Amer. Anth.


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In the matter of crime and punishment, the relation of the individual and the clan comes out clearly. Theoretically, crime against an individual did not exist. The loss of an individual by murder, the loss of property by theft, or shame brought to a member of a clan were clan losses and the clan demanded an equivalent in revenge. That is to say, if a man of low rank killed a man of high rank in another clan, the murderer often went free while one of his more important kinsmen suffered death in his stead. Slight differences in status could be overcome by payments of property, but the general demand in case of murder was the life of a man of equal rank. In some instances the offending clan was of lower status and therefore none of its members could compensate for a crime committed against an important clan. It was therefore necessary to select a clan of the offender’s phratry that could show some relationship to the offending clan; but in this case war usually followed, as this procedure was not legally established. In general, it made no difference whether the opposing clans were in the same phratry or in opposite phratries. Some of the bitterest feuds were between the Ganaktedi and Tluknakadi, both of the same phratry.

Thus a clan appears to be the group of greatest unity, solidarity, and integration. There was no penalty within the clan for murder, adultery, or theft. A clan punished its members by death only when shame was brought to its honor. Crimes of this nature were incest, witchcraft, marriage with a slave, and prostitution.

Murder among the Tlingit was punishable by death when committed outside the clan. The number of murders, however, was not excessive until the advent of liquor. In the old days rivalry over women and disputes about individual privileges during potlatches sometimes led to murder. Murder was generally committed in the heat of argument, and if clansmen of both sides were present, a general fight was prevented by a chief of high rank stepping between the angry clansmen with an important crest in his hand. It was considered a desecration of the emblem or crest if fighting occurred under these circumstances.

Immediately after a murder was committed spokesmen from both clans met to decide who was to die in compensation for the murder. If the murdered man happened to be of low rank and of poor reputation, a payment of goods could satisfy the injured clan. But if the murdered man was of high rank, a man of equal standing was demanded from the murderer’s clan. There was generally much haggling over the rank of the murdered man and the rank of the one who was to die in compensation. These disputes always appeared in the peace dance which followed the complete settlement of the crime. The man selected as compensation prepared to die willingly: He was given much time to prepare himself through fasting and praying. The execution took place before his house.

On the day set for the execution, the man put on all his ceremonial robes and displayed all his crests and emblems. He came out of his house, stood at the doorway, and related his history, stressing the deeds that he and his ancestors had performed. All the villagers were gathered around for this solemn occasion. He then looked across to the clan whom his death was to satisfy to observe the man who had been selected to kill him. If this man was great and honorable he would step forth gladly; but if the man was of low rank he would return to the house and wait until a man of his own rank or higher was selected to kill him. When this was done he stepped forth boldly with his spear in his hand, singing a girl’s puberty song. He feigned attack but permitted himself to be killed. To die thus for the honor of one’s clan was considered an act of great bravery and the body was laid out in state as that of a great warrior. His soul went to Kiwa-Kawaw, "highest heaven."

The actual murderer, if a man of great rank and wealth, often went free, but if the man was of low rank and came from a poor house he went as a slave to that house in his clan which had given up a man in compensation for the murder. If property was passed as partial payment to the murdered man’s clan, the actual murderer could be handed over as a slave. Even if the murderer was not forced into slavery, his position was an uncomfortable one. There was a feeling of very close unity among clansmen and when one had brought shame to his own clan, he felt the matter keenly and for a time led a miserable life. . . .

Like murder, adultery was not punishable within the clan . . . [but] when it occurred between a woman and a man who was not of the husband’s clan, was punishable by death, both guilty persons being killed by the husband. If he were fond of his wife, he might forgive her; but in this case the wife’s kinsmen must pay him property to clear his honor. If the adulterer escaped, there was no way of bringing him to task except by pursuit by the husband. In case the adulterer was a man of very high rank, the husband’s own clansmen paid him goods to pacify him, for demanding the life of a very high man was a serious matter. When property was given to the husband by both his wife’s clan and his own clan the transaction was known as tuwatukayawaci, "they wipe the shame from my face." Before reparation was paid, the husband remained indoors and came out only after a gathering had taken place at his house in which the property was transferred to him.

If a man of low rank had illicit connections with a woman of high rank the matter was very serious. First, the wife’s clansmen killed two of the man’s clansmen having rank between that of the man and the woman. This was to show that the wife’s clan was highly insulted and incensed, and would not let the matter drop. The man’s clan was then expected to offer for slaying one of its men of rank equal to that of the woman. If they would not do this, a feud might arise between the two clans which might last for a long time and might involve other clans, as in the quarrel between the Sitka and Wrangell people over a woman. In case the man’s clan now offered a man, equal in rank to the woman, the woman’s clan would be satisfied and would compensate the man’s clan with property for the killing of the first two men. The adulterer was often handed over to the woman’s side as a slave in partial payment or he became a slave to his own clan in order to compensate for the loss he brought about. During all these activities the husband remained indoors and came out only after a full settlement had been made.

If a woman of high rank became lax in her conduct and ran around with numerous men, her uncle might ask one of her brothers to kill her, which he was obliged to do. If a man of low rank had illicit connections with a girl of high rank, the father of the girl demanded either the man slain or a great deal of property. If the man was of as high a rank as the girl, her father could force them to marry. Bat if the girl was already promised to another man, the father was given a number of blankets.

Theoretically, stealing did not exist within the clan. Natural resources were held in common and food was but loosely guarded by the various house groups within the clan. If a man took a tool or a weapon that belonged to a member of his own clan, he was forced to return it. If a man of low rank was caught stealing from another clan, the injured clan could kill him. If he was of high rank, his own clan would make reparation by a payment of goods. If, by some chance, a man of very high rank was caught stealing, he was said to be bewitched. Then a shamanistic performance was held over him to discover the sorcerer who had forced him to steal in order to injure his social position. The sorcerer when discovered was killed and the crime thus compensated.

If anyone beside the clansmen or those invited were caught taking fish from clan territories, or if they were caught hunting there, they could be killed. This was also true if anyone trespassed on clan domain or used their trade routes. Sometimes when a powerful party came to fish on another clan’s territory, the owning clan would invite the transgressors to a feast, treat them well, and give them presents. This they did to shame the aggressors, who generally withdrew after such treatment. If a man was hungry he could shoot an animal in someone else’s territory, but he was forced to give the hide or pelt to the owning clan.

Adopting the crest of another clan was considered stealing, but the aggressor always claimed the right to the crest through some event in the past. Conflict over the use of crests led to war between the clans or was settled by the opinion of the phratry or the transfer of property.

The penalty for assault was payment in goods. A high-ranking Tlingit was very sensitive about his appearance and if in a dispute someone struck him so as to cause marks on his face, he would remain indoors until the marks were healed and until a public payment had been made to him by the clan of his assailant. If a man of high status injured his face by falling in the street of his village, he would remain indoors until the marks had healed; then he would give a small feast to his own clan. This was to compensate his clan for the shame brought to it by his disfigurement.

If a man was injured or accidentally killed while out hunting with the members of another clan, this clan would have to compensate the dead or injured man’s clan by a payment of goods. If the man killed was of very high rank and his death could be shown to be due to the carelessness of his hosts, then the dead man’s clan could demand that a man of the hosts’ clan be killed.

If a person was injured by a dog belonging to another clan, the owner of the dog would compensate for the injury by a payment of goods to the injured man. Harm coming to pass through another clan’s property had very wide ramifications and was always settled by a payment of goods. Falling twice before a man’s house would entitle the one who fell to ask for a payment of goods. Catching a chill in another man’s house, injuring one’s self with another man’s tools, or becoming angry or irritable due to contact with others, would give a right to a small payment of goods, provided these injuries were caused by members of another clan.

Another example of this appears in the case of suicide. If it could be shown that a man had committed suicide because his wife had treated him badly, then a man of his wife’s clan could be selected and killed. Therefore a Tlingit woman was very careful how she treated her husband. This punishment was also meted out to others who caused a man to commit suicide.

Many articles, such as canoes, tools, traps, weapons, and such lesser ceremonial gear as masks and dancing shirts, were owned by individuals. Other individuals, either within the clan or outside, could borrow these, provided they brought them back or replaced them at some later date. If the borrower failed to return the article within a reasonable time, the lender could disseminate stories of ridicule about him. These stories were somewhat in the nature of the paddle songs of the Tsimshian, but not so highly stylized, and like the paddle songs they heaped ridicule upon the debtor until he came to terms. These stories were used only when it was well known that the debtor was able to pay but refused for selfish reasons. If these stories did not have the desired effect, the creditor could discuss the matter with members of his own clan. If the debtor belonged to the same clan and was in a position to pay, the social pressure of the clan was sufficient to bring him to terms. If, however, he was unable to pay and there was little likelihood of his ever being able to pay, the clan would permit the creditor to take the debtor as a debt slave.

The debt slave, when a clansman, was not treated exactly like a chattel slave. True enough, he lost his freedom and status, but it was understood that when he had worked long enough to repay the debt, he would be freed and would regain his former status. A debt slave was not sold or given away at a potlatch unless he belonged to another clan.

If the debtor belonged to another clan, a different procedure took place after ridicule ceased to have effect. The creditor would have a crest of the debtor’s clan made which he placed on the front of his own house or on a totem pole. Among the Tlingit clan crests were jealously guarded, and the fact that another clan had taken one brought great shame to the clan to which it belonged. All the people in the village would at once notice it and the story come out. The debtor’s clan was now dishonored and would make considerable efforts to pay the debt. Usually a wealthy house group paid the debt and took the debtor as a debt slave, thus saving the honor of the clan.

The taking of an important clan crest was always resorted to in the case of a prestige potlatch. If a clan refused to give a return potlatch to another clan of the opposite phratry, the creditor clan could take a crest and keep it until payment was made. . . .

From this summary certain social characteristics stand out prominently. The first of these is the importance of a clan as a sovereign group. The second is the importance of individual status. How crime is to be punished depends largely upon the rank of the criminal. Men of high rank could often escape death through a payment of goods. Every man and woman had a valuation in terms of goods. As the status of a clan was judged largely by the amount of goods it gave away at its last prestige potlatch, so was the status of an individual determined by the amount of goods he gave for his wife. The bride price evaluated both the husband and the wife. The bride price formed the basis for settlement made in terms of goods. There were no fixed fines, since the bride prices varied with the wealth of the community and the status of the individuals. There has been no attempt made here to describe actual punishment in terms of such and such a quantity of goods, but rather the social forces governing the amount of goods given in reparation for the crime.

Closely allied with the criminal act was the shameful act. The fundamental differentiation seems to be determined by the type of social prohibition. Criminal acts were politically or legally prohibited; shameful acts were connected either with etiquette, morals, religion, and economy, or all combined. For the purpose of this paper it is also important to differentiate the criminal act from the shameful act on the basis of the nature of the punishment. While crime was punishable by measures taken against the life and property of the individuals of a clan, the shameful act was punished by ridicule. But so effective was ridicule, that the performer of a shameful act, as in the case of blunders at ceremonials, often died as a result of social disapproval.

We must here distinguish between acts that brought shame to the performer and acts that were performed to shame someone else. One could shame an important chief by seating him in a corner or by calling him by his boyhood rather than by his honorable name. But these were crimes and might lead to serious difficulties between the clans of the respective men. Any crime, of course, brought shame to the injured clan. It is the act shameful to the performer that is under consideration here. Among the Tlingit propriety was of the utmost importance. The anyeti or nobility thought of themselves as being eminent because they and their ancestors had never performed shameful acts. An important man could permanently lower himself by repeated shameful acts. Quite often men destined for chieftainship were ignored because they had in some way shamed themselves.

A member of the anyeti would shame himself if he fell down in public, or otherwise bruised or injured his person. He would shame himself if he were caught doing menial labor, such as cleaning fish or carrying wood or water. He would be shamed if he were caught in an altercation with a slave or a man of low rank, or if he were caught seated in a sprawling position, or if he went to an important meeting without the proper clothes. In every case ridicule could be heaped upon him but the important man prevented this by giving a feast, inviting all the individuals who had seen him. This saved his honor, for it was a great shame to ridicule one’s host.

Among the Tlingit one could enjoy the hospitality of a member of his own phratry for an unlimited length of time, but it was considered a great shame to abuse this hospitality. It was shameful to publicly dispute the word of a man older than yourself. It was shameful to have sex relations in your own clan with a woman of inferior rank, but not necessarily so if the woman was of your own rank. It was shameful to be seen near your mother-in-law. Individuals of high rank were shamed if people of low rank saw them nude. It was shameful to be seen defecating or urinating, but it was not shameful to talk about these things in public, nor was it shameful to talk about sexual matters. It was also shameful to break the customary ways of hunting, fishing, and eating.

A shameful act was generally sufficient reason for preventing people performing it. But among the Tlingit, as among other people, there were certain individuals who dared shame in order to gain their ends. It was these who were brought to terms by ridicule. Ridicule had many forms. The most effective consisted in making the offender of the proprieties the laughing stock of the village by disseminating songs and stories about him. Such songs and stories were often composed by paid song makers. Another form was the making of ludicrous wooden likenesses of the offender and placing them in prominent locations. Sometimes elaborate totem poles were carved with this motive in mind. Mimicry was also resorted to in bringing an offender to terms, or he might be called a white man, which every Tlingit considered the height of public censure.

Another point worth stressing is the fact that the criminal was permitted to be at large pending the settlement of the crime, while the injured party always remained indoors until his honor was cleared.1

1Oberg, K.n/an/an/an/an/a, "Crime and Punishment in Tlingit Society," , N.S., 36: 146–154.


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Chicago: "Amer. Anth.," Amer. Anth. in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed February 23, 2024,

MLA: . "Amer. Anth." Amer. Anth., Vol. 36, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 23 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Amer. Anth.' in Amer. Anth.. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 23 February 2024, from