, killing the men and taking women and children as prisoners and slaves.(10) However, disputes were sometimes settled by duels in which solo fighters from each side fought each other armed only with daggers and dressed in their armor and helmets.(11)
1. DeLaguna 1972:590-91; Emmons 1991:337-46; Holmberg 1985:22; Hough 1895; Lisianskii 1968:149-50; Olson 2002:109, 478-89.
2. DeLaguna 1990:218; Fitzhugh and Crowell 1988:232
3. Emmons 1991:344-45
4. W. M Olson 2002:479
5. Emmons 1991:342
6. Lisianskii 1968:150
7. Jonaitis 1986:21; Lisianskii 1968:150
8. Emmons 1991:328; R. L. Olson 1967:69-82
9. Krause 1956:169
10. Krause 1956:170; Litke 1987:87; Niblack 1890:340-42
11. Holmberg 1985:22; Niblack 1890:342