Tlingit Armor

Original artifacts, written sources, historical art work. Ancient to c.1900.
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Tlingit Armor

Postby Alina » 04 Mar 2007 01:04

I've had an interest in Native American arms and Armor for some time. One of the regions of particular interest is Alaska where many different tribes lived, notably the Tlingit. Tlingit armor is exceptionally complex, and actually words quite well. The coast of southern Alaska is heavily wooded, and that allowed the Tlingit to use large amounts of wood in their armor. Armor consisted of both a cuirass and a helmet.

The cuirass of the Tlingit was made up of both rods and slats of wood, bound together with plant fibers and moose hide. The large slats formed the front face of the armor, and the narrower rods were used on the sides where more flexibility was needed. Here is a reproduction Tlingit cuirass, which looks identical to an image I have of an original in one of my Native American arms and armor books:

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Here is the same armor being worn by its maker:

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The cuirass is secured to the body by means of wooden toggles:

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Here is a detail showing the cord binding and the mix of narrow rods and wider slats:

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Another look at the armor:

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The upper part, including the straps that go over the shoulders:

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A detail of the upper section:

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A detail of the moose hide leather and the lacing:

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The Tlingit cuirass was an extremely effective piece of armor against the weapons the Tlingit were likely to face in inter-tribal warfare including clubs, bows, and stone axes. The Tlingit were also one of the few North American tribes capable of working copper to some extent, and so copper-shod weapons were in use along with copper daggers. A variation on the atlatl, known as a throwing board, was also used. Here is an image of an original Tlingit throwing board:

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Here is a throwing board from a different Alaskan tribe, to show the regional differences:

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Tlingit helmets usually came in two pieces, an upper portion to cover the skull like a modern military helmet, and a visor to cover the rest of the face. They were famed for being extremely well-built. Russian explorers often claimed that Tlingit helmets could stop a musket ball. Here is a Tlingit helmet carved to depict a raven:

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This is a visor that would be attached beneath the helmet to guard the face:

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An interior view:

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Here is a painting of the Raven helmet and visor being worn by a Tlingan warrior:

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This is a full helmet and visor carved in the shape of a killer whale:

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Here are some images of a hawk shaped helmet, meant to cover the skull. The artist who built this did not build a visor:

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Here is another Tlingit helmet, covering only the skull, carved in the shape of a rockfish (one of my personal favorites for its unique appearance):

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Here is a different style of Tlingit helmet, intended to cover the entire face like an American Football helmet, or an Aztec Jaguar helmet. You look out through the mouth. This was constructed by a modern Tlingit in Alaska, but I haven't come across references to this type in the sources. The two-piece helmet and visor is more typical. It is carved to represent a wolf:

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Postby Paul » 04 Mar 2007 01:12

Thanks Alina, most interesting. :D

Do you happen to have any pics of their copper daggers (and/or other metal weapons) as well?
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Postby Alina » 04 Mar 2007 01:16

I don't, actually. These were taken from some Alaskan art websites, but it doesn't violate copyright since it's for scholarly research only. I have a couple of other images of original Tlingit rod and slat armor, but my scanner has been broken for some time. I wish the Native American Arms and Armor books I had were a little more pic intensive. However, I know they have a very famous Tlingit Chinese coin armor online. Lemme dig it up.

Here's one example:

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Postby Alina » 04 Mar 2007 01:20

Another Chinese coin armor vest, as well as a helmet and visor. Though the helmet looks strangely small:

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Postby Wolfgang Ritter » 04 Mar 2007 01:20

Cool armour - especially the fact, that the central plates of the "tlingit coat-of-plates" are longer to give some protection to the groin; gives you an idea how they wre fighting....
And the helmets are quite flashy....
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Postby Alina » 04 Mar 2007 01:25

Interesting article on a pacific northwest dagger, with some explanation of general trends:

http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/Content_ ... ersion.pdf
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Postby Angantyr » 04 Mar 2007 12:28

Nice! There's just something rather amusing about "stone age" sivilizations and their armour! Really funny to see something else than the boring old metal plates.
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Postby Paul » 04 Mar 2007 17:19

Thanks for that article. :)

Given their apparent technological edge, why didn't they go on to conquer most of North America?
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Postby J. F. McBrayer » 04 Mar 2007 17:29

Paul wrote:Given their apparent technological edge, why didn't they go on to conquer most of North America?


Probably a matter of economics and lack of interest. Historically, the Tlingit and other northwest coast nations had relatively large populations and relatively hierarchical social structures, but their economy was still based on hunting and gathering (in a very, very rich environment). Given that economy, there's no real incentive to conquer other nations wholesale. Tlingit warfare was a combination of raiding, clan feuding, and slave-taking.

Edited to add: if they had had such an interest, they would have eventually met nations with similar technology and even larger populations in other parts of the continent (pre-conquest). Precolumbian Native American technology and social organization is widely underestimated today, mostly because most people are only familiar with the societies that emerged out of the rubble after Precolumbian societies had been destroyed by the plagues brought by the Europeans.
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Postby J Marwood » 04 Mar 2007 18:31

Great stuff Alina - thanks.
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Postby Alina » 04 Mar 2007 19:14

J. F. McBrayer wrote:
Paul wrote:Given their apparent technological edge, why didn't they go on to conquer most of North America?


Probably a matter of economics and lack of interest. Historically, the Tlingit and other northwest coast nations had relatively large populations and relatively hierarchical social structures, but their economy was still based on hunting and gathering (in a very, very rich environment). Given that economy, there's no real incentive to conquer other nations wholesale. Tlingit warfare was a combination of raiding, clan feuding, and slave-taking.

Edited to add: if they had had such an interest, they would have eventually met nations with similar technology and even larger populations in other parts of the continent (pre-conquest). Precolumbian Native American technology and social organization is widely underestimated today, mostly because most people are only familiar with the societies that emerged out of the rubble after Precolumbian societies had been destroyed by the plagues brought by the Europeans.


This would pretty much be my assessment of the question as well. I would add to that, the Tlingit didn't have the manpower or economic resources to do any true conquering. Without agriculture, they would have been unable to set themselves up outside of the pacific northwest, and without being able to colonize they wouldn't have been able to conquer.
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Postby Paul » 04 Mar 2007 21:53

They had that much technology without agriculture???

And they did develop metal working on their own?

Did they know about pottery?
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Postby Alina » 04 Mar 2007 22:02

Paul wrote:They had that much technology without agriculture???

And they did develop metal working on their own?

Did they know about pottery?


I believe they had baskets but not pottery. As far as I know, they developed copper working before European contact, but it's hard to say. And, they didn't need agriculture. If you've ever been to Alaska, you will see that there's so much salmon and other natural resources around that it's like paradise. You can catch enough fish to eat for a month in a matter of hours there.
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Postby Paul » 04 Mar 2007 23:33

It's often believed that copper working was a byproduct of pottery, or at least dependent on it for proper kiln design.

Personally I have some doubts about this theory, but still...

Agriculture is often named as a reason for the organisation of society, leading to more specialisation, and thus more technological advances.

Therefore it seems to be commonly accepted that one needs agriculture first, then develops pottery, then metal working.

However, in the case of the Tlingit, that doesn't seem to be the case, and that's fascinating.
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Postby Alina » 04 Mar 2007 23:44

Paul wrote:It's often believed that copper working was a byproduct of pottery, or at least dependent on it for proper kiln design.

Personally I have some doubts about this theory, but still...

Agriculture is often named as a reason for the organisation of society, leading to more specialisation, and thus more technological advances.

Therefore it seems to be commonly accepted that one needs agriculture first, then develops pottery, then metal working.

However, in the case of the Tlingit, that doesn't seem to be the case, and that's fascinating.


They're a really interesting group. I just wish sorting out pre-Columbian and post-Columbian weren't so difficult.
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