Tahltan (Native Americans of the Subarctic)

Tahltan, from the Tlingit for "basin-shaped tmp2063_thumb hollow," referring to a place at the mouth of the Tahltan River. There are also other possible origins and meanings of the name. Their self-designation was Titcakhanotene, "People of Titcakhan." They are sometimes classified, with the Kaska, as Nahani Indians and were culturally related to the Carrier.

Location The Tahltan lived, and continue to live, in northwest British Columbia, specifically the upper Stikine River drainage. They also shared the Stikine River Valley below Telegraph Creek with the Tlingit. The Tahltan hunted in the region in winter, whereas the Tlingit fished and gathered there in summer.

Population There were perhaps 2,000 Tahltans in the late eighteenth century and officially 1,330 in 1991.

Language Tahltan is a dialect of Tahltan-Kaska, an Athapsakan language.

Historical Information

History Tahltan history is in part a process of continuous adaptation of their native Athapaskan traditions to those of Pacific Coast cultures. Tahltans probably moved into their known territory in the seventeenth century. The rich natural resources of the region encouraged population growth, larger and more permanent habitations, acquisition of more material goods, increased social stratification, and a more complex culture in general.

Tlingit-Tahltan contact intensified after non-natives established a presence along the coast in the early nineteenth century. At that time, trade and the production of furs became increasingly important. As wealth grew, stratification became more pronounced. At the same time, with so many people dying, opportunities were rife for social mobility.

Major epidemics began in the early nineteenth century when coastal people brought germs into the interior. Up to 75 percent or more of Tahltans died from epidemics during the nineteenth century. Sustained contact with non-natives came when gold was discovered below Glenora in 1861 and especially after the 1874 gold strike at Cassiar. At that point, the Tahltan no longer controlled the Stikine River territory. In the late nineteenth century, survivors of various bands coalesced into one unit, or tribe, with a head chief. They built Tahltan village, a log house community.

The trend toward loss of land and control over their own destinies became even stronger following the Klondike gold rush of 1898, as thousands of non-native prospectors, missionaries, tourists, and entrepreneurs rushed into the region. Although many people were drawn into the wage economy as guides, wranglers, and government employees, most Indians remained engaged in traditional subsistence activities through the mid-twentieth century. Major employment opportunities during and after World War II included highway construction and asbestos mining.

Religion The people recognized a sky god and a sun god. Adolescent boys fasted in wilderness vision quests to obtain guardian animal or bird spirits and songs. Shamans dreamed powerful guardian animal spirits.

Government Six autonomous bands were each associated with a particular hunting territory. Leadership was relatively weak, and band membership was fluid. Eventually, under Tlingit influence, the bands became clans, which were led by a chief who inherited his office through his mother’s line. (In the mid-eighteenth century a seventh clan was created, but it remained more of a Tlingit than a Tahltan entity.) Family and possibly clan leaders might be women. Clan leaders constituted an informal council. In about 1875, a single "tribal" leader emerged.

Customs Two matrilineal divisions, Raven and Wolf, each contained three of the clans. Eventually, the three clans in each division came to share hunting territories. People were socially ranked as either nobles, commoners, or slaves. The latter category was permanent, and the children of slaves were born slaves.

Commoners, however, could enter the nobility by accumulating wealth and giving potlatches and/or through marriage. Titles, which confirmed social status, could be inherited but also had to be earned, mainly by potlatching. Three kinds of potlatches existed among the Tahltans: those given by parents to acknowledge their childrens’ rank, those given by rivals to increase their status, and memorial potlatches.

Men toughened themselves with icy plunges and by self-flagellation with willow switches. Girls reaching adolescence remained secluded for up to two years, receiving intensive training in the female tasks during that time and enduring a number of food and behavior taboos, such as keeping their faces covered. Young men served a prospective wife’s family for a period of time before the wedding.

Widowers often married a sister of their late wife. Women were supported by—and often married—their nephews when their husbands died. The dead were cremated, after which the bones were placed on a post or within a small box raised off the ground. Death chants were sung for the dying and the dead. When a prominent person died, one of his slaves might be killed or, alternatively, freed.

Dwellings Tahltans lived in pole-frame lean-tos with bark roofs and earth-and-bough packing. Those who could covered the poles with moose hide. At semipermanent fishing villages, the people built bark-roofed huts with straight sapling walls and gabled roofs. In the main village, clans built structures up to 100 or more feet long that housed the clan’s main families and served as a ceremonial hall. There were also special living and club houses for young, unmarried men.

Diet Tahltans ate mainly game, including caribou, moose, bear, buffalo, and a range of smaller animals, such as marmot and beaver. Dogs assisted in hunting. Fish, especially salmon, were an important part of the diet. Women gathered roots, berries, and other plant foods.

Key Technology Men hunted using bows and arrows, snares, deadfalls, spears, and traps. Caribou were caught in surrounds. People fished using weirs and a variety of nets. Women made various sized babiche net bags as well as bark cooking vessels. Babies were carried in leather bags.

Trade Tahltans had long-standing trade and other personal contacts with Tlingit, Kaska, and Sekani groups. They imported eulachon and salmon oil, dentalium and abalone shells and ornaments, stone axes, woven blankets, and slaves (who originated among the Haida). Exports included moose and caribou products (such as cured hides and babiche) and furs.

Notable Arts Tahltans ornamented everyday objects, often with geometric designs.

Transportation The people made a few relatively poor quality spruce-bark canoes and temporary rafts. When people traveled overland, which they preferred to water travel, they might use snowshoes and carry baskets with tumplines. Women pulled a rough toboggan.

Fishing remains one of the Tahltan Indian's economic staples. These nets are hung out to dry along the Stikine River.

Fishing remains one of the Tahltan Indian’s economic staples. These nets are hung out to dry along the Stikine River.

Dress Tanned skin and fur clothing included shirts and leggings, often with attached moccasins, for men and dresses (long shirts), leggings, and moccasins for women. Both sexes wore goat-skin and woven rabbit-fur robes as well as various personal adornments. Clothing was often decorated with quillwork.

War and Weapons Tahltans periodically fought the Inland Tlingit, Taku River Tlingit, and the Tsimshian (Ness River branch), mostly over trade and the use of subsistence areas. Weapons included bows and arrows, spears, and knives as well as antler bayonets. Warriors also used goat-skin helmets and armor. They took scalps and held women prisoners for ransom. There was also some ceremonial cannibalism. Allies included other Tlingit groups, the Dease River Kaska, and the Bear Lake Sekani.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Tahltan Band, located at Telegraph Creek, owns 11 reserves with a total land area of 3, 230 hectares. Band population in the mid-1990s was 1,309, of whom 238 lived on the reserves. A chief and councilors are elected according to provisions of the Indian Act. The band is unaffiliated.

The Iskut Band is of Sekani origin.

Economy Hunting, fishing, and trapping are still important. There is also some work as sport guides and miscellaneous seasonal and government wage work.

Legal Status The bands listed under "Government/ Reservations" are federally recognized.

Daily Life Children attend band and provincial schools. Tahltan band facilities include a community hall, an arts and crafts center, and stores.

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