Chilkat Tlingits at a potlatch hosted in Klukwan in 1900.
"There is an old story that says how some strange people came from the western ocean. Among them were two sisters. They landed on Dall Island in Southeastern Alaska. There the sisters met and married men whose people were coming down the rivers from interior North America. One sister went with her family to the Queen Charlotte Islands. Her children grew and multiplied into the Haida Nation. The other sister went with her family to Prince of Wales Island. She became the ancestress or Mother of the Tlingit Nation." The Proud Chilkat by Brendan and Lauri Larson, 1977.
Schwatka, Skondoo, and Monkey John, circa 1907.
Even with today's DNA testing, the origin of the Tlingit people is not certain. It is generally accepted they came from the Eastern Hemisphere across the Bering Strait and down into Southeastern Alaska. Some believe the ancient imigration by-passed the glacier-choked panhandle and instead populated parts of California and the Lower 48, even as far south as South America and then returned later when the ice had receded. Others believe some of these ancient travelers remained to settle this area.
The pre-contact native population of the Pacific Northwest Coast is also difficult to determine. Successive epidemics of measles and smallpox took their toll on native villages, sometimes leaving only one or two survivors. There is no way to determine exactly how many lives were lost due to these new diseases, but it appears that there was a great decline in population in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Over 300 years ago, a few Tlingit clans from Prince of Wales Island, the Stikine River Valley, the Nass River Valley and Kupreanof Island came north and established villages at Klukwan (the Mother Village), Kalwaltu, Yandestaki and Chilkoot Lake. Other camps were Taiyasanka Harbor, Tanani, the mainland near Sullivan Island and Dyea.
Tlingit in regalia assembled outside of a clan house.
Southeast Alaska provided an idyllic setting and contained abundant local resources. The forests supplied shelter, game and wild berries while the ocean was a storehouse of fish and sea mammals. In contrast to interior peoples of North America, who frequently struggled just to survive, the Tlingits spent relatively little time harvesting and storing foodstuffs and supplies and could instead become traders and craftsmen.
A Tlingit man modeling a Chilkat Blanket.
The ocean provided not only food, but also a transportation corridor. Highly skilled navigators with seaworthy canoes, the Tlingit thought nothing of paddling for days in any direction. The Chilkats and Chilkoots also had overland routes to the interior. A great trade empire was established from interior Alaska/Canada south to northern California. In the Americas, this trade empire was rivaled in size only by the Incas.
The Chilkat Valley and Lynn Canal inhabitants (Chilkats and Chilkoots) had trade access with the Athabascan Indians over the Chilkat, Chilkoot and White Pass routes. These trade routes were jealously guarded, especially with the coming of the Russian and Hudson Bay Co. fur traders in the 1700's. Highly skilled traders, the Chilkats and Chilkoots would meet the Russian and English ships towards the end of the Chilkat Peninsula to trade far away from the overland trade routes. They would then take the goods over their trails to trade with the interior Indians.
White influence, late in starting, came rapidly to this country. In 1869, George Davidson and William H. Seward traveled to Klukwan to observe a solar eclipse. In 1879, the Tlingits asked Dr. Sheldon Jackson to establish a mission in the area. A site for the mission was chosen at Dei shu, meaning "end of the trail, " an area used to portage canoes across the neck of peninsula saved them a 20 mile paddle around the Chilkat Peninsula. In 1881 Presbyterian missionaries, Reverend and Mrs. Eugene Willard established the first Christian mission at this site. The town of Haines was established around the mission site and in 1901, Fort Willam H. Seward was built nearby.
Interior of Klukwan Whale House, circa 1895. Tlingit clan houses were rectangular in shape, longer than they were wide (ie: 50 feet wide, 55 feet long) with a post and beam construction. The more important houses were partly subterranean with one or two step-like platforms descending to a central square enclosure from four to six feet below the surface of the ground. This photo of the Klukwan Whale House of the Gaanaxteidi (Raven) Clan shows many Clan and House treasures.
Klukwan is the only original village which remains an active community today. It is considered to be a citadel of Tlingit art and culture. The Tlingit people traditionally embellished their lives with art-- even ordinary objects were decorated in highly sophisticated and stylized art forms. Skilled craftsmen, the Chilkat people developed the Chilkat Blanket weave, madespruce root baskets and were beautiful carvers known for their highly-stylized animal designs. Their artwork is highly prized and sought after today.
Cynthia Jones, 1987
Updated and revised by Blythe Carter, 2013.
Tlingit, Chilkat or Chilkoot?
The Tlingit people of this area are often referred to as "the Chilkats" which can lead to some confusion among visitors and newcomers.
In actual fact, there are two groups of Tlingit people in the Haines and Skagway area: the Chilkats and the Chilkoots.
The Chilkats lived along the Chilkat River in Klukwan, Kalwaltu and Yandestaki and held sway over the Chilkat River Valley, trade trails over the Chilkat Pass into Athabascan country and down the west side of Lynn Canal. Their trail over the Chilkat Pass was usurped by Jack Dalton who turned it into the "Dalton Trail" which the Haines Highway loosely follows.
The Chilkoots had permanent village sites at Chilkoot Lake and Tanani Point. Their territory stretched from Chilkoot Lake and River, along Lutak Inlet, Taiyasanka Harbor and on up to today's Skagway and along the east side of Lynn Canal to Berner's Bay. Their trade routes over the Chilkoot and White Passes were later used by Gold Rush prospectors, particularly during the Klondike Goldrush of 1898.
Most of the Chilkoot Tlingits moved from their villages to settle around the Presbyterian mission, the site of present day Haines. In contrast, many of the Chilkat Tlingits remained in Klukwan, a village that is still active and integral to the Tlingit people today.
Wallace M. Olson, The Tlingit: An Introduction to Their Culture and History, 1997.