Religious Beliefs. Early records suggest that the Tlingit believed in a creator, Kah-shu-goon-yah, whose name was sacred and never mentioned above a whisper. This primordial grandfather, or "divisible-rich-man," controlled the sun, moon, stars, and daylight in addition to creating all living things. Little more is known of him. The sacred past centers upon Raven (cultural hero, benefactor, trickster, and rascal) who was credited with organizing the world in its present form and in initiating many Tlingit customs. Raven was never represented, symbolized, or made equal with the supreme being who transcended Tlingit legends. The Tlingit inhabited a world filled with spirits, or jek. These spirits could manifest their power through individuals, animals, or things. Since every material object or physical force could be inhabited by a spirit, Tlingit were taught to respect everything in the universe. The penalty for disrespect was the loss of ability to obtain food. Properly purified persons could acquire spirit power for curing illnesses, for protection in warfare, for success in obtaining wealth, and for ceremonial prerogatives. Each Tlingit had a mortal and an immortal spirit.
Religious Practitioners. Two options open to youths were to seek good power and help the community or to seek evil power and threaten the community. Every Tlingit had a personal guardian spirit, or tu-kina-jek. Spirit doctors, or ichet, received more powerful spirits and therefore could treat the sick with herbs, discern the presence of evil, predict the future, and protect the community from evil forces. Witches, or nukw-sati, sought evil power and used it to harm others.
Ceremonies. Dancing societies never gained a major foothold in Tlingit society as they did in neighboring Northwest Coast tribes. The Tlingit sought their power primarily through their clan spirit doctor whom they trusted to help and not to harm them. Politicoreligious ceremonies called potlatches, or koolex, marked significant events in the life of the clan and its members. Sacred songs, dances, symbols, and stories accompanied all changes in social stature, political leadership, and ceremonial objects within the clan.
Arts. Carving of house posts, heraldic screens, chiefs' hats, chiefs' staffs, and weaving of Chilkat blankets were highly acclaimed. Wood-carvers, metalworkers, and blanket weavers continue to use their traditional clan symbols ( kotea ) to indicate ownership and identity.
Medicine. Every family possessed a basic knowledge of herbs and principles of hygiene and for the most part were medically self-sufficient. Occasionally, a spirit doctor, who possessed superior knowledge of herbal medicines and special spirit power, was called in for difficult cases after household remedies failed. Contemporary Tlingit do not hesitate to consult modern medical facilities when the need arises.
Death and Afterlife. Spirits of the dead traveled to the appropriate level of heaven commensurate with their moral conduct in this life. Morally respectable people went to the highest heaven, Kiwa-a, a realm of happiness; moral delinquents went to a second level, or Dog Heaven, Ketl-kiwa, a place of torment. Individuals remained in the afterworld for a period of time and then returned to this world as a reincarnation of some deceased maternal relative.