Nestled along the Pacific Northwest coast of North America from British Columbia to Alaska is the territory of the Tlingit tribe. This vibrant culture, part of the Haida family, has a rich heritage that has attracted and captivated travelers for years.
The Tlingit community, with their breathtaking totem poles and intricate wood carvings, and their communities situated among stunning landscapes, are an important part of Alaska, contributing their traditional music and dance, their artwork, and a world-class visitor experience.
From guided tours of museums and totem pole parks to eco-tourism activities, which include wildlife watching and kayaking, visitors to the native territories have the opportunity to experience the natural beauty of Alaska and the culture of its native people.
Here, we will explore the various things that make the Tlingit people unique in their culture and tourism offerings and how they are using tourism to promote their traditions and preserve their heritage for future generations.
If you are interested in booking your next vacation to the Tlingit territories, click here to learn more about various tours, opportunities for visitors, Tlingit history, activities, and specialized sightseeing tours.
A Unique People
The native Tlingit people, indigenous to the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, primarily in British Columbia and Alaska, have a colorful history and culture that dates back thousands of years. Some of the more unique aspects of this culture include:
1) Totem Poles
The Tlingit clan is known for their amazing artwork, especially the totem pole. These works of art, carved from the trunks of local trees, are distinctive in their features and showcase animals, family crests, and mystical symbols that are important to the spirituality of the native people. These totem poles served as a way to communicate important stories and legends and display a family’s social status, and the carver who specialized in them was a high-status member of the community.
Entire parks are available for viewing by tourists, featuring both historical and modern totem poles. An important fact to note is that the phrase “low on the totem pole,” used to indicate someone of low status, is actually erroneous. In fact, those who feature at the bottom of the totem pole are usually high-ranking members of the community!
2) Historical Dwellings
The Tlingit living quarters of ancient times were traditionally made of wood and cedar bark and built into plank houses. Similar to the longhouses of the tribes further south, these homes were often shared by multiple families and were occasionally referred to as clan houses. Each family would have its own area for cooking and sleeping, and several generations often lived in one dwelling or other living quarters.
3) Juneau, Alaska Is Home Base
Many of the native people call the territory around Juneau, Alaska their home, and the capital city is considered the hub of Tlingit art and culture. The city hosts an annual festival called Celebration, which is a gathering of many of the native Alaskan tribes in the area and features traditional music, dance, and art.
Here, visitors can view native cultures in action, sample traditional cuisine, and experience the performing arts of dance and music not just at Celebration but all year round.
4) Master Woodworkers
The Tlingit people are known for their craftsmanship and woodcarving, and animal carvings are a common theme in their art. In the spiritual beliefs of many Alaskan tribes, animals have specific meanings and symbols, and it is thought that the nature spirits of these animals help people on their journey through life.
One example is that of the killer whale or orca, a common sight along the Pacific Northwest and the coast of Alaska that, to the native people, symbolizes strength, power, and protection. Killer whales and carved eagles are often carved into gifts that native communities give to tourists.
5) Traditional Arts And Crafts
Like many Native American people, the Tlingit learn their craftsmanship from their elders and seek to pass down this knowledge through history.
Tlingit woodworkers prefer alder wood as their material for native carvings, as it is soft and easy to work with, especially with hot stones, and carvers often use hot stones to burn designs into the wood before it is chiseled into its final form.
Other craftspeople, like those who make clothes, weapons, and masks also try to teach younger people what they know through words and actions. This keeps the Tlingit clan and culture alive.
6) Traditional Clothing
Traditional Tlingit clothing includes things like hats made of woven cedar bark, tunics made of animal hide, and capes made of cedar bark. These capes are often decorated with intricate designs and symbols, and some are designed to make the wearer look like an animal or a spirit of importance. There are even some native costumes that harken back to the mythical Bigfoot in appearance!
7) Matrilineal Society
Like many tribes further south of them, the Tlingit people of Alaska have a matrilineal society. This means that family lines are traced through the mother’s side. Anthropologists often note that this is common in societies where, in the past, the mechanism of parenthood was not fully understood and, since only the mother was truly known, it made sense to structure society around the matrilineal line in terms of inheritance and status.
In Tlingit society, this is reflected in their artwork, where family crests that appear on totem poles are often associated with the mother’s lineage and clan associations.
8) Master Traders
Due to their proximity to the ocean and several waterways connecting the Pacific Northwest coast of North America, the Tlingit tribe had the opportunity to travel far and wide to trade with neighboring tribes and even Native Americans far to the south of them.
Several aspects of Tlingit culture include their history of trade. They traded many local goods, such as furs obtained from animals in their territory that was not easily found elsewhere, cedar bark with its medicinal and aromatic properties, seafood, clothing, and masks. The tribal artists and their wares were also highly respected.
9) Preservation Of Culture Through Tourism
For the Tlingit communities of Alaska, tourism has become an important industry. The Tlingit have found many ways to share their Tlingit culture and traditions with visitors in ways that preserve their heritage for future descendants.
Many offerings for visitors in their territory include festivals that showcase dance, music, carving demonstrations, and art. Museums that preserve historical artifacts of the Tlingit community, and anthropological programs currently underway to preserve their language.
10) The Language
The Tlingit language, linguistically, is known to be a branch of the Na-Dene language family. However, it is still somewhat unique with its complex grammar and sound system. As linguists point out, the Tlingit language uses certain phonemes that are unheard of in almost any other language, including those in the same language family.
Presently, only about 400 speakers still speak the language fluently, and linguistic anthropologists have initiated a program to record the speakers and the language for future generations to learn from.
11) Specialized Cuisine
The Tlingit clan were hunters and gatherers and took advantage of the abundant resources of the land in which they lived for their sustenance. Their proximity to the sea gave them a unique advantage with marine life, for both materials and food. Even to this day, as well as traditionally, the Tlingit diet includes fish, seafood, wild game, wild berries, and other plants.
It is common to find salmon, halibut, and herring in many different Tlingit dishes. The Tlingit developed preservation methods, such as smoking, drying, and fermenting, that remain a large part of their diet even in modern times. Today, the Tlingit cuisine is still closely tied to their traditional foods, and many members of the tribe continue to hunt, fish, and even gather wild plants for their meals.
For tourists looking to experience Tlingit cuisine, there are restaurants within their communities serving traditional dishes, some of which have been influenced by both Russian and American traditions that made their way into the area. Some of these dishes include:
Wild plant side dishes
12) Art Galleries And Museums
There are many galleries and museums in the area that feature Tlingit art. At the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau, visitors can view a large collection of Tlingit art and artifacts. The Walter Soboleff Building should definitely not be missed, as it features a gallery that showcases contemporary Tlingit art, including modern carving artifacts, jewelry, and textiles that can be compared against traditional versions.
At the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, there is a significant collection of Tlingit art and artifacts, which include totem poles, wood carvings, and regalia. Depending on the time of year in which you visit, a visitor might also see a temporary exhibition that highlights the work of Tlingit artists of a particular kind, such as basket-weaving and animal hide artwork.
In other areas of Southeast Alaska, such as the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, the Haines Sheldon Museum, and the Ketchikan Museum, there are educational programs and workshops for visitors to learn about Tlingit art, carving techniques, and Haida culture.
13) A Contemporary Indigenous People
Today, the Tlingit clan has a variety of industries and economic activities in which to preserve their heritage, boost their economy, and engage with tourists. Many still work in the fishing and seafood industries, which have been important contributors to southeast Alaska‘s economy.
Other members of the community work in tourism, which is a growing industry in the region, especially with the introduction of Alaskan cruises and ports of call for tourists along the coast. The Tlingit clan also continues to engage in traditional arts and crafts, including carving, weaving, and beadwork, many of which are sold to tourists and collectors who visit the area.
Finally, many members of the tribe work in government, education, and other industries to ensure that their interests are being met by the state government and respected by their local communities.
The Tlingit tribe has a strong connection to their ancestral land and resources and is instrumental in working to protect these resources and promote sustainability for future generations, not just for their own people, but for everyone in the region.
As we can see, the Tlingit natives of Alaska have the advantage of a rich and diverse tourism industry, showcasing their culture and history, which many tourists find attractive and enlightening.
Through eco-tourism activities, cultural experiences, and strategically timed festivals, visitors have the advantage of experiencing a diverse culture and engaging in educational and entertaining activities.
Through artistic endeavors such as totem pole carving, dance performances, traditional arts and crafts, and many other aspects of their culture, tourism has provided an important economic opportunity for the Tlingit communities, which serves as a source of income but also allows them to share their culture and preserve their heritage.
As visitors continue to flock to southeast Alaska for its stunning landscapes, rich cultural traditions, wildlife, and unique climate, the Tlingit remain committed to promoting sustainable tourism practices, encouraging others to respect the environment through tourism, and promoting the cultural preservation of native peoples in the region.
To experience the Tlingit people and their culture yourself, book your next tour with Hoonah Travel Adventures!