Experts agree that America was discovered by Siberian hunters, ancestors of most of the present-day Native Americans, who were following Ice Age mammals into Alaska. These migrants came over the Bering Land Bridge, about 1,600 km (1,000 mi) wide, when ice sheets locked up much of the earth’s water supply and lowered the sea level. Genetic evidence suggests that several waves of migrants came across the land bridge. When the ice receded, the sea level rose until Alaska and Siberia were again separated by the Bering Sea. The earliest artifacts yet found in Alaska date from about 12,000 years ago, toward the end of the Ice Age. The forerunners of the Eskimo culture apparently came about 6,000 years ago.
Southeastern Alaska, also called the Panhandle, is in the Northwest Coast cultural zone, which reaches from Prince William Sound to northern California. The indigenous peoples of this zone developed a culture based on the area’s great natural resources. Seafood was abundant in the form of salmon, halibut, cod, herring, smelt, candlefish, edible mollusks, and marine mammals. Land game abounded, and vegetable foods were easily obtained. This food surplus allowed these people much leisure time to devote to cultural activities. Three peoples, the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, occupied the Alaskan coast south of Prince William Sound. The Tlingit, the most numerous, were scattered in many permanent villages. They spoke a language believed to be related to the Athapaskan language group of the Interior. They had about 14 tribal divisions and were expanding westward when they made contact with the Russians in 1741.
The Haida lived in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands and the southern part of Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. Tradition has it that they moved north in the 1700s, displacing some of the Tlingit tribes.
The Tsimshian lived in Southeastern and the nearby islands. Those living along Metlakatla Pass shifted to Fort Simpson, British Columbia, after Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Company built the fort in 1834. In 1887 a large group of Tsimshian, primarily from Fort Simpson and led by Anglican missionary William Duncan, moved to Annette Island in Alaska.
The three groups fished with fish traps, nets, hook and line, and dip nets. They used harpoons with detachable heads connected to the shaft with a line. They built fine canoes of various sizes. For land hunting, they used the bow and arrow, snares, and deadfalls. Wood was a primary material for most of their products, which were distinguished by fine workmanship and carved and painted decorations. Their tool blades were made of stone and shell, and they used nephrite stone for adze blades. They built large, rectangular, gable-roofed houses occupied by several families.
The social framework was matrilineal: descent was traced through the mother’s line. The Tlingit and Haida each had two major moieties, or subdivisions, and marriage within one’s own moiety was forbidden. The Tlingit also had clans, which were smaller social divisions traced from a legendary common ancestor. These societies had social classes, such as chiefs, nobles, commoners, and slaves, but there was much mobility among classes.
Each clan or lineage was usually politically independent; claimed fishing, hunting, and berrying grounds; had its own houses and chiefs; and operated socially and ceremonially as an independent unit. It had its own crest, personal names, and songs and dances for ceremonial occasions. Warfare was well established, its aim to drive out or even exterminate another lineage or family and acquire its lands and possessions. Religious belief centered around a disinterested supreme being or beings, the immortality of economically important animals, and lifelong assistance from a personal guardian spirit. An important feature of Northwest Coast social life was the potlatch, a party where the host gave away goods to the guests. A potlatch was given after someone died. It was also given to mark an unusual accomplishment or to celebrate an important family event. Feasting, dancing, and speechmaking preceded the gift giving. The larger the potlatch, the more ceremonial it was and the more wealth was distributed. Potlatching was a way to achieve prestige. If a man aspired to leadership, he had to celebrate whenever an opportunity arose. The potlatch giver had to have a sufficient supply of food, calico, blankets, furs, and other goods to give away on these occasions. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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