Tahltan are Athapaskan-speaking Aboriginal people who occupy an area of northwestern British Columbia centered on the Stikine River. Although these people use several terms to refer to themselves, the designation "Tahltan" comes from the language of their neighbours, the Tlingit.

Tahltan Medicine Man

Tahltan are Athapaskan-speaking Aboriginal people who occupy an area of northwestern British Columbia centered on the Stikine River. Although these people use several terms to refer to themselves, the designation "Tahltan" comes from the language of their neighbours, the Tlingit. The Tlingit name for the village site situated at the mouth of the Tahltan River has been applied more generally to all those bands identified today as Tahltan. In the late 19th century a remnant group of Athapaskan-speaking Sekani migrated into the region and joined the Tahltan at Telegraph Creek. It was not until 1905 that Tahltan reserves were set aside in this remote area of BC.

During the early 1900s, the Tahltan population was devastated by epidemics and reduced to less than 300 people. Since 1972, the Tahltan groups have been administered separately as the Iskut band (705 members in 2010) and Tahltan band (1755 registered members in 2012), with the Iskut comprising the Sekani living at Kinaskan Lake. Telegraph Creek continues to be the main Tahltan settlement.

Social System

As many as six main geographical divisions within the Aboriginal Tahltan have been recognized, each composed of two moieties, Raven and Wolf, which in turn are divided into three matrilineal clans. A fourth clan resulted from intermarriage between the Tahltan and Tlingit. Each clan had its own territory and its own hereditary chief, as well as its own stock of names, stories, songs, dances and crests displayed at ceremonials held when families gathered at central villages. The clan chief managed hunting and trapping activities, assigning to each family a particular area and acting as an arbitrator in the event of disputes. Leaders of families and clans also held the most important hereditary rights. These individuals formed an upper class and maintained their position through appropriate behaviour, skills and acquisition of wealth. There was no clear distinction between them and other Tahltan people. Slaves were always members of other Aboriginal communities, acquired by capture or exchange. Around 1875, the leaders of the clans agreed to amalgamate under a single leader, appointing the head of the Kachadi clan as head chief.


The Tahltan spent several months each year at summer fishing villages where the residents lived in large gabled-roof communal houses that functioned both as smokehouses and dwellings. Spruce and pine poles were used for the walls; sections of bark from these same trees formed the roof. This season of aggregation was marked by feasts, visiting and trading. In late August, groups of a few families dispersed to upland hunting camps where they stayed in lean-to shelters of brush and bark. Marmots, squirrels, beaver, and large game such as mountain goats, mountain sheep, caribou, moose and bear were hunted. Hunting and trapping continued throughout the winter. Shelters were winterized by covering them with extra brush and banking them with earth.

Winter travel was accommodated by snowshoes. Although the Tahltan made a few bark canoes and rafts, they were not accomplished at this skill, depending instead upon a selection of well-made moccasins worn for walking in the rough terrain. Around 1850, the Tahltan began using dogs for packing. Dog sledges were subsequently introduced.


Intertribal trade was important to the Tahltan. They exchanged copper, eulachon oil and shells brought from the coast by the Tlingit to camps situated between Telegraph Creek and the Tahltan River, for the Tahltan's own leather goods, obsidian and snowshoes. Most Tahltan families recognized this trading centre around Telegraph Creek as the tribal headquarters and visited there at least once a year. Trade was also conducted with the interior Kaska and Sekani peoples. After 1874, European traders participated in this exchange, displacing the Tlingit on the coast.

Prospecting activities on the Stikine in the mid-1800s contributed to a reduction in the Tahltan population and a profound alteration in lifestyle. New foodstuffs and wage labour transformed the traditional economy and seasonal pursuits. Missionaries who settled among the Tahltan in the early 1900s brought about further changes in the Aboriginal belief system. The basic elements of Tahltan culture persisted, however, providing a core of tradition that has become the focus of cultural and linguistic revitalization in the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1910, eighty leaders including Tahltan Chief Nanok, signed a declaration claiming sovereignty, their interests concerning land titles, traditional territories and the legal rights of the Aboriginal members. In 1975 several Bands and communities united as the Tahltan Nation and the Tahltan Central Council (TCC) was created to represent the interest of the Tahltan members, both on and off reserve. The Council is responsible for defining and protecting Tahltan Aboriginal rights and title, to protect the eco-systems and natural resources of Tahltan territories, and to strengthen the their culture and communities. In 2007, the BC government and TCC representatives for the Tahltan Nation established a restoration plan to address past mineral exploration and development activity within Tahltan territory.

Further Reading

  • Sylvia Albright, Tahltan Ethnoarchaeology (1984); George T. Emmons, "The Tahltan Indians," University of Pennsylvania Museum Anthropological Publications 4.1 (1911); Bruce MacLachlan, "Tahltan," Handbook of Northamerican Indians Vol. 6 (1981); James Teit, "Tahltan Tales," Journal of American Folklore 32 (1919).

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