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Being and Place among the Tlingit

By Thomas F. Thornton

Review By Sergi Kan

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 160 Winter 2008-2009  | p. 131-133

Being and Place among the Tlingit is a long-awaited book that draws on two decades of the author’s field research in Tlingit country. Working closely with a number of knowledgeable Tlingit elders, younger Aboriginal colleagues, fellow anthropologists, and other professionals, Thomas Thornton explores a broad range of topics, from the subsistence use of brown bear to the patterns of berry picking in Glacier Bay. His book also draws on a variety of theoretical work, from Martin Heidegger’s concept of “being-in-the-world” to Keith Basso’s pioneering study of Apache place names and moral narratives.

Thornton explores the Alaska Tlingit concept of place with regard to social organization, language/cognition, economy, and ceremonialism, and he demonstrates convincingly that, for this First Nation, place not only signifies a specific geographical location but also reveals how individuals and social groups define themselves. The Tlingit notion of space consists of three dimensions – space, time, and experience – each of which is both ecologically and culturally constituted. By carefully analyzing each of these dimensions the author demonstrates how individual and collective notions of place, being, and identity are formed and maintained over time. He also argues that, in spite of the dramatic environmental and sociocultural changes that have occurred in the postcontact era, many Tlingit continue to connect themselves, their society, and their culture to places and landscapes in a way that is quite distinct from that of their non-Aboriginal neighbours.

Following a chapter on theory, which some readers of BC Studies might find to be rather heavy going, Thornton presents my favourite chapter, which happens to be on the social organization of geographical knowledge. While the basic principles of Tlingit social structure, which he presents here, have long been known to us, the detailed information Thornton presents on the relationship between the names of clans, lineages, houses, and persons, on the one hand, and place names, on the other, is both new and extremely valuable. His conclusion to this chapter summarizes one of the most fundamental principles of Tlingit culture: “There are two important geographies in Tlingit: the physical and the social. The basis of claims to ownership and use of territory and resources was founded in knowledge of both geographies and their interrelationship. Tlingit place-names were an important link between the two landscapes” (66).

Chapter 3 is probably the most difficult for a lay reader but should be of great interest to linguists and linguistic anthropologist. In it Thornton analyzes Tlingit place-names “both as a universal domain of human knowledge and as a particular system of meanings” (69). Drawing again on his own data, he explores the semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic dimensions of Tlingit place-names in detail, searching for patterns and regularities. While more work remains to be done in this area, Thornton’s findings (e.g., on the use of the body and kinship terms as metaphors for toponyms) are very interesting.

Chapter 4 explores the significance of material production in the Tlingit sense of place. As Thornton eloquently states, “As a fundamental element of experience, production – the paths and projects pursued in nourishing and sustaining human life – is central to the process of perceiving and conceptualizing the landscape” (170). Since subsistence activities took the Tlingit to places inherited and repeatedly visited by their ancestors as well as inhabited by spirits, these activities were clearly sacred as well as mundane. It should also be noted that a place-name often carried valuable practical information regarding the subsistence activities that one could pursue there. 

The book’s last chapter is brief but very important. It shows how the memorial potlatch – the central ritual of the Tlingit sociocultural order – brought together individuals, their respective social groups, their ancestral names, their sacred regalia (which depicted their ancestral lands), and the foods derived from their lands. The main goal of the ritual was to repair the breach in the social order caused by the death of a clan member and to pass on his or her name and social identity. The potlatch also gave hosts and guests a major opportunity to display and wear their crests/regalia, sing their sacred songs, and so forth. Although Thornton follows this accepted interpretation of the potlatch (developed by this reviewer on the basis of the work of Frederica de Laguna and Marcel Mauss), he eloquently refers to it as a “total emplacement phenomenon.” I agree with his take on the potlatch, and his argument that the potlatch’s survival and fluorescence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has had a lot to do with its “emplacement” function. Thus, while fewer Tlingit individuals today know the traditional place-names or pursue traditional subsistence activities, an increasing number take part in memorial potlatches. As Thornton says, “as Tlingit senses of place are continually being reconfigured in new constellations of relationships, Tlingit ritual continues to answer, forcefully, questions of how Tlingits belong to places and how ancestral places continue to define their identity, community, and cosmos” (188).

This thoroughly researched, well-organized, and well-written book is a pioneering study of the ethnogeography of the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast. Its methods and many of its conclusions could fruitfully be used in studying the toponymy of the Aboriginal nations of coastal British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. It would work well as a text in upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in anthropology and First Nations studies. It will also be an invaluable resource for the Tlingit people themselves.