Tlingit Ku.éex'  Entrance Dance
  • Mapuche dance
  • Tlingit dance
  • Lakota dance

When the first Europeans arrived in Alaska, in about 1750, they described the Tlingit as a powerful society that dominated the region now known as southeastern Alaska, northern British Columbia, and the southwestern part of Canada’s Yukon Territories. Tlingit people lived in fourteen permanent village settlements, called kwáans. Each kwáan acted semi-autonomously, and the clan and house leaders of each kwáan were the central authorities.

Tlingit society is divided into two groups called moieties (from the French word moitié, meaning half)—each Tlingit person is either a Raven or an Eagle (in the northeastern area the moieties are called Crow and Wolf). Under each of the moieties are numerous clans. Each of the villages had numerous houses, which is another vital identification for a Tlingit person; each of the clan houses, or hít, also had names. A Tlingit person always inherits the moiety, clan, and house membership of his or her mother. All of the clans and houses also used crests—which are very similar to European heraldic symbols.

The diagram below shows the moiety, clan, and house groups from the T’aaku Kwáan (Geese Flood Upriver People). The moiety names are in blue type, the clan names in green, and the house names in red.

T’aaku Kwáan: Taku (Geese Flood Upriver People)

Raven/Crow Moiety

  • Gaanax.ádi (People of the Sheltered Harbor) Raven Crest
    • Ishka Hít (Salmon Hole House)
    • Yanwulihashi Hít (Drifted Ashore House)
    • Yéil Hít (Raven House)

Eagle/Wolf Moiety

  • Yanyeidí (People of the Hemlock House) Wolf Crest
    • Ch'aal' Hít (Willow House)
  • Tsaageeneidí (People of the Harbor Seal Ice Floes)
    • Xóots Hít (Brown Bear House)
    • Yayuwaa Hít (Between the River Fork House)

Music and dance were, and still are, highly esteemed and treated as valuable property. A clan or house might give a song or dance as a gift, or grant permission to other groups to perform one of its songs or dances. Until the early twentieth century, songs and dances were strictly owned by clan and/or house groups, and performing a clan song without permission was a punishable offense.

One important genre of Tlingit song and dance is the Entrance Song. Before any event that features music and dance, the clan or house group performs one of its Entrance Songs. These songs are an integral aspect of Tlingit events. As the dancers, drummers, and singers make their entrance, be it to a potlatch, ku.éex' (a ceremony commemorating the life of a deceased clan member), or dance celebration, they always perform an Entrance Song.

As the lead singer and drummer begin, they encourage their dancers to be strong. They also make dramatic announcements to the audience such as, “Haandéi i waak (“Give me your eyes!”). The dancers enter one at a time, wearing their regalia, which is a robe with their clan crest emblazoned on the back. As each dancer appears, he or she turns away from the audience to show the crest, which announces who the dancer is in the context of the Tlingit social system. The dancers move in single file to the beat of one or more hand drums, displaying the crests as they dance. The men and boys dance robustly, usually crouching, and often moving their heads to the drumbeat to make the sea lion whiskers on their shakee.át (ceremonial hats) tremble. The women and girls move with more grace, often with their hands slightly outstretched. The singers and drummers dance with the rest of the group. When all the dancers have entered, and the song ends, they line up and turn their backs to the audience, again to display their clan crests.

Since the early 1970s a renaissance has taken place among Tlingit dancers. Younger generations who moved to Anchorage, Juneau, and other urban areas have formed new groups. Modern dance groups include members of both moieties and represent many clan and house groups. This new practice illustrates the vitality of Tlingit culture, and its ability to adapt to changing social and economic landscapes.

Entrance Songs are continually being borrowed and shared among the newer dance groups. The texts are often entirely vocable, meaning they have no words and consist mostly of syllables. Thus, the songs are fairly easy to learn for younger people who do not speak the Tlingit language. Historically, many of the Entrance Songs were from non-Tlingit groups in the region, often Athabascan. These gunana (literally outside/foreign) songs were presented to particular clans either through marriages, to settle territorial disputes, or to show generosity. Since many of the Entrance Songs, unlike other songs, were gifts and were not originally “owned” by a clan, they are easier to share.

—Maria Shaa Tláa Williams

Maria Shaa Tláa Williams (Tlingit) is an ethnomusicologist who teaches at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Incorporating an interdisciplinary, community-centered approach, Williams’s research focuses on Alaska Native music cultures. She recently produced a documentary called A Beautiful Journey about the renowned Alaska Native basket maker Daisy Demientieff. Williams also worked with the King Island Inupiat community to establish a tribally controlled archive of their music and dance repertoire. Williams’s publications include The Alaska Native Reader: Politics, History and Culture (2009).

At the beginning of a ku.éex', Tlingit clan leaders dance wearing a headdress called a shakee.át. It has a carved wooden frontlet (often inlaid with abalone), a long ermine trail, sea lion whiskers, and flicker feathers. Eagle down, a sign of peace, is placed in the crown. As the chief dances, the eagle down spreads in the air and gently falls to the floor, blessing the ceremonial space. The clan leader carries either a dance staff or a carved rattle representing a raven, which is held with the beak pointing downward. A prone figure lies on the raven’s back. On this rattle, the figure’s tongue reaches into a frog’s mouth, symbolizing the transmission of power from a spirit helper. All Tlingit dancers wear ceremonial blankets made of dark blue broadcloth, red flannel, and pearl buttons, along with their finest regalia. Often dance regalia depicts clan crests, but this exquisite shirt and apron are beaded in multicolored, abstract floral designs.

1900–1950. Alaska. Ermine, wood, haliotis shell, sea lion whiskers, feathers, wool, cotton, mother-of-pearl buttons, thread, glass beads, metal. 8/1888, 21/1650, 21/6806, 3/3913, 16/277. Tlingit Raven Rattle, 1917. Alaska. Wood, pigment. 5/4185. Photograph by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI.

  1. Hope III, Andrew and Thomas Thornton. Will the Time Ever Come: A Tlingit Source Book. University of Washington Press, 2000
  2. Kendall, Shirley Shaax’ saani keek’. Personal communication, 2009.
  3. Twitchell, Xh’unei Lance. Unpublished manuscript, 2012.
  4. Williams, Maria. Clan Identification and Social Structure in Tlingit Music, Master’s Thesis, University of California Los Angeles, 1989.
  • Seattle Cape Fox Dance Group

    Tlingit welcoming dance, Seattle Cape Fox Dance Group, Timothy Heersma (center). Courtesy of Simon Krane.