Historical Cross-Comparison of Netsilik and Tlingit Peoples


In his compendium “This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans,” Wendell H. Oswalt describes the Netsilik Inuit as one of the “classic” Eskimo peoples, in that their lifestyle closely resembles the simplified Euro-North American understanding of arctic aboriginal life. The arctic culture area encompassed the very northern parts of Canada and Alaska, and slivers of Greenland. The Netsilik’s environment was a harsh one, subject to extreme weather and cold, and limited resource diversity. Netsilik life was integrally entwined with the life cycles of the organisms they depended on for sustenance, like the spring caribou migration northward, the breathing habits of the ringed seal, and the descent and the seasonal return of arctic char to and from the ocean. The Netsilik were also subject to the effects of the earth’s axial tilt, which in the arctic resulted in cold summers and sub-freezing winters. More specifically, winters resulted in the freezing of sea-ice, which the Netsilik migrated onto in order to hunt the ringed seal (and less frequently, polar bears). The arctic is above most of the tree line, so these people had almost no wood except in the form of driftwood, and only a limited variety of tundra grasses, mosses, and lichens.

While also living at a very northern latitude, the Tlingit were not part of the arctic culture area, but the Northwest Coast area. This area stretched in a thin swathe from the southern Alaskan coast down to the northern half of the modern-day United States’ West Coast. Though they were also subject to a cold climate, a more stable and productive ecology than the arctic allowed the Tlingit to maintain a mostly sedentary lifestyle. One of the most important aspects of this ecology was the salmon, one of their staple foods. Though a coastal culture, the Tlingit also had access to the timberline, resulting in wooden artifacts, housing, and canoes. Tree species include the red ceder, maple, and birch. The Tlingit clans also had a much broader of variety of terrestrial and marine animal life to rely on, such as bears, deer, fox, sheep, mountain goats, caribou, hair, muskrat, beaver, and various ermine. Marine life included not only the salmon, but candlefish, trout, halibut, herring, crabs, cockles, mussels, and waterfowl.


Such a disparity in natural resources available to these two peoples led to the development of very different technologies and artifacts. Though ingenuity is a trademark of any aboriginal culture, the Netsilik relied on the trait much more to survive their marginal circumstances.

Since they had access to forest, the Tlingit constructed not only art and mundane artifacts out of wood, but houses and canoes, whereas the Netsilik depended on skins to cover their summer snowhouses and the frames of their kayaks and umiaks. Netsilik even went so far as to construct sleds out of nothing but hides, frozen fish, and caribou tines. While the Tlingit had many elaborate wooden containers for cooking and storage, the Netsilik essentially only had underground or under-snow food storage, and one geographically limited soapstone source. From this raw material a Netsilik woman got her valuable cooking pot and lamp.

Due to their large natural resource base, the Tlingit also had a wide variety of art forms. Perhaps best well known is the totem pole, which before significant European contact probably commemorated more than the potlatch. These ornately carved structures could be used as memorials and funeral markers, to announce wealth from a potlatch, to ridicule an opponent, or to illustrate a myth related to a house group. The Tlingit also carved or painted their supremely important lineage and clan crests on canoes, totem poles, formal wear, and dishes.

Probably due to their extremely limited resources and their highly nomadic lifestyle, Netsilik art was the most portable possible: body art. Netsilik women traditionally had many tattoos, most obviously their facial tattoos, in addition to the more elaborate tattooing on their hips and legs. images

Social and Political Organization

From a modern Euro-American’s standpoint, both the Tlingit and the Netsilik had fairly complex social organization for their subsistence level– both were hunter-gatherers. The goal of both societies was the survival of the group and harmony between subgroups, often through rituals of the division of resources, which involved both pragmatic and spiritual elements.

The Netsilik traced their lineage bilaterally. A family group consisted both of a “personal kindred,” or step-by-step group of generational blood relatives, and if they were socially close enough, affinal relatives (relatives by marriage). All female first cousins were called “sister” and likewise all male first cousins were known as “brother.” Netsilik kinship terminology did, however, distinguish between older and younger siblings, relatives by blood and marriage, and nuclear or extended family. While the nuclear family was the primary family unit, it was not a self-sufficient group, and the nuclear families within an extended family were all interdependent. Typically, an extended Netsilik family included “an elderly father, his married sons, and their children–possibly fifteen individuals.” Further, several extended families would form a larger community in some circumstances, such as a sealing camp during the frozen winters.

Though marriage formed the core the nuclear family, marriages were not necessarily final in Netselik culture. Popular culture’s vision of “Eskimos” often includes the practice of “wife-swapping,” which was a Netsilik custom with practical applications. Oswalt describes one situation where if a man was going on a journey and his wife was pregnant and unable to travel with him, he might trade another man for his wife so that she could fulfill the tasks assigned to her gender (ie, scraping and softening hides, cooking), and possibly also sex. This trade could even become permanent. Plural marriage was also known to the Netsilik; a man might have two wives (perhaps having killed another man for his wife), or in rarer cases, a woman might have two husbands resulting from a low ratio of women to men. This dynamic could be a result of female infanticide among the Netsilik, used as a form of population control. Because women could not be “exposed to the dangers of the hunt,” men were more socially valued for food procurement, and there might have been concerns that a woman nursing a girl would not be able to conceive a boy (and a future hunter).

Netsilik interdependence was ritualized during the seal hunt. When a man caught a seal, his wife divided the meat and blubber into fourteen individually named portions, which were gifted to other hunters, the man’s “sharing partners.” Regardless of any animosity or indifference between the men, this ritual was performed by each hunter giving portions of seal to his hunting partners, probably chosen by his father when he was a child.

The Tlingit had an even more complex of ritualized interdependence divided along the lines of matriclans, moieties, and kwann (geographical area), in social events such as support for funerals, weddings, childbirth and potlatches. The nuclear structure modern Euro-Americans are familiar with was divided along the lines of matrilineal moieties; for instance, a father and son were not in the same moiety, but a boy as his maternal uncle were, making the uncle an authority figure rather than the father. A man’s ideal spouse was also his paternal aunt. The primary economic and social unit of the Tlingit was the household comprised of many different layers of male relatives, such as a man and his brothers, his sororal nephews, and his sororal niece's sons. A strong tie existed between the primary unit of brothers, headed by the oldest brother, known as the Keeper of the House and served a ceremonial and council delegate for his family.

Tlingit society was also stratified between nobles, commoners, and slaves, with further distinctions between rank based on age and the social circumstances of a person’s birth (ie legitimate or illegitimate). Individuals were ranked among households, households among lineages, lineages and households among a clan, and a clan within a moiety. This made status a fluid affair based on competition and the accrual of wealth (and subsequent redistribution to the community through a potlatch).

Ideology and Religion

The Netsilik had no organized religion, nor any real concept of one. Oswalt opines that it would be unnatural to attribute such a belief system to the Netsilik. Though they lacked dogma, specialized buildings for worship, and a calendar of rituals, they did, however, believe (and fear) a variety of greater and lesser spirits. Since most natural forces were seen as inimical to humanity, possibly due to the harshness of their environment, the Netsilik depended on a variety of amulets to protect them from hostile forces, or alternatively to foster something positive, such as a skill or one’s well being. They also believed they had a “personal soul” that generated their life force, but must be protected from evil. For this purpose, a shaman would remove a man’s soul at birth and hide it in a soapstone lamp. Souls could be protected by having many names. This also increased a man’s masculinity, and protected a woman’s children from illness.

While there is no ultimate origin story among the Netsilik, there are accounts of the creation of individual elements. For instance, the Sea Goddess was born of a girl who was tossed in the water because she was an orphan. Seals were born of the girl’s sliced of fingers when she tried to grab a boat to save herself. Like many cultures, the Netsilik have a flood story. In their version, everyone died but a pair of male shamans, who had intercourse, leading one shaman to give birth to female and male children.

A majority of Netsilik spiritual beliefs revolved around the keeping of taboos, such as mixing food from land and sea, and pacifying a seal’s spirit by the respectful treatment of its body to aid its reincarnation (thus ensuring more seals). They had two kinds of spiritual specialists, head lifters, who determined if a taboo had been broken and which one, and shamans, who called upon and manipulated individual spirits.

The Tlingit believed that everything between the dome of the sky and the flatness of the earth had a spirit, and they had many living explanations for phenomena like rainbows (a bridge for dead souls), stars (the lights from distant houses), and the aurora borealis (playful spirits of the deceased). Shamans performed curing rights as well as divination, and finding sources of food. Oswalt makes an interesting point, that unlike some cultures, the staple animal food, salmon, was not treated as sacred either in their mythology or practical handling. He says, “They seem to have been regarded as a constant part of the environment.”

The Tlingit creation story deals not at all with the creation of humanity, and more with the exploits of the trickster Raven, who was born when his mother swallowed a heated pebble (following a theme of indigenous American origin myths that include asexual reproduction). She had been planning to commit suicide because of the murder of her children by her brother, and this theme of social violence continues through Raven’s life until he causes a massive flood from which only he and his mother survive. Through his cosmic pranks, Raven releases all the natural phenomena of the world, such as the sun, moon, and stars. nativeamericantricksters.wikispaces.com_file_view_scan0010_002.jpg_258092764_scan0010_002.jpg

See Also


Oswalt, Wendell H. “This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans” chapters 3 and 9. Oxford University Press.


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