Sitka Part III – the Tlingits and Totem Poles

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6/23/19 My Place Hotel, Anchorage, Alaska

Several people, including a couple of natives, have tried to teach me how to pronounce the name of the Native people who originally settled the areas we have just visited.  But my mouth is having none of it.  The second syllable is exactly as it is spelled ‘its’ and I get that part well.  The first syllable is much tougher.  You have to start the word with your tongue touching your front teeth as if you were going to make a normal ‘T’ sound.  As the air comes through your mouth, though, you have to switch the shaping into what you need to make a ‘k’ sound.  Now try to do that without turning it into two syllables.  One coach told me that, in the process of making that switch, you sort of guttteralize the pronunciation so the t/c combination sort of becomes like a Yiddish ‘h’.  Leia, our Tlingit guide at the Glacier Bay community house, told me that as she realizes that her throat has to make some sounds that us English speakers aren’t used to.  Anyway, I’m getting better, but I certainly don’t sound native.

Tlingits are one of several nations that settled along the island rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.  The Haida and the Tsimshian (don’t ask me how that one is pronounced) are two other groups that came in, probably a little later to the southern portion of the Alaskan panhandle.  There are also related groups along the British Columbia coast and down into Washington and a little bit of Oregon.  It isn’t known when they populated the area, but the evidence dates back thousands of years.  Genetically, and linguistically, they are related to the Athabascans, who might actually be the first group to migrate across the Bering land bridge, possibly as early as 40,000 years ago.  (That date is changing all the time.). This is also the same source for the Navajo and Comanches of southwestern United States.

In our travels in the Alaskan panhandle, we have been pretty much exclusively in Tlingit territory.  Interestingly, though, we encountered Tlingit artifacts and real live Tlingit people in every place we went.  Their culture is flourishing and they are a proud people more than willing to share most of their stories and customs.

Their kinship structure is fascinating.  The Tlingits divide themselves into two moieties, which are symbolized by the Raven and the Eagle.  It is a very important distinction which organizes their lives.  Ravens can only marry Eagles and vice versa.  When major construction projects are organized, such as the building of a community house or a totem pole, they must contract with a builder from the opposite moiety.  The moieties are not a component of a stratification system – Eagles and Ravens are of completely equal rank.  Rather the view is that nature must be balanced.  So instead of introducing competition into the system, the basic distinction actually serves to integrate society.

Raven helmet worn in the Battle of Sitka

Their system is matrilineal so the husband always goes to live with his wife’s clan – talk about a new take on in-laws!  Although children are raised primarily within the family unit, their training into adult roles is done by their maternal uncles (for boys) and aunts (for girls).  Thus the responsibilities for child raising are spread out among the entire clan – the whole ‘it takes a village’ thing.

You might think that this entire structure would be under assault by modern society, but, actually, it seems from what we have seen and the Tlingits we have talked to, that their culture is actually engaged in a significant renaissance.  In places like Glacier Bay National Park and Sitka National Historical Park, the park service is actually encouraging construction of community houses and the creation of programs to reinforce the music, dance, stories, and language of the Tlingits.

The Eagles and Ravens are broken down into smaller groups called clans, each of which has a set of crests, or animal symbols which relate in some way to a clan legend, story, or important person.  A clan, typically, is a group of six or eight extended families coming to thirty or forty people altogether.  Different clans, typically, perform different functions within the overall tribe.  A clan might specialize in wood carving, for example.  Although Eagles tend to be the administrative leaders, Ravens have traditionally been war leaders and hunters.  The jobs aren’t necessarily ranked, but just different.  The Tlingits, actually, have a very ‘American’ view of meritocracy and argue that social ranking is, ultimately, based on the value of the person, and therefore his/her clan, to the tribe as a whole.

I’ve mentioned crests and wood carving, so, obviously, I have to talk about totem poles.  Although the simple view of ‘indians’ is that they all have totem poles, it is only the people who live along the northwest coast that developed this art form.  Largely that is because the trees provided by the rainforest ecology are long and straight.  Cedar trees especially make for perfect carving mediums.  Tlingits, living north of the cedar range, either carved in different wood, or traded for cedar logs.  We have encountered totem poles everywhere in our travels in the panhandle so they are obviously an important part of the culture.

Curiously, there is no word for ‘art’ in the Tlingit culture.  Not sure what that means exactly, except that they have not found it meaningful to create a discriminator for this kind of activity, suggesting that they find ‘art’ everywhere.  

In discussing totem poles, one thing that surprised me is that these are not religious icons.  Totem poles are expected to be treated with a great deal of respect, but not idolatry or worship in anyway.  Tlingits practice a kind of shamanism with a certain reverence for ancestors, but that reverence does not flow over into worship.  

One kind of totem pole, the crest pole, is, basically, a stack of images that a particular clan is allowed to claim.  There would, usually, be an image of an eagle or a raven (but probably not both), and then a set of two or three other images (like wolf, bear, whale, thunderbird, etc) that the clan claims as their set of symbols.  Such poles would be located near the entries to their clan house or at their community entry ways.  Another kind might be a memorial pole, usually simpler in structure with just one or two totems (images), to honor a special person who has died.  A version of that kind of pole is a mortuary pole which includes a cavity where the ashes of the deceased are placed.  There is also a story or legend pole.  These are probably the most complicated and involve telling a story or legend that is important in the clan’s history.  A couple of the poles we saw seem to tell origin stories, but they can also relate stories related to clan history.

A special kind of pole is the ridicule or debt pole.  When someone is wronged, by not getting paid for a service, or some other injury, the injured may contract to have a special pole carved that usually includes an image of the wrong-doer and some indication of what they did to earn their notoriety.  Publicly ridiculed, the offender will usually seek to publicly fix the problem.  When it is ‘fixed’ the pole is usually burned.  One such pole has an image of Abraham Lincoln who, the Tlingits felt, improperly purchased Alaska from the Russians when it wasn’t theirs to sell!

Beautiful Contemporary Carving.

The art itself is composed of what is called a ‘formline’, a line that varies in thickness.  The line is used to compose, typically, three types of objects:  An ovoid that usually looks like a letter ‘D’ , a U shape (sometimes doubled), and an S shape of various numbers and sizes.  Combining these shapes produces a wealth of images.  The formline itself is almost always black and then the spaces in between are filled in with colored paints and stains.  Red and blue-green are the dominant colors, although you might also see yellows and blues.

Inside Community House in Bartlett Cove

Viewing totem poles is an important part of the Panhandle experience.  We saw them at community houses in Juneau, Sitka, and at Bartlett Cove.  Perhaps the best experience though is at Sitka National Historical Park.  There the Park Service is preserving originals inside their Totem Hall.  But they have also erected reproductions of more than 18 of them along a mile long path threading through the rain forest.  It is a terrific way to experience them because it is where they came from.  They may not be of religious significance, but, in the forest, they still retain a spiritual value related, perhaps, to the importance they play in the culture of this proud people.  (Even if I can’t pronounce their name!)