Canadian, Alaska Tlingits explore common ties
July 29, 1992
The Inland Tlingit of the Yukon are a forgotten people in many ways and, on a recent trip to Teslin, I was eager to learn about how they deal with the challenges of contemporary society and how they view their Tlingit relatives in Southeast Alaska.
There are approximately 70 clans among the TIingit, divided among two sides or moieties, the Raven and the Wolf. These clans are settled in 18 tribal communities or Kwaans, from the northern Gulf Coast of Alaska to the southeastern tip of Alaska. The Inland Tlingit comprise one of these 18 tribes. They reside in Teslin and Carcross, Yukon, and in Atlin, British Columbia.
A little over 20 years ago, my uncle told me the story of our clan migration. We were settled at At.aanee TIein (Big Town of Animals) on the Antlein River It south of Yakutat. Perhaps this was 500 years ago, perhaps 1,000 years ago. Perhaps archaeological fieldwork will corroborate my uncle’s story one day. Our clan was known as the Yanyeidi (Hemlock People) at the time. The Yanyeidi sold the Antlein River to the Teikweidi, another Wolf clan and migrated to the Interior, using glaciers and bear trails as “highways.” The moving party headed southeast until they reached the headwaters of the Stikine River. They attempted to move down the Stikine, but were pushed back by the Tahltan, an Athabascan tribe. We then moved down the Taku River, settling on the coast at Taku Harbor, Sik’nax.aangeiy (Grindstone Bay). From Grindstone Bay, some of the moving party including my clan, the Sik’nax.’adi (Grindstone People) and the Naanya.ayi (People from Upriver or Northern Direction) headed south and settled at the mouth of the Stikine. The remaining party settled at the mouth of the Taku and now comprises the core membership of the Douglas Indian Association.
Carl Nelson of Juneau is the leader of the present-day Yanyeidi of Juneau. Some of the Yanyeidi, along with four other clans, moved back up the Taku into the Interior.
The Tlingit name for Teslin is Tas Tlein (Big Sinew), which describes Teslin Lake. The Tlingit of Teslin are organized as the Teslin Tlingit Council, which is composed of the members of five clans. On the Wolf side are the Yanyeidi and the Daklaweidi (Back Sand People). On the Raven side are the K’ookhittaan (Pit House People), the Ishkitaan (Salmon Hole People) and the Deisheetaan (End of the Trail People).”
These clans have counterparts in Juneau, Angoon and Klukwan and trace their origins to the Gaanax.adi and Gaanax.teidi Raven clans of Southeast Alaska. Each of the Teslin clans elects a representative to the Council from within their own membership, thus ensuring adherence to traditional Tlingit law.
According to David Keenan, a member of the Daklaweidi clan and chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council, the Teslin, Carcross and Atlin Tlingit have agreed in principle to organize an umbrella tribal council that has tentatively been named the Daaka (Interior) Tlingit. Keenan spoke of the process in which the Teslin Tlingit develop policy.
The weekend of our visit – I was traveling with my wife and Toby Tobiason of KTOO-FM for Southeast Native Radio – the Teslin Tlingit were conducting their General Assembly at Brook’s Brook, a tribal campground 30 miles north of Teslin. The membership of the tribe meets several times each year to discuss a number of issues and develop tribal strategies. Keenan describes the process as “making love.” The tribe provides meals to the members and workshops and meetings are conducted in tarp-covered shelters. He emphasized that the fundamental policy of the tribe is to “Tlingitize” Canadian government programs, i.e. adapt them to serve the interest of the Tlingit.
“We take the best of the non-Native programs and meld them to the best of the Tlingit customs and traditions,” he stated. Keenan represents the Teslin Tlingit Council on the Council of Yukon Indians board. The Council of Yukon Indians is a federation of first nation tribes in the Yukon that provides oversight for the Yukon Native Language Center. The Aboriginal Language Service of the Yukon Government and the ongoing Land Claims negotiations with the Canadian federal government.
A number of Athabascan tribes in British Columbia and Yukon have organized Tlingit‐style, with Raven/Wolf moieties and clans, including the Tahltan, the Tagish and the Southern Tutchone. Each of these clans will be invited to the First Conference of Clans scheduled for April 1993 in Klukwan. The Alaska Tsimshians settled at Metlakatla and the Kaigani Haida will also be invited to participate in this historic conference. The purpose of the conference will be to reaffirm customary and traditional law and relations among the respective clans and clan house leaders. Formal presentations will be made on genealogical research, documenting ceremonies, documenting clan and clan house names, translation issues documenting customary and traditional resource law and the Kiks.adi Survival March project. For more information on the conference. individuals may write to 4033 Delta, Apt. A, Juneau, Alaska, 99801.
Harry Morris, leader of the Teslin Yanyeidi, headed an 18- member dance group at the recent Celebration ’92. During the performances, Harold Jacobs, a Yanyeidi from Sitka, placed his Wolf hat on Morris. Harold Jacobs has done extensive research on ownership of clan crest, as evidenced by his largely unattributed contributions to the 1986 University of Pennsylvania Museum Centennial publication “Raven’s Journey.” Morris expressed a desire to reaffirm ties with clan relatives in Southeast Alaska. I spoke with Carl Nelson shortly after returning and he assured me that he is compiling a list of Yanyeidi clan members for Morris and that he will be organizing ongoing exchanges between Canadian and American Tlingit.
I initially proposed the idea for a clan conference in late 1989, at the time the Southeast Subsistence Commission was organized. The original premise for the conference was to reaffirm the customs and traditions of the Alaska Tlingit and Kaiganii Haida clans.
I reaffirmed the call for the Conference in December 1991. Shortly afterward, members of the SEATC expressed interest in sponsoring the conference. In the meantime, the list of invitees has expanded to include all those surrounding tribes that are organized “Tlingit‐style,” including the Southern Tutchone, the Tagish, the Tahltan (all Athabaskan tribes), and the Alaska Tsmishian of Metlakatla.
From time immemorial there have been a number of large-scale memorial ceremonies, potlatches and other tradition‐based gatherings In contemporary times. Large-scale church, cultural and political gatherings are not uncommon. There has never been anything like the proposed clan conference, in which representatives of all respective Tlingit clans will be invited and encouraged to participate.
The conference will have a working format, with formal presentations and a series of workshops on specific topics. A steering committee consisting of representatives of SEATC, Huna Totem Heritage Foundation, Kake Tribal Heritage Foundation, and Klukwan Heritage Foundation will meet in early October to begin the conference planning process. Over the course of the next few months, I will write in this column about various aspects of the conference.
Andy Hope is president of The Before Columbus Foundation, a nationwide group organized in 1976 to promote and disseminate American multi-cultural literature.