Tlingit men trained hard to become warriors
By Mary Catharine Martin
No matter the season, every day from age six began the same way for a young K’inéix Kwáan man training to be a warrior in pre-contact Yakutat — by wading into the ocean and staying as long as he could without passing out.
“This was environmental training,” Kai Monture, a Tlingit and Eyak member of the Yéil house of the K’inéix Kwáan, or Copper River clan, told an audience in the clan house of the Walter Soboleff Building Nov. 29. “We spend half our lives on the water anyway, for subsistence. And because raiding was such a big aspect of Tlingit warfare, especially by sea, conditioning to water was a really big aspect of Tlingit warrior training.”
Once he’d reached the age of six, the boy would no longer be with his parents. Instead, he’d be living with his maternal uncle, who was of the same moiety (heritage of moiety is matrilineal) and whose responsibility it was to raise the boy. It was a responsibility so serious that if, later in life, the boy committed an offense that required a death in the clan to equalize the wrong, the uncle might volunteer to take his place, having failed to teach him better.
After the boys got out of the water, their uncle would whip them with alder branches “until the point of bleeding” so they could build callouses on their skin, Monture said. It was also a way for the boys to compete as to who was the strongest.
“The ultimate challenge was for the boys to lean forward and put your face into the whipping,” he said.
On Yakutat’s long, sandy beaches, they’d pick up the biggest piece of driftwood they could and carry it. “If they got tired and fell over, they’d have to get up, pick the log up, and bring it back,” Monture said.
And they would run.
“Boys would be tasked to run as far as they could and to also search for metal,” Monture said. “It was considered one of the most precious things you could find, just because of its utility.”
One of the purposes of the boys’ constant competition was to find out who the strongest, best, warriors were. Those were the ones who, when they became men, would wear armor in battle. Until then, they wrestled and trained with spears, clubs, hammers and daggers.
Pitched battles may be where training would lead, Monture said, but they were the last resort.
“Because full-blown war between clans was considered to be wasteful, we took the matter of settling wars very strictly,” he said. “Tlingit people knew that wars between clans could cost each clan more than either one would gain.”
That’s where those warriors might come in. If a dispute wasn’t to be settled by negotiation, arbitration or full-scale battle, it could be decided by duel. In full battles too, those armored warriors were central; battles would be fought “until more of the champions of one clan were killed than the other,” Monture said.
Armor had to be custom-fit to a warrior’s body. Many pieces were made out of long pieces of hardwood woven together with metal fiber or sinew. When his face was attacked, an armored warrior could raise his shoulders and wooden collar for protection. Because the front part of their mask was held up with their teeth, there was a saying that the first man to fall in battle was the one with the weak jaw, Monture said.
The armor, including parts made of hide, was very dense, and there are some recordings of armored men being protected against musket fire and even cannonballs shot from the water, he said.
A warriors’ helmet, which has a name in Tlingit derived from the word for “eggshell,” was carved out of a tree burl. Helmets were carved with the faces of animals and spirits, and warriors would try to channel that energy to intimidate their enemies, Monture said.
A shielded warrior would wear a forearm guard and try to show only one side of himself to the enemy, keeping his other arm free to wield a weapon. Because the armor limited a warrior’s ability to move, his back was his most vulnerable part. Once uncles determined boys’ roles, armored warriors would have two men they’d trained with since that point at their backs, Monture said. Those men, sometimes direct blood relations or maternal cousins, would help the armored warrior if he fell or if he was attacked by too many enemies at once.
The uncles didn’t only train their nephews in war tactics and strength, however. They also trained them in the Tlingit perspective and philosophy of living.
“At the same time as these boys were being trained so rigorously every day, they were also constantly being taught social lessons by their uncles,” Monture said.
Parables and stories were a big part of that. An uncle might tell a story, for example, about a bear, describing its personality and characteristics.
“Because Tlingit people believe everything is alive and has its own intelligence and personality… these stories wouldn’t be so much as talking about an animal in analogy as literally describing how that animal’s people and culture works,” he said.
Critical thinking was paramount, as well, “especially when the uncles would give examples of what you want to avoid in life,” Monture said. “They would talk about some of the worst traits, which would harm not only you, but your clan. Laziness, selfishness, anything that could actually compromise your chance of survival in Alaska.”
Uncles would quiz their nephews on what lessons could be drawn from the stories. If a nephew couldn’t answer well, he’d hear the story over and over, until he could.
They’d also hear about the concept of klatseen (strength both of character and action) and Tlingit heroes — like, post-contact, the warriors who in 1805 destroyed the Russian fort in Yakutat when the Russians cut off access to their fishing grounds, among other grievances, according to “The Tlingit Indians in Russian America, 1741-1867.”
Monture said he believes the destruction of the Russian fort is the reason Tlingit culture persisted so well in Yakutat. And because other warriors in Sitka, Angoon, and other kwáans resisted as well, “that is why Tlingit people are still alive today, and why we now have a beautiful clan house in the middle of downtown Juneau,” he added.
Most young Tlingit men may no longer begin each day with a swim in the ocean, but now there are warriors of a different kind, said Sealaska Corporation president and CEO Anthony Mallott when introducing Monture.
“There’s absolutely modern-day warriors for our culture,” he said. “There’s a long history of social and policy warriors… (the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood) carried it forward for 100 years of fighting for the rights of our Native people.”
Monture gave the talk on “The Way of the Warrior” as part of a lecture series celebrating Native American Heritage Month. He could speak only for his clan, he said, as individual clans may differ; his grandfather, George Ramos, an expert on warrior culture, passed the knowledge on to him.
During his presentation, Monture traced his ancestry back to the K’inéix Kwáan’s arrival in the area, thousands of years ago.
Knowledge of warrior culture, and armor creation like Sitka carver Tommy Joseph is doing, “is an important part of our cultural revitalization, because the philosophy of Tlingit warriors not simply just about battle,” Monture said. “(You were) raised with a whole life philosophy that shaped everything you did… we had harsh laws or protocols, but that’s what made us one of the strongest tribes in Southeast… to achieve the honor and humility of your ancestors is the biggest goal of the warrior.”
Originally published in Capital City Weekly, December 7, 2016