Published on February 5, 2014 by Amy
The beliefs of the Tlingit peoples, like many traditional religions, have a complex and broad history. Tlingit tales tell of the creator, Kah-shu-gooh-yah, whose sacred name was never said above a whisper. This being created all living things, in addition to controlling the sun, moon, stars, and daylight. Nass-aa-geyeil’, or Raven, organized the world and its customs, and many Tlingit myths revolve around his existence. The world, to the Tlingit people, is filled with spirits, or yéiks, who could manifest their powers through any thing. Therefore, the Tlingit people were taught to respect every thing that existed around them; the punishment for disrespect was loss of food.
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Each person also had a guardian spirit, known as a tu-na-jek. Spirits went to an afterlife in accordance with their morality throughout their life, similarly to heaven and hell in other religions. Those who withheld a high standard of morals were sent to Kiwa-wa, and others were sent to Ketl-kiwa. However, this afterlife only lasted for a short duration; individuals would eventually return as a reincarnation of a deceased maternal relative.
Purified persons could cure illnesses, protect people in wars, conduct ceremonies, and even predict success with wealth. Although most families had a basic knowledge of medicinal herbs, they consulted the spirit doctor, or ixt’, when illnesses became severe. In addition to curing sicknesses, these people could protect the community, predict the future, and discern wickedness, particularly the Nuku-sati, or witches, who sought evil to harm communities.
However, after many debilitating epidemics of smallpox, tuberculosis, and other diseases in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Tlingit people lost faith in their medicine men. Many converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity, under the influence of missionaries in the area, while rejecting the “American way of life” and the influence of Presbyterianism. Although most practice varying forms of Christianity, many still utilize the traditional healing powers of herbs, such as Hudson Bay tea leaves, to cure small illnesses. However, when sicknesses escalate, they typically visit a hospital.
Potlatches are a tradition of the Tlingit that has survived for many a century. These feasts allowed time for respect, paying debts, and displaying one’s wealth and status. The reputation of a clan would determine the elaborateness of a potlatch, and some may be planned for years in advance. This tradition is most celebrated today for events such as burials, adoptions, child naming, totem pole raising, or house building. During this time, many clans will gather and typically perform traditional dances and songs, and recite stories. Speeches and gifts may also be given, depending on the occasion. However, these ceremonies differ greatly from event to event; a burial ceremony will not resemble one of house building.