North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World
Partners with Nature
To the coastal Tlingit people, home is the narrow mainland coast, islands, bays, and
fjords of southeast Alaska. The
people reside in the dynamic region where the land meets the sea,
building their villages on narrow rock beaches wedged between the tidewater and the dense
forests rising into lofty mountains, an area of human occupation for the last 10,000 years.
Heavy rainfall creates a luxurious rainforest environment and a
Tlingit villages have always faced the sea. The peoples' lives revolve around the
harvest from the sea outside the front door and from the
forests and rivers outside the back door. The waters of southeast Alaska provide one
of the richest maritime environments in the world. As the Tlingit people make their
seasonal rounds, they catch fish and sea mammals and
collect shellfish and sea plants.
The Pacific salmon is preferred above all other fish. Every year
five different species of salmon follow one another in succession, journeying from the sea
to swim upriver.
Halibut fishing requires the greatest ritual attention because
it is the most dangerous fishing activity. The halibut grows to be the largest and most
powerful fish in the region.
In the past, fishermen used a specially carved hook, weighted by a rock and suspended
downward, so the halibut would see its decoration and be influenced by it. Today Tlingit
fishermen still believe that success in fishing depends on the willingness of the fish to
make itself available to humans. In selecting the image to carve on the hook, fishermen
often chose a powerful creature, perhaps itself a good fisher. Its spirit would entice
the fish to the bait.
To this day, when fishing and preparing fish,
Tlingit people continue to respect traditional practices.
Image: Head Dress
Haida?, collected 1904
This carving of an orca, or killer whale, was worn on the head by a
dancer, who could roll its eyes or move its lower jaw during a
theatrical performance. No Northwest Coast tribe actively hunted
killer whales, the largest members of the dolphin family.
In general, Tlingit people did not hunt whales. Only the southern
peoples of the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Washington
Olympic Peninsula hunted these animals in large ocean-going canoes.
Cedar?, raw and tanned hide, sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus)
whiskers, abalone (Haliotis sp.) shell, iron, mineral paints;
L 51.0 x W 18.1 x H 16.3 cm; 3178-38