Tahltan | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Tahltan are Dene, an Indigenous people in Canada. Tahltan have traditionally occupied an area of northwestern British Columbia centered on the Stikine River. Although the Tahltan use several terms to refer to themselves, the designation "Tahltan" comes from the language of their neighbours, the Tlingit. Today, the Tahltan Central Government represents the interests of the Tahltan members, both on and off reserve.

Traditional Territory

The Tahltan Nation, situated in British Columbia, states that the borders of their traditional territory run adjacent to the Alaskan border on the west and stretch into the Yukon in the north. South and east of the Tahltan Nation include the headwaters of Skeena, Nass and Stikine rivers.
In the late 19th century, a remnant group of Dene-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 British Columbia.


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 (806 registered members in 2022) and Tahltan band (2,029 registered members in 2022), with the Iskut including the Sekani living at Kinaskan Lake. Telegraph Creek continues to be the main Tahltan settlement.

Traditional Social System

The Tahltan have a matrilineal clan system that follows the female line of descent. 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 authority 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 Indigenous 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.

Traditional Life

The Tahltan spent several months each year at summer fishing villages where the residents lived in large 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. (See also Architectural History of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.) This season 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 often depended instead on 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.

Inter-community 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 headquarters and visited there at least once a year. Trade was also conducted with the interior Kaska and Sekani peoples.

European Contact

After 1874, European traders participated in the trade exchange between the Tahltan and other Indigenous peoples, 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 Tahltan 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. (See also Religion and Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)


In 1910, 80 Tahltan leaders including chief Nanok, signed a declaration claiming sovereignty, Indigenous interests concerning land titles, traditional territories and the legal rights of their members.

In 1975, several bands and communities united as the Tahltan Nation. The Tahltan Central Government (TCG) was created to represent the interest of the Tahltan members, both on and off reserve. The TCG is responsible for defining and protecting Tahltan rights and title, to protect the eco-systems and natural resources of Tahltan territories, and to strengthen their culture and communities.


Tahltan is a Dene language that is endangered. According to Statistics Canada, 265 people noted knowledge of the language in the 2016 census. Through various educational initiatives, the Tahltan people are working toward revitalizing their language. (See also Indigenous Languages in Canada.)

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