Russian Resistance to Human Sacrifice among the Tlingit Indians (1819–1867)

Andrei V. Grinëv and Richard L. Bland

Abstract

Sacrifice of slaves among the Tlingit Indians, who lived in southeastern Alaska, had a ritual character and was part of their traditional culture. Slaves were sacrificed during special ceremonies—potlaches. Initially, the Russians, coming into the lands of the Tlingit at the end of the 18th century, did not interfere in their customs or try to prevent ritual slayings. Only at the end of the 1810s, when rather well-educated and humane naval officers took command in the Russian colonies in America, were attempts undertaken to ease the lot of the doomed slaves. Russian missionaries also played a definite role in keeping the Tlingit from ritual slaying. Of course, the Russians’ campaign, as well as the ransom of the slaves and prohibition against killing them at the walls of the colonial capital Novo-Arkhangel’sk, exerted influence primarily on the Tlingit living in the vicinity of the community of Sitka. Nevertheless, due to the endeavors of the Russians, several dozen people were saved from death. Resistance to human sacrifice among the Tlingit became one of the specific aspects of the social policy of the colonial administration, influencing in some ways the character of Russian-Tlingit relations.

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