Łingít | Tlingit

Beaver Prow
Denis Finnin/AMNH Anthropology catalog 16.1/2989 A,B

Selected features from the Northwest Coast Hall.

Łingít people live all along the southeastern Alaska panhandle and nearby islands, from Yakutat south to Ketchikan, and across the border into Canada. We are linked through marriage, clan relationships and oral histories. 

Łingít Yoo Xʼatángi | Łingít Language

Łingít has been spoken for thousands of years, but since the 18th century, oppression and assimilation efforts forced people to learn English instead. As the Elder generations are aging, there are fewer and fewer speakers of Łingit. There is now a language revitalization effort, involving classes beginning in pre-school and extending through to university and continuing education. Listen to some words and phrases in Łingít, one of the languages spoken in the Łingít Nation.

Wáa sá i yatee? | How are you?

Yak’éi yee x̲wsateení | It's good to see you!

X’oon gaawx’ sáwé? | What is the time?

Shaa | Mountain

Speaker: Kaa-xoo-utch | Garfield George

Living Together

Łingít society is divided into two matrilineal groups called moieties. About half of our people are Yeił | Raven, sometimes called Crow. The rest belong to the opposite group, known as Ch’aak’ | Eagle or Wolf. Traditionally, a Raven must marry an Eagle and vice versa, though this rule is not always followed today.

Graphic depicts moiety, clan, and house membership: Raven and Wolf/Eagle are shown.
Within each moiety are many clans, and within them smaller groups called houses. Moiety, clan, and house membership all descend through the mother’s line.
Woman holds a child that is wearing a woven hat.
Children belong to the same clan as their mother. Falen Mills and her son are Eagle and belong to the Tsaagweidí Clan.
Wolfgang Kaehler

Members of each Łingít clan inherit the right to display certain images called crests: symbolic pictures of animals, plants, celestial bodies, supernatural beings, or natural landmarks. A clan member on the Raven side, for example, may wear a hat with a Raven crest. If you are a Raven, and your grandfather is Raven, you have every right to use his crest, but only with permission.

Conical woven hat features with a painted design of a raven outline. Xaat s’áaxw | Spruce-root hat  Woven of split and softened spruce root, then painted with the owner's crest, this hat was made for a high-ranking man or woman to wear during ceremonies. The design has darkened over time and some of its features are unclear, but it likely represents a raven, a crest that may be worn by people on the Raven side of Łingít society.
AMNH Anthropology catalog 16.1/1056
Rectangular woven textile features a design of the outline of a bird. Kaayuka.óot’i x’oow | Ceremonial robe  This dancing robe displays a double-headed eagle crest. This style of robe, sometimes called a button blanket, is a traditional part of Łingít life that probably dates back to the early 1800s. Before that, our people used glittering shells or rustling puffin bills to decorate robes made from animal hide, fur, or mountain goat wool. After European traders arrived in the region, artists reinvented the form, stitching mother-of-pearl buttons on ready-made cloth.  
AMNH Anthropology catalog E/2297

Kaséik’w | Neck ring

Thick cedar rope tied into a ring
Leaders sometimes wear a necklace or sash of shredded and twisted cedar bark, a sign of authority.
AMNH Anthropology catalog E/1052

Naaxein | Chilkat Robe

Heavily fringed woven robe with a striking pattern that represents an eagle.
A weaver created this striking dance robe for a Łingít leader named Shaadaxicht, known to English speakers as Chartrich. The design may represent an eagle, a crest of the Kaagwaantaan clan. The interlocking shapes were woven with yarn spun from softened cedar bark and mountain goat wool, colored with natural dyes. The weaver marked her work with a geometric symbol at the lower corners of the robe. 
Denis Finnin/Anthropology catalog 16.1/1842

Made for Dancing

Using materials gathered from nature, skilled weavers on the Northwest Coast create spectacular robes with complex, curving patterns. Łingít weavers developed a style called yéil koowú | Raven’s Tail, which developed into Chilkat weaving.

The Łingít word for robes in the Chilkat style is naaxein. Images of animals are woven into the cloth, representing clan histories and connections to land, sea, and sky. People of distinction dance in these stately robes during ceremonies, and the long fringe sways as they move.

Three dancers wear heavily fringed ceremonial robes.
Dancers Brandon Kaayák’w Gomez and Christian Kaataawoo Gomez of the Lukaax.ádi clan, and Miranda Kaagw’eil Worl of the Kaagwaantaan clan in Juneau, Alaska, in 2018. 
Brian Wallace, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage Institute

Raven’s Gift

A story recorded in the Chilkat Valley tells us that Chilkat weaving started near the beginning of time, when Raven traveled the world gathering knowledge. In a cave by the ocean, he encountered the powerful sea spirit Gunakadeit, who sat with a fabulous robe draped over his shoulders.

Gunakadeit served Raven a feast on long wooden dishes, taught him many dances, then gave him the robe as a parting gift. Raven brought the robe back and gave it to people, who took it apart to learn how to make robes of their own.

Click on the 3D model below for a closer look.

K’oodás’ | Chilkat tunic  The boldly patterned tunic above was woven of mountain goat wool spun with cedar for an elite member of Łingít society. In the lower third of the design, two large, oval eyes and a row of black teeth make up the face of Gunakadeit.

Snow-capped mountains border the Chilkat River. Chilkat robes are named for Łingít weavers of the Chilkat River Valley, who became widely known for their work in the late 1800s.
Michele Cornelius
Map shows the location of the Chilkat River Valley, where Alaska borders Canada. Chilkat River Valley location.

Images in Cloth

Chilkat weaving was developed by women on the Northwest Coast and refers to the Chilkat Łingít, who mastered the art in the 1800s and have carried it into the present. Weavers traditionally worked from patterns of rounded shapes painted on wood by a male relative. Working one section at a time, with patience and clarity, they build a design that demonstrates balance, a guiding principle in Łingít thought.

Illustration depicts three phases of weaving a pattern.
A Chilkat weaver twines the yarn with her fingers, as if weaving a basket. One section of the pattern is worked at a time, and each colored shape is joined to the one beside it. To define the shapes, the weaver twines a braid around each element of the design.
Cheryl Samuel

In the old days they had pattern boards, and then you could make templates out of birch bark. Now you can do it out of paper, or some people even use clear plastic. The advantage of the plastic is you can hold it up to your weaving and see if your lines are going where you want them to.

—Saantas’ | Lani Hotch, Weaver
Kaagwaantaan clan, Klukwan, Alaska

Lani Hotch sits at a loom and weaves a robe.
The art of weaving is passed down in families, one generation teaching the next. Saantas’ | Lani Hotch (left), a weaver of Klukwan, Alaska, is a descendent of Akhlłé | Mary Willard (top right) and Saantas’ | Cora Benson (bottom right).
Daysha Eaton/KUER (left), Alaska State Library, Elbridge W. Merrill Photographs, ASL-P57-092 (top right), MOHAI, Seattle Historical Society Collection, SHS 1773 (bottom right)

Haa Atxaayí Haa Kusteeyí Sitee | Our Food Is Our Way of Life

When a Łingít clan hosts a celebration or ceremonial gathering, such as a ku.éex’ | potlatch, clan members prepare a lavish meal gathered from the sea and land. Foods such as fish, fish eggs, seaweed, game, and berries were once served in elaborate carved wooden dishes. Today, Łingít hosts use modern dishware and sometimes combine traditional foods with ingredients from Asian, European, and other cuisines.

Wild foods that thrive on the shores of Southeastern Alaska have nourished  Łingít people for thousands of years. 

Salmon, clams, wild celery, herring roe, seaweed, blueberries.
Shutterstock; Accent Alaska/Alamy; Steve Speller/Alamy; Rozenbaum & Cirou/PhotoAlto/AGE Fotostock; Blickwinkel/Alamy

So much of who we are and our whole identity comes from the food that we harvest from the land. Everyone looks forward to seaweed season or berry-picking season—that is something we just love doing.

—Daxootsu | Judith Ramos, Native Studies professor
Kwaashk’i Kwaan clan, Yakutat, Alaska

Respecting the Salmon People

The rhythm of Łingít life ebbs and flows with the migration of fish, especially salmon, which return to local streams to spawn annually. In the past, communities traveled together to summer fishing sites by canoe. Women fileted and dried or smoked the catch, then tied it in bales, and families paddled home in fall with boats heavily loaded. Today, many Łingít people continue to fish to feed their families, using modern or traditional boats and fishing gear.

Woman holding shears gathers roe. Teresa Moses, a member of the T’akdeintaan clan, gathers herring roe collected by submerging hemlock boughs in spring.
Bethany Sonsini Goodrich
Man sits next to smoker with salmon fillets suspended on racks above it. Kai Monture prepares a salmon for smoking.
Daxootsu | Judith Ramos

S’áaxw | Ceremonial hat

This fish trap hat could open and close, perhaps representing an actual trap in one clan’s territory. “Salmon is an important part of our culture,” says Daxootsu | Judith Ramos, a Native Studies professor of the Kwaashk’i Kwaan clan, from Yakutat, Alaska. “I could see [this hat] being danced in a dance where people are singing, and then they would open the fish trap, and it would be like a transformation mask."

Yakutat Seal Camp Project

The Yakutat Seal Camp Project combined archaeology, geology, oral history, and traditional ecological knowledge. Funded by the National Science Foundation, this was a collaborative research project with the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. In the video below, scholar Daxootsu | Judith Ramos discusses how the multidisciplinary study combined stories shared by Elders with archaeology to uncover the past.

Haa Ḵusteeyí | Our Way of Life

Some of the foods described above may be served during a ceremony we call a ku.éex’ | potlatch, a time for public speaking, singing, dancing, feasting, and distributing gifts. A Łingít clan may host a ku.éex’ to recognize a child’s coming of age, a marriage, a house renovation, or—more often—a family loss. Through words and actions during the ceremony, hosts and guests reinforce the Łingít philosophy of balance and respect for one another.

ku.éex’ inviting people A traditional ceremony hosted by a Łingít clan, informally called a party or potlatch. 

Then and Now: Centennial Potlatch

Archival black and white group portrait of about twenty people dressed in ceremonial regalia. Guests from Angoon, Alaska, attending a ku.éex in Sitka in 1904.
Alaska State Library, Elbridge W. Merrill Photograph Collection, PCA 57-28
In the center of a large room, a number of people wearing ceremonial regalia stand in a circle with a drummer while spectators look on. In 2004, the Centennial Potlatch was held in Sitka, Alaska to commemorate the one held 100 years before.
Robert W. Preucel

History Songs

Kaa-xoo-utch | Garfield George talks about history songs and sings one with his daughter during the opening of the Northwest Coast Hall in 2022.

A Village Attacked

In 1882, Til’xtlein, a traditional doctor from Angoon, Alaska, died in an accident on a commercial whaling boat. Following custom, the rest of the Łingít crew stopped work to mourn, halting the vessel and seeking compensation for their loss. A local official feared the Łingít people were planning an attack and asked the U.S. Navy to intervene. The Navy sent two armed ships into the waters off Angoon. The commander delivered an ultimatum that the Łingít people could not meet. Then he ordered the sailors to bombard the village. Six children were killed, and most of the houses, canoes, and food supplies were destroyed.

Historical photo of the original beaver prow perched on a boat as it navigates through the harbor.
The Beaver Prow canoe. 
Alaska State Library, Vincent Soboleff Photograph Collection, ASL-P1-083

One canoe remained, which the community relied on to harvest food to survive the winter. The prow was fitted with a carved beaver, a crest of the Deisheetaan Clan. Centuries ago, Ancestors of the Deisheetaan Clan followed a beaver trail to a beach, where they founded the village of Angoon. To this day, Beaver is a Deisheetaan crest.

After the savior canoe was no longer seaworthy, it was cremated as a person. Eventually, the Beaver Prow was sold to this Museum with very little information. After a Łingít delegation discovered it in the Museum’s collection in 1999, it was formally repatriated, or returned, to the Angoon villagers in an emotional reunion.

Angoon villagers gather around the original beaver prow.
The Beaver Prow was formally repatriated, or returned, to the Angoon villagers.
Kaa-xoo-utch | Garfield George

In 2020 Deisheetaan member Yéilnaawú | Joseph Zuboff carved a likeness of the beaver to be displayed in the renovated Northwest Coast Hall, as seen below. The original is kept as a clan treasure in Angoon.

The original beaver prow next to the newly-carved replica. The original Beaver Prow, seen here with the likeness carved in 2020 for the Northwest Coast Hall.
Yéilnaawú | Cyril J. Zuboff
Close-up of the carved wooden replica of the original beaver prow. The likeness of the Beaver Prow, shown in Northwest Coast Hall.
Denis Finnin/© AMNH

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at Yéilnaawú’s carving process.

Map of  the location of Tlingit terroritories on the northwest coast.

Łingít Consulting Curators

Daxootsu | Judith Ramos, Kwáashk’ikwáan Clan, Yaakwdáat Kwáan

Kaa-hoo-utch | Garfield George, House Master, Deishú Hít, Deisheetaan Clan

The Museum thanks X’unei | Lance Twitchell, Kingeistí | David Katzeek, and the Łingít community for the Łingít words included in this text.