The Raven and Eagle in Tlingit Culture
By Katelyn Dickerson, Museum Coordinator, and Benjamin Bard
The Tlingit people have lived in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years, thriving off of the rich environment all around them. Rivers and seas filled with fresh, abundant fish. Forests filled with a wealth of flora and fauna. Although life was not easy, as it never is in Alaska, the Tlingits lived well off of the land, with time leftover to develop a complex society filled with an appreciation for the arts, strong community ties and structure.
Birds hold a special place in the Tlingit social structure. This structured society is based on a hierarchy of identifiers. The first of which splits the Tlingit people into two groups, called moieties. Moieties are handed down at birth from the mother, as the society is matrilineal. Under moieties, people are further split up into clans, these clans are represented by crest symbols such as wolf or salmon. Each clan will have a moiety for their crest as well as a secondary crest that distinguishes them from other clans. The Kaagwaantaan, for example are the eagle/wolf, and the Lukaax’ádi are the raven/sockeye.
There are also regional differences in terms of clan crests. In the Yukon, for example eagle is replaced with wolf, and raven is replaced with crow. There are a number of separate groups that share this practice along the coast, such as the Haida from the Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia who also use the eagle and raven for their moieties. To the East, the Tsimshian use four phratries, the eagle, raven, wolf, and killer whale.
The Tlingits also sub-divide themselves geographically into communities known as Kwáan which denote the area in which they are from. Some of the local Kwáan include: Jilkaat being Klukwan and Jilkoot being Haines. Within each Kwaan there are houses which are owned by specific clans. For example, in Jilkaat Kwaan there is Kéet Gooshi Hít (killer whale fin house) which is owned by the Dakl’weidí (eagle/killer whale) clan. These specific clan names are how people predominantly identify themselves.
The social structure of Tlingit society is notable because of its representation and utilization of birds. The two moieties, of which Tlingits are divided, are represented by two birds, the eagle and the raven. In Tlingit Yeíl means raven and Ch’aak means eagle. The moieties are a representation of the people and the balance formed in all living things. Traditionally, those of the raven moieties only marry those from the eagle, and vice versa, creating a balance.
The balance between the moieties permeates most aspects of life. In sports and games eagles would play against ravens, if a raven gave a speech, an eagle was given the opportunity to respond. When one clan was experiencing difficult times, the opposite clan would ensure they were cared for. When a member of one clan, say an eagle passed away, it would be the responsibility of the ravens to take care of the family of the deceased. After a period of time, the eagles would then throw a celebration, or Koo.eex, as a means of paying them back.
The eagle and the raven represent different traits which mimic those of the animals themselves. The raven is known as a trickster, often engaging in pranks, but also known as a creator. On the other hand, eagles are considered wise and more reserved. Much of this stems from the stories of both raven and eagle that are passed down within clans. Stories, like dance and song, are considered sacred property which is owned by the clan. (The story that followed was used with permission).
Probably the most well-known of these stories is that of how raven stole light. The story tells of a time when there was only darkness, and all light was kept by a single man in bentwood boxes. When the man’s granddaughter was getting water, raven turned himself into a pine needle and the girl swallowed him. Eventually she gave birth to raven in his human form. The man loved his grandson so much, he allowed raven to open each box, allowing light to escape and cover the land. This is how the world came to be what we know it as today.
The ways in which the raven and eagle are characterized in Tlingit culture is often true to the behaviors seen in these birds in the wild. Ravens are more social creatures and are in their own right incredibly smart animals. They rarely ever die in the presence of human and have been known to sneak into open car windows to steal food and other goodies. Eagles are more patient, waiting in trees or gliding in thermals for hours, waiting for prey to show itself.
The raven and eagle are seen all around Haines, coexisting in the wonderful southeast Alaska ecosystem. Their predominance in nature is mimicked in the rich, native culture who celebrate these birds in their social structure as crests and symbols and in their traditional stories.