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Definition: Tlingit from Collins English Dictionary


1 (pl -gits or -git) a member of a seafaring group of North American Indian peoples inhabiting S Alaska and N British Columbia

2 the language of these peoples, belonging to the Na-Dene phylum

Summary Article: Tlingit
From The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Member of an American Indian people living on the coasts of southwest Alaska and northern British Columbia for thousands of years. Their language belongs to the Na-Dene family, but is rarely spoken. Like other Northwest Indians, they are known for their dugout canoes, potlatch ceremonies (gift-giving to gain status), and carved wooden ‘totem’ poles representing family crests. Pacific salmon provided their main staple food. Most Tlingit are now Christian, with traditional ceremonies performed mainly for tourists. In Alaska they share tribal government with the Haida, and have a joint population of 14,800 (2000). Tlingit lands and resources are managed by their Sealaska corporation.

Traditionally the Tlingit lived in large communal longhouses made from cedar planks. They fished for salmon with harpoons, nets, and traps, and for halibut using special hooks carved with the image of a powerful creature to attract the fish to the bait. They also hunted sea mammals, and collected shellfish and plant foods such as seaweed. Jewellery was worn as a symbol of status, and nose rings were a common feature. The women created finely woven baskets, decorated with ‘false embroidery’ (dyed grasses wrapped around the weft to appear on the outer surface). Woodcarving was done by the men. Their canoes were made from huge cedar logs, often up to 18 m/60 ft long, and they also made heavy wooden helmets and armour to be worn on raiding parties. The crests on their totem poles took the form of stylized creatures, including the raven, whale, octopus, beaver, bear, wolf, and mythical Thunderbird.

Tlingit society consisted of several clans associated with birds, fish, or animals, clanship being traced through the maternal line. Each of the clans belonged to one of two main divisions or ‘moieties’ within the tribe. The bear and raven were particularly significant in Tlingit mythology; the bear's soul was thought to be the closest to a human's and symbolized the relationship between humans and animals, while the raven was a trickster but also brought gifts to shape the world.

When the Russians established permanent settlements in Alaska in the 18th century, their efforts to control the territory were thwarted by the Tlingit. Expeditions were frequently attacked, and in 1802 the Tlingit captured the Russian fort at Sitka, holding it for two years. The Russian missionary Ivan Veniaminov converted a number of Tlingit to Christianity from 1834, but decreed that religious freedom should be maintained when he was promoted to bishop. Apart from sporadic epidemics of new diseases such as smallpox, the Tlingit's way of life was relatively undisturbed.

After Alaska was transferred to the USA in 1867, the Tlingit remained aloof until the Alaska gold rush of the 1880s, when their economy changed dramatically. They provided haulage services in their canoes and worked as mining labourers, although they were not allowed to make their own mining claims until 1931. The Tlingit were also affected by the development of canneries and logging, that depleted their traditional resources. The right to vote as citizens of the USA was established in 1924 and the first Tlingit, William Paull, was elected to the Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1926. The joint Haida-Tlingit Land Claims Council was formed in 1953 to pursue compensation for lands taken illegally during white settlement. As a result of the Native Claims Settlement Act, Tlingit lands and resources are now managed by the Sealaska and village corporations, in which all Tlingit have a share.

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