Alaska Native Dance

Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian Songs and Dances

Many songs from the Southeast area of Alaska follow the format of chorus, two verses, chorus and an ending. In the past, a person could tell where a song came from by the beat on the hand drums. Songs and dances are based on stories that have been passed down for hundreds of years within clans.

The regalia is individually and culturally significant to the person who wears it, representing clan membership and personal history. Before wool material was traded to Southeast people, the clothing was made of cedar bark and was hand woven. The wool used today is red, deep blue, or black, based on traditional colors derived from huckleberries, salmonberries, octopus ink, or soot from the fire pit. The crest symbols that are sewn or beaded onto the regalia show the dancers’ clan memberships. Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian are all matrilineal societies, meaning that each child is of his or her mother’s clan.

 

Drums used in Southeast Alaska dances do not have handles; they are held by the crossed rawhide lashings on the back of the drum. Drums are beaten in an emphatic, loud rhythm.

Here, cultural interpreter Helen Koenig shows a drum to visitors at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

Songs and dances are owned property belonging to a clan, and can only be performed with the express permission of the clan leaders. Nowadays, dance groups from Southeast Alaska include members from many different clans, so they often perform dances composed by group members, dances that celebrate each member’s clan identity, and dances that tell of general celebrations rather than sacred clan stories.

This video shows a Tsimshian salmon dance, in which the men portray three of the species of salmon that are caught in the southernmost part of Southeast Alaska, while the women portray the people who are fishing. They spread their nets out, and in the end gather the nets together to catch the fish. The song has two verses: the first says, in Tsimshian, "Stand up in your canoe, big fish!" The second says, "Stand up in your canoe, big fish! I'm going to catch you and eat you!"


The dance was performed in 2009 at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage by the Heritage Center dancers.

This video, produced by Blueberry Productions of Anchorage, Alaska for the Alaska Native Heritage Center, includes a very brief segment of Tlingit-style dancing and singing.