Athabascan Cultures

Athabascan Cultures

Athabascan Indians live in interior Alaska and have the largest land base of any other Alaska Native group. The Athabascan are efficient hunters and fishers and the moose, caribou, salmon and the birch tree are the most important resources. These provide food, clothes and shelter. In summer, they spend a great deal of time at their fish camps along major river systems – including the Yukon, Tanana, Innoko, Chandelar, Koyokuk and Tolovana rivers. In winter, they hunt caribou, moose and smaller animals. There are 11 different languages spoken by Alaskan Athabascans. Athabascan (Indians)
  • Ahtna
  • Deg Hit’an
  • Dena’ina
  • Gwich’in
  • Hän
  • Holikachuk
  • Kolchan
  • Koyukon
  • Lower Tanana
  • Tanacross
  • Upper Tanana
The Athabascan people traditionally lived in Interior Alaska, an expansive region that begins south of the Brooks Mountain Range and continues down to the Kenai Peninsula. There are eleven linguistic groups of Athabascans in Alaska. Athabascan people have traditionally lived along five major river ways: the Yukon, the Tanana, the Susitna, the Kuskokwim, and the Copper river drainages. Athabascans were highly nomadic, traveling in small groups to fish, hunt and trap. Today, the Athabascan people live throughout Alaska and the Lower 48, returning to their home territories to harvest traditional resources. The Athabascan people call themselves ‘Dena,’ or ‘the people.’ In traditional and contemporary practices Athabascans are taught respect for all living things. The most important part of Athabascan subsistence living is sharing. All hunters are part of a kin-based network in which they are expected to follow traditional customs for sharing in the community.

Athabascan House Types and Settlements

The Athabascans traditionally lived in small groups of 20 to 40 people that moved systematically through the resource territories. Annual summer fish camps for the entire family and winter villages served as base camps. Depending on the season and regional resources, several traditional house types were used.

Athabascan Tools and Technology

Traditional tools and technology reflect the resources of the regions. Traditional tools were made of stone, antlers, wood, and bone. Such tools were used to build houses, boats, snowshoes, clothing, and cooking utensils. Birch trees were used wherever they were found.

Athabascan Social Organization

The Athabascans have matrilineal system in which children belong to the mother's clan, rather than to the father's clan, with the exception of the Holikachuk and the Deg Hit'an. Clan elders made decisions concerning marriage, leadership, and trading customs. Often the core of the traditional group was a woman and her brother, and their two families. In such a combination the brother and his sister's husband often became hunting partners for life. Sometimes these hunting partnerships started when a couple married. Traditional Athabascan husbands were expected to live with the wife's family during the first year, when the new husband would work for the family and go hunting with his brothers-in-law. A central feature of traditional Athabascan life was (and still is for some) a system whereby the mother's brother takes social responsibility for training and socializing his sister's children so that the children grow up knowing their clan history and customs.

Athabascan Clothing

Traditional clothing reflects the resources. For the most part, clothing was made of caribou and moose hide. Moose and caribou hide moccasins and boots were important parts of the wardrobe. Styles of moccasins vary depending on conditions. Both men and women are adept at sewing, although women traditionally did most of skin sewing.

Athabascan Transportation

Canoes were made of birch bark, moose hide, and cottonwood. All Athabascans used sleds --with and without dogs to pull them – snowshoes and dogs as pack animals.

Athabascan Trade

Trade was a principle activity of Athabascan men, who formed trading partnerships with men in other communities and cultures as part of an international system of diplomacy and exchange. Traditionally, partners from other tribes were also, at times, enemies, and travelling through enemy territory was dangerous.

Athabascan Regalia

Traditional regalia varies from region to region. Regalia may include men’s beaded jackets, dentalium shell necklaces (traditionally worn by chiefs), men and women’s beaded tunics and women’s beaded dancing boots.
  • Athabascan Cultures
  • Terms used to mean Aleut people: •Aleut - Alaskan Native people inhabiting the Aleutian Islands and coastal areas of southwest Alaska, and Kamchatka Krai, Russia. The Aleut are related culturally and linguistically to the Eskimo. Like the Eskimo, the Aleuts are racially similar to Siberian peoples.Russian fur traders gave the name Aleut to the Unanganin the mid-18th century.Aluet also refers to either or both dialects of their language. Their language is a member of the Eskimo-Aleut family, which branches into the Eskimo and Aleut language branches, and then two Aleut dialects. •Unanga - The people's traditional name for themselves, meaning "original people." •Unanganin - Plural form of Unanga •Unangan - Another traditional name for themselves, meaning "Seasider." •Unangax̂ - Plural form of Unangan There are also other local names for people of various island groups to the east and west. Тhe Aleut people were distributed throughout the Aleutian Islands, the Shumagin Islands, and the far western part of the Alaska Peninsula, with an estimated population of around 25,000 before contact with Europeans. In the 1820s, the Russian-American Company resettled many Aleut families to the Commander Islands (within the Aleutsky District of the Kamchatka Krai in Russia) and to the Pribilof Islands in Alaska. These continue to have majority-Aleut communities. The number of Aleut had dwindled to about 2,000, as they suffered high fatalities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from Eurasian infectious diseases to which they had no immunity. In addition, the population suffered as traditional lifestyles were disrupted. While the Russian occupiers were few in number, they resulted in few full-blooded Aleuts remaining by 1910. When Alaska Natives enrolled in their regional corporations under the terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA), the Aleut Corporation attracted only about 2,000 enrollees who could prove a blood quantum of 1/4 or more Alaska Native (including Aleut). On the 1990 US Census, 11,941 people identified as being Aleut and nearly 17,000 said Aleuts were among their ancestors. People of partial Aleut descent, many of whom identify as Aleut and continue the culture, continue to live in relative isolation. Most are members of the Russian Orthodox Church. Aleut Communities: Akhiok" href="">Aleut Cultures
  • In addition, thirteen Tlingit communities within the Southeast region are federally recognized as distinct tribes. The regional Sealaska Corporation and twelve communities are also organized as Alaska Native village and urban corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.The Tlingit conceive of themselves as members of one group and distinguish themselves apart from their neighbors. They live within a bounded geographical region within Southeast Alaska. They share social customs and customary laws that apply to all Tlingit whether they live in the Cape Fox in the southern terminus to the Yakutat settlement in the most northern region. The ancient Tlingit language was mutually intelligible to all Tlingit. While they did not have a centralized political organization that unified all Tlingit until the early 1900s, their common set of customs, traditions, and beliefs together with a high level of intermarriage and social and economic interactions served to unify the Tlingit into a distinct social group who share a common identity.In response to actions that threatened their culture and society, the Tlingit clans formed coalitions. The Tlingit unified to resist the encroachments on their land by the Russians in the early 1800s and the Americans after 1867. Shortly after the American government assumed jurisdiction over Alaska, the Tlingit people hired an attorney to represent their interests in Washington. In 1912, the Tlingit together with the Haida Indians formalized their unification under a region-wide organization, the Alaska Native Brotherhood. Their region-wide affiliation was further solidified under the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. The Central Council was organized to pursue and to implement the settlement of their aboriginal land claims. Their land claims efforts ultimately led to the establishment of the regional Sealaska Corporation and twelve village and urban corporations. The Tlingit continue to identify themselves as a tribe and to act collectively under their traditional customs and values, their federally recognized tribes, the Sealaska Corporation and the village and urban corporations. While many of their ancient practices have been altered from their original form, the Tlingit continue to adhere to their ancient values, ideologies and ceremonial practices. The Tlingit culture and society continues to evolve, but their fundamental values and basic traditions persist. The Tlingit Clans The basic property holding unit within the Tlingit Tribe is the clan. Ownership of property resides within the clan as a whole rather than within its individual members. The clan is comprised of separate but interrelated lineages that recognize a common ancestry. Under the Tlingit system, lineages are formed through a line of females and their brothers who maintain ongoing relationships. Descent and kinship are traced through the maternal line or mothers. A Tlingit child is bom into his/her mother's clan. The Tlingit clan is comprised of houses whose membership included several closely related families. The Tlingit term "Hit" refers to both the physical structure and the matrilineage associated with a house. The house is a sub-unit of the clan. Its inhabitants included the matrilineally-linked males, their wives and offspring and the men's maternal nephews. However, the wives and their children belonged to a different clan rather than that of their husbands or their fathers. The clan is the enduring organization that unifies the Tlingit into a cohesive functioning unit. Additionally, the clan provides the Tlingit with a link to their ancestors and ensures their perpetuation into the future. Tlingit individuals are bom into a clan and remain members through their life and death. Individuals die, but the clan persists. Clans remain self- perpetuating through the birth of new members to replace those who have died. Infants are given the names of their clan ancestors. The Tlingits belief in reincarnation and their system of naming mean, in essence, that clans retain their original membership through the re-birth of the same individuals. In the present period, clans remain active within the ceremonial sphere. The ceremonies include a series of memorial potlatches to honor deceased clan members and ancestors. Relationships among clan members, with ancestors, opposing clan members, crest animals and spirits are also reaffirmed and maintained within the ceremonial rites. In addition, ownership of clan property and crests are validated. The office of clan leaders, clan names and clan objects are transferred between generations to ensure the perpetuity of the clan. The Crest as Clan Property Crests that appear on clan objects are owned by their respective clans. Sergei Kan (1989, 69) who studied Tlingit memorial potlatches emphasized, "The most important symbols of the matrilineal group, as well as its most jealously guarded possessions, were its crests." He cited Emmons (1907, 347) who acknowledged that the crest is a birthright, as real as life itself. Halprin (1984, 17), who studied another Northwest Coast group, the Tsimshian who are culturally similar to the Tlingit, wrote that crests were acquired by the ancestors and held in perpetuity by their matrilineal descendants. Crests serve multiple purposes. They identify a clan and its membership. They distinguish its clan members apart from others and define relationships to other Tlingit. Crests chronicle the origin or other supernatural and significant events in the history of the clan. They serve as title to the object on which it is placed and to the site and geographic region where the event occurred. They symbolize the special relationship a clan member has to the animal depicted on the crest. The crest embodies the spirit or being depicted on the crest. Crests, the associated oral traditions, songs and names represent intellectual property and are owned by clans. In the recent period, clans have demanded and received payment for the duplication of their crests by westerners, including museums. Sergei Kan (1989, 70) also notes the sacred aspects of crests. He suggests that the "sacredness" of the crest was indicated by its reverential treatment by its owners. Clan objects embodied with clan crests are addressed as if they are humans. Orators address and speak to clan regalia as if they were an individual rather than speaking to the individual who is actually wearing the regalia. When clan objects on which the crest appear deteriorated, they were burned and mourned as if they were human. The name of the crest was transferred to a new object. According to Kan's analysis, the crest remains immortal and survives its temporary representations in the same manner as a person's spirit survives its body. Only those individuals who are members of a clan are entitled to use their respective clan crests. As property, crests could be taken or granted as a liability payment. They were sometimes taken in war to satisfy a liability. Clans would, however, do everything in their power to regain their crests. Clans could also demand payment or even the death of an individual who illegally used their clan crests. Grandparents may extend use rights, but not ownership rights, to their clan crests to their grandchildren who are not members of their clan. The use rights are granted for ceremonial regalia or jewelry, but do not generally apply for use on major objects such as screens, poles or clan hats. This is a use right that is limited to the lifetime of the individual grandchild. The grandchild has no legal right to extend use or ownership rights to any other individual. These use rights cannot be claimed by the grandchild's offspring, nor can they be claimed by another clan to satisfy a liability payment that the grandchild or his clan may incur. Clan Leaders/Trustees Title is recorded in the name of the head man (Shaadeihani) or trustee (Hits'aati) of the clan. Tlingit law is unequivocal in that this individual acts as the trustee and holds clan property for its membership. He cannot make independent decisions in regards to the alienation of clan property. Anthropologists who have studied Tlingit property law (Goldschmidt and Haas 1946; Olson 1967) uniformly concur that the trustee does not have the authority to sell or dispose of clan property. Emmons (1991), who conducted extensive study among the Tlingit, points out that the clan leader is highly respected, but his authority is limited and major decisions that involve the interest of the clan are subject to clan consent. The clan leader represents the clan during formal meetings to plan ceremonial events or in other activities in which the clan is involved. During ceremonies, the clan leader or an esteemed elder of the clan may conduct and lead the rites. The clan leader and elders are responsible for bringing out clan objects and recounting the associated oral traditions. They are also expected to respond to the display of clan objects, speeches and songs offered by an opposing clan (a clan from the opposite Eagle or Raven moiety). The clan leader must ensure that spiritual balance is maintained during ceremonial rites and potlatches.
    • Tlingit Culture
    • Tsimshian Culture
    • Alaskan Native Eyak Villages
    • Haida Alaskan Natives
    • Terms used to mean this group of people: • Eskimo (singular), Eskimos (plural), Eskimoans (adjective), [From French Esquimaux, (earlier spelling Esqimawe or Esquimau), possibly from Spanish esquimao(s) or esquimal, from Montagnais ayashkimew or aiachkimeou- a name for the Micmac, extended or transferred to the Labrador Eskimo; perhaps literally meaning 'snowshoe-netter'] - A group of peoples inhabiting the Arctic coastal regions and adjacent hinterland of arctic and subarctic regions of North America (Northern Canada, Alaska) and parts of Greenland and northeast Siberia.Eskimo has come under strong attack in recent years for its supposed offensiveness, and many Americans today either avoid this term or feel uneasy using it. The claim that Eskimo is offensive is based primarily on a popular but disputed etymology tracing its origin to an Abenaki word meaning "eaters of raw meat."Though modern linguists speculate that the term actually derives from a Montagnais word referring to the manner of lacing a snowshoe, the matter remains undecided, and meanwhile many English speakers have learned to perceive Eskimo as a derogatory term invented by unfriendly outsiders in scornful reference to their neighbors' unsophisticated eating habits. Some Inuit people take offense with this term, some do not. Eskimo is also the name of a major linguistic branch of the Eskimo-Aluet language family, which is further broken down into the Inupiaq, Allutiiq, Central Yu'pik, Naukanski Yu'pik, Siberian Yu'pik,  and Sirenikski languages. •Inuk - Singular form of Inuit, meaning "human being." •Inuit - This is the plural form of the people's traditional name for themselves. An Eskimo people of North America or Greenland, as distinguished from Eskimo people from Asia or the Aleutian Islands. The term Eskimo has largely been replaced by Inuit in Canada, and Inuit is used officially by the Canadian government. Many Inuit people consider Eskimo to be a derogatory term. However, Eskimo continues to be used in all parts of the world, especially in historical, archaeological, and cultural contexts. It is widely known that Inuit, a term of ethnic pride, offers an acceptable alternative, but it is less well understood that Inuit cannot substitute for Eskimo in all cases, being restricted in usage to the Inuit speaking peoples of Arctic Canada and parts of Greenland. In Canada, the term Inuit is used to mean both the Inuit and Yupiak peoples. • Inupiat - The singular form of Inupiaq. • Inupiaq - In Alaska and Arctic Siberia, where Inuit is not spoken, the comparable terms are Inupiaq and Yupik, neither of which has gained as wide a usage in English as Inuit. While use of these terms is often preferable when speaking of the appropriate linguistic group, none of them can be used to mean the Eskimoan peoples as a whole; the only all inclusive term remains Eskimo. Inupiaq is also a linguistic branch of the Eskimo branch of the Eskimo-Aluet language family, which is interchangably referred to as the Inuit language in common usage. • Inuktitut - The term used in Canada for the Inupiaq language. From Inuk, meaning man or human being, and  titut, meaning speech. • Inuvialuk - Singular form of  Inuvialuit, meaning "real people." • Inuvialuit - The Inuvialuit or Western Canadian Inuit are Inuit people who live in the western Canadian Arctic region. They, like all other Inuit, are descendants of the Thule who migrated eastward from Alaska. Their homeland, called the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, covers the Arctic Ocean coastline area from the Alaskan border, east through the Beaufort Sea and beyond the Amundsen Gulf which includes some of the western Canadian Arctic Islands, as well as the inland community of Aklavik and part of the Yukon.

Article Index:

The Athabaskan people of Alaska

The Athabascan people traditionally lived in Interior Alaska, an expansive region that begins south of the Brooks Mountain Range and continues down to the Kenai Peninsula. There are eleven linguistic groups of Athabascans in Alaska. Athabascan people have traditionally lived along five major river ways: the Yukon, the Tanana, the Susitna, the Kuskokwim, and the Copper river drainages. Athabascans were highly nomadic, traveling in small groups to fish, hunt and trap.