Part of the Totems to Turquoise exhibition.

© AMNH / Denis Finnin

"There are rules in our art, and you have to know them so well that you can make them your own. Within these rules we have to create everything, and that's the hardest part."
—Dempsey Bob, Tlingit artist

Some 10,000 Tlingit live in a dozen villages throughout the islands and nearby mainland of the southeast Alaska panhandle. A few communities still speak the Tlingit language, and although fluent speakers are mostly elders, some children learn the language in elementary school programs. The Tlingit are known for their shamans—powerful specialists who interact with supernatural spirits—a tradition that persists in some communities today.

Among the first silversmiths on the Northwest Coast, the Tlingit had developed basic metalworking long before the mid-1700s, when Russian explorers arrived. After learning engraving techniques, artists carved bracelets with bold, intricate crest images similar to their woodcarving designs. A cultural center founded in Sitka in 1969 helped cultivate a thriving market for Tlingit artwork and has promoted the survival of their language and ceremonies.

Featured Artist: Louis Minard

Louis Minard (1917–2004) spent 25 years teaching silverwork and giving demonstrations for tourists at the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center in Sitka. He began working in silver in his late 50s, after severe arthritis led to a double hip replacement.

"I came out here to visit a friend, walking very slowly with the hip replacements, and I came to the metal room. Ed James was working here and he taught Tlingit engraving. I thought to myself, 'This would be the way to keep myself busy, learning something.'

"An important part of learning how to be a woodcarver or a silver engraver was to learn the origins of each crest. But at the time we weren't allowed to tell the stories of other clans; only they had the right to tell it, and I only learned the one that I belong to—the killer whale clan."

Featured Artist: Nathan Jackson

Nathan Jackson
© Kiyoshi Togashi

Among the most famous living Tlingit artists, Nathan Jackson was honored when the National Museum of the American Indian opened in Washington, DC, in September 2004, featuring one of his totem poles. He began carving nearly 40 years ago, during a serious illness.

"One day I was disk-sanding the bottom of a fishing boat and some of the jellyfish powder and copper paint got into my lungs. I started coughing up blood. I ended up in the hospital for 55 days. While I was there I carved several miniature totem poles.

"Depending on how well the artist understands the art, it's okay to experiment. But it's best to stay within the limits of the art form so that you're not producing something foreign. The art relates to peoples' identities. Being Tlingit, I try not to do something that's Kwakiutl, or something that's from a different area."

Featured Artist: Nick Galanin

Nick Galanin
© Kiyoshi Togashi

Inspired by his father David Galanin, Nick Galanin eagerly learned to work with silver and gold as a child. He has since expanded his repertoire to include copper and stone sculpture.

"When I look at an older piece that's well done, I get a great sense of joy, an uplifting feeling. The forms are full and alive with a breath of life. I only hope to translate that strength in my own work.

"Any culture that's living or breathing is going to move forward. It's important to understand the history. On the other hand, I hope to offer something different and new.

"I will be doing a master's course in New Zealand, working with Maori artists. I won't practice their art form, although I'll learn about it. I'll bring my own Tlingit art form and history down there, and will do contemporary work with a heavy Tlingit influence."

Look Closely

The "Love Birds" motif, featuring an eagle and a raven, is common in Tlingit jewelry because these creatures represent the two halves, or moieties, of Tlingit society. Every Tlingit person is either Eagle or Raven, and tradition dictates that one always marries into the opposite moiety.

Featured Artist: Dempsey Bob

Dempsey Bob
© Kiyoshi Togashi

Born in the territory of the Tahltan people, to the east of the Tlingit, Dempsey Bob has learned the artistic traditions of both groups—and learned them well. Today his work appears in museums and corporate collections throughout the world.

"For me, it's critical to live with my people and culture, because wherever you live, that's who you are. When I look at the landscape, I see designs in the rocks, and the trees and the water. That's how our old people were too.

"One time I used a mirror on one of my pieces, and this guy said, 'Hey, that mirror's not traditional.' I said, 'You know what, if the world lasts another 100 years, that's going to be a traditional mirror. And you're not going to be here to argue about it. I'm not either.' "