Tlingit Carving

Local Mastercarver Jim Heaton instructs students during the 2005 restoration of the Haines High School Friendship Pole. This huge pole is a much larger reproduction of a pole presented to Steve and Bess Sheldon in 1927.

Tlingit people are artistic by nature and some folks would argue that their fine sense of workmanship and design is best exemplified through the medium of carving. Most Tlingit objects were carved from wood, the most readily available and a highly usable substance. Other materials such as horn, copper and later silver were also decorated with carved and engraved figures.

Worm woman house post from Klukwan, carved before 1800.

The unique design elements or patterns used by traditional Tlingit carvers belong to what has become known as the Northwest Coast form-line style. This style, quite easily recognizable, portrayed creatures from the natural world in varying degrees of realism. Often they were split or fragmented with eyes, joints, fins, feathers or some other easily recognizable feature delineated with broad black form-lines. Traditional colors were a green-blue and red. The form-line style design, present from Yakutat to Washington State has subtle stylistic differences in each region. Tlingit motifs may be classified as Northern Northwest coast Indian art, a distinct style seen from approximately Bella Coola to Yakutat Bay.

"Eclipse," by local Mastercarver Jim Heaton. This piece measures about three feet across, 2011.

At one time Tlingit carving was considered important by the outside world for its ethnological value. However, at the San Francisco Exposition of 1939, and later at a 1941 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Tlingit carving was displayed as art. Now it is a widely acknowledged art form highly praised by art lovers worldwide. Many modern Tlingit artists continue to carve in the traditional style.

Carving Tools and Materials

Adzes came in a variety of sizes. Before the introduction of iron they were made of stone. The adze was used to hew out a form.
Axes were used for splitting wood.
Drills were used for making holes by rotating the point in a piece of wood. The holes were then used for sewing or tying parts of an object together.

Knives with hand-made metal blades.
Before the introduction of metal, knives were made of stone, bone or shell. The many shapes and sizes were made to fit the purpose and the carver’s hand. Carving knives were used for different mediums including wood and metals.
Both red and yellow cedar were highly prized for carving dugout canoes and totemic poles. It split along a straight grain and was thereby valuable for planks. Cottonwood was used for making small dugout canoes. Since it did not transfer taste to food, alder was the preferred wood for carving dishes and utensils. Local birch is used by many contemporary carvers for its lovely grain.
Both goat and sheep horn were carved, usually into handsome feasting spoons.
Gold and silver coins were hammered into shapes and engraved. Copper from the interior was also used for items such as knife blades and Tinnés.

Beautifully carved Raven Rattles, were used for ceremonial purposes by dancing chiefs and shamans.

Tlingit carvers concentrated their most decorative efforts on ceremonial and shamanic art. Staffs, masks and rattles were decorated for potlatch songs and dances and for other rituals such as healing conducted by the shaman. The most lavishly carved eating utensils and bowls were saved for potlatches while those used for everyday meals were simply decorated. Carved bentwood boxes stored food supplies, ceremonial clothing, or were used for cooking by dropping hot stones into a box filled with water. Huge screens, used to divide the living quarters within a house, were ornately carved, often with a family or clan crest.

Houseposts and Totem poles

This 30 inch Friendship Pole was presented to Steven and Elisabeth "Bess" Birkinbine Sheldon in 1927 in gratitude for their friendship and help in promoting understanding among the houses and clans of the Chilkat People. Carved by Jim Watson, a Raven originally from Klukwan, and commissioned by the Eagle Moiety also of Klukwan, the pole is unique for its time in that both Raven and Eagle appear on it. Two stories are also represented by the Friendship Pole: "Raven Feeding the People" and "Hawk Brings Fire." Hawk, as a helper of the people, represents the Sheldons.

Traditional totem poles depict crest figures such as animals, people, natural forms, or supernatural beings that identify a family’s history or tell important stories.  They were raised for many reasons: to dedicate a new house, commemorate a marriage, honor the deceased, or celebrate a special event.  The person raising the pole told the carver which crests to use but the carver designed the pole and represented the crests as he wanted.  Raising a totem pole affirmed the status and wealth of the person and clan who commissioned the pole. Stories pertaining to the pole were told during a potlatch held to dedicate the pole.

As a result of increased wealth the peak of totem pole carving occurred in the 1860’s and then declined quickly, probably due in part to the banning of potlatches in 1884 (since repealed).  The carving of house posts was abandoned in the late 19th century when Western style houses replaced communal houses. Many of the poles from the 19th century were eventually felled, destroyed, sold or removed. For several decades the art of carving totem poles declined and appeared to be doomed. In the 1960’s an appreciation for totem poles was renewed and several Northwest Coast Native carvers revitalized the art.  Most of the poles seen today are under a century old. 


Archie Kleney, 1978. This still unfinished dugout canoe is on display at the Sheldon Museum.

Canoes were the major means of transportation for coastal Tlingits. Small canoes were made for both men and women, large ocean-going canoes were owned by family groups. Great skill was required to fashion a dugout canoe such as the one on exhibit at the museum (right). First an appropriate tree was selected, cottonwood for a small canoe and red or yellow cedar for a larger one. Red cedar was the favored wood, but it grows mainly in the land of the Haida Indians south of Tlingit territory. The Tlingits traded with the Haidas for the prized large cedar.

The log was first hollowed out with an adze then shaped by a process which involved filling it with water heated to a near boil with hot rocks. Hot steam penetrated the log making it soft and workable. At this point boards were forced between the sides, pushing them to the desired shape. The boat was then dried and smoked over a pitch fire that also blackened the wood. In the case of larger canoes, separate pieces were added to form the high prow and stern. Large canoes often had a carved figure on the prow and some were painted with crests and emblems. A waterproof, durable paint was made by mixing minerals, salmon eggs and chewed spruce gum and applied with a bear or porcupine hairbrush.

Barbara Waterbury, 1987


Billman, Esther. Tlingit Bull. Num. 1. Sitka: Sheldon Jackson Museum Press. 1975.

Halpin, Marjorie M. Totem Poles: An Illustrated Guide. Vancouver:

University of British Columbia Press. 1981.

Holm, Bill. Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. Seattle University of Washington Press. 1965.

Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northern Tlingit. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1986.

Krause, Aurel. The Tlingit Indians. Translator: Gunther Erna, l956. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 1885.

Tlingit Culture