Tlingit – Early History, First Contact With Europeans, and Land Claims Period

There’s a lot of good information covering the Tlingit people here, told by one of our own. I see this as a story of resilience.


Tlingit – Early History, First Contact With Europeans, and Land Claims Period
by Diane E. Benson (‘Lxeis’)


Alaska is a huge land mass that contains many different environments
ranging from the frigid streams and tundra above the Arctic circle to the
windy islands of the Aleutians to the mild rainy weather of southeast
Alaska. Alaska consists of over 533,000 square miles, with a coastline as
long that of the rest of the continental United States. The southern end
of the Alaska coastline, a region known as Southeast Alaska, is home to
the primary Tlingit (pronounced "klingit") communities. This
area covers the narrow coastal strip of the continental shore along
British Columbia; it is similar in size and shape to the state of Florida,
but with few communities connected by road. Tlingit communities are
located from just south of Ketchikan and are scattered northward across
islands and mainland as far as the Icy Bay area. Tlingit people also
occupy some inland area on the Canadian side of the border in British
Columbia and the Yukon Territory. The mainland Tlingit of Alaska occupy a
range of mountains from 50 to 100 miles inland. The northern portion of
Tlingit country is glacial with the majesty of the Fairweather and Saint
Elias mountains overlooking the northern shores of the Gulf of Alaska.
Fjords, mountains that dive into the sea, islands, and ancient trees make
up most of this wet country that is part of one of the largest temperate
rain forests in the world.

The total population of Alaska is just under 600,000. Approximately 86,000
Alaska Natives, the indigenous peoples of Alaska, live there. The Tlingit
population at time of contact by Europeans is estimated to have been
15,000. Some reports include the Haida in population estimates, since
Tlingit and Haida are almost always grouped together for statistical
purposes. Today, Tlingit and Haida Central Council tribal enrollment
figures show a total of 20,713 Tlingit and Haida, of which 16,771 are
Tlingit. Most of the Tlingit population live in urban communities of
southeastern Alaska, though a significant number have made their homes all
across the continent. Euro-Americans dominate the Southeast population,
with the Tlingit people being the largest minority group in the region.

Early History

The name Tlingit essentially means human beings. The word was originally
used simply to distinguish a human being from an animal, since Tlingits
believed that there was little difference between humans and animals. Over
time the word came to be a national name. It is speculated that human
occupation of southeast Alaska occurred 11,000 years ago by Tlingit
people. Haida people, with whom the Tlingit have frequent interaction,
have only been in the area about 200 years, and the Tsimpsian migrated
only recently from the Canadian interior mainland.

Tlingit legends speak of migrations into the area from several possible
directions, either from the north as a possible result of the Bering Sea
land bridge, or from the southwest, after a maritime journey from the
Polynesian islands across the Pacific. Oral traditions hold that the
Tlingit came from the head of the rivers. As one story goes,
Nass-aa-geyeil' (Raven from the head of the Nass River) brought
light and stars and moon to the world. The Tlingit are unique and
unrelated to other tribes around them. They have no linguistic
relationship to any other language except for a vague similarity to the
Athabaskan language. They also share some cultural similarity with the
Athabaskan, with whom the Tlingit have interacted and traded for
centuries. There may also be a connection between the Haida and the
Tlingit, but this issue is debated. Essentially, the origin of the Tlingit
is unknown.

Tlingit people are grouped and divided into units called kwan. Some anthropological accounts estimate that 15 to 20 kwan existed at the time of European contact. A kwan was a group of people who lived in a mutual area, shared residence,
intermarried, and lived in peace. Communities containing a Tlingit
population may be called the Sitkakwan, the Taku-kwan, or the Heenya-kwan, depending on their social ties and/or location. Most of the urban
communities of Southeast Alaska occupy the sites of many of the
traditional kwan
communities. Before the arrival of explorers and settlers, groups of
Tlingit people would travel by canoe through treacherous waters for
hundreds of miles to engage in war, attend ceremonies, trade, or marry.

Through trade with other tribes as far south as the Olympic Peninsula and
even northern California, the Tlingit people had established sophisticated
skills. In the mid-1700s, the Spaniards and the British, attracted by the
fur trade, penetrated the Northwest via the Juan de Fuca Islands (in the
Nootka Sound area). The Russians, also in search of furs, invaded the
Aleutian Islands and moved throughout the southwestern coast of Alaska
toward Tlingit country. The Tlingit traders may have heard stories of
these strangers coming but took little heed.

First Contact With Europeans

Europeans arrived in Tlingit country for the first time in 1741, when
Russian explorer Aleksey Chirikov sent a boatload of men to land for water
near the modern site of Sitka. When the group did not return for several
days, he sent another boat of men to shore; they also did not return.
Thereafter, contact with Tlingit people was limited until well into the

Russian invaders subdued the Aleut people, and moving southward, began
their occupation of Tlingit country. Having monopolized trade routes in
any direction from or to Southeast Alaska, the Tlingit people engaged in
somewhat friendly but profitable trading with the newcomers until the
Russians became more aggressive in their attempts to colonize and control
trade routes. In 1802 Chief Katlian of the Kiksadi Tlingit of the Sitka
area successfully led his warriors against the Russians, who had set up a
fort in Sitka with the limited permission of the Tlingit. Eventually the
Russians recaptured Sitka and maintained a base they called New Archangel,
but they had little contact with the Sitka clans. For years the Tlingit
resisted occupation and the use of their trade routes by outsiders. In
1854 a Chilkat Tlingit war party travelled hundreds of miles into the
interior and destroyed a Hudson Bay Company post in the Yukon Valley.

Eventually, diseases and other hardships took their toll on the Tlingit
people, making them more vulnerable. In a period between 1836 and 1840, it
is estimated that one-half of the Tlingit people at or near Sitka were wiped out by smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis. At
about this time, Americans came into Tlingit country for gold, and in the
process sought to occupy and control the land and its people. The Tlingit
loss to disease only made American occupation more swift, and Americans
became firmly established in the land with the 1867 Treaty of Purchase of
Alaska. The Tlingit continually fought American development of canneries,
mines, and logging, which conflicted with the Tlingit lifestyle. Disputes
between the Americans and the decreasing Tlingit people proved futile for
the Tlingit, since Americans displayed impressive military strength,
technology, and an unwavering desire for settlement and expansion. The
destruction of the Tlingit villages of Kake in the 1860s and of Angoon in
1882 by the American military (due to a disagreement involving the death
of two Native people) further established American power and occupancy.

Read the rest


About Vince

I am a Tlingit, born and raised in Tlingit Country, and a proud member of the Tlingit Nation.
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