Cumberland Academy

Fisher Kings

History of the Tlingits 

The Tlingit people, whose name means “People of the Tides”, have a vast history; many speculate its origins dating as early as 11,000 years ago. Two major theories exist as to where the Tlingit people originate from, the largest being a coastal migration across the Bering Strait land mass from north Asia. Others, however, believe that the Tlingit people may have migrated from Polynesia by island-hopping. However, it is not disputed that the Tlingit settled along Southeast Alaska thousands of years ago. For these many years, they lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, subsisting off of the abundant Alaskan wildlife in a fashion few still continue today. The Tlingit people shared relations with the neighboring Haida and Tsimshian tribes, as they do in the modern era. These peoples traversed the area with large canoes of red cedar, often averaging sixty feet in length. Trading their prized Chiklat robes, shells, and jewelry, they received well-crafted canoes and sturdy cedar trees from the Haida lands. However, times were not completely peaceful; the tribes fought and raided each other’s villages for riches and slaves. 

This trade continued upon the first arrival of Russian explorers in 1741. Although Aleksey Chirikov sent several men to the area who never returned, the fleet settled on the land peacefully several years later. Soon, in their wishes for conquest, the Russian men aggressively took advantage of the land and rerouted trade routes. In 1802, Chief Katlia of Sitka successfully forced the post to defect. The Russians, however, soon reclaimed the land, much to the resistance of local Tlingit.
 As the Americans attempted to purge their newly-purchased land in the mid 1800s, one half of the Tlingit population was eradicated by diseases such as smallpox. Mines and logging establishments were installed on their land, and many felt powerless under such dominating capitalistic forces. 

In 1912, hope was given to the Tlingit peoples as the Alaska Native Brotherhood was founded. This program was established with the goal of promoting equality for Alaskan natives. Their efforts led to the passing of a bill in which natives could become territorial citizens, albeit if they shed some of their “uncivilized” ways. However, their political power grew in 1924, when in the first year of eligibility for national citizenship, a Tlingit man became a member of the Territorial House of Representatives. This event hallmarked a longstanding history of Tlingit presence in politics.

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