Tlingit tunic design: visual definition, meaning, and identity

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Virginia Tech


The Tlinglt people have lived along the southeastern coast of Alaska since 1730. Historically, the highly decorated Tlingit tunics were worn at potlatches, as the first layer of regalia. The tunics were often covered with dance aprons. bibs, and blankets. Potlatches are still held today but with less frequency. Today, Celebration is held every two years, so that the Tlingit may gather to celebrate their heritage through music, dance, and art.

The purpose of the research was to define the physical tunic, as well as. to determine meaning associated with the tunics. Models were created to divide the fifty tunics into more manageable sections, which were originally based on DeLong’s (1987) use of Gestalt theory of part-to-whole and whole-to-part viewing. The viewing relationships of interior design lines, silhouette, and surface design readily organized appearance into visual categories. The models were further divided into subsections which displayed information on a particular part of the tunic (for example, side silhouette shapes). Meaning was determined by using form associations. An expressive response scale, which deals specifically with the Tlingit tunics, was adapted from DeLong's (1987) form association scale.

The researcher visited six museums along the Inner Passage of Alaska. Twenty-eight relics were viewed at the various museums. Nine old photographs were also viewed at the museums. Celebration "96 In Juneau, as well as a dance event In Haines, were attended and videotaped so that the tunics could be seen in actual use. Thirteen tunics were viewable using the videotape.

Definition of the tunics was determined by analyzing the interior design lines, silhouette, and the surface design. The physical tunic had a simple silhouette and interior design lines, while the surface design was found to be much more complex. In other words, the non-complex outline framed a complex surface design.

Tunics were placed into four possible categories in the expressive response scale. The tunics distinctly fell into two of the four categories.. Meaning determined that the shape was large with emphasis on the silhouette. Line was discontinuous while the color tended to be bright. The texture was able to fill the surface with coarse areas usually due to beadwork.

Group Identity was conveyed through the use of similar silhouettes and interior design lines. Individuality was expressed in the uniqueness of the surface designs - in the type of design, varied location, and use of materials.



definition, Design, tunic, tlingit, meaning