Tlingit Customs
By: Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore (1896)
 In earlier days painting and tatooing were universal. They paint now only for great dances and potlatches, but continue to black their faces as a summer protection from tan and insects. This coating of soot and seal oil has been mistakenly called a badge of mourning. Governor Swineford forbade face-blacking, and punished offenders, while Rangely and Adirondack fishermen were permitted to use tar oil and fly ointment; and climbers of Mt. Rainier blacken their faces upon reaching the snow-line.
 
There are often fine exceptions to the regulation flat, heavy-jawed and high-cheeked faces; and women often show strong, eagle-visages of more regular mould. These family arbiters and tyrants are hardest of bargainer, and contemptuous of man's interference. Marriages are arranged by the elders for the best advantage of the clan and family, and while woman is supreme, all wealth and power desending through her, polygamy is practised. Upon a man's death his widows pass to the next heir in his mothers family. Younger brothers and nephews, inheriting such widows, may purchase freedom by blankets.
 
The Tlingits have their political societies, with honours as often  bestowed upon humble worth. All of the totem contribute to the potlatches of their chief, working and saving for years to make an extravagant display and division of wealth. the potlatch is usually given at the full of the moon, and the host's clan and totem do not accept any gifts. The seating and serving of the guests are as precisely ordered as at a court function, and bloodshed follows any oversights. Hospitalities are returned in kind, and the social ledgers of the totems regularly balanced.
 
In Early times they were incessant dancers; songs, chants, and dramatic representations accompanied all welcomes, partings, feasts, fight, funerals, and visits. Trading was not a mere mercenary transaction when a line of canoes advanced, circled, and manouvered around a ship; painted men in ceremonial dress, powdered with the eagle-down of peace, chanted in chorus, and the chiefs delivered recitatives and obigatos. Boston traders gave them rum, and a deserter of a  whaler's crew and a discharged United Staes soldier have credit for teaching them to distil hoochinoo, or native drink.  They have many games of chance, the favorite being a crude fan tan played with 52 cylindrical sticks with different marks. The sticks are either drawn and matched, or players guess the position, number, or odd and even of the sticks the dealer hides under a mass  of cedar sheds. Pools and individual stakesare made and sticks cashed by the winners by  a regular tariff . The  dealer chants, and players join in; and when all  a Tlingit's wives, canoes, slaves, blankets, and tows are hanging in the balance, the whole lodge swells the frantic chorus. Playing cards are much used, and in the summer one may find poker parties playing all day on the beach and utilizing the midnight light. Their first tokens of wealth were the tows - curved copper shields ornamented with totemic cuttings, said to come originally from the Chilkats, and said to be imitations of  the copper plates nailed to conspicuoustrees by the first Russian discoverers. A tow was worth $800 to $1000 by the blanket scale  - a "two and a half point" H. B. Co. blanket counting for $1.50 - and often sold for ten slaves. Hiaqua shells were retired from circulation when a Yankee had imitations made of porcelain; and the Russians for a long time gave a leather money. Coin only came  to them after the transfer. Silver is highly valued, and stored in bulk or beaten into ornaments.
 
The whites had  to yield  to Tlingit ideas of justice and totemic laws: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or material equialent, are strictly demanded. A blanket indemnity will solace any wound to pride, honour, or affection, and their logic follows every loss and injury to first causes. The Tlingit who shot at a decoy duck madethe decoy owner pay for cartridges; the otter hunter rescued from a broken and sinking canoe, demanded the value of the  canoe  when set ashore; the relatives even of a burglar made the owner of the stolen rifle pay for the burgler killed  by its accidental discharge. White doctors pay for any dead patients whom they have treated; andwhen Baronovich accidentally shot his own child, he himself had to pay the Whale totum, or his wifes clan, so many hundred blankets, or be killed himself to balance the account.
 
 In illness the Tlingit sent for his shaman or medicine-man who, continuing his fasts alone in the forest throughout life, continued to receive inspiration from his guardian and familiar animal spirits. In frantic parades and dances about the village, a shaman bit live dogs and ate the heads and tongues of frogs, which contained a potent medicine. He performed his miraculous cures under the spell of his special totemic spirit, and an emetic of dried frogs and sea-water gave him a vision to perceive the soul leaving a man's body, ability to catch and replace it, and cast out the evil spirits which possessed the patient. When the chant, dance, and hocus-pocus failed to cure, the shaman denounced some one for charming or bewitching his patient, and demand his torture or death. Usually the infirm or the aged poor, salves or personal enemies, were denounced and subjected tofiendish tortures. Capyain E. C. Merriman, U. S. N., broke the power of shamanism in the archipelago by repeated rescues of those charged with witchcraft, by fine and punishment of the tribe and shamans, and finally by taking the shamans on board his ship, shaving off and burning their long sacred hair and sending them out bald-headed, to be met with roars of Tlingit laughter. There have been few cases of witchcraft since.
 
While all other Tlingits were cremated, so as to make sure of a warm and comfortable future, they believed that the shaman's body would not burn, and such were buried in sitting posture in little pavilions in remote and picturesque spots surrounded by the blankets, tows, masks, wands, rattles and paraphernalia of his trade. Shaman's graves have yielded richest treasures for ethnological museums. Other Tlingits were cremated with elaborate ceremonies, the wailing, pyrebuilding, etc., always conducted by people of another totem, and the ashes and bones stowed  away in a carved grave-box or canoe, or niched in mortuary columns. Personal possessions and food for use in the spirit-land were buried with the dead, and often a slave was dispatched so as to  attend his master beyond. The missionaries have effectually broken up the practice  of cremation, on the grounds of heathenism, and inhumation is now practiced. The Tlingits believe that after death the spirits take possession of the bodies of animals, revisit their homes, and teach the mysteries of life to fasting youths in the forest. Earthquakes are caused by ghosts, and the aurora borealis is the ghost-dance of dead warriors who live in the plains of the sky, from which the earth was cut loose  and fell to the sea.
 
They have their lucky and unlucky numbers, their signs and marks for the propitiation of evil. they saw outlines in the constellations, and had their names and legends for these otter-skins and bailers in the sky.
 
Their folk-lore, myths, and traditions reveal a poetry and richness of imagination not to be expected from these stolid people.
 
The Crow, in whom lives Yehl, the great spirit and creator, first dwelt on Nass River, where, having created himself and the world, he turned two blades of grass into the parent race. The Tlingits increased and became a great people, and spread  far and wide. Suddenly darkness came, and all life stopped. A Tlingit stole the sun and hid it in a box on Japonski Island, but the Crow found it, and, flying off with it, set it so high in the sky that none could steal it again.  Again the Tlingits increased and spread abroad, but after many generations there came a great flood, and all perished save two Tlingits who were long tossed about on a raft, until the crow appeared and carried this pair to Mt. Edgecumbe, where they lived until the waters fell. It is related in some versions that another raft of people was borne away to the southwestward by the flood and that they are the parents of the other races of the earth. Then, again, it is said that the two survivors of the flood were supernatural creatures, one of whom descended through the crater of Mt. Edgecumbe and there stays to hold the earth up out of the water, while the other lives as the great Thunder Bird Hahtla, who dwells in the crater, the flapping of whose wings is the thunder and whose glances are lightning. Hahtla  is personated by the osprey, who rides the storms and seizes the salmon from the waters, and his inverted face glares from ceremonial blankets and carved boxes. The visit to heaven and the stealing or killing of the sun is common to all the Northwestern people, and Dr. Fraz Boas gives several variations of it current among the Kwakiutl and other British Columbian tribes.
Scource: Scidmore, Eliza Ruhamah. Appletons' Guide-Book to Alaska, New York:
D. Appleton and Company, 1896, 45-48
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