National Heritage Month: Professor discusses warfare in ancient Tlingit times

Posted: Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Sealaska Heritage Institute's second annual lecture series for Native American Heritage Month opened Friday with an in-depth look at what warfare meant to ancient Tlingit cultures.

Madonna Moss, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon, brought her studies of Tlingit warfare to Juneau. She said her purpose was to expose locals to the differences between researched data and preconceived notions of Tlingit warfare, since it's quite a sensitive topic.

"I think that understanding warfare is important. It requires us to understand Tlingit legal reasoning and Tlingit law, and the Tlingits were here before non-Natives were here, and so Tlingit law was the law of the land," she said.

Sealaska Heritage Institute's president, Rosita Worl, agreed there are many misconceptions about Tlingit warfare. She said bringing in experts like Moss to educate the public is a driving point of these lectures, which are scheduled throughout the month.

"We want to serve multiple purposes, but the primary one is to educate the general public about topical areas they might not know about," Worl said. "We also want to stimulate young people to want to learn about our history."

Worl said in many cases, it's not just the general public but even Natives themselves that can be unaware of many aspects of history, especially since there's so much out there.

Moss' research is of warfare as it pertains to Tlingit society before European contact, which is the period roughly 12,000 to 270 years ago.

"As an archeologist, I think we have exaggerated what we think we know about Tlingit warfare and warfare among other Northwest Coast groups. As it turns out, the evidence we have for pre-contact warfare is pretty minimal," she said.

"The point is that even though data is limited, it does look like warfare may have been a concern in the region 1,000 to 1,200 years ago, but I question whether or not warfare goes back 4,000 years ago."

Moss explained how Tlingit logic and definitions regarding war differ from how it's generally thought of. She said legal reasoning regarding many factors such as trespassing, territory, hunting, marriages, feuds and others held that instances could lead to instances representing war. She said conflicts could result, but they were not the motivating factor of such disputes.

"Tlingit have a strong reputation for being fierce and warlike, and certainly they were capable of war. But it was not pursued just for trouble but as part of interrelated social institutions," she said.

She said many ancient conflicts resulted in ceremonies or customs that were not understood by non-Natives. Such customs could involve clans compensating each other for discrepancies and even exchanging hostages to be kept in peace until such compensations were made.

"You can't understand war without understanding peace ceremonies, and you can't understand that without potlatches," she said.

Moss said war can be seen as a metaphor in many different arenas in Tlingit society and that it didn't always involve actual fighting or other acts non-Natives might think of as "war."

She cited text written by anthropologist Frederica de Laguna that states, "... every case of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, or provocation to suicide was called a "war," and was settled by the same kind of peace ceremony, even though nothing that we would recognize as fighting had occurred..."

Moss believes that such history is relevant to today's Native society because it explains many still unresolved conflicts. She explained one example of how Hoonah people cannot collect seagull eggs because property has been established as a national park, but was done so without Tlingit consent.

Another example is of a misunderstanding that led to the U.S. Navy destroying houses and winter food supplies in Angoon in 1882. This happened after two whites were taken hostage in exchange for compensation, as was Tlingit custom, after a shaman was accidentally killed in a commercial whaling incident and the relatives had not been compensated. Moss said the Navy has never apologized for the destruction, which led to resentment still felt today.

More information about Native American Heritage Month and the lecture series can be found at

The next speaker is scheduled for noon Monday at the Institute at Sealaska Plaza. University of Alaska Southeast professor Dan Monteith will speak about Tlingit oral narratives and deep history.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at

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