While most Native American tribes lived nomadic lives in which they followed their food sources, those who lived in resource-rich locations were able to create permanent villages in which their cultures thrived. The region that is now the southeastern part of the state of Alaska and coastal British Columbia had so much available seafood and edible vegetation that it wasn't necessary for the indigenous tribes to travel to seek food, and it also wasn't necessary for them to spend the majority of their time in the pursuit and preparation of food. As a result, art flourished in these villages. Wealth was determined by the ability to remain in one place, and in a land of abundance, the Tlingits were the richest of them all.
Following are three native art forms Tlingit artists were particularly skilled at.
Although originally produced by the neighboring Tsimshian tribe, Chilkat blankets were adapted by the Tlingits, who then proceeded to develop their own distinctive styles and patterns. The blankets can take up to a year to create, and only the wealthiest tribal members were allowed to own them or to weave them. Although there are some Chilkat weavers still in existence, the custom has dropped off among younger people. Heirloom Chilkat blankets are still used for ceremonial purposes during tribal potlatches and dances.
Tlingit artists were also adept in the creation of petroglyphs, which are carvings in large boulders or rocks that overhang cliffs next to bays and inlets. Petroglyphs are always located near water and usually depict the bird and animal life of the area such as ravens, cranes, orcas, bears, and salmon as well as family crests. Petroglyphs were created by using carving tools fashioned from other rocks. Tlingit artists also created pictographs on boulders using paint.
Totem poles have their roots in frontal house poles that were used to decorate the front of the homes of tribal leaders and eminent elders. Traditionally made from western red cedar, the poles were elaborately carved and decorated with dyes made from salmon eggs, wild blueberries, clay, and various vegetative roots. Totems were specific to each family's individual story, and were also used as memorial poles in which the ashes of the deceased were placed in a small opening at the base of the pole.
Both the U.S. and Canadian governments made totem pole carving illegal for a time at some point, and it has only been recently that community totem raisings have begun to be celebrated once again.