Symbolic Immortality

The Tlingit Potlatch of the Nineteenth Century, Second Edition

Sergei Kan

  • Published: December 2015
  • Subject Listing: Anthropology; Native American and Indigenous Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 416 pp., 18 illus., 1 map, 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Contents

Decades after its initial publication, Symbolic Immortality retains its status as the most comprehensive analysis of the mortuary practices of the Tlingit Indians of southeastern Alaska-or any other indigenous culture of the Northwest Coast. This updated and expanded edition furthers our understanding of the potlatch (koo.éex') as a total social phenomenon, with emotional and religious as well as economic and sociopolitical dimensions. The result is a major contribution to both Northwest Coast ethnology and theoretical literature on the anthropology of death.
Sergei Kan is professor of anthropology and Native American studies at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries and A Russian American Photographer in Tlingit Country: Vincent Soboleff in Alaska, and editor of Sharing Our Knowledge: The Tlingit and Their Coastal Neighbors.

"Symbolic Immortality is a very thorough examination of the most important (in terms of both cultural significance and scholarly and popular interest) Native American ritual in the Pacific Northwest, the memorial potlatch. No other book probes the existing literature on the potlatch in such a constructively comprehensive, comparative, and critical way. . . . Symbolic Immortality has stood the test of time. . . . As the potlatch continues to serve a central function in Northwest Coast social life (even among non-Natives), this new edition . . . , with its insights into the contemporary potlatch, will likely become even more indispensable."
-Thomas F. Thornton, University of Oxford
Preface to the Second Edition
Tlingit Alphabet
Tlingit Technical Sound Chart
Map of Southeast Alaska, the Land of the Coastal Tlingits

1. Outline of the Mortuary Rites

Part One The Person and the Social Order
2. The "Outside" and the "Inside": The Tlingit View of the Human Being
3. Shagóon and the Social Person: The Cultural Ideal
4. The Aristocrat as the Ideal Person

Part Two The Funeral
5. Cosmology, Eschatology, and the Nature of Death
6. The Deceased, the Mourners, and the Opposites: Actors in the Ritual Drama
7. Grief, Mourning, and the Politics of the Funeral

Part Three The Potlatch
8. The Potlatch as a Mortuary Ritual
9. Competition and Cooperation, Hierarchy and Equality

Part Four Death in Northwestern North America and Beyond
10. The Tlingit Mortuary Complex: A Comparative Perspective

Conclusion: The Tlingit Mortuary Complex and the Anthropology of Death

"A sensitive and comprehensive study of the mortuary complex among the Tlingit Indians of southeastern Alaska. . . . This book will become one of the few classics in the literature of the North Pacific Coast."
-American Indian Quarterly

"Kan's work is a welcome addition to . . . literature on the potlatch, and provides fresh insights into traditional Tlingit culture as it survived into the nineteenth century through the window of mortuary rites....Kan's work must be recommended for its innovative approaches to the study of the Tlingit and the study of their mortuary rites which provide much food for thought for comparison with other societies."

"Kan's presentation of rich and complex data on many aspects of the Tlingit mortuary attests to his sensitivity as a fieldworker (and to the perhaps surprising strength of Tlingit tradition). What is more, Kan is the first to make such extensive use of archival and ethnohistorical sources to present as complete as possible a picture of the nineteenth-century Tlingit potlatch. . . . The book is a welcome addition to the literature on the Northwest Coast, ritual exchange, ethnopsychology, and mortuary practices, and deserves a wide and lasting audience."
-Arctic Anthropology

"There is a beauty and rhythm to the Tlingit mortuary complex which makes compelling reading. Most simply, this monograph is an anthropological study of death. . . In their mortuary rites, culminating in the memorial potlatch, the Tlingit transformed death from a threat to the social order into the major opportunity for imposing a sense of order on the flow of social life."
-Arctic and Alpine Research

"Kan goes far beyond description to explore reasons for and meanings of the customs. . . . [He] is dealing with extremely complex issues, yet his arguments are stated with absolute clarity. . . . The most exciting aspect of Kan's book - apart from the specific information he presents - is his discussion of theory and methodology. He integrates these themes skillfully into his text. . . . [arguing] strongly in favor of a holistic approach to cultural studies."
-Alaska History

"[Kan] argues that a belief in immortality lay at the core of Tlingit ideology, and that the potlatch effectively symbolized the relationship between the living and the dead. . . . Historians of American Indian cultures can read Symbolic Immortality with much profit. The writing is clear, and the scholarship rests as strongly on documentary evidence as on field notes gathered from oral respondents. Kan's analysis is creative and imaginative."
-Journal of the West

"[Shows] that the entire process from death, to funeral, to the final memorial is more than an economic, political, or social affair; it is a way to commemorate the deceased and all of one's ancestors and what they represent. . . . For anyone seriously interested in the history and culture of this region, [this book] will . . . stand as one of the major publications in anthropology for many years to come."
-Tundra Times

"Sergei Kan has done a fine job of synthesizing source materials in Symbolic Immortality. This book will undoubtedly become a standard reference on the Tlingit."
-Sharing Our Pathways