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The History of the Tlingit for AP U.S. History

Cate O'Donnell

4 min read

Apr 26




The Tlingit tribe is an illustrative example of the Native American Societies before European Contact topic in Period 1 of AP U.S. History. You could reference this example on your AP U.S. History test.

Native American Art

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Tlingit people thrived along the southeastern coast of Alaska, an area characterized by rugged coastlines, dense rainforests, and abundant rivers. Known for their complex clan system, exquisite artistry, and deep spiritual beliefs, they developed a rich cultural heritage that was closely linked to the land and its resources.

The Tlingit inhabited a region marked by a temperate rainforest climate, which provided a lush, resource-rich environment. The area’s extensive waterways, both freshwater and marine, offered ample fishing opportunities, particularly for salmon and halibut, which were staples of the their diet. This bountiful setting allowed the Tlingit to establish permanent villages, unlike many other indigenous groups that might have needed to move seasonally.

Tlingit society was organized around a complex clan system, with each clan descending from a common ancestor and associated with specific animals or natural elements, which they regarded as their crests. These crests were significant in their culture, appearing on totem poles, ceremonial robes, and canoes. Society was matrilineal, meaning lineage and inheritance passed through the mother’s line. This structure influenced all aspects of social life, including marriage, which was typically arranged to strengthen inter-clan relationships.

Men and women had distinct yet complementary roles within Tlingit society. Men were primarily responsible for hunting, fishing, and warfare, while women gathered plants and berries, processed food, and produced intricate baskets and textiles. Women were also skilled weavers, known for their beautiful Chilkat blankets, which were made from mountain goat wool and cedar bark.

The Tlingit constructed large, durable clan houses from the abundant cedar wood, a practice that reflected their permanent settlement pattern. These houses were often impressive structures, adorned with elaborate carvings that depicted the clan’s history and crests. Within these communal homes, several families from the same clan lived together, sharing the large, open interior space, which was also used for social gatherings and ceremonial activities.

The clans participated in regional trade networks, exchanging a diverse array of goods that showcased their abundant local resources and expert craftsmanship. They traded surplus dried salmon and eulachon oil, which was highly valued for its nutritional and medicinal properties. They were known for their beautifully crafted totem poles, intricately carved jewelry, and Chilkat blankets, made from mountain goat wool and cedar bark, which were highly sought after by other tribes.

Their trading partners included several neighboring tribes, which helped strengthen economic and cultural connections. They conducted extensive trade with the Haida and Tsimshian tribes to the south, exchanging valuable goods for items not available in their coastal environment. From inland tribes like the Athabascans, the Tlingit acquired copper, birch bark, and animal pelts, crucial for various uses within their own community. This active trading network not only allowed the Tlingit to access scarce resources but also facilitated significant cultural exchanges and reinforced political alliances, often solidifying these relationships through strategic marriages and peace offerings.

Spirituality was deeply integrated into daily life, with the Tlingit believing in a world where spiritual and physical realms intersected. Shamanism played a central role in Tlingit spirituality, with shamans acting as intermediaries between the human world and the spirit world. They performed rituals to cure illnesses, control the weather, and ensure successful hunting or fishing expeditions. Totem poles, which are perhaps one of the most recognized symbols of Tlingit culture, served not just as artistic expressions but also as embodiments of the tribe’s genealogy and spiritual beliefs.

The initial contact between the Tlingit people and Europeans occurred in the late 18th century when Russian explorers, traders, and settlers arrived in southeastern Alaska. These encounters marked a profound shift in the Tlingit’s way of life, introducing new technologies and trade opportunities but also challenging their sovereignty and cultural practices. The Europeans were eager to capitalize on the region’s rich fur resources, leading to the establishment of trading posts and settlements. While this opened up new markets for the Tlingit, particularly in the fur trade, it also brought diseases like smallpox, to which the Tlingit had no immunity, devastating their population. Moreover, tensions over resource control and land rights frequently led to conflicts, fundamentally altering the Tlingit’s traditional ways of life. Despite these challenges, the Tlingit remained resilient, adapting to the new realities while striving to preserve their rich cultural heritage and autonomy in the face of growing European influence.


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The Tlingit FREE Reading Passage

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The Tlingit of the Northwest

Enter the Tlingit World



Totem Poles


Native American Societies Before European Contact

Period 1

AP U.S. History

The Tlingit


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Tlingit”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Nov. 2023, Accessed 26 April 2024.

“The Tlingit.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Accessed 26 Apr. 2024.

“Tlingit History: Haines Sheldon Museum.” Haines Sheldon Museum | Preserving Our Past for the Future, 25 June 2021,

“Tlingit.” Tlingit – Early History, First Contact with Europeans, The Land Claims Period, Accessed 26 Apr. 2024.

#NativeTribe #Tlingit

Cate O'Donnell

4 min read

Apr 26




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