Northwest Coastal (Kwakiutl, Tlingit and Tsimshian) Study Guide

The materials on this page are intended for use by students enrolled in ANTH 329 North American Indians. This page and its references are periodically up-dated.


Reading Assignments

Gill 1982: 72-73 and 124-129, and review 114-138

Oswalt and Neely 1999:249-289


The primary focus of this section will be on the Tlingit of Alaska and the Northwest Coast culture area. Additional references will also be made to the Quileute and Tsimshian peoples. The Kwakuitl are also a well-known people of the area.

The Northwest Coast culture area extends along some 2,000 miles of coastline from the Alaskan Panhandle in the north to the northern tip of California in the south.

The Northwest Coastal peoples, such as the Haida, Kwakiutl, Tlingit and Tsimshian, are known for their richly developed symmetrical and stylized art forms, represented in the dance masks and totem poles, their stratified and ranked social order of nobles, commoners and slaves, and an intricate pattern of give-aways, known as the "potlatch." The aesthetic and religious expression researched its fullest expression during the "winter ceremonials." Members of the secret societies, such as the Kwakuiult Hamatsa (Cannibal Spirit), would re-enact the oral traditions, wearing colorful masks and performing elaborate dances. Living in wood-planked housing in sedentary villages, the Northwest Coastal peoples subsisted on an abundance of salmon fishing and traveled on the waterways in ocean-going dugout canoes.

Key Concepts and Terms

  1. Raven
  2. wood-based art and formline
  3. rank
  4. potlatch
  5. Chilkat blankets
  6. coopers
  7. totem poles
  8. Bakoos and Tsetseka
  9. transformation masks
  10. Hamatsa and Bakbakwalanooksiwal
  11. paxala
  12. raven rattles, oyster catcher rattles
  13. soul catchers

Study Guide Questions

  1. Discuss the seasonal-cycle of subsistence activity among the Tlingit.
  2. Discuss the significance of "totem poles" in relation to the larger context of artistic and symbolic style, religious orientation, and social structure of the Tlingit. Discuss the principle design features in Kwakiutl and Tlingit art?
  3. What roles do moieties and rank play in Tlingit society?
  4. What is the significance of the Tlingit "potlatch," or kueex?
  5. What are the major traditional cultural characteristics distinguishing Yupik, Crow and Tlingit societies? How is each people unique from the other two? Among the broad cultural expressions, consider where appropriate: oral traditions, religious concepts and ceremonialism, kinship and social organization, intertribal relations, and subsistence patterns.
  6. Compare and contrast the "life-cycle" experiences of the Tlingit, with those of the Crow, Yupik, and Tlingit.
  7. Discuss the changes occurring in Tlingit subsistence activities, from aboriginal times, into the 20th Century, and today. Why has "subsistence" become the most contentious issue in Alaskan politics?
  8. What is the history and significance of "brotherhoods" among the Tlingit?
  9. Discuss the ceremonial structure and symbolic significance of the Kwakiutl Winter Ceremonial, considering such features as the importance of masks and dance, reciprocity, rites of passage and giveaway.

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