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The Art of the Tlingit

by Murray Lundberg


      Art isn't necessary for survival of the body, but it encourages growth of the spirit. And as a culture's spirit flourishes, so does its art advance further. In cultures without a written language in the European sense, art in its many forms was not only an expression of what was considered beautiful, but served to communicate cultural history, and to invoke spirits to assist with hunting, child-bearing, healing and many other daily needs.

      The Tlingit peoples are generally thought to have arrived from Asia, across the Bering Land Bridge. From the interior of what is now the Yukon and British Columbia, they eventually crossed the mountain barriers back to the coast, and settled in an area which was exceptionally rich in natural resources:

Millions of salmon returned each year to the rivers to spawn and die... In a few weeks, men could gather enough salmon to last a year. Shellfish grew thick on the rocks and sandy bottoms; halibut carpeted the shelf floor; berries were plentiful on the hillsides... Sea lion and sea otter, seal and whale and porpoise were everywhere, and all flesh was meat. ...Even today, only a stupid man could starve on this coast, and today is not as it was. (Reid, Out of the Silence)

      In this rich land, the Tlingit, as well as the other coastal peoples such as the Haida, Tsimshian, Kwakiutl, Nootka and Coast Salish, were able to develop a particularly complex culture, in which the arts were pivotal. In families of high social standing, virtually every item used, from bowls and spoons to fish-hooks, was elaborately carved, painted, or inlaid with various materials. Their larger houses were monumental structures made with spruce support posts and hemlock slabs for siding, in which extended families lived among colourful representations of legendary creatures, spirit-helpers, and ancestors, both human and animal. Entry to these houses, or separate "apartments" inside, was commonly made through the belly of a carved or painted creature, symbolizing rebirth.

      While the most dramatic of the Tlingit symbols is surely the totem pole, they were traditionally quite rare in the northern part of Tlingit territory. In the south, the poles were set in front of, or to the sides of the entrance to their homes. In comparison, the Haida, further to the south, integrated the poles into the house construction.

      Seldom mentioned in popular literature, rock carving (petroglyph) sites are fairly common in coastal Alaska. Given the difficulty of carving rock, petroglyphs are crude in style compared to the wooden artifacts, and extremely little is known about their meaning. This lack of knowledge is primarily due to the fact that by 1908, when the first record of their existence was published (by George T. Emmons), no Tlingit member could be found who knew of either their origin or meaning.

      Unfortunately, few people now will ever get a chance to not just see, but to experience Tlingit art in its natural element. Only in a few now-empty bays was it possible even a generation ago to find rotting totem poles and other items which still retained the spirit, the sense of wonder of the people that created them. Those of us who were lucky enough to have visited one of those locations have probably come as close to communicating with our ancestors as it is possible to.

      Our detailed knowledge of the art of Northwest Coast peoples in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries is due to intense scrutiny from the time of contact by anthropologists and other researchers, and by people like photographer Edward S. Curtis, who spent nearly 30 years documenting on film both the ceremonial and the everyday lives of the Kwakiutl, Haida and Tlingit (as well as many other tribes in the western States). A complete bibilography on Tlingit art would now run to several hundred listings, from every conceivable scientific specialty.

      The revival of the creation of Tlingit-style works of art started in a major way in the late 1940s, and hundreds of artists are now producing pieces in an enormous range of media. Modern techniques have allowed interpretations of traditional Tlingit designs to flourish, with silkcreens on everything from posters to t-shirts and coffee mugs. While over-commercialization of a culture has many potential pitfalls, the ever-growing interest, not just in the art of the Tlingit, but in the language, and the culture in general, virtually guarantees that the culture is well on its way to being revived, and we are all the richer for it.


References & Further Reading:

(Click on the book covers for more information)

Maria Bolanz & Gloria Williams
Tlingit Art: Totem Poles & Art of the Alaskan Indians
(Saanichton, BC: Hancock House, 2003)

Mary L. Beck
Heroes & Heroines in Tlingit-Haida Legend
(Alaska Northwest Books, 1989)

Kaiper, Dan and Nan
Tlingit: Their Art, Culture & Legends
(Saanichton, BC: Hancock House, 1978)

Beth Hill
Guide to Indian Rock Carvings of the Pacific Northwest Coast
(Saanichton, BC: Hancock House, 1986)

Mary Giraudo Beck & Marvin Oliver
Shamans and Kushtakas: North Coast Tales of the Supernatural
(Alaska Northwest Books , 1991)

Hoagland, Alison K.
Buildings of Alaska
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1993)


©1998-2007 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.