From Clan to Kwaan to Corporation: The Continuing Complex Evolution of Tlingit Political Organization
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Wicazo Sa Review 17.2 (2002) 167-194

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From Clan to Kwáanto Corporation
The Continuing Complex Evolution of Tlingit Political Organization

Thomas F. Thornton


Like many Native American groups, the Tlingit of Southeast Alaska traditionally were organized into corporate descent groups, known as clans. The seventy or so Tlingit matrilineal clans composed not only the foundation of personal and social identity, but also the central units of governance, through which such vital political functions as land tenure; resource production, distribution, and trade; and war and peacemaking were managed. However, clans' sociopolitical prerogatives were severely undermined by the forces of Western contact and colonization beginning in the eighteenth century. By the early 1900s conditions were so stressful that a syncretic revitalization movement, the Alaska Native Brotherhood, was launched by Alaska Native leaders seeking to replace fractious clan-based governance with a unified political organization that could more effectively advocate on behalf of Natives within the dominant society.

This political revitalization movement from within was followed by two important institutional reform movements imposed from without by the federal government in an effort to create greater isomorphism between federal and native institutions. The first was the Indian Reorganization Act of 1936, which enabled the formation of tribal governments at the village level (or kwáan in Tlingit). The second was the landmark Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which laid anentirely new socioeconomic organization on Alaska Native regions and villages in the form of for-profit corporations. While the imposition of these new governing entities might have spelled doom for the clans aspolitical organs, in fact it has not. Indeed, at the dawn of the new millennium, the clan system remains a vital component of political [End Page 167] organization and is itself being revitalized. This paper examines the major forces in the evolution ofTlingit politics from a political-ecological perspective, focusing on the distribution of power and control over scarce resources among various levels of the Tlingit sociopolitical organization and between the Tlingit polity and state and federal governments. I argue that, while Tlingit sociopolitical organization has proved adaptive to changes wrought by Euramerican colonization, in the late twentieth century it has become so complex, multifarious, and elaborated that the polity risks becoming involuted if not maladaptive in the new millennium.

Ecosystems and Political Evolution

The links between the evolution of indigenous political systems and ecological factors governing key natural resources have long been recognized in anthropology (Steward 1955; Service 1962). In the native North American culture area known as the Northwest Coast, stretching from northern California to Southeast Alaska, researchers have posited a strong correlation between abundant natural resources and complex forms of sociopolitical organization (Kroeber 1939; Drucker 1951, 1983). Ethnographers proposed that large quantities of localized resources, particularly salmon, allowed Northwest Coast societies to support higher populations and sedentism, and this, in turn, led to the development of more complex social and political institutions. These features helped to define the Northwest Coast tribes as unique among hunting and gathering peoples. In contrast to most of the world's foragers, whose politics were characterized by egalitarianism and small-scale, flexible institutions, Northwest Coast groups boasted formal local and regional sociopolitical structures and a high degree of social stratification, including slavery.

Yet while the basic assumption about the relationship between Northwest Coast ecological abundance and sociopolitcal complexity is ultimately valid, it does not go very far toward explaining the proximate causes for the evolution of very diverse political systems within the culture area over time. More recently, Northwest Coast scholars have begun to consider these issues in detail, and a range of important socioecological factors have been emphasized as contributing to the unity and diversity of political development among various Northwest groups (see Suttles 1968; Fladmark 1975; Schalk 1977; Richardson 1982; Drucker 1983; Ames 1994; Matson and Coupland 1995; Moss 1998; Thornton 1999b; Ames and Maschner 1999). These factors include: (1) macroenvironmental changes; (2) spatial and temporal variation in resources; (3) increased availability of and reliance upon marine resources, [End Page...