Chilkoot Cultural History

For more than two thousand years humans have shared the Chilkoot River Valley with salmon, brown bears and eagles. As the home for many generations of Chilkoot Natives, the land is a repository of cultural significance.

Alaska State Library collection

One of the keystone products of the Chilkoot River Corridor Working Group was their creation of an educational flier, Respecting Chilkoot: A Community Treasure, aimed at helping visitors respectfully enjoy Chilkoot, and gaining an understanding of the area's cultural significance and natural history. Below you will find the contents of the pamphlet that has been well received by thousands of Chilkoot visitors.


Photos courtesy of the MSCUA, University of Washington, and University of Pennsylvania Museum.


 

Welcome to Lkoot -- (Chilkoot)

The place now called “Chilkoot” has been used sustainably by the Tlingit Indians for many centuries. One story of Lkoot describes a destructive flood caused by a tremendous rock slide that hit the lake. The subsequent water wave devastated the village and pushed large amounts of rock and sediment downstream (1).

 In 1880, the time of the first visitation by Euro-Americans, about 130 people lived near the lakeshore and along the river (2). However, families harvesting food away from the village would have been absent during the months when this census appears to have occurred. Permanent inhabitance, measured during winter, is understood to have been much higher.

 

Tlingit Community Structure

 

Tlingit marriage, inheritance and community structure are organized around two balanced halves. The two halves are the Eagle and Raven moieties. Within each moiety are many clans. Clans of one moiety perform important, reciprocal duties for the other. This mutual support system is found in all Tlingit communities.

A traditional Tlingit marriage unites an Eagle with a Raven. The society is matrilineal. The moiety, clan and clan subdivision (house group) of a child is the same as his/her mother. Clan regalia such as Chilkat robes, vests, tunics, headdresses, button blankets, totems and other carved objects are more than art. They tell the story of the owner’s ancestry (1).

 

  Lkoot Country

 
Lkoot Country Local areas used for centuries by clans associated with Lkoot include Deishu (Haines), Tanani (U.S. Army Tank Farm), Yindastuki, (Haines Airport), Tayasanka harbor and the “Chilkoot” Trail, to name only a few. The Lkoot shared resources with groups from outside the area, including the people of Klukwan, many of whom are closely related (3).  

  People of the Sea

 
 Lkoot prosperity depended on ocean productivity. In addition to yearly food requirements, trade needs were important in determining harvest quantity. A wide array of techniques and tools refined over centuries were used during harvest and preparation.  
  The Salmon
 
The food of greatest importance was, and remains, the sockeye (red) salmon. Traditionally, traps, dip nets, and long handled gaffs were used. Man-made rock channels, still visible in the rapids near the Chilkoot Culture Camp, directed salmon virtually to the front door! Smoked and dried, the salmon keeps throughout the year.  
 
 The Hooligan (Smelt)
 Smelt, called “hooligan”, first arrive in February with the main run arriving in late April or early May. Dip netting hooligan is an ancient tradition along the Chilkoot and the Chilkat river systems. The oily hooligan, eaten fresh, dried, or rendered for its vitamin rich oil, is highly prized.

 Other Ocean Foods

 
 Harbor seals, halibut, crab, and shrimp are also important along with nutritious sea weeds and shellfish gathered from the intertidal zone.  
 

  People of the Land

   Forests and shorelines provided an array of foods and materials useful in the highly artistic culture, including medicinal plants, berries and root crops, materials for canoes, housing, traps, dyes, weapons, fiber and basketry. Land animals were used for food, as well as clothing and trade. Important local mammals include mountain goat, black and brown bear, moose, wolf, coyote, land otter, beaver and ermine. Road construction in the early 1950’s destroyed many cultural and historical sites. For many descendants, a heartfelt connection remains to the place we now call “Chilkoot”.

 Where are the Lkoot today?

 
Descendants of Lkoot clans live in Haines, other Alaskan communities and across the nation. Of the various clan houses associated with Lkoot country dating from the late 19th century, one remains. The Raven House, originally located at Kluktu (19 mile Haines Hwy.) is still in use on the Haines waterfront.   Between 1880 and the early 20th century the same cultural tidal wave that swept across North America a few decades earlier came to Lkoot. Permanent village depopulation resulted from many factors: the Klondike Gold Rush, cannery based over-fishing, missionary activity, wage based economics and a spectrum of deadly diseases such as influenza, smallpox, polio, TB and others.
   

   References

 

1) Dauenhauer, N.M and Dauenhauer, R. 1994. Haa Kusteeyi: Our Culture. Vol. 3. University of Washington Press.

2) Krause, A. 1989. The Tlingit Indians: Results of a Trip to the Northwest Coast of America and the Bering Straits. University of Washington Press.

3) Goldschmidt, W.R. and T.H. Haas. 1998. Haa Aani’: Tlingit and Haida Land Rights and Use. University of Washington Press/ Sealaska Heritage Foundation.

 

 Gunalcheesh ! (Thank You!)

Special thanks to the Tlingit elders who provided assistance in the production of this educational flier.


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