Ornamentally decorated tea chests such as these were traded by the Russians to the Coastal Tlingit along with other sought after trade items such as tea, tobacco, metal knives and glass beads. These chests were typically used as cremation urns. The Tlingit as well as most southern Yukon First Nations cremated their dead and stored the ashes in wooden boxes. The ashes of the dead would then be laid to rest in a spirit house sometimes called a dead house. This practice was upheld until white missionaries promoted burial as proper method of disposing of the ashes.
In both cases the funeral would be arranged by someone of the opposite moiety (societal clan) then that of the deceased. This was an important duty of the opposite moiety and the deed would receive thanks in one year's time with a potlatch ceremony. Before trade with non-Native peoples the Tlingit traditionally used bark containers or wooden boxes as funerary urns. Often the spirit houses that contained the ashes, or later, plots would be fenced in, serving both spiritual meaning as well as having the added bonus of keeping the animals away.
These tea chests were traded to the Russians from China for highly sought after otter pelts and other animal furs.
George Johnston Museum, Teslin