New book traces Tlingit clans, tribes

Volume stems from conference that brought together elders, scholars

Posted: Monday, November 27, 2000

When Andrew Hope III, a Tlingit born in Sitka, wanted to know more about his clan in the early 1970s, he went to elders and other tradition-bearers.

"It's really a way of grounding yourself," Hope said.

To be a Tlingit or even learn more than superficial knowledge about Tlingit traditions, people have to learn who the tribes, clans and houses are, Hope said. "And then you see how everything is connected."

Hope organized conferences of elders in the 1970s and began compiling a list of Tlingit tribes and clans. That led to a gathering in May 1993 in Klukwan, of Tlingits from Southeast, British Columbia and the Yukon, and of tribes that neighbor the Tlingits.

It was "the closest we've ever come to a gathering of all the Tlingit tribes, clans and clan houses," Hope says in his introduction to "Will the Time Ever Come?", a recently published collection of papers from that meeting and other material.

The book, published by the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, was edited by Hope, its Southeast regional coordinator, and Tom Thornton, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Southeast.

"The book is unique in the literature," Thornton said. "The whole project was really unique," he said, in bringing together elders and scholars.

Among other articles, the book includes Andrew Hope's account of his clan's migrations, and Herb Hope's story of his efforts to retrace a Sitka clan's survival march in 1804, across what is now called Baranof Island, during a battle against the Russians.

The book also includes Andrew Hope's list of Tlingit tribes, clans and clan houses and excerpts from George Emmons' manuscript about the tribes, based on his interviews with Natives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Thornton contributed an article calling for a "Tlingit resource atlas" that would show not only geography and natural resources, but what the landscape means to the people who have used it for generations.

Thornton, who has worked on compiling resource studies for the state Division of Subsistence, wrote that such an atlas would "turn on its head" the usual one-dimensional, or purely physical, view of the landscape. It would include maps, art and stories that portray the values and practices of Natives.

The state compiles harvest data and locations in order to manage subsistence. "But a lot of other issues come out when you ask how resources are used and how (subsistence users) feel about different lands," Thornton said. "To a lot of people, it's about being able to maintain relationships to particular landscapes."

Since the 1993 conference, Thornton has worked with the Southeast Native Subsistence Commission to document more than 3,000 Native place names and their cultural associations.

"That was pretty successful in communities where there was a good knowledge base," Thornton said. But there are constraints, given that there are fewer than 1,000 Tlingit speakers.

"You're really racing against the clock on some of the stuff. It's literally the case that in some places you have one person left who is a Tlingit speaker and really knows the geography," Thornton said.

In the early 1970s, when Andrew Hope began to compile cultural information, "you pretty much had to sacrifice yourself financially in order to gain this type of knowledge," he said, "because it was very much in an environment of culture suppression and language suppression."

The body of written information about Tlingit culture has grown a lot in the past 10 years, and it can help bring Tlingit knowledge and the language into the schools, Hope said.

"Today's generation has much more access to traditional knowledge than mine could ever dream about," he said.

The book is distributed by the University of Washington Press. It costs $15, plus $4 for shipping. The book can be ordered by calling 800 441-4115, or via the press Web site at

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