The Tlingit tribe of western British Columbia and the southeastern part of the U.S. state of Alaska has a long and rich cultural history. Unlike many indigenous peoples, Tlingits weren't nomadic -- the Pacific Ocean, incoming rivers, and the rich, regional rainforests provided an abundance of food. The art produced by the Tlingits reflected their ability to establish permanent roots.
The creation of the elaborate totem poles that characterize their culture would not have been possible, for instance, for nomadic tribes to carve. Although Tlingit art is highly complex, there are consistent themes present in traditional creations, from totem poles down to small wooden spoons. Following are three of them:
Stylized Animal Depictions
Animals were important in Tlingit culture as a source food, but they are also depicted in their art as potentially dangerous forces and as spiritual beings. Eagles, Orca whales, bears, salmon, and ravens are commonly seen in Tlingit carvings. Totemic art sometimes tells a story, such as as that of a particular hunting or fishing expedition. Animals depictions are often stylized to the extent that their faces and other features are fragmented.
Tlingit carvings traditionally are colored by dyes created from clay, crushed berries, salmon eggs, plant materials such as bark, tree moss and the juice of coastal grasses. Red and green are the most commonly used colors in traditional Tlingit carving. Black, yellow, and blue are also used to some extent in the creation of totemic art, woven blankets, and ceremonial robes.
Tlingit society revolves around a complex matrilineal clan structure. The Eagle and the Raven are the two primary groups, and the clans break down from there into a number of clans that each form a network of extended families throughout various villages. Each clan has its own particular crest that is symbolized by an animal, and the clan is known by the aboriginal name of that animal, and each clan has its own unique emblem -- much like the family crests of their Northern European counterparts.
There are many false depictions of Tlingit and other aboriginal art available for sale throughout Canada and Alaska. Much of this is produced in China using substandard materials and craftsmanship. Fortunately, however, there are a number of authentic carvers and artisans currently working in many Pacific coastal communities. They are using traditional carving materials such as wood from yellow and red cedar trees and animal bone, and the dyes are created using traditional materials and methods.
If you want help learning more about authentic art items, contact a native art professional to see unique art items and learn more.