‘Reaffirming Tlingit customs and tradition’

Sharing our Knowledge: The Tlingit and their Coastal Neighbors
by Sergei Kan, with Steve Henrikson (eds.)

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2023
$60.95  / 9781496236883

Reviewed by Bruce Granville Miller


This volume, edited by Dartmouth College anthropologist Sergei Kan, derives in part from a series of papers presented in a conference held in 2007. That conference, and the impetus for the work presented in the papers, is a continuation of a project from the 1980s undertaken by Tlingit educator, poet, and activist Andrew Hope III to restore clan conferences which were held with the aim of reaffirming Tlingit customs and tradition. Tlingit participants and scholars, Kan tells us, worked together as equals and their writing is aimed at benefiting source communities through the repatriation of knowledge. The volume is organized into five thematic sections and an appendix, starting with “Our Elders and Teachers,” in which short chapters chronicle the lives of Indigenous teachers Louis Shotridge, Mark Jacobs Jr., and academics. The volume is heavily illustrated by historic and contemporary photos.

Sergei Kan, Dartmouth College anthropologist

There are two chapters about the controversial Louis Shotridge (born in 1882), who actively shaped the representation of Northwest Coast indigenous peoples primarily through the Tlingit clan stories and objects he collected, 570 of which he sold to the University of Pennsylvania museum. Cultural Anthropologist Lucy Williams notes that the families felt compelled to sell Shotridge their belongings during the depression era. In addition, Williams describes the development of a Shotridge digital archive. There is a nod to the work of Bryn Mawr College anthropologist Frederica de Laguna in the form of the story about a song de Laguna wrote and sang at a potlatch late in her life. A final chapter in this section concerns the Dauenhauers; Nora, a community member and oral historian and scholar and her husband, the late Richard Dauenhauer, a poet, scholar, and translator.  They, too, have been important elders and teachers and their work points to the significance of recognizing the individual personalities of story tellers and their approaches to oral literature. 

Louis Shotridge posing in Kaagwaantaan clan regalia at the Penn Museum ca 1912. Photograph no 140236, courtesy of the Penn Museum Archives

Then comes the center piece of this collection, namely the relationship of editor Kan to Tlingit culture-bearer Mark Jacobs Jr. (1923-2005). Two chapters are written by Jacob’s son Harold and detail his father’s life as a Tlingit historian, fisherman, and his role in law, repatriation, the Alaska Native Claims organization, land claims, and more. A chapter written by Jacobs himself recounts his own naval career. Kan’s chapter on Jacobs, his self-described teacher, friend and older brother, provides a history of their relationship beginning in 1979. In addition, Kan provides interesting commentary about Jacobs’ views—he critiqued the 1885 Tlingit ethnography written by German geographer Aurel Krause, liked the work of 19th century US naval officer and collector George Emmons, and, more significantly, wanted accurate information for land claims. Jacobs viewed old customs and culture as having legal and political functions but noted the emotional and spiritual dimensions of Tlingit culture. Having described the significance of Jacobs to Tlingit history, Kan connects himself to the story, writing “I believe that my [Tlingit clan] adoption and my subsequent efforts to fulfill my kinship obligations . . . as well as a strong feeling of friendship and mutual respect . . . [and consequently] Mark became my closest Tlingit friend and teacher for twenty-five years.” Later Kan quotes from a letter Jacobs sent him in 1984: “You have gained a unique trust of many of our people, not to mention my own . . . I believe you are a person that will honestly tell things as they are.” Further, “As he once told me, ‘Please feel free to write often; your letters are the first thing I ask about when I get home from my trips.’”

Mark Jacobs Jr. shortly before his death. Photo Harold Jacobs

All of this is important because the volume is meant, I think, to signal a good working and even kin relationship between anthropologists and Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast, and Kan appears to implicitly present the work in the volume as a model for other areas of Indigenous North America. Is it? A related question I have about this volume is whether the chapters are meant to speak beyond the narrow confines of Tlingit studies. The great majority of chapters neither mention nor cite significant work on similar topics undertaken elsewhere, or the nature of relationships between anthropologists and Indigenous people and communities. This volume is narrowly scoped within Tlingit studies.

Mique’l Icesis Dangeli “shows how photos can be used to validate clan lineage ceremonial rights.” Photo IPinCH

The volume segues to Part 2 on “Native History.” Judith Berman’s strong, detailed contribution is an attempt to combine Tlingit forms of history and primary documents to understand Tlingit social divisions. Diane Purvis writes meaningfully about the sometimes strange and complex interactions between historic Tlingit law and the other legal jurisdictions which have imposed themselves in their territory during the period of colonialism. Her work directly addresses Tlingit sovereignty and their right to apply their own laws. Tlingit citizen Mique’l Icesis Dangeli shows how photos can be used to validate clan lineage ceremonial rights.

Part 3: “Subsistence, Natural Resources, and Ethnogeography,” has fine chapters by Madonna Moss, Steve Langdon and Tom Thornton. Moss’s detailed archaeological study of the use of seabirds has implications for resource management and Indigenous rights to harvest seabirds. It fits into the category of what I call useful anthropology. Similarly, Langdon shows how Raven mythic accounts demonstrate ancestral linkages to place. His case study of the Hazy Islands reveals Tlingit cultural definitions and the associated practice/applications of the definitions. For example, the cultural definition of SHUKÁ- “connecting past, present, and future generations with specific ties to persons and events of clan significance,”in which the application is “Respectful sharing of seagull eggs . . . with elders . . .  [and] infants present at ceremonial distribution . . . of seagull eggs.” Thornton describes the cultural reawakening “incorporating place-names and Alaska Native epistemologies into curriculum.”

Bryn Mawr College anthropologist Frederica de Laguna in Tlingit dress, Angoon, Alaska, 1949. Photo Edward Malin

In Part 4: “Material Culture, Art, and Tourism,” Katie Bunn-Marcuse analyses the market for Tlingit and Haida jewelry and undercuts the widely held and now discredited theory of a “golden age” of Northwest Coast art followed by a period of deterioration. Her view is that at the turn of the twentieth century “there was actually a single unity art market with as much artistic variability in quality and technique as there is today.” She takes up a topic of considerable interest—the idea of a binary setting authentic versus non-traditional/inauthentic Indigenous cultural production which she attributes to ethnographer and folklorist Marius Barbeau (1883-1969) and George Emmons (1842-1945). Jewelry serves as a distinctive test case because, she writes, it is discounted as non-traditional due to preconceived ideas of authenticity. She asks if there are distinctions between Emmon’s categories of authentic and tourist jewelry, arguing that these categories are better understood as fluid. This is an important distinction in a period of debates and controversies over the sale of objects which are often dismissed as inauthentic but which are the products of Indigenous craftspeople/artists and are innovative and significant in their own right. Bunn-Marcuse advocates for a nuanced, less blunt understanding of collecting. Alexis Bunten uses the production of beadwork to consider the problem of the flooding of the market for distinctive Indigenous art by non-Indigenous people. She examines Tlingit protocol and customary law as it was taught to her by a Tlingit elder and points to the inability of western law to protect Indigenous artists. The volume concludes with an appendix on the traditional Tlingit social and ceremonial system by Kan.

Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology
Life Fellow, Girton College, University of Cambridge

This is a large and quite diverse volume, arguably long enough as is without going outside Tlingit studies. But in some instances, the work would benefit, and the volume have broader appeal, from considering leading work from outside the Tlingit world.  Bunten, for example, might have considered at least briefly Marilyn Strathern and her colleagues’ leading publications and conferences work on Indigenous design, copyright, theft, and related issues. The original and detailed work of Catharine “Kitty” McClellan and Julie Cruikshank with Tlingit (and also Tagish and Athabascan) women barely shows up. I noted only one bibliographic reference to Cruikshank. Why not consider Solen Roth’s work on the relationship of Indigenous artists to the art market and her idea of culturally modified capitalism?

Nevertheless, the chapters no doubt stimulate the debates outside of the people and region in question here. Two chapters provide examples of cooperative repatriation from the Penn Museum and the Smithsonian but also point to continuing problems. In the repatriation of a clan crest hat, the museum had to determine who or what entity had the rights to receive the hat and sometimes innovative solutions are needed. In my own work as chair of the collection committee of the Museum of Vancouver, we frequently face the same dilemma. An Indigenous claimant rightfully requested the repatriation of Sxwayxwey masks, purchased years earlier by the city archivist from Chief August Jack. The obstacle was that there were many descendants who might make a claim and the museum could not risk the problem arising from requests for the masks after repatriation. The resolution was to loan the masks to the claimant so he could dance them in the longhouse, a process which would allow people from the larger Coast Salish community to become aware of the repatriation underway and to make their own competing requests. In the event that no such requests were made, Coast Salish law would be satisfied. That did not happen and following the ritual work held in the summer of 2023 in Stanley Park, the site of the origin of the Sxwayxwey spiritual prerogative, the masks were signed over to conclude the repatriation.

These two chapters point to the possibility of repatriation to be celebratory and affirmative of cultural practices, a theme of the entire volume. But vexing problems remain. As Sharing our Knowledge makes clear, relationships between Indigenous peoples and society at large must and are changing, but good will and long-term effort are required. Of particular importance is that many of the chapters discuss research and collaboration which supports Indigenous sovereignty and show where anthropologists and practitioners of adjacent fields can usefully put their effort.

In a photo taken by Sergei Kan, Tlingit educator, poet, and activist Andrew Hope III is seen speaking at the first Sharing Our Knowledge conference in 1993. The ongoing conference, “is a continuation of a project from the 1980s undertaken by Andrew Hope III to restore clan conferences which were held with the aim of reaffirming Tlingit customs and tradition” writes Bruce Granville Miller.


Bruce Granville Miller. Photo by Martin Dee

Bruce Granville Miller is Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, UBC. Miller is the author of books and journal articles on Indigenous peoples and law and Coast Salish ethnohistory and contemporary society. Among the books are Witness to the Human Rights Tribunal: How the System Fails Indigenous Peoples (2023), Oral History on Trial: Recognizing Aboriginal Narratives in the Courts (2011), Invisible Indigenes: The Politics of Non-Recognition (2004), and The Problem of Justice: Tradition and Law in the Coast Salish World (2001). Miller has worked in Canada, the United States, Brazil, Taiwan, and Cuba. He is the recipient of the Weaver-Tremblay Award in Applied Anthropology from the Canadian Anthropology Society, the Srivastiva Prize, the Killam Research Prize and the Killam Teaching Prize. Miller has served as an expert witness in Canadian and US federal courts regarding treaty rights and in human rights tribunals.


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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