The Culture of the Tlinget
~ James Hamlett
One of the main Indigenous cultures of the Northwest (British Columbia, Yukon & Alaska is the Tlinget Nation. It is a very complex and multi-dimensional culture. The area they lived in was rich in resources, which they were easily able to take advantage of. Family & kinship were and are important features of these people. The oral tradition was depended upon heavily both to communicate and thrive on. Unlike some other cultures south and east of this tribe, they were disposed to use individual wealth as a measure of individual Native person’s status within the village. Individual good behavior and generosity also marked a significant part of the people’s behavior. The wealthier an individual was, the higher in the pecking order this individual could go. Spirituality and art are intertwined as an expression of the Tlinget people. Ordinary objects for even everyday use were highly decorated, and these objects were imbued with spiritual power.
The Klinget system of kinship like the other indigenous societies is based on a matrilineal basis. There are two prominent divisions within the tribal system. These are called moieties, and termed Raven (“Yeil”), and Wolf Eagle (Ch’aak’l Ghooch). Each of these divisions uses those symbols to describe themselves in masks, totem poles and other objects. This can depend on the location of the village. Their closest tribal affiliates were the Tsimshain & Haida Nations, who also used these same symbols. In the traditions of the people they could only marry someone from the other society, but that system broke down not too long after contact due to violent suppression efforts. They refer to each other by the clan they belong within the moieties. Clan sizes vary widely. Additionally one clan could dominate a village, while the next closest village clans were divided fairly evenly. It is the clans that “owned” property. Nothing proceeded if not approved by the clan.
The large emphasis on clan matrilineal lineage and identity the father of the children played little role in the raising of children. The uncles would take the children in to teach them tribe traditions. Still, children had pleasant memories of their fathers, but lived in fear of a stern uncle if a mistake was made.
Each family lives in a “communal house” and was the property of the clan. The house holders would be responsible for the upkeep. This included all items and materials that were either made by the clan or passed down from previous owners.
The head of the household was the chief in Tlinget “hit a’asi” or the house master. The householder was of a high status within the village. His position was more of a caretaker than absolute ruler. Even though this man was of great importance, he could not sell, trade or otherwise dispose of items within the house. He was also responsible for the care of regalia, and brought it out for display or wearing at important functions. One of his duties was to be able to tell the history and use of an item, and how it was made.
When these items were brought out payment was made to the host clan which in contemporary times includes money.
Arranged marriages to other members of the opposite clan are the tradition in Tlinget society. Sometimes this included marriages to members of another tribe. The man would move into the wife’s home after betrothal and became a member of the family.
Anything that he brought with him also contributed to the wife clan’s wealth. Any item then was owned by that clan. Children were considered related to the paternal grandfather. They inherited his wealth, prestige, names, occupation, and personal possessions. Their grandchildren also got the benefit of the wisdom and teachings of the man. Many stories relate this kind of relationship.
Names were mostly passed down and earned by the children. Though other names were used, those names were not considered important. When a child is young he may be given a name that seems appropriate to the circumstances of his or her birth. Later he would be gifted the inherited name. Inherited names were mostly taken from a deceased member of a clan.
Places and resources are considered property though not clearly defined according to European traditions. Locations are not always clearly marked though this depended on the clan chief. Some landmarks though were used and strictly controlled. The resources available within the marked boundaries were considered the most important. Resources included food and or other needed items such as medicine.
Potlaches (Tl. Koo.‘eex) are an important function of Tlinget culture. They are held at birth, deaths, marriages, sharing of wealth special events and the raising of totems.
Memorials are the event where this tradition became popular. Balance was restored when potlatchs were held for this purpose. If this was an important person who had passed, such as a chief or shaman, his immediate successor was chosen. Other clans would take part in these ceremonies as well. Gifts would be given to the opposite clan for in turn sharing stories or poetry. It is considered to be removing the fear of death for other members of that clan.
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