Enroll | Forms | Jobs |

Tlingit Death Ceremonies

The death of a clan member sets in motion a number of things. Unlike "western" concepts, the mourning members of the deceased is actually the clan of the deceased itself. Traditionally, it would be turned it over to the clan leaders and/or maternal nephew(s) who would take care of the deceased by picking the pall bearers, night-watch, grave diggers, and flower bearers, and asking who will place the at.óow (if any is brought out by the clan) on or near the deceased, either of which is acceptable. The widow(er)'s family will then place at.óow their own behind the deceased to show their in-laws that they are "standing with them." (Other related clans will also do so to show the mourning clan support.) The clan in mourning will speak first about their deceased clan member and do one or more of their mourning songs after which the opposite clan(s) will respond with their own song(s). Balance is not "song for song" or "speech for speech", the response IS the balance.

If a person died out of town and is brought back home , the opposite clan would meet them as they arrived back. At the gravesite the same respects are paid and "remembrances" of the deceased and his/her life.

All of this is what we call, Woosh yáa awudané - Respect for Each Other.

Forty Day Party

The origins of the Forty Day Party (considered by many elders to be a recent trend) remain unclear. There are two opposing theories and one middle position. Most Tlingit elders believe that the Forty Day Party was not originally Tlingit but was a relatively recent innovation imported by the Russians, even though non-Orthodox communities follow the tradition today. Some middle aged and older Tlingit people have commented that, in their youth, only the Orthodox Tlingit held Forty Day Parties; they say the idea spread from there. In Orthodox tradition the requiem service called panikhida, is also observed as a memorial service forty days after death; it may be repeated on other dates significant in the life of the deceased. The fortieth day observance parallels, on the individual level, the Feast of Ascension of Christ forty days after Easter. It was the custom of the early Christian Church to celebrate the third, ninth, and fortieth days after death with religious services. In most Orthodox parishes the fortieth day is still observed…

…The opposing opinion states that the Tlingit people have always had a small ceremony or feast observed forty days after death. The middle position holds that some kind of a smaller even (as opposed to the larger memorial a year or more after death) was observed in pre-contact time, but was reinforced and set at forty days under Russian influence. Kan (1987a) favors this position.

…Forty Day Parties are ideally held forty days after death, and the larger memorial held one year after, but latitude exists for both observations.

(This is usually a Russian Orthodox custom that has been adopted by some as "necessary" part of the mourning process. It is acceptable to have one or not have one. Either way, the real memorial is described following this pages.)

The "memorial party is not the only type of koo.éex'. These were given for a new house dedication (hít wooshdei yadukícht) to dedicate a ceremonial object such as houseposts, hats, a new blanket, or to give a new name. One is called shdaatx x'awdligoo, "wiping away an offense", and even piercing the ears of a clan grandchild required a koo.éex'. Unfortunately today, they are limited to only being done for "memorials."

Return to Top 



By the terms "memorial" or "ceremonial" we refer to the major post-funeral ceremony held approximately one year after death. In English this event is commonly called "potlatch," a term well established in popular speech as well as anthropological literature, but one for which we do not particularly care, although we also use it at times for clarity.

Sometimes the combination "memorial potlatch" is also heard. Probably "party" is the most common English term used in Tlingit communities. Sometimes "pay-off party" is heard. The general Tlingit term is koo.eex', deriving from the Tlingit verb stem "to call" or "invited"…As noted above, the ideal timing for the koo.éex' is one year after death, but this is flexible. In actual practice today, and no doubt in the past as well, the ceremonial may be held many years after a person's death because of the time, effort, and expense of hosting such a memorial.

Conversely, some have been held less than a year after death, especially if the surviving elders feel they may not live long enough to fulfill their obligations to the dead. Also, the event may be a combined ceremonial in memory of more than one person, with several elders and their families joining efforts. The preferred time for the ceremonial is late fall or early winter, after the summer foods have been put up and after fall fishing, when people have time to focus on ceremonial life and have food and goods to distribute.

Elders often say of the memorial, "Aan haa wdudliyéx." ("This is the one we were created with.")

Excerpts from: Haa Tuwunáagu Yís - For Healing Our Spirit
Richard and Nora Dauenhauer --Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1990
(For more on memorials, read this book in its entirety)

Another Version of the Tlingit Koo.éex'

This is another version of running aTlingit koo.éex'. This is also proper, and correct. Some refer to last year's version of how a koo.éex' is conducted as "the shortcut", when

Return to Top 

everyone wants to go home early!

Welcome Speeches

As in the other format, it was, and still is customary, to call upon a grandchild* to "run the party". A grandchild is brought out with the words, "Haa dachxán saagál teen áwé káasagaxtooleex'!" or "We're going to stick a spear through our grandchild's throat!" This means the grandchild will be doing the speaking for the clan. 1) The first speaker is usually someone from the grandfathers' clan of the deceased. This establishes kin-ship and tells for whom the memorial is taking place. 2) Then the host-leader will speak and the "grandchild" will make the announcements and/or introductions henceforth. 3) The grandchild is selected by the host and how he/she is connected by house-group and/or clan to the host clan for each individual party. 4) Local house/clan leaders will give words of welcome to the guests (and opposite clan leaders by name) and clan leaders from clans other than the host clan are not left out for welcoming


Face Painting and "dressing up"

These are the mourning songs. The faces of the host clan are marked with black paint, preferably charcoal at this time, and a child of the clan is called upon to do this for the host clan.

If people are dressed up in at.óow of the clan before the songs, then a relative (usually someone from the father's clan or a child of a former caretaker) is called upon to dress up the host in their regalia (at.óow) and if the at.óow used is being passed on from a deceased person, it is called ls'aati át ("masterless things"), therefore it is not worn until the memorial is held for this person; it can be displayed and brought out to comfort those in mourning but is not worn until officially brought out again; This is called Ls'aati át toodei nagútch "Stepping into the Masterless Things".

When dressing a person in the regalia, the person doing so will always say, "This isn't me doing this, it's (name of deceased clan relative) doing this."

Those dressed in the crest hats usually dance when their hat song is done. This IS proper.

At a time like this, a grandchild can ask to wear his paternal grandfathers' at.óow. Being dressed up in the at.óow does not give the grandchild the right to claim the crest or the object. To us, dressing a grandchild up in your at.óow "makes the at.óow worth more." A grandchild is anyone whose paternal grandfather was your clan,

whether they are one day old or 100 years old.

Return to Top 

Gaaw wutaan (muffled drums)

IT IS proper AND acceptable to dance during the mourning songs no matter what anyone else may say about it. There really is no other time to dance to mourning songs than now.-- If this is done then the men dance with sticks while these songs are done and women do the "motion dance" or "yarn dance" wearing guktlenx (long yarn tassels worn on the ears) which is called yoo koonákk. The "hat songs" are done at this at a slower pace and at this point the dancing is called gáax kát nák or "standing for the cry". The sticks signify the men who used to stir the ashes during the cremation of the deceased, the guktlénx signify the heaviness as the women sway.
In this version, all the clan songs are done and those in mourning will also use songs from their fathers' side to remind them of who they are and to tell others their shuká. If a song from the opposite side is done the clan will call upon an opposite such as their father's clan or mother's father's clan and say, "Ax daa kananéek!" or "Tell my history." and then the song will be done. A member of the opposite clan is usually called upon to do the drumming (softly, not pounding the drum!).

The second song done will be a "yéik" a shaman's spirit song and the guests will respond with one of their own; this is the only response to be given and with the exception of this particular song, and as in the other version at the end of each song the dancers all turn, as one or more will chant "yaa sx'aashoo!" At this time the clan will be talking to themselves (not about themselves!) and not to the guests, encouraging each other. Words of encouragement will also be spoken aloud as the guests watch the host clan doing these songs.

The clan's own mourning songs will be completed, even if they have another memorial party pending (for other deaths), as this ritual is to put an end to the sorrow for whom the party is being held in memory for, otherwise the clan continues in mourning. Finishing the song "finishes the mourning" for this person.


There is NO response such as a "widow's cry" done at this time and the response to the yéik was the balance required. Balance is not "song for song" or "speech for speech", the balance is in the reply. As the mourning clan does their mourning songs the guests face the host clan dressed in their own crest hats and stand with the their hands raised to "push away the grief" from the clan in mourning. This "pushing away the grief" is also done in other memorials.

Return to Top 

Chush tóodáx kei duhúkch

This is still the ritual done after all the mourning songs are done by the host clan, chanting "yaasx'aashú!" as a stick is raised, dispelling the last of the grief; the mourning period is now over and the black paint can be removed, the sticks put away and the guktlénx removed.

First Meal

Naming of the Naakaani yán is usually done at this time as well; usually two sometimes four or more, or as many as are needed. The Naa káani is the "in-law", usually someone married to a host clan member. He is not a "future leader" as some may have suggested, he is just as the name says, the brother-in-law, and he is responsible for keeping the guests (his own side) quiet** and makes announcements for the host clan (the clan of the spouse), especially when calling out names for distribution. Women can also be used as a naa káani. He/She is literally the go-between for the hosts and guests.

While much is made today of "not telling another's history" and "intellectual property rights" a naakáani must know the history of his host and be able to tell it at a moment's notice if asked. - Knowing the history of the clan and family trees of those involved helps with the order as well the speakers and how responses will be done.

The first meal is done immediately after the mourning songs and the guest's response, and sometimes this meal is the "favorite" food of the deceased.

Gankas'íx'i (Fire Dish)

This is done as soon as the meal starts. A member of the father's clan of the deceased is usually called upon to "take the food" to the deceased at which time they will name one of their own deceased relatives stating it is their own deceased relative who is actually taking food to the person. Someone who returned from the dead once said that those on the other side still needed to be fed and in order to get food to them it had to be burned.

Bowls or dishes with food are given to the opposite clan and special guests. It used to be only certain ones received this now for some reason an effort is made to make sure everyone receives a fire-dish. At least two communities only have a dish for the deceased that is given to an honored guest, and no other dishes are distributed. This is not out of line with haa kusteeyí. A picture of the deceased is usually carried around to show the guests at this time by someone from the guests. Any container given must have something in it.

(Due to religious beliefs, some forego the "firedish" due to biblical prohibitions of "passing through the fire", and should not be forced to do if this is their belief.) If that's the case, then the food doesn't have to be burned but can be eaten by those seated around the person given the "fire dish", which is also acceptable.) The sapling trees the men danced with at the beginning would be burned along with the fire dish now.

"Love songs" can be done by either side now. The songs done after mourning songs are referred to as kindachóon aawanaak, or "standing upright".

Return to Top 

Dry Goods Distribution

At this point all the dry goods are brought out and distributed but blankets are not distributed yet. Towels, trinkets, canned-goods, pop, etc. All give away items. Care is given to hand all items to a guest and to never throw or toss ANY item at ANY time. (Blankets are not given out yet.)

Kaa x'éidei at kadunáa- (Taking Round Objects to the Mouth of Someone)-- A deceased clan member's name is called out like: "(Name of a deceased clan member) x'éidei!" meaning "to the mouth of (name of a deceased clan member" and then the bowl is designated for a guest: "(Name of a guest) x'éidei du xwáaxooteen" or "to the mouth of (name of the guest) and his gang!" This is when bowls of fruit are taken to the guests by calling out an individual's name and those seated nearby (not other tables!) share in taking the fruit. This can be done now, or after the money is collected, or at any other break-time before the end of the party. If a bowl is for someone to take home the one calling out the names will just call out, "To the mouth of ….." and it's understood it's for that person alone. The food someone takes home is called éenwoo.

The daughter-in-law is called "du ya dóok", or "his face". Haa ya dóok is "our daughter-in-law", lit. "our countenace". These are women who are or were married to sons of the host clan. These are usually the ones who are selected to distribute the fire-dishes. These women are the mothers of haa dachxánx'i sáani or "our precious grandchildren".

NOTE: It is common to joke with clan relations, "clan brothers and sisters" and tell jokes on one another. Jokes about witchcraft and other such taboo subjects, were (and are!) ideal targets for matrikin at these events, all adding to laughter and joyful activities. The mourning is over, "fun" is the name of the game. This can go on throughout the whole party now too.

(Another thing that used to be done at these memorial parties was what is called yikteiyí, which is a show or a skit. An event of the clan would be re-enacted and the guests had to guess what was being portrayed. Masks held by the clan were used at this time too.)

Return to Top 

Money collection

Clan members used to do this but now spouses of the host clan are called upon to count the money. They are the "secretaries". (Another meal can be, or is usually served now.) This portion hasn't changed from the other version.

  1. Jínda.aat first-- clans other than the host clan, or "those who came to give a hand". Before this time, members of the guest clans will be donating to the host clan members to increase their contributions as a gesture of helping the host clan. Some give $1.00 or $2.00 or even larger amounts. Sometimes children of the host will give large amounts of money to back up their father and add to his contribution.
  2. Other clan members-- The host clan members give their contributions.
  3. Immediate family last-- These are the last ones to contribute with
    the host or the oldest member of the host house group going last.

The person donating announces who donated to him/her and then their own amount and the naa káani says the total aloud so everyone can hear what the donation is. This is done until all have finished contributing then a naa káani will announce the full amount.

(Note-If the party is for more than one person, it is considered impolite to split up the money bowls, a different bowl for each person. As one elder put it, "We are one clan!" just before he turned the bowls over and mixed the money together. Everyone contributes to make the party a success, not to outdo one family over another).

Killing the Money (and naming and adoptions)

The names of the deceased can be called off such as "(name of the Deceased) Kaadéi", or "[The money is] put over" (named of the deceased)" and can be all the clan names that can be recounted or just the names of whoever the memorial is for. House names and the names of the at.óow of the house are also named off. This "killing of the money" disassociates the money from the donator. This also pays for the public display of the at.óow and "make the object worth more". It is considered improper to put money in envelopes then take it back out. When it's killed, it's dead. The words used when killing the money over the names and/or objects are: (Name of person or object) + kaadéi, lit."Over ________________."

The names of the deceased are usually passed on at this time and adoptions can be made too, adopting another Tlingit (of the same moiety, different clan) into your own clan or a non-Tlingit. Clan grandchildren, daughters and sons in-law, are subjects for name-giving too, and sometimes new names are created from events at the party or the times around it.

Money used to be held by a flame (such as a candle) to "warm the money", then the name is "fit to the face" of the person being named. The money is put on the forehead and the name is said aloud as: "(The name) á, "It is (the name)". This is done three times (some say four) and everyone repeats it after it is said aloud, thereby fitting the name to the person. A guest who is present is designated to receive this money and is "witness" to the name given.

Special Note: Goods given away, trinkets, blankets, towels, paddles, handmade gifts or items, store-bought or and handmade, and other such objects are never "killed" with the money nor is their value "announced aloud" to the guests. which would be like putting price tags on your Christmas presents under the tree. Only the cash that is given out is "killed"; blankets can also be "killed" in this fashion, nothing else, unless someone has some tin.áa (copper plates) to give out! Only the money counts as being killed against something (or the blankets).

Return to Top 

"Money Dances"

These are part of the dances known as kindachóon aawanaak, or "standing upright". Grandchildren especially those who are the same clan as the host clan (the most prominent ones at a party) are usually called upon to dance, or nephews/nieces of the host, or a daughter-in-law, it's up to the host.

After the money is killed and the name giving completed (if any) this is when the "blanket dances" are done, usually in this order. They are done this way normally as the clan has now "paid for the right to display them."

  1. Gangoosh- Abalone fin headdress, the headdress made out of abalone shells
    sometimes called "Bear Ears" (these can be used by any clan and the clans that have them
    have their own song for this dance.) If a clan doesn't have one, they can proceed to the
    following songs:
  2. Hat dances-- Done in the order of the host clan hats present, ending with the
    hat songs from the host clan.
  3. Yéik ootee (Spirit Imitation)-- The dance behind the blanket when the dancer makes the eagle down fly out of the headdress at the ending. This is a chance for dancers to show-off their dancing ability! (Sometimes, those adopted will be asked to dance.) Men and woman can do this dance and it is not necessary to stand during these songs.

When those dancing behind the blankets are finished their foreheads are wiped with the blanket corner and the blanket given to a guest. Sometimes five or six blankets are held together at one time for the dancer to dance behind and the blankets likewise distributed.

Money Distribution

A general distribution is usually made to the guests first so everybody gets something.
Consistently giving money back to one's spouses and children amounts to, as another elder said, "Taking money out of one pocket and putting it back in the other." Other help is also paid to the opposite clan and can include but is not limited to the following, and not in any particular order:

Return to Top 
  1. Night-watch
  2. Pall-bearers
  3. Grave Diggers
  4. Grave Finisher
  5. Fire Dish taker
  6. Picture Carrier
  7. Cooks
  8. Naa káani yán
  9. "Secretaries"
  10. Drummer
  11. Drummer
  12. Clan Children

If a widow(er) survives, at the memorial for the spouse the host will line up to take certain amounts of money to pay this person, all equal amounts and this usually adds up to quite a payment. All such help is paid and the rest of the blankets can now be distributed.


When all the money has been completely distributed a naakáani will say "Hooch' áwé yaanax!" meaing "That's all there is!"-- ALL speeches can be stopped by one of the guest clan leaders saying the following: "Hel yoox'watánx'i kukkwastí!" or "There will be no speeches!" meaning that the guests will do a return dance which is called "Kaax'a eetí al'eixí."

This is done to give some of the gifts back to the host clan (including money) and entertain them with their own songs and skits. A return dance can be done after the other version too.

This is a lively, fun time, thanking the host for their hospitality. Guests (including modern dance groups) never interrupt a party with their own program! EVERY person who was a guest is expected to come back and dance in a return dance. (In fact, this is the only time an "entrance song" is done at memorials as the host clan does not leave the guest seated to come in dancing at their own party; entrance songs are done by the guests at a Return Dance).

The order of a return dance is similar to that of the party itself and can be done immediately after the party and no body leaves or let people go home and rest and come back for the return dance; usually if they take a break few of the guests return to do the return dance.!

The songs leaders will line up the dance paddles and the guests will return doing their entrance song. Fun times and fun headdresses, masks and skits can also be done. Daggers will come in first, followed by the crest hats. The daughter-in-law dances in front of the crest hats first with her arms open to the person wearing the hat, this again, is "the countenance of the clan." The last ones to enter are the shakee.át dancers, the lively dancers who can show off. (If someone comes in wearing a blanket and a person is holding the corner of the blanket, there is pay-off coming up for that family; one on each corner?-two people in the pay-off, etc.)

This is the usual order in a return dance:

Return to Top 
  1. Entrance
  2. Inside Song
  3. Gangoosh
  4. Love Songs or Happy Songs
  5. Hat Songs
  6. Money Collection
  7. Yéikootee
  8. Money to the Hosts Who Are Now "Guests"
  9. "Thank You's" Exchanged
  10. Exit--END

--Guests never left a party before it was finished. It was considered the gravest insult to a host clan to get up and leave and anyone leaving like that never had to be invited again!--

--(Kuyax du héixwaa If the party goes past 3am then this ritual was always done, and has to be done before Raven sounds at first light. It's usually the Raven's who start off first, "appeasing" Raven and putting up a yéik (spirit) song to ward off, what is said to be the creatures of the night, as those animals are retiring back to their homes and the creatures of the daytime are coming out. They can't mix.After the Ravens will do a yéik song then the Wolves (that is, the "opposites") do a response to balance the yéik song that was just done, and only then can the party continue.)--

Dogs or "pets" were strictly forbidden! A child of the host clan would sometimes be asked to sit by the doorway to "keep the dogs out". Children, unless of high rank, were never allowed at parties. Children make noise and interfere with proceedings and respect demanded that such be kept home. It is not rude, impolite, or a violation of Tlingit custom to ask that children not be allowed at such events. It was done in the past and can be expected now and at future parties.

This is only an example of how a memorial may be run. Variations occur according to clan/community.

Return to Top