Alaskan Tlingit Indian Traditional Knowledge: Trees Are People

Russell Stigall
Juneau Empire

Tlingit Elder Elaine Abraham shared stories of her ancestors’ relationship with their environment at the Alaska Rainforest Center’s symposium at Centennial Hall, Thursday.

The three-day event encouraged collaboration between organizations with a stake in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest.

Abraham spoke particularly of her people’s connection to trees.

She offered stories of Tlingit warriors who dressed for battle with trees, shamans who negotiated with trees, trees that offer their own lives for tools and homes and fire. These same trees would dictate wise caveats for their sacrifice.

The Tlingit and Haida have lived in Southeast Alaska for thousands of years. Abraham offered a look at how they did it.

Abraham said her ancestors left messages on stones as they migrated between Ketchikan and Yakutat. These messages are still found along low tide beaches, she said.

Abraham said the information she would deliver to the audience came from her father, Olaf David Abraham.

“He’ll be giving messages for you,” Abraham said.

Tlingit warriors would fast and pray for day to lead them in to the right trees they will use to make wooden collars. The trees were selected by a shaman. The area became protected and the trees gave permission to be killed, Abraham said.

  • “They have to ask the tree people … we don’t call them trees, we call them ‘the people of the trees,’” Abraham said. “From the rock to the streams and we lived in close communication with them. They were people to us.”

    She told about a man from the Owl House killed by a fallen tree. The tree trapped the body.

    “The tree people refused to give up the body,” Abraham said.

    So Abraham’s ancestors fought back.

    “They put on their royal battle armor and went to the edge of the trees and challenged the tree people to war.”

    Instead of war, as a symbol of peace they carved an image of the man from the Owl house from the tree that had crushed him.

    That’s how close the relationships are, Abraham said. “You read about it in your books and it says they were really close to the animals and plants. We lived with them as if they were human beings. We didn’t see it any different.”

    Abraham lives in Yakutat. She was the first Tlingit registered nurse and worked in Juneau, Mt. Edgecumbe and Bethel.

    She’s held leadership positions at Sheldon Jackson College and the University of Alaska.

    “Abraham is a revered Tlingit elder and serves as Chairperson of the Board of Commissioner’s of the Alaska Native Science Commission,” according to the Alaska Native Science Commission website. (

    No, thanks!