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Flag of the Teslin Tlingit Council.svg
Chief Anotklosh of the Taku Tribe, wearing a Chilkat blanket, Juneau, Alaska, c.1913
Regions with significant populations
United States (Alaska)14,000 [1]
Canada (British Columbia, Yukon)2,110 [2] [1]
English, Tlingit, Russian (historically)
Christianity, esp. Russian Orthodox, traditional Alaska Native religion
"People of the Tides"
People Tlingit
Language Lingít
Country Tlingit Aaní

The Tlingit (English: /ˈtlɪŋkɪt,ˈklɪŋkɪt/ TLING-kit, KLING-kit; also spelled Tlinkit) are Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America. [3] Their language is the Tlingit language (natively Lingít, pronounced [ɬɪ̀nkɪ́tʰ] ), [4] in which the name means 'People of the Tides'. [5] The Russian name Koloshi (Колоши, from a Sugpiaq-Alutiiq term kulut'ruaq for the labret worn by women) or the related German name Koulischen may be encountered referring to the people in older historical literature, such as Grigory Shelikhov's 1796 map of Russian America. [6] Tlingit people today belong to two federally recognized Alaska Native tribes: the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska [7] and the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe. [8]


The Tlingit have a matrilineal kinship system, with children considered born into the mother's clan, and property and hereditary roles passing through the mother's line. [9] Their culture and society developed in the temperate rainforest of the southeast Alaskan coast and the Alexander Archipelago. The Tlingit maintained a complex hunter-gatherer culture based on semi-sedentary management of fisheries. [10] Hereditary slavery was practiced extensively until it was outlawed by the United States. [11] An inland group, known as the Inland Tlingit, inhabits the far northwestern part of the province of British Columbia and the southern Yukon in Canada.


Tlingit and neighbouring peoples Tlingit-map.png
Tlingit and neighbouring peoples

The greatest territory historically occupied by the Tlingit extended from the Portland Canal along the present border between Alaska and British Columbia, north to the coast just southeast of the Copper River delta in Alaska. [12] The Tlingit occupied almost all of the Alexander Archipelago, except the southernmost end of Prince of Wales Island and its surroundings, where the Kaigani Haida moved just before the first encounters with European explorers.

Hoonah, Alaska, a traditional Tlingit village near Glacier Bay, home of the Xunaa Khaawu Hoonah.jpg
Hoonah, Alaska, a traditional Tlingit village near Glacier Bay, home of the Xúnaa Kháawu

The Coastal Tlingit tribes controlled one of the mountain passes into the Yukon interior; they were divided into three tribes: the Chilkat Tlingit (Jilḵáat Ḵwáan) along the Chilkat River and on Chilkat Peninsula, the Chilkoot Tlingit (Jilḵoot Ḵwáan) and the Taku Tlingit (Tʼaaḵu Ḵwáan:) along the Taku River.

Inland, the Tlingit occupied areas along the major rivers that pierce the Coast Mountains and Saint Elias Mountains and flow into the Pacific, including the Alsek, Tatshenshini, Chilkat, Taku, and Stikine rivers. With regular travel up these rivers, the Tlingit developed extensive trade networks with Athabascan tribes of the interior, and commonly intermarried with them. From this regular travel and trade, a few relatively large populations of Tlingit settled around Atlin, Teslin, and Tagish Lakes, whose headwaters flow from areas near the headwaters of the Taku River.

Delineating the modern territory of the Tlingit is complicated because they are spread across the border between the United States and Canada, they lack designated reservations, other complex legal and political concerns make the situation confusing, and there is a relatively high level of mobility among the population. They also overlap in territory with various Athabascan peoples, such as the Tahltan, Kaska and Tagish. In Canada, the modern communities of Atlin, British Columbia (Taku River Tlingit), [13] Teslin, Yukon (Teslin Tlingit Council), and Carcross, Yukon (Carcross/Tagish First Nation) have reserves and are the representative Interior Tlingit populations. [4]

The territory occupied by the modern Tlingit people in Alaska is not restricted to particular reservations, unlike most tribes in the lower contiguous 48 states. This is the result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which established regional corporations throughout Alaska with complex portfolios of land ownership rather than bounded reservations administered by tribal governments. The corporation in the Tlingit region is Sealaska Corporation, which serves the Tlingit as well as the Haida and Tsimshian in Alaska. [14]

Tlingit people as a whole participate in the commercial economy of Alaska. As a consequence, they live in typically American nuclear family households with private ownership of housing and land. Many also possess land allotments from Sealaska or from earlier distributions predating ANCSA. Despite the legal and political complexities, the territory historically occupied by the Tlingit can be reasonably designated as their modern homeland. Tlingit people today consider the land from around Yakutat south through the Alaskan Panhandle, and including the lakes in the Canadian interior, as being Lingít Aaní, the Land of the Tlingit.

The extant Tlingit territory can be roughly divided into four major sections, paralleling ecological, linguistic, and cultural divisions:

The trade and cultural interactions between each of these Tlingit groups and their disparate neighbors, the differences in food harvest practices, and dialectal differences in language contribute to these identifications. These academic classifications are supported by similar self-identification among the Tlingit.

Tribes or ḵwáans

Tlingit tribe IPA TranslationVillage or Community location Anglicized, archaic variants or adaptations
G̱alyáx̱ ḴwáanqaɬjáχqʰʷáːnSalmon Stream TribeYakataga-Controller Bay areaKaliakh
Xunaa ḴáawuχʊnaːkʰáːwʊTribe or People from the Direction of the North Wind Hoonah Hoonah people
S'awdáan ḴwáansʼawdáːnqʰʷáːnFrom S'oow ('jade') daa ('around'), aan ('land/country/village') because the bay is the color of jade all aroundSedumSumdum
Tʼaḵjik.aan Ḵwáan:tʼaqtʃikʔaːnqʰʷáːnCoast Town Tribenorthern Prince of Wales Island Tuxekan
Laax̱aayík Kwáan:ɬaːχaːjíkqʰʷáːnInside the Glacier People Yakutat area Yakutat
Tʼaaḵu Ḵwáan:tʼaːqʰuqʰʷáːnGeese Flood Upriver Tribe Taku Taku Tlingit, Taku people
Xutsnoowú (a.k.a. Xudzidaa) ḴwáanxutsnuːwúqʰʷáːnBrown Bear Fort a.k.a. Burnt Wood Tribe Angoon Hootchenoo people, Hoochenoo, Kootznahoo
Hinyaa ḴwáanhinjaːqʰʷáːnTribe From Across The Water Klawock Henya
G̱unaax̱oo ḴwáanqunaːχuːqʰʷáːnAmong The Athabascans TribeDry Bay Gunahoo people, Dry Bay people
Deisleen Ḵwáan:tesɬiːnqʰʷáːnBig Sinew Tribe Teslin Teslin Tlingit, Teslin people, Inland Tlinkit
Shee Tʼiká (a.k.a. Sheetʼká) ḴwáanʃiːtʼkʰáqʰʷáːnOutside Edge of a Branch Tribe Sitka Sitka, Shee Atika
Shtaxʼhéen ḴwáanʃtaxʼhíːnqʰʷáːnBitter Water Tribe Wrangell Stikine people, Stikine Tlingit
Séet Ká Ḵwáanséːtʰkʰʌ́qʰʷáːnPeople of the Fast Moving Water Petersburg Séet Ká Ḵwáan
Jilḵáat ḴwáantʃiɬqʰáːtqʰʷáːnFrom Chaal ('food cache') xhaat ('salmon') khwaan ('dwellers'): Salmon Cache Tribe Klukwan Chilkat people
Áa Tlein ḴwáanʔáːtɬʰeːnqʰʷáːnBig Lake Tribe Atlin Taku River Tlingit, Inland Tlinkit
Ḵéex̱ʼ KwáanqʰíːχʼqʰʷáːnDawn Tribe Kake Kake people
Taantʼa ḴwáantʰaːntʼaqʰʷáːnSea Lion Tribe Fort Tongass (formerly) & Ketchikan (today) Tongass people
Jilḵoot ḴwáantʃiɬqʰuːtqʰʷáːnChilkoot Tribe Haines Chilkoot people
Áakʼw ḴwáanʔáːkʷʼqʰʷáːnSmall Lake Tribe Auke Bay Auke people
Kooyu ḴwáankʰuːjuqʰʷáːnStomach Tribe Kuiu Island Kuiu people
Saanyaa ḴwáansaːnjaːqʰʷáːnSouthward Tribe Cape Fox Village (formerly) & Saxman (today) Saanya Kwaan, owns Saxman Corporation, which owns Cape Fox Corporation


A Tlingit totem pole in Ketchikan c. 1901 Tlingit totem pole.png
A Tlingit totem pole in Ketchikan c.1901
Two Tlingit girls, near Copper River (Alaska), 1903. Photograph taken by the Miles Brothers Two Tlingit girls, Tsacotna and Natsanitna, wearing noserings, near Copper River, Alaska, 1903 - NARA - 524404.jpg
Two Tlingit girls, near Copper River (Alaska), 1903. Photograph taken by the Miles Brothers

The Tlingit culture is multifaceted and complex, a characteristic of Northwest Pacific Coast people with access to easily exploited rich resources. In Tlingit culture a heavy emphasis is placed upon family and kinship, and on a rich oratory tradition. Wealth and economic power are important indicators of rank, but so is generosity and proper behavior, all signs of "good breeding" and ties to aristocracy. Art and spirituality are incorporated in nearly all areas of Tlingit culture, with even everyday objects such as spoons and storage boxes decorated and imbued with spiritual power and historical beliefs of the Tlingits.

Tlingit society is divided into two moieties, the Raven and the Eagle. These in turn are divided into numerous clans, which are subdivided into lineages or house groups. They have a matrilineal kinship system, with descent and inheritance passed through the mother's line. These groups have heraldic crests, which are displayed on totem poles, canoes, feast dishes, house posts, weavings, jewelry, and other art forms. [9] The Tlingits pass down at.oow(s) or blankets that represented trust. Only a Tlingit can inherit one but they can also pass it down to someone they trust, who becomes responsible for caring for it but does not rightfully own it.

Like other Northwest Coast native peoples, the Tlingit did practice hereditary slavery. [15]

Philosophy and religion

Kook gaaw
, box drum, late 19th century. Image is of a sea wolf (orca). Box drum kook gaaw NMNH.jpg
Kóok gaaw, box drum, late 19th century. Image is of a sea wolf (orca).

Tlingit thought and belief, although never formally codified, was historically a fairly well organized philosophical and religious system whose basic axioms shaped the way Tlingit people viewed and interacted with the world around them. Tlingits were traditionally animists, and hunters ritually purified themselves before hunting animals. Shamans, primarily men, cured diseases, influenced weather, aided in hunting, predicted the future, and protected people against witchcraft. [16] A central part of the Tlingit belief system was the belief in reincarnation of both humans and animals. [17]

Between 1886 and 1895, in the face of their shamans' inability to treat Old World diseases including smallpox, many Tlingit people converted to Orthodox Christianity. [18] Russian Orthodox missionaries had translated their liturgy into the Tlingit language. It has been argued that they saw Eastern Orthodox Christianity as a way of resisting assimilation to the "American way of life", which was associated with Presbyterianism. [19] After the introduction of Christianity, the Tlingit belief system began to erode. [20]

Today, some young Tlingits look back towards their traditional tribal religions and worldview for inspiration, security, and a sense of identity. While many elders converted to Christianity, contemporary Tlingit "reconcile Christianity and the 'traditional culture.'" [21]


Tlingit twined basket tray, late 19th c., spruce root, American dunegrass, pigment, Cleveland Museum of Art Northwest Coast, Tlingit, late 19th century - Tray - 1942.337 - Cleveland Museum of Art.jpg
Tlingit twined basket tray, late 19th c., spruce root, American dunegrass, pigment, Cleveland Museum of Art
Two Tlingit speakers, recorded in the United States.

The Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska and Western Canada speak the Tlingit language (Lingít [ɬɪ̀nkítʰ] ), [4] which is a branch of the Na-Dené language family. Lingít has a complex grammar and sound system and also uses certain phonemes unheard in almost any other language. [22]

Tlingit has an estimated 200 to 400 native speakers in the United States and 100 speakers in Canada. [4] The speakers are bilingual or near-bilingual in English. Tribes, institutions, and linguists are expending extensive effort into revitalization programs in Southeast Alaska to revive and preserve the Tlingit language and its culture. Sealaska Heritage Institute, Goldbelt Heritage Institute and the University of Alaska Southeast have Tlingit language programs, and community classes are held in Klukwan and Angoon. [4]


Tlingit tribes historically built plank houses made from cedar and today call them clanhouses; these houses were built with a foundation such that they could store their belongings under the floors. It is said that these plank houses had no adhesive, nails, or any other sort of fastening devices. Clan houses were usually square or rectangular in shape and had front facing designs and totem poles to represent to which clan and moiety the makers belonged.


Many Tlingit men work in the fishing industry while women are employed at canneries or in the local handicraft industry. These handicrafts include items like wood carvings and woven baskets which are sold for practical or tourist consumption. [23]


Various cultures of indigenous people have continuously occupied the Alaska territory for thousands of years, leading to the Tlingit. Human culture with elements related to the Tlingit originated around 10,000 years ago near the mouths of the Skeena and Nass Rivers. The historic Tlingit's first contact with Europeans came in 1741 with Russian explorers. Spanish explorers followed in 1775. Tlingits maintained their independence but suffered from epidemics of smallpox and other infectious diseases brought by the Europeans. [24] The 1862 Pacific Northwest smallpox epidemic killed about 60% of the Mainland Tlingit and 37% of the Island Tlingit.[ citation needed ]


Tommy Joseph, Tlingit woodcarver and sculptor from Sitka, Alaska Tommy joseph tlingit.jpg
Tommy Joseph, Tlingit woodcarver and sculptor from Sitka, Alaska

Food is a central part of Tlingit culture, and the land is an abundant provider. Most of the richness of intertidal life found on the beaches of Southeast Alaska can be harvested for food. Though eating off the beach could provide a fairly healthy and varied diet, eating nothing but "beach food" is considered contemptible among the Tlingit and a sign of poverty. Indeed, shamans and their families were required to abstain from all food gathered from the beach, and men might avoid eating beach food before battles or strenuous activities in the belief that it would weaken them spiritually and perhaps physically as well. Thus for both spiritual reasons as well as to add some variety to the diet, the Tlingit harvest many other resources for food besides those they easily find outside their front doors. No other food resource receives as much emphasis as salmon; however, seal and game are both close seconds.

Halibut, shellfish, and seaweed traditionally provided food in the spring, while late spring and summer bring seal and salmon. Summer is a time for gathering wild and tame berries, such as salmonberry, soap berry, and currants. [26] In fall, sea otters are hunted. [9] Herring and eulachon are also important staples, that can be eaten fresh or dried and stored for later use. Fish provide meat, oil, and eggs. [26] Sea mammals, such as sea lions and sea otters, are used for food and clothing materials. In the forests near their homes, Tlingit hunted deer, bear, mountain goats and other small mammals.


Genetic analyses of HLA I and HLA II genes as well as HLA-A, -B, and -DRB1 gene frequencies links the Ainu people of Japan to some Indigenous peoples of the Americas, especially to populations on the Pacific Northwest Coast such as Tlingit. The scientists suggest that the main ancestor of the Ainu and of the Tlingit can be traced back to Paleolithic groups in Southern Siberia. [27]

Notable Tlingit people

See also


  1. 1 2 As of the 1990s. Pritzker, 209
  2. "Aboriginal Population Profile, 2016 Census". Statistics Canada. 21 June 2018. Retrieved 31 December 2021.
  3. Pritzker, 162
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 "Lingít Yoo X'atángi: The Tlingit Language." Sealaska Heritage Institute. (retrieved 3 December 2009)
  5. Pritzker, 208
  6. Shelikhov, Gregorii Ivanovich and Richard A. Pierce. A Voyage to America 1783–1786. Kingston: Limestone Press, 1981.
  7. "Tlingit & Haida". Bureau of Indian Affairs . Retrieved 1 September 2023.
  8. "Yakutat" . Retrieved 1 September 2023.
  9. 1 2 3 Pritzker, 210
  10. Moss, 27
  11. "NEWS_Blog_Slavery_QA | Sealaska Heritage". Retrieved 25 March 2022.
  12. de Laguna, 203-28.
  13. Taku River Tlingit
  14. "Sealaska Corporation".
  15. "NEWS_Blog_Slavery_QA | Sealaska Heritage". Retrieved 25 March 2022.
  16. Pritzker, 209–210
  17. "Tlingit Culture". Retrieved 8 April 2022.
  18. Boyd, 241
  19. Kan, Sergei. 1999. Memory eternal: Tlingit culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through two centuries. P.xix-xxii
  20. Kan, Sergei (1999). Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries. Seattle: University of Washington Press. p. 406. ISBN   9780295805344.
  21. Sergei, 42
  22. Olson, Wallace M. (1991). The Tlingit. Auke Bay, Alaska: Heritage Research. pp. 16–17. ISBN   9780965900904.
  23. Winston, Robert, ed. (2004). Human: The Definitive Visual Guide. New York: Dorling Kindersley. p. 354. ISBN   0-7566-0520-2.
  24. Pritzker, 209
  25. "Tommy Joseph." Alaska Native Artists. (retrieved 27 December 2009
  26. 1 2 "Sealaska – Programs – Language – Culture – Curriculum – Tlingit." Archived 28 May 2014 at the Wayback Machine Sealaska Heritage Institute. (retrieved 3 December 2009)
  27. "Genetic link between Asians and Native Americans: Evidence from HLA genes and haplotypes". ResearchGate. Retrieved 17 September 2019.

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Further reading