North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

Partners with Nature

HeaddressTo 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 temperate climate.

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

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