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Q & A with Rosita Worl: A primer on clan leaders

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 answers questions about clan leaders.

I often field questions about clan leaders—who they are, how they are selected and the attributes and responsibilities of clan leaders. In 2009, I authored the draft paper below exploring this subject and I offer it here as a reference. At the end, the paper includes names of clan leaders—I would note that this list is incomplete and that it needs to be updated—but it serves as a starting point for researchers. The paper was circulated throughout the region and through the Council of Traditional Scholars for review and comment.


I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr. Walter Soboleff and Clarence Jackson, who have served as my professors for a number of years, in reviewing and commenting on this paper.

Although I was reared in the Tlingit society, I began my first directed research and study on Tlingit culture in the late 1960s.  I began my academic studies shortly thereafter and was introduced to the general ethnographic literature on Tlingit culture, a few of which are cited in this paper.  What is not referenced are the contributions of innumerable Tlingit scholars to my learning such as John Marks, Cecelia Kuntz, George Davis, Austin Hammond, David Katzeek and many others, who have collectively guided me through my studies.  In addition, through the kind invitation of the Huna People, I have been able to attend their annual clan conferences and have benefited immensely from their discussions. 

I realize that Native People have often dismissed the work of anthropologists, who have studied among our People.  Although I may not always agree with the writings of the anthropologists who have published their work on our culture, I would like to acknowledge their efforts to work with our ancestors, who contributed to their knowledge.  I am pleased that we have a record of our ancestors’ words, which were spoken and recorded by anthropologists from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.

The first draft of this paper was completed in 1995 and was sent out to all Tlingit and Haida community contacts for review and comment.  I have submitted my revised paper of 1999 to the Sealaska Second Historic Sites Management Conference of April 6-8, 1999 and offered a revised version in Tlingit:At.óow:  Tangible and Intangible Property.  I am again submitted this paper in April 2009 to the Sealaska Heritage Institute Council of Traditional Scholars for their review and comment. 

The Clan Leaders List is not complete and is consistently revised and updated as information is received.   


The clan is the basic social unit within the Tlingit society.  Its membership, who acknowledge a common ancestry, is comprised of individuals, who trace their kinship through the maternal line.  Larger clans are dispersed through two or more communities (the term “localized” clan refers to a clan of a specific community), but not all clans are represented in every community.  Clan members, who are dispersed through multiple communities, recognize their kinship and may act collectively in ceremonial activities.

In the recent historical period, the practice of adopting non-Tlingit individuals into clans developed.  More often these are individuals who have married a Tlingit.  They are also known to assist clan members and support clan activities or their professional work has benefited the Native community.  Individuals, who are to be adopted, are given names that are owned by the adopting clan.  Through their adoption, they receive the right to participate in ceremonial activities and wear clan crests owned by the adopting clan.  They are also expected to assist in clan sponsored activities.  However, clan leaders adamantly insist that adopted clan members do not possess the prerogatives of a member who was born into the clan.  They cannot assume the office of caretaker or trustee of clan property, speak on behalf of the clan, or transfer clan names including the name that he or she acquired through adoption.  The rights of an adopted clan member parallel life estate stock in which the rights of clan membership end with the death of the adopted clan member.  Because of this limitation, clan membership rights are not automatically transferred to the offspring of the adopted clan member[1].  In the 1995 Sealaska Clan Conference, several clan leaders urged restraint in adopting non-Tlingit because of the increasing trend and the assumption of prerogatives by adopted clan members of rights that are held only by clan members.

The Clan House as Social and Residential Units  

The clan is sub-divided into house units.  A clan house is both a social unit and a residential unitThe social unit is comprised of individuals who are born into the house through their maternal line in the same way that they are born into a clan and are members of a clan or house.  The individuals identify themselves as members of a named house even though they may have never resided in the house.  

The clan house, as a residential unit, was formerly inhabited by a group of matrilineally-linked males, their wives and offspring.  These matrilineally-linked males are members of the same clan, but their wives come from different or opposite clans.  Women lived in their father’s or husband’s clan house.  When their sons reached the age of ten, they left their mother and moved into their own clan house with their maternal uncle.  Interestingly, women never lived in their clan house unless their spouse had died, and they never remarried.  In this instance, the widow would return to her clan house.  These residential house units served as the economic unit in which the members of the house conducted the subsistence harvest necessary to support the house.

The house as a residential unit no longer exists in the present period.  Today, the extended family of matrilineally linked males that formerly lived in a clan house is dispersed through several single family dwellings living as nuclear families.  A few clan houses remain standing, but they are either inhabited by a single nuclear family or are used only for ceremonial purposes. 

On the other hand, the house as a social unit has survived into the present day period.  Individuals continue to identify themselves as member of a house despite the absence of a physical house.  The house continues to operate primarily in the ceremonial sphere. 

House and Clan Leaders

House and clan leaders are commonly identified as "chief," but, the more appropriate English translation is "leader."  Tlingit clan leaders govern with the consent of clan members, and they cannot act independently or with exclusive authority which is a legitimate power in societies which maintain the office of chief. 

The term Sháade háni is used to refer to a clan leader.  However, the terms Naa Sháade háni, Haa Shukadeikaa, and Tlingit Tlein are also used to refer to the clan leader or head person.   A house leader is called Hit s’áati which closely translates to "master of the house."  Hit s'áati may also be translated as "owner of the house."  However, it must be emphasized that this designation does not imply that the Hit s'áati actually owns the house or clan objects since he holds property in trust for house and clan members.

Formerly each house had its own leader, and the senior ranking house leader within a community generally served as the localized clan leader or the leader of the clan within the community.  Thus a clan that was dispersed among several communities had clan leaders from each of the communities in which it was represented.  In the present day period, only a few clans have more than one or two active houses with recognized house leaders. 

According to Goldschmidt and Haas (1946, 11), one clan leader from each moiety---Eagle and Raven---was recognized as one of the community leaders which indicates that every village had two leaders.  They represented the senior leadership in any community-wide initiative whether for war or peaceful activities.  In the present period, community leaders tend to be drawn from the local tribal or municipal government, the village Native corporation that was created under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act or the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood camps.

Attributes of Clan Leaders

Men were selected in their early youth to undergo rigorous training to become clan leaders.  The uncle oversaw the education of his maternal nephews.  His physical condition, personal attributes, character and social standing were among the criteria considered in the selection of a clan leader.  He was expected to be exemplary in all aspects of Tlingit life.  He was a leader in the political, economic, and ceremonial spheres.  He had to demonstrate willingness and an ability to meet the multiple responsibilities to his clan and hold the welfare of the clan above his own.  He was expected to be knowledgeable about his clan history, ceremonial practices and protocols, and Tlingit law and to assume the general responsibilities of a clan leader. 

Present day clan leaders are expected to possess these same traits.  However, some individuals who might otherwise have been selected and appointed as clan leader have been precluded from serving in this office because they violated the exogamous marriage rule and married women from their own moiety.   These “Double Eagle” or “Double Raven” marriages are not uniformly accepted[2] by Tlingit, who adhere to the traditional values and practices.  They are concerned that individuals, who have violated the exogamous marriage rule, will not command the respect of clan members and be able to lead.  These traditionalists have posed the question, “Who is going to listen to he who has married his sister?” 

The exogamous rule, however, has become increasingly relaxed in the last several decades.  A number of instances have existed in which prominent men have married within their moiety, and they have been appointed to clan leadership.  In some cases, their wives may be adopted into an opposite clan of their husband. 

Some men have declined the appointment of clan leader because they were unwilling to make the personal commitment of their time, energy and financial resources to meet the responsibilities associated with the office of clan leader.  Others have declined because they are Christians and perceive a conflict with traditional ideologies, religious beliefs and ceremonial rites and practices.

Responsibilities of Clan Leaders    

Traditionally the clan leader served as the spokesperson in ceremonial and political activities.  According to the general process, the house leaders met to discuss issues and then agreed upon a course of action.  The house leaders then convened a clan council assembly in which all adult males of the localized clan had an equal right to voice his opinion.  The historical records indicate that older women and women of high status participated in clan council discussions.  The senior ranking house leader, who was the recognized clan leader, presided over clan council meetings and sought consensus.  Majority rule prevailed, however in most cases, the decisions made by the house leaders in their own meeting were adopted (Emmons 1991, 40). 

A clan leader might serve also as the lead warrior.  However, an individual who was not necessarily the senior clan leader might be appointed as the leading war chief.  In this instance, the individual was selected because of his valor, decisiveness, and military skills, but his authority was limited to military strategic decisions and leading his warriors into battle.    

The Hit s'áati or maternal uncle serves as principal educator for the young nephews, who stand in line along with his own younger brothers, to hold his office.  He is responsible for all aspects of his nephews’ training.  He conditions them physically, trains them in the legends and history of the clan and the song and stories owned by their clan.  He teaches them about the ceremonial rites and protocols and his responsibilities towards other clan members.  He teaches them about hunting and fishing and about the proper conduct for Tlingit males.  Since the survival of the clan was linked to the leadership capabilities of the nephew, he was subject to a continuous evaluation by his maternal uncle to ensure that he mastered all of the requisites to assume the office of house or clan leader.     

A primary responsibility of clan leaders is to hold the house and clan property in trust for other house/clan members.  He is not free to make independent decisions in regards to clan property.  While he is highly respected, his actual authority is limited, and major decisions that involved clan property and the interest of the clan are always subject to clan consent (Emmons 1991, 27, 39).  Anthropologists, such as Goldschmidt and Haas (1946, 17), who have studied Tlingit culture, uniformly report that the clan leader's rights to property are subject to certain restrictions.  They cite the cardinal rule that "he cannot sell the right [to property] though it may be transferred in legal settlement to another group...."  Olson (1967, 37) reaffirms the position that the trustee alone does not have the authority to sell or otherwise dispose of clan property.  In those cases in which clan leaders have sold clan objects, they are viewed with disdain and have become outcastes of the clan. 

In the present day period, the primary responsibilities of clan leaders are in the social and ceremonial sphere.  He must be able to organize his clan members to maintain the clan house if the clan should have a clan house.  He must be able to organize them to provide the ceremonial services upon the death of individuals who are of the opposite moiety and clans and to participate in memorial rites associated with the departure of the deceased spirit from the natural world and in the ku.éex’ and other ceremonial activities.  He then leads the ceremonial activities.  He continues to serve as the trustee for clan property.  If he does not reside in his traditional community or where his clan house is located, he may appoint a trustee to represent him and to assume the responsibility of caring for the clan house and property.  The clan leader must also ensure that the ownership of his clan property, including names, songs, stories and crests, are maintained.

The clan leader must also meet the responsibilities and obligations to other clans.  He must assist them ceremonially and contribute funds according to established protocols.  He must be willing to assist in the necessary memorial rites and ceremonies and to make the appropriate responses from his clan.    

Selection of Clan Leaders

The oldest male of the house generally serves as the house leader.  However, age or seniority is not the sole requisite in the appointment of a house or clan leader, and senior-aged clan leaders retire if they cannot continue to meet the responsibilities of the office.  The character, abilities, social standing and evidence of commitment to work for the clan as previously outlined are all considerations in the selection and appointment of a clan or house leader.  Older clan leaders who are no longer able to perform the obligatory functions and official responsibilities may retire from office and designate a younger house or clan member to succeed him.  However, the clan must agree as to who will become the next clan leader.

Clan leaders were also selected from the ranks of married men.  A bachelor had no standing for leadership since he was viewed as only “half there.”  Furthermore, a bachelor lacked the support of a wife, and perhaps more significantly, the support of a spouse’s clan, which was essential in many activities.    

With the abandonment of clan houses, an increasing number of Tlingit identify solely with their clan.   Another evident change is the unification of localized clans from different communities.  Coincident with this trend is the selection and appointment of a single clan leader to represent all clan members irrespective of their residence.  This is, in part, due to the widespread migration of Tlingit to different communities and away from the traditional home base of their clan.  However, many localized clans still have their own recognized clan leaders.  Additionally, a number of clans have been recognizing house leaders.       

While women did not generally serve as clan leaders, older women of high rank had considerable influence in political and economic actions affecting the clan (de Laguna in Emmons 1991, 40).  In rare occasions, a woman might serve temporarily as a clan leader if no other eligible, adult males are available.  She served in this capacity until her son or another eligible and qualified male became old enough to assume the office.  

In summary, the oldest person within a clan stood first in line to assume the Hits'aati or Sháade háni position, but he could be passed over should he lack the character, qualities and abilities to assume the office.  If a younger brother or nephew were not available, a high ranking woman could hold this position until an eligible male is old enough to assume leadership. 

Transference of Office: Validation of Clan Leaders

Formerly all adult males of a localized clan approved of the selection and appointment of its clan leader.  Older women and women of high status were also known to participate in this process.  On rare occasions, a clan leader may designate one of his trainees as his successor.  However, the ultimate appointment of a clan leader is subject to approval of clan members, and on occasion, clan members have rejected the selection made by a clan leader.

The official ceremony validating a new clan leader usually occurs a year after the death of the clan's former leader and during his ku.éex or memorial party.  In this ceremony, the clan distributes large sums of money and goods, and the new leader is officially recognized.  The clan property over which the new clan leader will act as trustee is ritually presented.  Because of the concern of clan leaders selling clan objects, individuals who are assuming the office of clan leader, are now reminded by elders during the validation ceremony that their rights are limited to acting as a trustee and that they have no authority to sell clan property.

In the present day period, not all clans have formally recognized leaders who have been ceremoniously validated.  In this instance, the most senior persons generally act unofficially in this capacity.  Another evident example has been the designation by a clan leader prior to his death of several individuals to serve as trustee over clan property.   This action has generally been formalized in a will.  Some clans have survived and continue to function without the appointment of a clan leader.       


The office of clan leader was formerly an extremely influential position.  The position was held in high esteem and coveted by young men.  Its former strength derived in part from a clan’s control of land, wealth and resources and their role in the ceremonial rites.  As clans lost control of the ownership of their land along with the movement of the Tlingit into nuclear family dwellings away from clan houses, the significance of the office of clan leader waned.  Clan leaders influenced by Western education and values also violated traditional laws and sold clan property which furthered diminished respect for this office.  However, the strength and functions of the clan and clan leaders persist primarily in the ceremonial sphere.  In the present day period, a resurgence of clan activities and the growing recognition and prominence of clan leaders are occurring.  This can be attributed to multiple causes including the clan and clan leaders’ meetings sponsored by the Huna Totem Foundation and Sealaska Corporation, the return of clan objects from museums under the authority of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a general acceptance that the traditional ideologies and ceremonial practices and rites are acceptable and valued, and actions of several strong clan leaders who continued their ceremonial functions to restore and maintain balance and harmony within the traditional Tlingit society. 


de Laguna, Frederica
1991 The Tlingit Indians.  Edited with additions by Frederica de Laguna and a biography by Jean Low.  University of Washington Press, Seattle and London. American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Emmons, George T.
1991 The Tlingit Indians.  Edited with additions by Frederica de Laguna and a biography by Jean Low.  University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.  American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Goldschmidt and Haas
1946 Possessory Rights of Natives of Southeastern Alaska.  A Report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Olson, R. L.
1967 Social Structure and Social Life of the Tlingit in Alaska.  Anthropological Records Volume 26.  University of California Publications. Reprinted 1976 by Kraus Reprint Co.  Millwood, New York.

Identified Tlingit Clan & House Leaders[3]



              Yéil Hit: Joey Zuboff

              Basket Bay House: Cyril George


Wooshkeetaan: George Jim

Teikweidí: Frank Jack


L'eeneidí: Ed Gambell







Chookaneidí: George Martin                  Lily White           

Kaagwaantaan: Frank White

Wooshkeetaan: Sam Hanlon, Sr.               

Shangukeidí: Ozzie Sheakley


              Mt. Fairweather: 

                                                      Adam Greenwald, Trustee

                                                      Ken Grant, T’akdeintaan Spokesperson

                                                      Ron Williams, Trustee Council

                                                      Karl Greenwald, Trustee Council

                                                      Frank O. Williams, Trustee Council

                                                      Albert Dick, Trustee Council

              Head House: Pat Mills

              Sockeye House: John Martin





Yexte Hit (L’eeneidí): Rosa Miller



Gaanax.ádi: James (Jimbo) Roberts

Taakw.aaneidí: Oliver Rowan









Ketchikan/Taanta Kwaan


Kaats Hít: ilton (Booch) Jackson


Drifted Ashore House: George Ridley




                 Keet Gooshi Hít: John Katzeek

Kaagwaantaan: Joe Hotch

Shangukeidí: David Katzeek

                      Ozzie Sheakley (Hoonah)

                      Tom  Abbott (Saxman)

Gaanax.ádí - Yéil: Chief Johnson

Saxman/Saanya Kwáan

Neix.adi-Beaver/Halibut: Harvey Shields       


              Xoots Hít: Charles Denny

              Xoots Kou ou Hít: Martin Perez Sr.



Chookaneidí: John Nielson          

Kaagwaantaan: Kusataan Herman Kitka

              Wolf House: Taax Shaa – Charlie Daniels

              Eagle Nest Hít: Daalgenk’ – William Kanosh

Kiks.ádi: Ray Wilson

L’uknax.ádi: Herman Davis

              Kayaashka Hít: Chuck Miller





Teeyhíttaan: Richard Rinehart, Sr.


Teikweidí: Elsie Beatte, Inga (Ingwalt) Totland

Shangukeidí: Arlene Henry/Fred White (adopted)

L’uknax.ádi: Lorraine Adams, George Ramos


              Owl House: Elaine Abraham (Owl)

              Moon House: Lena Farkas and Nellie Lord

              Fort House: Byron Mallott

Galyax kaagwaantaan: Evelyn Dierick, Caroline Donohue, Ted Valle.

Wooshkeetaan (Shark): Marie Shodda


Haida Clan Leaders





[1]Clan membership is acquired as a birth right.  Individuals are member of a clan through their birth into a clan.  The child has ownership right to clan property because of his/her clan membership which conceptually is a different process than inheritance in which the child may acquire or inherit property through the legal transfer of property from the parent.     

[2]Ironically, marriage of a clan leader to a non-Tlingit is more acceptable than marriage to a Tlingit from the same moiety.

[3] This list is incomplete, and the author extends her apologies for the names of clans, houses or clan leaders that have not been included.  Please contact the author if you have the names that should be included on this list.