The Tlingit People live on part of their traditional lands in the Alaskan Archipelago. Virtually the entire area of the Alaskan Archipelago—the coastlines, islands, and also inland up the major river drainages—was claimed and controlled by the Tlingit. Today, their lands have been significantly reduced and what remains is ‘owned’ by the Tlingit-Haida Sea Alaska Corporation. Within this corporation, there are several smaller Village Corporations.
The language of the Tlingit People is considered a stand-alone language, although it has some similarities and relationship with the Athapaskan languages of Interior Alaska/ Western Canada. There is the belief, among some Peoples, that after a particularly harsh time in which the summers were not kind to the People, a group was sent away to look for more supportive lands and resources. These People went south and never came back, eventually becoming the Navajo and Apache Peoples. A short time later, this occurred again, but this time the People who went out travelled in a different direction, over the mountains; although, they too did not return. These People became the great Tlingit Nation.
Tlingit society became, and still is, a matrilineal based one. Within the cool temperate rainforest environment, a complex hunter-gatherer society developed that came to have more similarities to other Peoples in the southern part of the Archipelago—Haida and Tsimshian, for instance—than it did to the Athapaskan cultures of the Interior. The marine environment, with its abundant resources of food and forest materials, directed the relationship of humans with nature and, subsequently, determined these cultures. The Tlingit, however, further distinguished themselves with a reputation as being the fiercest of all coastal warriors, undefeatable in major engagements until Western technology neutralized and overcame the most tenacious human will that a People could have.
Place and property have a different perspective in Tlingit culture from that found in Western Society. Place contains three dimensions—space, time, and experience—which are environmentally and culturally structured. A location does not have meaning unless there are past events associated with it. Therefore, the tree falling in a forest, does it make a sound question … might be answered, “This does not have meaning to us, one way or the other.” The thoughts of the mind and ideas are owned by Tlingit People. For instance, names and stories belong to a family (clan, moiety) and for others to use these, basically, would amount to theft.
Their culture is one that practices ‘The Potlatch,’ a giving away of material items to others, often quite valuable items along with great quantities, no matter the value. Their society is, then, a communal sharing one, although, the Potlatch also serves to provide all important prestige to the family putting on the event. The Tlingit culture is also world famous for the canoes, totem poles, long houses, and masks that the people made and used, for both utilitarian and spiritual reasons. Many of these items are now on display—in museums, art galleries, or private collections.