Language and Culture of the North American Tlinget in Danger


First world or Western principles and values are fast becoming the accepted norm for countries and cultures around the world. Cultures with rich and vibrant traditions and customs are being overwhelmed by western commercialism and franchise conformity. The Tlingit people of North America have a unique culture precariously balanced between revitalisation and extinction.

Fewer than 140 of the Tlingit people speak their native language fluently. Organisations set up to preserve original languages and cultures are putting every effort into saving the Tlingit way of life. They emphasise the importance of history and tradition, and try to instill cultural pride in younger generations.

The language is vibrant with a complicated phonological system. Until the late 60s, the only transcription of Tlingit was written in a basic phonetic form. Since then, a number of anthropologists such as Frans Boas and Ferderica have found other methods of transcription, which have greater accuracy and consistency.

Family and kinship are especially important in Tlingit culture. The structure of society is matrilineal and divided into two distinct moieties. To prevent interbreeding, marriages were arranged between couples from opposite moieties. Over the last century, however, this system has become less rigid, as couples marry within moieties and even marry non-Tlingit people.

As the family system is matrilineal, fathers don’t have significant roles or rights regarding their children. The mother’s brother assumes the place of the father figure and is responsible for teaching, disciplining and caring for children. Fathers can be less authoritative and focus more on being fun and playful, spoiling their children to their hearts content.

Art and spirituality play important roles in most aspects of Tlingit culture. Mundane objects such as spoons and boxes are often painstakingly decorated and endowed with spiritual power. Before colonists ventured into their territory, Shamans were vital in carrying on philosophical and religious traditions. When they were unable to treat diseases brought by the colonists, such as smallpox, most Tlingit people converted to Christianity.

It’s somewhat ironic that younger generations of Tlingits have begun to turn back to their ancient beliefs in an attempt to find some security and a sense of identity in today’s impersonal world. It’s the older generations who are committed Christians and believe that old spiritual practices are dangerous and better left buried.

An old Tlingit saying is, “when the tide goes out the table is set”. This is indicative of the abundance of food provided by the sea. Another saying is, “you have to be an idiot to starve”. These pearls of wisdom aside, however, relying solely on the sea for food was considered a sign of poverty. It’s necessary to eat a varied diet to maintain optimum spirituality. Shamans and their families were forbidden from indulging in the fruits of the sea.

These days most Tlingits live on typical western diets, consisting largely of staples
such as pizza, ice cream, and spam.

As the world shrinks at an exponential rate, culture, language and religion are sacrificed for the sake of convenience. A global mono-culture makes international business transactions easier to conduct. With the pressure of time constraints, it’s easier to view people as identical blank sheets rather than individuals with a history. People have no time for compassion, empathy, or expressing an interest in individuals. Which makes it all the more pleasing that younger generations are taking a step back to find identity and solace in their cultural heritage. It’s the simple things in life that mean the most. These simple things can often be found by slowing down and taking a look at where you come from, to help you see where you are going.

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