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The unique design elements or patterns used by traditional Tlingit carvers belong to what has become known as the Northwest Coast Indian style. This style, quite easily recognizable, portrayed creatures from the natural world in varying degrees of realism. Often they were split or fragmented with eyes, joints, fins, feathers or some other easily recognizable feature delineated with broad black formlines. Traditional colors were a green-blue and red. The Northwest Coast Indian style, present from Yakutat to Washington State has subtle stylistic differences in each region. Tlingit motifs may be classified as Northern Northwest Coast Indian art, a distinct style seen from approximately Bella Coola (British Columbia) to Yakutat Bay, Alaska.
At one time Tlingit carving was considered important by the outside world for its ethnological value. However, at the San Francisco Exposition of 1939, and later at a 1941 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Tlingit carving was displayed as art. Now it is a widely acknowledged art form highly prized by art lovers worldwide. Many modern Tlingit artists continue to carve in the traditional style.
Stone axes - were used for splitting wood.
Drills - were used for making holes by rotating the point In a piece of wood. The holes were then used for sewing or tying parts of an object together.
Carving knives - were made of stone, bone or shell before the introduction of metal. They were many shapes and sizes and were made to fit the carver's hand and purpose. Carving knives were used for different mediums including wood and metals.
Horn - Both goat and sheep horn were carved, usually into handsome feasting spoons.
Metals - Gold and silver coins were hammered into shapes and carved. Copper from the interior was also used.
Houseposts and Totem poles - Figures, or totems, carved on totem poles are comparable to family crests and are used to tell a story, legend, event, tradition, etc. The totemic symbols are usually animal -a bear, eagle or killer whale for example. Their significance comes from some mythical time when they affected the destiny of a groups ancestors. Perhaps an early clan was aided by some creature to ward off starvation or make an important discovery like fire.
To understand the meaning of a carved pole, it would be necessary to know what those who commissioned it intended it to mean. Sometimes the story has been passed down correctly to the present generation and sometimes it has been altered or lost.
The northern Tlingit people confined their crest poles mainly to houseposts, the poles supporting the main or entrance beams of a house.
Canoes - Canoes were the major means of transportation for coastal 'Tlingits. Small canoes were made for both men and women, large ocean- going canoes were owned by family groups. Great skill was required to carve a dugout canoe such as the one on exhibit at the museum. First an appropriate tree was selected; cottonwood for a small canoe and red or yellow cedar for a larger one. Red cedar was the favored wood, but it grows mainly in the land of the Haida Indians south of Tlingit territory. The Tlingits traded with the Haidas for the prized large cedar.
The log was first hollowed out with an adze then shaped by a process which involved filling it with water heated to a near boil with hot rocks. Hot steam penetrated the log making it soft and workable. At this point thwarts were forced between the sides, pushing them to the desired shape. The boat was then dried and smoked over a pitch fire which also blackened the wood. In the case of larger canoes, separate pieces were added to form the high prow and stem. Large canoes often had a carved figure on the prow and some were painted with crests and emblems. A waterproof, durable paint was made by mixing minerals, salmon eggs and chewed spruce gum and applied with a bear or porcupine hair brush.
Monuments in cedar
Unfortunately, these early-day missionaries misunderstood the cultural meaning of the totems, thinking that they were representative of idol worship, and they had many destroyed.
The purpose for these towering totems was, in fact, to record the history and legends of the Tlingits who, to this day, have no written language of their own.
For the Tlingits, totems had four main purpose:
Other poles told legends of the clan. The venerable totem of Kats House tells the story of Kats, a Tlingit brave who went into the woods to hunt grizzly bear, only to fall in love with a female bear who suddenly appeared to him as a woman. And so the story goes, of love, of death, of the revenge of a clan.
Totem were carved as memorials in honor of a deceased beloved or chief, whose ashes were placed in a compartment in the back of the pole.
Totems were created to commemorate an event such as the birth of a child or a brave deed by a hunter. An example is the Lincoln Pole commissioned by Ebbits, chief of a tribe that had lost its land and honor because they made the mistake of harboring the escaped slaves of the Tlingit and Haida. With the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867 also came news of how Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had freed the southern slaves--hence also ending slavery in Alaska. The indebted Ebbits erected a monument to Lincoln's memory...a striking likeness in frock coat and silk hat standing atop a 55-foot pole!
Of less frequent use were shame or debt poles, erected to make fun of someone who wronged the clan or village.
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