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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Alaska Native in Traditional Times: A Cultural Profile Project

as of July 2011

Do not quote or copy without permission from Mike Gaffney or from Ray Barnhardt at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska-Fairbanks. For an overview of the purpose and design of the Cultural Profile Project, see Instructional Notes for Teachers.

Mike Gaffney

Chapter Eight
Cultural Products


Technology –- hunting/fishing gear, tools, weaponry (and body armor), housing, transportation.
Applied Science
–- specialized knowledge of the regional environment developed to maintain and improve the group's quality of life.
Artistic Expression –- artistic purposes. design, decoration, materials.

Culture and Its Products

A cognitive definition of culture. In Chapter Five we discussed the six parts of our concept of culture. When you finished reading that chapter you may have said to yourself: "But wait a minute! Something is missing. What about a people's technology and their science and art — the material things they produced that can be seen and touched?" They are missing because we consider these visible and material things the products and reflections of culture, but not basic elements of culture itself. Here is why.

We employ what is called a cognitive definition of culture. The term cognition refers to the mental processes of knowing, of reasoning, of being aware. Culture is not a physical thing. It is a mental thing. The elements of social organization, cultural rules, cultural identity, and worldview are carried about in the minds and habits of the group's members. Technology does not come into existence by itself. It cannot stand by itself. There first must be recognition by someone or some group that a particular technology is needed or desired before efforts are made to design and develop that technology.1


Here we use the term technology to mean those material products developed by a Native group in order to maintain and improve the quality of life within their natural and social environments. Indeed, no other element of your Cultural Profile has such a direct connection to the process of environmental adaptation than does technology. This is because technology furnishes the basic means or instruments of adaptation. Housing, clothing, tools, weaponry (including body armor), and transportation (kayaks, canoes, umiaks, dog sleds) are all things we can actually see and touch. As such, they can have considerable impact on how we picture a Native group's way of life. It is what first gets our attention. Any museum we go to anywhere in the world displays cultural products. This is the main purpose of muse. But we must be very careful not to assume the material things we see tells us all we can learn about that culture.

If technology is not part of our core concept of culture, then why include it in the Cultural Profile? Remember that the central purpose of your assignment is to develop a profile of what life was like in traditional times for an Alaska Native group. To draw the most complete picture of a people's way of life requires going beyond basic elements of culture –- social institutions, cultural rules, and worldview. As already discussed, it requires description of the natural and social environments to which a Native group had to adapt. Now we need a description of the technology and science they developed to successfully accomplish this environmental adaptation.

Cultural products as reflections of cognitive culture. Although technological products do not fit within our cognitive definition of culture, they can reflect core cultural elements. The Central Yup'ik storyknife is a good example of a cultural product or artifact offering a peek into Yup'ik cognitive culture.* Artfully carved out of ivory either by an uncle or the father, the storyknife became one of a young Yup'ik woman's most prized possessions. Usually the carvings included decorative symbols and images of birds. The storyknife was used mostly by the young woman's grandmother as a teaching tool. As she told her granddaughter a story of particular cultural significance to women, she would take the knife and draw on the ground pictures and symbols to reinforce the educational points she was making. So knowing about an Yup'ik artifact such as the storyknife offers a window onto aspects of Yup'ik cognitive culture. And we catch a glimpse of several important social relationships in a young Yup'ik woman's life by knowing who carved her storyknife and who was the "educator" who used it. And secondly, we get some sense of the Yup'ik worldview as reflected in the carved illustrations on the knife and the themes of the stories told.2

Native Applied Science

Native applied science and a good story. It is not a question of whether traditional Native societies did "science." It is, rather, a question of what kind of science was done. Here is a good story to illustrate the point. Awhile back, Alaska magazine had an article entitled "The Ice Man" by the Anchorage writer, Charles Wohlforth. Here is part of the story he tells about the late I˝upiaq elder, Mr. Kenny Toovak, who was a longtime employee of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory in Barrow before it closed in 1980:

One fine summer morning decades ago,John Kelley, a marine scientist and later director at Barrow's Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, went to Kenny Toovak, who managed the lab's boats and equipment, and asked for a ride out to Point Barrow in one of the 18-footers with an outboard motor. As the story goes, Kelley had work to get done and limited time, and wanted to go right away. Toovak looked at the sky and told him, with typical I˝upiaq indirectness, "I'd like for you to wait a bit."

Kelley didn't insist at first, but paced around impatiently, making it clear he needed to go soon and saw no reason to wait. The weather looked perfect. In 15 minutes, he returned and told Toovak that it was time to go.

Toovak, a skilled storyteller who can draw out every detail in a slow, dignified style, said he told Kelley, "You really want to go out, I'm going to give you a boat and an outboard. You can go. But I'm no going to give you a driver. And I don' think we're going to look for you, even. You really want to go out, go on and go.'

Kelley returned to his office. Shortly, the wind picked up. It was soon howling, with white caps frothing on top of the waves. He returned once again and said, "Kenny, I thank you for not sending me out."

Scientists and the I˝upiaq of Barrow have worked together, on and off, for 150 years; similar incidents may have happened many times as Eskimos kept scientists safe and taught them about the natural history of the Arctic. Toovak's story stands out because hardly anyone has done as much to bring I˝upiaq knowledge to science, and because, in his early 80s, he is still teaching. Changes in the arctic climate have become a topic of scientific urgency and Toovak's memories have attained special value.

Some scientists would like to reverse- engineer the skill of Eskimo elders, hoping that the signs and patterns that elders use would help researchers understand nature as well. But it's not easy to dissect the magic of what an old man feels in his bones.

When asked what he saw that day with John Kelley decades ago, Toovak said, "It was something about the sky, the clouds and south wind, a bit warm. It's always kind of rapid, it always happens in a rapid way. I learned that lesson from my parents and from the elder people. When the wind is kind of blowing from the south you better hold off for a while and see what the weather will do."

Elders across the Arctic have told researchers that the weather has become erratic and more difficult to predict since the climate started to change in the past two decades. Atmospheric scientists following up on these observations agreed that the weather is more changeable and cyclonic storms have become more frequent in the Arctic, shorting times of stability and perhaps breaking the rhythm of the winds that the elders had learned to anticipate. 3(pp. 42-43)

How did Mr. Toovak learn to anticipate changes in Arctic weather so precisely? He said he learned this special knowledge from his parents and other elders as he grew up. And, of course, they learned to do weather forecasting from the generation before them. What is clear is that at some point in the distant past, perhaps over several generations, the North Slope I˝upiaq carefully studied these weather patterns. Their very survival in Arctic waters and on sea ice depended on reliably forecasting changing weather conditions. In the language of modern science, it depended on developing special knowledge of meteorology, the study of the earth's atmosphere, especially its patterns of climate and weather. In another section of his story about Mr. Toovak, Mr. Wohlforth tells us that many of today's scientists now take very seriously I˝upiaq knowledge of changing Arctic weather patterns and seek ways to fit this traditional Native science into their own work. Scientists also have begun to incorporate I˝upiaq traditional knowledge into other aspects of their work on the Arctic ecosystem. An example is how traditional I˝upiaq knowledge of Bowhead Whale behavior has changed the way scientists look for and count current whale populations.

Wohlforth also says that "it's not easy to dissect the magic of what an old man feels in his bones." But it is really not magic at all. What Mr. Toovak "feels in his bones" is a confidence to apply a specialized body of knowledge built upon generations of very careful study of Arctic weather. What seems like magic was Mr. Toovak's special talent for applying I˝upiaq meteorology so effectively. It has all the elements of what today is called applied science. Applied science develops in situations where, first, a problematic condition like sudden weather changes has been identified. Then members of the group seek the knowledge necessary to understand the problem. Over time they develop a body of specialized knowledge and learned to directly apply this knowledge to whatever health, security, or welfare issue confronts the group.

Applied versus basic science. Because it is concerned with solving immediate problems, applied science has a purpose different from basic science. Basic (or pure or theoretical) science does not seek a solution to an urgent problem. Its purpose is to study a particular phenomenon simply because it exists and greater understanding of it would advance scientific knowledge generally. In formulating his universal law of gravitation, for example, Sir Isaac Newton only wished to understand why objects fell to the earth at accelerated rates and why the moon and other heavenly bodies maintained their positions in space. His purpose was not to meet an immediate need or desire of English society.

Eventually the theories and findings of basic science may contribute to solving immediate problems, but that is not the original intention. All the basic science done over many years on the chemistry of gases, for example, contributes to understanding and hopefully reducing green house gases, including their impact on the Arctic. But we can be certain that the scientists who developed the first theories of gases such as Robert Boyle in 1662 and Joseph Gay-Lussac in 1802 did not have greenhouse gases and Arctic warming in mind. Because specialized Native knowledge developed as an immediate response to the problems and opportunities of the environment, applied science seems the more appropriate term.

Specialized knowledge. We have made the point that Mr. Toovak had a unique talent for applying a specialized body of I˝upiaq knowledge to understanding Arctic weather patterns. But what is specialized knowledge? The answer becomes clear when we separate specialized knowledge from common knowledge.

In order to live successfully within their natural and social environments, all members of a traditional Native group had to know a body of common knowledge and be able to apply it to their daily life. At a minimum, this common knowledge included obtaining and preparing food, having and raising children, coping with illness, and knowing how to deal with the opportunities and dangers of the surrounding environment. It also included knowing how to maintain in good working condition such cultural products as tools, housing, clothing, modes of transportation, and hunting and fishing gear. Of course most of this list can be applied to life generally because it covers the timeless and essential requirements for living in the world. After all, doesn't everyone down through time need food, clothing, shelter, health care, and child-rearing skills?

So the question becomes: Beyond common knowledge, was there knowledge needed or valued by the group which could only be developed with special talents and special methods of study? Where we discussed common knowledge and cultural products above, we were careful to avoid the verbs "to construct" or "to build." We only used the verb "to maintain." We said that common knowledge was required to maintain various cultural products. Why? Because many times the design and construction of essential products was not done by just any man or woman. They were done instead by individuals who became specialists in a particular art or craft.

The traditional Aleut kayak, for example, is still considered by master boat builders around the world to have the ultimate design for speed and maneuverability of a one and two man ocean-going paddle craft. Just imagine what special knowledge was required to design a kayak that would withstand the often furious currents and winds of the North Pacific along the Aleutian chain of islands. These ancient Aleut craftsmen even designed a bilge pump allowing the kayaker to suck out sea water that sloshed into the kayak. Although the Kayak ( or baidarka in Russian) was an essential Aleut cultural product operated and maintained by many, only some had the special talent and training for its design and construction. Another example is the intricately carved totem or house poles of the Tlingit and Haida. Again, a needed and valued cultural product requiring special talents in art and woodworking only possessed by some.4

Figure 8-1
This drawing from Captain Cook's 1778 voyage to Alaska shows Aleuts in double and single hole kayaks. The men are wearing traditional waterproof skins. The man in the single man kayak is also wearing the distinctive Aleut sea visor with feathers. [From: Alaska Digital Archives.]

Specialized knowledge can become common knowledge. Over time aspects of specialized knowledge can become common knowledge. The internal combustion engine, for example, is a scientific invention of the mid 1800s that became part of everyday life. Among other things, it powers the various vehicles we use daily — autos, trucks, ships, boats, airplanes, and snow machines. If it requires fuel to run, it is an internal combustion engine. If you wish to be a well trained mechanic, you would likely take courses in such areas as "engine thermodynamics," "heat transfer in engines," and "fluid mechanics." Obviously this is all very specialized knowledge acquired by relatively few people after serious study. But because the internal combustion engine is so essential to our daily life, many of us know enough about it to perform fairly complicated maintenance and repair operations. We may not be able to explain engine thermodynamics, but we do know about carburetors, pistons, spark plugs, fan belts, engine blocks, and the need to change the oil according to the season. And probably we know the difference between 2 stroke and 4 stroke engines. We need to know these things if we are to keep the motors of our fishing boat and snow machine in good working order. All of this has become common knowledge necessary for living as a modern subsistence hunter, trapper, and fisherman in Alaska.

One measure of how much an area of specialized knowledge has become common knowledge is the extent to which it is part of our everyday language. We even use some of this language as metaphors — she is the "spark plug" of the high school basketball team. This vocabulary did not exist before the invention of the internal combustion engine. It had to be invented along with the engine itself. As you read this chapter, you can bet that somewhere vocabulary is being invented to keep up with the rapidly expanding information technology of computers and the internet. Not too long ago, nobody heard of "apps" or "blog" or "twitter."

In the course of developing specialized knowledge, traditional Native societies also had to invent specialized vocabularies. And over time these new words became common knowledge and part of the language of everyday life. An good example is the set of thirty- one Inuit words establishing a detailed classification system for various conditions of snow.5 Here are some of those words:

Aluiqqaniq: Snowdrift on a steep hill, overhanging on top. Anuik: Snow for drinking water.
Aput: Snow on the ground (close to the generic snow) Aqilluqqaaq: Fresh and soggy snow
Auviq: snow brick, to build igloo Ijaruvak: Melted snow
Isiriartaq: Falling snow, yellow or red. Kanangniut: Snowdrift made by North-East wind.
Katakartanaq: Crusty snow, broken by steps. Kavisilaq: snow hardened by rain or frost.
Kinirtaq: wet and compact snow. Masak: wet snow, saturated.
Matsaaq: snow in water Maujaq: deep and soft snow, where it's difficult to walk.
Mingullaut: thin powder snow, enters by cracks and covers objects. Mituk: small snow layer on the water of a fishing hole.
Munnguqtuq: compressed snow which began to soften in spring. Natiruviaqtuq: snow blasts on the ground.
Niggiut: snowdrift made by south-west wind Niummak: hard waving snow staying on ice fields turned in ice crystals.


Notice how just one Inuit word highlights a condition of snow requiring several English words. Like the English words used to capture the functions of the internal combustion engine, this Inuit classification of snow conditions is a good example of specialized knowledge becoming common knowledge.

The scientific method. Along with specialized knowledge, a definition of science must include the process by which scientific evidence is obtained and theories tested. This process is called the scientific method. The key idea here is contained in the verb "to do." If people anywhere at any time follow a series of well defined steps to understand some aspect of the natural or social world, they are doing science. They are using the scientific method. The I˝upiaq who painstakingly developed the metrological knowledge Mr. Kenny Toovak relied upon that fateful day used the scientific method which is ordinarily thought of as consisting of two parts. The first part is attitude. Is the attitude of the investigator working on a scientific problem such as Arctic warming dedicated to rational thinking? That is, does he use logic and reason rather than emotional, magical, or spiritual thinking when making his observations and drawing his conclusions? Is the attitude of the investigator objective? Is he willing to go wherever the facts take him although it may contradict strongly held beliefs? Is he open to new evidence and ideas even if they may prove his current theory wrong?

Many consider the scientific method to be the major difference between matters of science and matters of faith. Religious doctrine such as belief in God and a supernatural world cannot be empirically tested –- that is, proven right or wrong by real life observation and experimentation. But this does not mean a reasonable person schooled in the scientific method cannot also conclude that a well ordered universe with no apparent middle or edges suggests the existence of a supreme being or ultimate creative force. Albert Einstein, the scientist best known for his theories on how the universe works, believed exactly this. Responding to the question of whether he believed in God, Einstein said, "I believe in a...God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." 6 But most important, he never claimed that his scientific work proved or disproved the existence of God. Certainly he would be the first to say that science was never meant to answer questions of faith and how the faithful should imagine a supernatural world. That world must be thought about and approached in other ways.

The second part has to do with method — the actual process of doing science. Is the information (the data) gathered by the investigator accomplished through a series of deliberate and well organized observations of the phenomenon under study? A fundamental rule of the scientific method is that theories must be constructed so that their propositions can be further tested by others under the same conditions using the same methods. Usually scientific proof is based on empirical evidence. Interior Athabaskans, for example, developed a method for hunting caribou by chasing the animals into large corrals where they were "speared, snared, and shot with arrows." 7 It is easy to imagine how different "chase methods" were empirically tested before finding the most effective method. Or their testing of different materials used for constructing the corral before finding one that was easy to work with but strong enough to hold frightened caribou. And Mr. Kenny Toovak's story certainly gives us some idea of how the I˝upiaq applied the scientific method to the study of weather in much the same way Albert Einstein studied the universe. Ancient Alaska Native societies did not have written scientific journals to record and organize their research. Their oral traditions served this function. Certainly they did not have the scientific instruments available to Albert Einstein and other modern scientists. Even so, they could not have accomplished such extraordinary adaptations to the unique challenges of their environments without applying what today we call the scientific method.

Medical science. We must not forget that traditional Native cultures also used the scientific method to advance their understanding of the human body and medical treatment of it. Aleuts (Unagan), for example, performed autopsies to increase their understanding of human autonomy and causes of death. They also developed an inventory of herbal cures — in modern terms, a pharmacy — derived from the precise mixing of substances taken from various plant life found within the Aleutian regional environment. Aleut medical science also allowed development of a special feature of their worldview found on several Aleutian islands — the practice of mummification to memorialize the spirit of a deceased person of high social standing or for extraordinary accomplishments in life. Only through rigorous empirical study could such a body of knowledge be achieved.8 In discussing traditional medicine among the Yup'ik, Oscar Kawagley directly connects the development of this knowledge to application of the scientific method. After describing several complex and lengthy treatments for arthritis, he says:

The experimental process leading to the development of a treatment such as this [arthritis] had to occur over a very long period of time before its medicinal value was recognized. This required experimentation, using the rational ability of the human being, establishing a process for refining a natural substance, using very practical means at hand, observing and committing to memory the process of change in the solution [for treating arthritis], and noting the effects on the human body for determination of its effectiveness.9

As we know, shamans often performed the dual role of spiritual leader and healer of both physical and mental health problems. In fact, many traditional Native worldviews did not clearly separate spiritual issues from health issues. In many cases, physical and mental illness was viewed as a sign of possible spiritual disharmony within the community or within the individual who is sick. Some shamans were even thought to have the power to create this disharmony and make people physically or mentally ill. But no matter how this dual role was performed within a specific Native culture, shamans and other prominent healers used elements of the scientific method to advance their medical knowledge.

Artistic Expression

What is Art? A main cultural product of any society is its Art. A people's values, traditions, and aspirations are often expressed through powerful artistic imagery. Of all the elements that make up any society's cultural production, it is art which most clearly reflects aspects of that society's worldview. The Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome, Italy is an excellent example of how art is used to visualize a major religious tradition, in this instance the Roman Catholic tradition. Its interior is covered with paintings of biblical stories done by Italian renaissance artists, including the ceiling painted by the renowned Michelangelo, a section of which is shown in figure 8-2.

Figure 8-2
Michelangelo's ceiling at the Sistine chapel10
Sistine chapel

In our earlier discussion of the Central Yup'ik storyknife, we said that the imagery carved on the ivory handle was an example of how this Yup'ik artifact can give us a glimpse of Yup'ik cognitive culture. But at the same time it is equally an artistic product. Like all art, the images carved into the storyknife handle were meant to represent an idea or series of ideas. The father or uncle who did the carving was perhaps expressing a significant thought for the young girl to keep in mind as she anticipated adult female responsibilities.

Where do we find traditional Native Art? The storyknife gives us a major clue to finding and describing traditional Native art. Unlike art collections found in modern museums, in traditional times we would not find separate structures housing pieces of a Native group's art to be contemplated and admired. What we would find is artistic expression displayed in the decoration and design of material objects having other functions. Remember that the Yup'ik storyknife was also crafted to serve an educational purpose. Also within the Central Yup'ik artistic tradition is expression of their supernatural world through the design and decoration of ceremonial masks. Just as the art of the Sistine Chapel vividly displays elements of the Roman Catholic tradition, the art of ceremonial masks vividly displays aspects of the Yup'ik spiritual tradition. Figure 8-3 below shows a Nepcetaq (shaman mask) with face peering through a triangular shield, painted red, white, and black. Red sometimes symbolized life, blood, or give protection to the mask's wearer; black sometimes represents death or the afterlife; and white sometimes can mean living or winter. 11

Figure 8-3
Yup'ik Shaman Mask

Yup'ik Shaman Mask

We even find art in decorative designs fastened or sewn onto clothing. For interior Athabaskans whose life was almost constant movement, their cultural products had to be easily transported on one's back or in bags carried by dogs. Of course they also had to be easy to assemble and disassemble. One scholar of Native art, William Fitzhugh, says of Athabaskan clothing that "most outstanding was their skin work, which employed dyed porcupine quill and moose hair embroidery in its early stages and, later, glass beads, dentalium shell, and other trade goods." 12

Figure 8-4
Albert Maggie with beaded coat. Nenana, Ak., c. 1913)
Albert Maggie

Here we should highlight what we said earlier about the importance of commerce in traditional Native economies. Because these pre-contact commercial networks reached beyond Alaskan borders, many of the decorative beads and shells were acquired by interior Athabaskans before their actual encounters with Europeans. Dentalium seashells, for example, are found along the northwest coast of North America. They are usually white and hollow inside and cone shaped like a tooth or tusk. They were so highly valued by Indians from California to Alaska that they became a medium of exchange much as we use dollar bills and coins today. Look at the photo of a Tlingit shaman in the last chapter (p. 81). Dentalium shells decorate his apron-like leg covering .

What we learn from Native art. We have said that art serves as a window through which we can view elements of people's worldview. But art forms can also differ between otherwise similar cultural groups. William Fitzhugh has observed that Central Yup'ik art "was more diverse, abstract, and symbolic than that of the I˝upiaq peoples." The exquisite and celebrated I˝upiaq art of ivory carving portrayed life in its natural form. An outsider knows at once that it is a carving of a polar bear or a whale or a seal. On the other hand, making sense of the more abstract and symbolic Central Yup'ik decorative art requires knowledge of their worldview, particularly aspects of their traditional spirituality.13

Figure 8-5
Little Diomede I˝upiaq ivory carver, c. 1928
Ivory Carver

We also learn that some Native art crossed territorial boundaries. One of the best known and most studied of all Native American art forms is the Northwest Coast Indian tradition. This very distinctive Native art stretches 1,200 miles along the Pacific Coast from Oregon in the south to the Tlingit and Haida homelands of Alaska in the north. Although speaking different languages, these Northwest Coast tribes had in common a heavily wooded temperate maritime environment, a clan-based hierarchical social organization, and a totemic worldview with Raven at the center of their creation mythologies. Andrew Hope III, refers to this entire Northwest culture area as the "Raven Creator Bioregion." Perhaps one of the most knowledgeable experts on Northwest Coast Indian art is University of Washington Professor Emeritus, Bill Holm. For his distinguished work, he was honored in 2001 with a certificate of appreciation from the Sealaska Heritage Institute, an organization which seeks to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultural knowledge. Holm characterizes Tlingit and other Northwest Coast Indian art as a well organized design system of ovid-shaped form lines depicting totemic creatures central to the mythological histories of clans and of house groups within clans. The Chilkat blanket shown below is a good example of the description Holm gives of the Northwest Coast Indian art form14

George Emmons, a United States Navel officer who carefully observed Tlingit life in the late 1800s, reported that ceremonial blanket-weaving originated with the Canadian Tsimshian and later spread north to the Tlingits through commerce and marriage. Settled near the present day town of Haines, Alaska, the Chilkat tribe of Tlingits developed their own design style and became the best weavers, producing numerous blankets for clans and clan houses of other Tlingit groups. The Chilkat Blanket was highly sought by Indian nobility up and down the Northwest Coast long before the first explorers came to the region.15

Figure 8-6
Chilkat Blanket
Chilkat Blanket

A detailed artistic depiction of a totemic creature along with other clan or clan house symbolism is called a crest. Here is another good example of art teaching us something about the society in which it is found. In this case we learn about the connection between Tlingit social organization and Tlingit art. Again we go to Andrew Hope III for instruction:

To appreciate Tlingit pole art, one must understand Tlingit social organization: what Frederica de Laguna refers to as ." . . the fundamental principles of . . . clan organization, . . . the values on which Native societies are based," that is, the names and histories of the respective Tlingit tribes, clans, and clan houses.

The seventy-plus Tlingit clans are separated into moieties or two equal sides - the Wolf and the Raven. Tlingit custom provides for matrilineal descent (one follows the clan of the mother) and requires one to marry one of the opposite moiety. The clans are further subdivided into some 250 clan houses.

To underscore the duality of Tlingit law, Wolf moiety clans generally claim predator crests, whereas Raven moiety clans generally claim non-predator crests. For example, the Kaagwaantaan, a Wolf moiety clan, claim Brown Bear, the Killer Whale, the Shark and the Wolf as crests. The Kiks.ßÓdi, a Raven moiety clan, claim the Frog, the Sculpin, the Dog Salmon and the Raven as crests. Tlingit totem art is utilitarian as opposed to decorative art. Tlingit pole art depicts clan crests and histories.

The figures seen on a totem pole are the principle subjects taken from traditional treating of the family's rise to prominence or of the heroic exploits of one of its members. From such subjects crests are derived. In some houses, in the rear between the two carved posts, a screen is fitted, forming a kind of partition which is always carved and painted.16

According to traditional Tlingit property laws, moreover, a clan or clan house has clear ownership of their crest and it can be used only by their members. Elements of the crest ornamented other cultural products such as house poles, screens, war canoes, headgear, boxes and chests, and even parts of hunting and fishing equipment. In some ways a European noble family's coat-of-arms is comparable to the Tlingit clan crests because it also exhibits symbolism of the family's honored history and mythological beginnings. Figure 8-7 shows the interior of Tlingit clan house emblazoned with carved clan crest and symbols. Note the pole art discussed above by Andy Hope. Also note the ovid-shaped form lines described by Bill Holm. For a European comparison, the British Royal Family's coat-of-arms or crest is also shown below. 17

Figure 8-7
Interior of Whale House of Chief Klart-Reech, Klukwan, Alaska. c. 1895.
Whale House

British Royal Family's coat-of-arms

Not only did the ovid-shaped form lines of Northwest Coast Indian art extend 1,200 miles south to Oregon, but it also influenced the artistic expression of other Alaska Native groups along the North Pacific Rim. We know that hostilities sometimes existed between the Tlingit and other Pacific Rim peoples. Yet studies by Bill Holm and others show that the Chugach of Prince William Sound and the Koniag of Kodiak Island adopted certain elements of the Northwest Coast artistic tradition to decorate their basketry, headdress, storage chests, and eating utensils. Indeed, the spread of the unique Northwest Coast Indian art form offers yet another example of Native people traveling great distances to exchange both goods and ideas. 18

An interesting artistic comparison. According to historical records, it took Michelangelo about four years to complete his ceiling at the Sistine Chapel. In all, Michelangelo's work covers 5,000 square feet. (A NBA basketball court measures 4700 sq. feet.) By comparison, in 1998 Clarissa Hudson, a master Chilkat blanket weaver, began weaving a blanket for a Canadian Native chief. As she says, "Between caring for my family, finishing my other commissions, and moving (twice!) I finished the blanket in just over two years." 19 Let's assume Clarissa spent a quarter of her time on the chief's blanket while attending to other parts of her full life. If this is a reasonable assumption, it means that if she were able to work full time on her blankets, she still could only weave four 25 sq. foot Chilkat blankets in the time it took Michelangelo to complete his 5000 sq. foot Sistine Chapel painting.

Review Questions

Cultural products are not a basic part of our concept of culture? Why not?

Why do we say it is not a question of whether Alaska Natives did science in traditional times, but a question of what kind of science was done?

Why distinguish specialized knowledge from common knowledge? (Hint –- the connection between science and specialized knowledge.)

Can you explain the scientific method, and why we say it is not just a modern or Western practice, but has been used down through time by all peoples?

Why do we say: "Of all the elements that make up any society's cultural production, it is art which most clearly reflects aspects of that society's worldview? Can you give examples from Alaska Native cultures?

Give some reasons why we must look for traditional Native art on cultural products having other functions.


* The term artifact refers to a material object made by humans and, therefore, a cultural product from times past.


  1. Erickson, Frederick, "Culture in society and in educational practices" in J. Banks and C. Banks (Eds.)Multicultural Education –- Issues and Practices, John Wiley & Sons; 5 ed. ,2001).
  2. Ann Fienup-Riordan, Crossroads of Continents, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988, p. 262, and Steve Langdon, Native People of Alaska, 2002, p. 52.
  3. Charles Wohlforth, "The Ice Man", Alaska Magazine, October 1, 2004, pp. 42-43.
  4. Black, Lydia and R. G. Liapunova, "Aleut: Islanders of the North Paciific"in W. Fitzhugh & Crowell (eds.), Crossroads of Continents, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988, p. 55
  5. Go to:http:-//
  6. Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (Canada: World Publishing Co., 1971), p..502.
  7. Richard K. Nelson, "Raven's People" in J. Aigner, Ed. Interior Alaska (Anchorage: Alaska Geographic Society, 1986) p. 206.
  8. Laughlin, William S. Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge (Harcourt Brace College Publishers June 1980),. Steve Langdon, 2002, p. 24. Black, Lydia and Liapunova, 1988, pp. 53.
  9. Kawagley, A Yupiaq Worldview (Illinois: Waveland Press, 1995) pp. 71-72.
  10. Go to: infamous ro.html
  11. Arctic Studies Center Exhibit: "Agayuliyararput, Our Way of Making Prayer." (
  12. Fitzhugh, W., "Comparative Art of the North Pacific Rim" in W. Fitzhugh & Crowell (eds.), Crossroads of Continents, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988, p. 304.
  13. Ibid, p. 301.
  14. Sheldon Museum and Cultural Center, Haines, AK. (
  15. Emmons, George Thorton, The Tlingit Indians, (Fredrica de Laguna, ed.), University of Washington Press, 1991
  16. Andrew Hope III, Andy Hope, "Southeast Region: Reading Poles" in Sharing Our Pathways, A newsletter of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative. Volume 3, Issue 5, 1998.
  17. Go to:
  18. Holm, Bill, "Art and Culture Change at the Tlingit –- Eskimo border" in W. Fitzhugh & Crowell (eds.), Crossroads of Continents, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988, pp. 281 –- 293
  19. Go to:

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Last modified July 6, 2011