Tlingit

Drawing of Russian and Tlingit buildings at Sitka, Alaska in 1843. Artist: Ilia Gavrilovich Voznesenskii. Glenbow Archives

Tlingit villages were always located on a sheltered bay from which there was a good view of the approaches.  A shallow, sandy beach for landing canoes, convenient access to fresh water and salmon streams, hunting grounds, clam beds, berry patches, good timber and other special resources were also important.  In the early 19th Century, such towns consisted of a row of large houses facing the water.  The beach in front was crowded with canoes under mats and shelters, with fish racks, and with hunting and fishing tools, and with sundry gear.  In pre-missionized villages, the beach was also respected as a major food source for shellfish, seaweed and other marine life.  From the archaeological record, discarded shells and other waste was dropped between and behind the houses where it built characteristic middens and contributed to the drainage of the house sites. The village graveyard was located either behind or at one end of the row of houses, or on a small nearby island. In southern Tlingit villages these graveyards were replaced by tall mortuary poles which stood beside or in front of the houses. In or behind the village were smokehouses for curing fish and meat, caches on tall poles or plank-lined pits for food and belongings, steambath huts, and small shelters for women during menstruation and childbirth. Wooden boxes containing the shamans’ paraphernalia were also hidden in the woods where they could do no harm. While the Northwest Coast nations were largely dominated by British regimes post-contact, the Tlingit came under Russian religious and commercial influence. By the beginning of the 19th Century, their winter village at the Russian trading depot of Sitka (New Archangel) was protected by a double palisade of tree trunks 15 feet high. This fort structure with pallisades surrounding single houses or whole villages predominated in the Alaska Panhandle up until the time when Russian and American cannons rendered such fortifications useless. Generally, villages were unprotected and natural defensive positions on nearby bluffs or rocky islands were fortified for the villagers to flee to in times of danger.

Painting of a Tlingit house model from Sitka, Alaska. Artist: James G. Swan, 1874.

The Tlingit house itself is generally rectangular, with a low-pitched gable roof. It is of  two-beam construction with four main house posts. The Tlingit developed their own unique method of achieving the slopes of their roofs by topping the two main beams with a superstructure which, in turn, supports two additional smaller beams, on top of which there is a second superstructure supporting a yet smaller ridgepole. This ridgepole is interupted to allow for the smoke hole opening over the central fire pit. This configuration is unique to the Tlingit, and the material of choice for all of these structural members is Western Red Cedar. However, in much of the Tlingit territory, Western Red Cedar does not grow profusely so, where none was available in the past, it had to be procured through trade with either the Tsimshian or Haida.

The main structural frame of the house pre-contact was built without the use of nails or spikes. All the component parts were fitted together to support one another. The wall sheathing boards were then attached into slots cut into another lighter frame which was supported by corner posts, mid-wall posts, and gable fascia boards. The wall sheathing boards were then slid into heavy slotted top plates along the eaves and bottom plates, which were laid on the ground. These were usually built out of spruce, fir, or hemlock, although the latter wood became hard and brittle when air-dried and was difficult to work. The four corner posts usually extended above the eave line of the house, which was also unique to the Tlingit house. Another different Tlingit approach was to connect the four corner posts with a horizontal beam at the eaves level, and sheath the wall boards below horizontally, and those above vertically. The wall and roof planks were also often overlapped for weatherproofing and to prevent enemies from inserting rifle barrels through chinks between the boards and shooting the inhabitants. The joinery of Tlingit houses, however, was not as sophisticated as the Haida’s, as the central structure was not tied into the exterior cladding.

In most cases, the house was excavated in the centre, banked with retaining planks to form a working and eating area around the central fire, and lined with plank floor boards. Around that were one or more wide wooden platforms, the uppermost of which was partitioned off with wooden screens, mats, or piles of wooden boxes into family sleeping areas. Sometimes this upper platform even had a series of bunks built along the exterior walls of the house. These temporary partitions could be removed to convert the house and its platforms into an amphitheatre for ceremonies and community events. Smaller and poorer homes were usually built directly on-grade.

Traditionally, a typical Tlingit household consisted of accommodations for perhaps six family units, plus a few unmarried adults and slaves, totaling 40-50 persons. The space at the back of the house, reserved for the owner and his immediate family, was often behind a wooden screen carved and painted with the lineage or clan crests. The platform in front of this screen, the “head of the house”, formed the place of honour where the house owner and his family sat, where guests were entertained, or where a corpse might lie in state. Ordinary people occupied in order of rank the side platforms.  Just inside the front door, firewood, buckets of fresh water, urinals, fresh game, and other things were placed on the platform. This is where the slaves slept and where the house chief met his guests. In a dark hole under the platforms, an adolescent girl might have to pass her puberty confinement or an accused witch lie in bonds to suffer thirst and hunger until he confessed. A small trapdoor near the fire might also lead to a small cellar that was used for steam baths, where separate buildings had not been constructed for these purposes.

The only openings in the house were the smoke hole in the centre of the roof, protected by a plank screen that could be tilted against the wind, and the oval front doorway, set above the usual level of winter snow and reached by a few steps. Later, after contact with the Russian traders, the smoke hole screen evolved into a fixed wooden roof or chimney, protecting it from wind and rain but still allowing for ventilation. The entrance opening was usually just large enough to admit one at a time, bent over and therefore helpless, this person could easily be barred from the inside. Post-contact, this opening evolved into a full-sized hinged door.

Interior of the Whale House at Klukwan, Alaska. Photograph by Winter & Pond, 1895.

Tlingit house posts are often carved and painted to represent crest or ancestral figures, as is the screen at the back of the house. Sometimes the façade of the house is also painted with a crest design. Totem poles, house screens and posts, like the house itself, all carry personal names associated with their decorations, which were the exclusive prerogatives of the owner’s lineage or clan. These names survive the actual building, and live on with the lineage.

Some old Tlingit houses and most seasonal camps, especially when built in a hurry or only used occasionally, might have walls and a roof of spruce or cedar bark. Bark houses were usually for temporary shelter, but were gradually replaced by canvas tents near the end of the 19th Century. Also at that time, when sawn lumber, nails, and steel carpentry tools became available and many Tlingit themselves were becoming rich from fishing, multi-family frame houses were built on pilings, with commercial windows and doors, and iron stoves. These houses were originally furnished with a mixture of western and traditional household items in the single room, but later the space was partitioned into separate, smaller, bed chambers or compartments heated by lamps, and eventually these evolved into single-family dwellings. The use of totemic crests on structural members and the facades of Tlingit houses were discontinued for a period starting in the 1920s and under the influence of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, which wanted to do away with these symbols. Old screens and house posts were sometimes preserved under sheets or stored in the rafters like piles of timber with the painted or carved designs turned inward in the pile, but most were eventually sold to museums.

Textual information for this page: De Laguna, 1990; Stewart, 1984.