Sealaska Heritage


<<back to blog page

Q & A with Rosita Worl: Slavery among the Tlingit

At Sealaska Heritage, we field a lot of questions from the public, researchers and the media about Northwest Coast cultures. SHI President Rosita Worl, who is from the Shangukeidí Clan and a Tlingit anthropologist, spends considerable time answering these. Because the answers to some of these questions are of general interest, we’ve launched “Q & A with Rosita Worl” on our blog to share them with the public.

This blog post stems from a question Rosita recently received from a cultural historian on one of the cruise lines.

Question: Did the Tlingits keep slaves and is there a tie-in to the Lincoln Totem Pole?

Rosita Worl:  

In planning for an exhibit, I consulted with a number of Tlingit and reported that a section of the exhibit would focus on slavery.  One of the community members emphatically stated that we didn’t have slaves, we had “servants.” 

I’ve told my students that we are prone to romanticizing our culture and history, but to understand the reality and complexity of our culture, we need to assess both the positive and negative aspects of our culture.  In this instance, the reality is that slavery was a common practice among the Tlingits and all the tribes of the Northwest Coast.  Estimates suggest that one-third of the Tlingit population during the mid-1800s were slaves.

We did not fully understand the full contribution of slaves to the development of our society until Leland Donald’s 1997 study of slavery in the Northwest Coast of North America.  His meticulously researched study revealed that slaves were important for their labor and their value in trade.  He also found that slavery played a major role in the cultural forms such as potlatches, art production and ritual activities.[1]     

The slavery system in the United States, including the indigenous systems, legally ended with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which abolished slavery in 1865.  However, it persisted among the Tlingit until the early 1900s.    

The Tlingit challenged the constitutional amendment in In re Sah Quah[2] arguing in court that as an aboriginal group, they retained internal governing authority exclusive of the laws of the United States.  Because slave holding was permitted under Tlingit custom, and because they retained independent sovereignty, the Tlingits contended that federal laws prohibiting slavery did not apply to them.[3] 

Sah Quah was a Haida who reported that the Flathead Indians abducted him as a child after his parents, who were in Washington at the time, were killed. The Flatheads made him a slave and then sold him to the Stikines who in turn sold him to the Chilkats.  They in turn sold him to the Yakutats who then sold him to Nah-ki-klan, who was a resident of Sitka. Annahootz, a Sitka clan leader presumably of the Kaagwaantaan clan, testified that a male slave was worth fifty to sixty Hudson Bay blankets while women were worth about half as much.  Annahootz reported that they had captured slaves through raids.[4] 

The Alaska Federal District Court rejected the sovereign authority of Tlingit Indians to maintain the practice of slavery and held that the Tlingits, as residents of the United States, were subject to the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

William L. Paul, Sr., did extensive research on the so-called Lincoln Totem Pole in Ketchikan and refuted the claims made by Judge Wickersham that the first Lincoln totem pole was made to honor President Abraham Lincoln for freeing the slaves.[5]  The image on the totem is certainly that of Lincoln since a drawing or a photograph of Lincoln served as the model for the artist carving the totem pole.  However, the pole that was erected in 1883 at the Tongass Village was carved to commemorate the sighting of the “First White Man.”  

In 1922 Paul interviewed the Tlingit who had migrated from the Tongass village to Saxman years earlier.  None of them knew of any story of a Tongass pole being connected with the slavery issue.  They did, however, speak of the Proud Raven Pole.  The pole had a Raven at its base and a figure of a man wearing a stovepipe hat at the top.  Yahl-jeeyi of the Gahn-nux-uddy [Gaanax.ádi] clan commissioned a Tsimshian artist to carve the pole with his clan crest, the Raven, to commemorate that he or one of his ancestors was the first Tlingit to see a white man.  The carver needed an image of a white man and was given a photo of Lincoln that had been obtained from an officer of the Army stationed at Fort Tongass.  The top of the deteriorated Tongass totem of the First White Man seen by the Tongass Tlingit is now held in the Alaska State Museum.  A replica of the first Tongass pole was carved by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was erected in Saxman.  Wickersham’s invented story that the pole represents Lincoln apparently persists despite Paul’s overwhelming evidence that the pole represents the first white man who was seen by the Tongass Tlingit.  Paul also offers that freed slaves would not have had the resources to carve a totem pole honoring Lincoln as worthy as this effort might have been.  

Although we honor our culture, we are not proud of all aspects of our history.  The reality is that slavery was a part of our culture and played a critical role in its development. 

[1] Leland Donald.  Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America.  University of California Press.  1997. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London.

[2]  In re Sah Quah (1 Alaska. Fed. Reps 136 1886)        

[3] David S. Case and David A. Voluck.  Alaska Natives and American Laws Third Edition. University of Alaska Press. Fairbanks.  (25)

[4] Paul, William L. Sr., ”The Real Story of Lincoln Totem.” Alaska Journal. Summer 1971. Vol 1:No 3.  (2-16)

[5] See Worl Archives file, Paul, William L. Sr., “The Lincoln Totem Poles.” Sealaska Heritage Institute.