One of my earliest memories was being over at my Grandfather’s house in Portland, Ore. From time to time he had a friend who was a chief of one of the Columbia River tribes. The two would sit in rocking chairs and converse for long hours. I remember how much I enjoyed being close to these two wonderful men and listening to their stories. Both men were probably in their early 70s at the time. Granddad was an old cowboy and stage coach driver who had lived and worked along the Columbia River. Lots of years went by until one day, about 35 years ago, I was in the position to meet Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. Over the years I have grown to respect and love these unique people. So, it is with some trepidation that I write this.
The Tlingit occupied Southeastern Alaska when it was discovered by the Russians in 1741 and are found here today in greatly diminished numbers. It is thought by experts in the field that it was most likely the Hoonah Tlingit seen by Chirikov in the vicinity of Lisianski Straight. The native houses on Kayak and Wingham islands in Controller Bay, visited by Bering and his men during the same year, were most likely of the Chugach Eskimo.
Originally, the home of the coastal Tlingit comprised of a strip of land extending from the Skeena River northward to the mouth of the Copper River plus all the islands in between. The massive coastal mountains became the eastern boarder with a few exceptions. It is hard to know how long they have lived here; some believe that people have lived on this strip of land for more than 10,000 years. However, at least one clan believes they have only been here for 400 to 500 years, which could mean that other people lived here first or that the Tlingit came in waves scattered over many hundreds of years. This particular clan believe they immigrated down the Taku River under a glacier that had partially blocked the river. The Tlingit Taku Indian history tells of the first people coming to Southeast Alaska by migrating down the Taku River. When they were confronted with glaciers crossing the river, a group of old women volunteered to follow the river under the dangerous ice since they would probably die soon anyway. They sang their funeral songs and then disappeared under the glacier ice fully expecting to meet their deaths. Young men made their way over the glacier to see if the women would come out the other side. Happily, the elderly ladies appeared at the far side and everyone else followed.
Many of the Tlingit trace their origins through immigration from the interior down the major rivers that cut through the coastal mountain range and the associated glaciers. Some segments of the tribe believe they originally immigrated down the Skeena River. Old stories tell of a people already living there (“Old Alaskans”) who died out shortly thereafter. Some experts have speculated that this “Old Alaskan” peoples were probably merged into the larger, more aggressive Tlingit tribe.
The Tlingit Chilkats may be an exception. They actually may have moved over land and built a trail through the Chilkat Range to settle into what has become known as Klukwan. The name Klukwan is taken from the Tlingit phrase “Tlakw Aan” which literally means “Eternal Village.” Traditionally, the Chilkat Indians were in control of the Chilkoot Pass and jealously guarded this valuable trade route which enabled them to carry on a profitable trade with Indians of the interior.
Whether the Tlingit just wandered north or were pushed out by the Tsimshian, I am unable to state with certainty but they did move north from the Skeena River. The Haida seem to have followed the Tlingit down the Skeena and also moved north. Later they would push the Tlingit further north by taking over Prince of Wales Island and Revillagigedo Island (location of Ketchikan). The Tlingit continued to expand northward until they ran into the Russians along the Mount Saint Elias shore in the eighteenth century.
I believe we, who share Southeast Alaska with these people, are truly blessed. These are a proud and noble people who are a major part of this magnificent land called Southeast Alaska.
The Tlingit Indians by George Thornton Emmons
Treasurers of Alaska by Stephan E. Hilson
Exploring Alaska and British Columbia by Stephan E. Hilson