Clans Seek Compensation

Tlingit property rights include both tangible and intangible property. A clan’s intangible property includes clan crests, names, designs, songs, and oral traditions. When a clan member was insulted, injured, or killed, whether intentionally or accidentally, and if the offending clan failed to pay the liability resulting from the injury, the clan suffering the injury could take and hold the offending clan’s crest or property until the debt was repaid. This law applied to non-Tlingit. During encounters with the American military, Tlingit clans sometimes took the name or uniform of the military officer responsible for an offense.

Alaska State Library, Three head-men of the Chilkat Tribe (1907), ASL-PCA-39, Case and Draper, Photographs, 1898-1920

Shwáatgi with Sx’andu.oo and Ka-sh-ak

In this photograph, Shwáatgi is on the right with Sx’andu.oo (a shaman) in the middle and Ka-sh-ak on the left.

In 1883, Lt. Frederick Schwatka led an exploring expedition over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River.  He hired Yindayáank’ of the Shangukeidí clan from Klukwant as a guide and packer.

When Lt. Schwatka failed to adequately compensate Yindayáank’ for his service, his clan took the explorer’s military uniform and name as payment.

The Shangukeidí transformed his name to “Shwáagi” meaning “My Schwatka,” a name which is held today by living members of the clan.  Clan members also occasionally wear military-style uniform to commemorate this liability.

Military Jackets

This coat is another example of a military-style jacket appropriated by a clan as compensation for an unpaid debt incurred by the US military.  This jacket is owned by a member of the Shangukeidí clan and refers to the underpayment by an Army officer, Lt. Schwatka, to Yindayáank’, a Shangukeidí man who was hired as a packer for Lt. Schwatka on his travel over the Chilkoot Pass.  Besides the coat, Yindayáank’ took the name of Schwatka, transforming it to Schwatki (“My Schwatka”) in recognition of the underpayment.  

Private Loan

According to clan history, this military jacket was acquired by three young Kaagwaantaan men who set off in pursuit for a naval ship after a crewman stepped on the blanket worn by their clan leader, tearing the valuable garment.

Several young clan members took off after the sailing vessel and tracked it down in another village.  They fired upon a small boat carrying the captain and crew as it approached their hiding place. They boarded the boat, taking the military jacket as compensation for the insult to their leader.  They brought the jacket back with them to Sitka as proof that they achieved their mission to avenge the insult to their clan leader.

Sealaska Heritage Institute Collection


Military Naval Hat

This hat is replicated from a military naval hat and is a navy blue, round, felt hat with glass beads and shell tassels hanging around the edges.  The glass beads are of many different colors strung in a line with a shell at the end of each tassel.  The shells resemble the fluke of a whale.  The hat is Tsimshian in origin.

Felt, glass beads, shell. |  Sealaska Heritage Institute Collection

Yanwaasháa S’áaxu (Hat of the Kaagwaantaan Women)

Military uniforms were taken by the Deisheetaan, Kaagwaantaan, and Shangukeidí clans for debts owed them by the military. In one case, four Kaagwaantaan were killed by sailors in the late 1800s.  The Kaagwaantaan retaliated and took their uniforms and sailor hats. In a 1904 Sitka Potlatch, Yaakwáan gave the Kaagwaantaan women the name Yanwaasháa and sailor hats.  He gave kerchiefs to the Kaagwaantaan men.

Sealaska Heritage Institute Collection

The Last Cry

“The Last Cry” has ended. Social and spiritual balance is restored, and the ceremony moves into “Happy Times.” Carla Casalucan, Kaagwaantaan Yanwaasháa.

Bombardments by the US Military

Conflicts that involved personal injury or loss of life required an offending clan to compensate the injured clan. Under Tlingit law, the death of a clan member must be compensated with the life of a person of equal rank from within the responsible clan. If the death was caused by a non-Native, the clan would seek a payment of restitution and in some cases would take the life of a non-Native as compensation. Such actions were considered legal under Tlingit law. Under Commander L. A. Beardslee and his successor, Commander Glass, the Americans complied with Tlingit law. However, when Commander E.C. Merriman assumed command in 1882, he retaliated to such acts with great force. 

Bombardments of the villages of Kake, Angoon, and Wrangell resulted from such differences in legal systems.

The Bombardment of Kake, 1869

In January of this year, three men from Kake attempted to leave Sitka against the orders of the American military command. As they endeavored to leave in resistance to the order, one was killed by a sentinel. The others made their way back to Kake, and along the way encountered and killed two white men encamped on Admiralty Island in retaliation for the loss of their clansman. This led to the dispatch of the warship U.S.S. Saginaw to the Kake area, and the bombardment of several villages including Kake.


This US Navy shell was discovered in a rotted tree trunk in Kake in the 1940s when the ground was being cleared for the construction of the ANB Hall.


This US Navy shell was discovered in a rotted tree trunk in Kake in the 1940s when the ground was being cleared for the construction of the ANB Hall.

It was kept in a private residence until 2011, when it was turned over to the Organized Village of Kake and deactivated by an Air Force special ordnance team from Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Reports state that three villages (35 clan houses) in Skanáx̱ (Saginaw) and Security Bays and three smaller camps were destroyed, along with the supplies of food stored for the winter and canoes.  The main Kake village was also shelled. Though this charge was fired, there is no evidence that it struck anything given its intact and unscathed condition.  For more information about this story, see panel: The Bombardment of Kake.

This is a standard Parrott percussion fuse used by the US Navy.  The type of shell was common during the US Civil War and would have had a wide brass sabot.  It was fired from a 30 pound Parrott gun on the US Navy ship USS Saginaw.

It is on loan from OVK to Sealaska Heritage Institute until the can build an appropriate facility for its display in Kake.

Loan of Organized Village of Kake

The Bombardment of Angoon, 1882

After the accidental death of Téel’ Tlein of the Deisheetaan clan, an Angoon shaman of high status, during a whale hunting expedition, the company refused to pay the indemnity of 200 blankets that was demanded by members of his clan. The military claimed that the Tlingit seized a number of hostages, but the facts do not bear this out. White residents at Killisnoo, a whaling station located nearby, appealed to military authorities in Sitka, claiming they were under attack. Two ships manned with more than 140 sailors, marines and officers were dispatched to Angoon. Six children were killed and the village and canoes were destroyed along with its food reserves that had been stockpiled for the winter. Although the Angoon clans were compensated $90,000 in 1973 for the destruction of their village, the clans are still waiting for an apology from the military.

Bombardment of Ḵaachx̱an.áak’w (Wrangell)

December 26-27, 1869

From a report entitled, Ch’a tlákw daak wusitán, It was continuous rain: A Report on the 1869 Bombardment of Wrangell, by Zachary R. Jones. Prepared under a grant to SHI from the National Park Service, American Battlefield Protection Program.

The Bombardment of Wrangell, 1869 

The US Army fired bombs from Fort Wrangell into the adjacent village of Ḵaachx̱an.áak’w after a Tlingit man named Shx’atoo shot and killed a white trader outside the fort. Shx’atoo was acting according to Tlingit law after learning that soldiers killed his two sons following an altercation at the fort. Shx’atoo fled into the forest, and when village leaders refused to turn him over, the Army responded by firing artillery on the village. Villagers then fired their rifles at soldiers in the fort. After two days of shelling during which houses were damaged or destroyed, Shx’atoo surrendered to avoid further bloodshed. Shx’atoo was tried, convicted, and hanged for murder. During the trial, Shx’atoo responded that he was acting according to Tlingit law and that he would explain this to the trader in the other world; that he did not single him out but would have killed any other white man who had been present. On the next day, he put on his regalia, danced, and sang his song before lunging off the platform with the rope around his neck, instead of falling passively to his death.