Approximate 19th-century territory of the Tlingit. Redrawn from "Northwest Coast", Vol. 7 of the Handbook of North American Indians. View Tlingit in a larger map



The Tlingit occupy the fjord-indented mainland and islands of the southeastern Alaska panhandle and have done so since the end of the last ice age.

The area is comprised of a narrow coastal strip of the continental shore that extends roughly 600 miles from Portland Canal to the Copper River delta, and includes the Alexander Archipelago. The terrain is forbidding and is composed of tall irregularly placed mountains seperated by narrow valleys that extend inland from fifty to a hundred miles.

The Alexander Archipelago consists of over a thousand islands and extends seaward from the coastline for fifty miles forming an extensive breakwater along the shore. This group of islands is actually a part of the mainland Coast Mountain range that has been separated by erosion. The only differences between the mainland mountains and those on the islands are the lower altitudes and the fact that fewer glaciers are found on the islands.


The Coastal Tlingit comprise three major groups: the people of the Gulf Coast, the Northern Tlingit and the Southern Tlingit. All speak a language that is remotely related to Eyak-Athapaskan, each of which can be distinguished by subdialectal differences. Local groups may also exhibit minor cultural variations, depending on location and their history of contact with foreigners.


The traditional Tlingit house was rectangular with a low-pitched gable roof. It accommodated roughly six families, in addition to a few unmarried adults and slaves, totaling 40 to 50 persons. The interior of the house was excavated in the centre and planked to form a working and eating area around a central fire. Around this central area there would be one or more wide wooden platforms, the uppermost partitioned off into family sleeping areas.


Like much of the art on the Northwest Coast, Tlingit art serves as the illustration of important mythic or historic events and bears witness to the achievements, wealth or supernatural powers obtained by the clan ancestors.

In a traditional Tlingit house the four main house posts were often carved and painted to represent totemic or ancestral figures. At times the facade of the house was painted with a crest design. Totem poles, house screens and house posts, like the house itself, all carried personal names, associated with the totemic decorations. The use of the designs are the exclusive prerogative of the owner’s lineage or clan.

Chief Shakes House in Wrangell, Alaska. Photo © B. Herem.

A general colour scheme prevailed among the Tlingit. Animal, bird and fish bodies were wholly or partly black; the human figure, and sometimes animals, were painted red, or the limbs and features were painted, while the body was left in the natural wood.

Bottom section of "Raven Pole". Klukwan, Alaska. Photo © B. Herem.

Textual information for this page: De Laguna, 1990; Emmons, 1991.