Alaska's Heritage


Athabaskans occupy Interior Alaska

Just when the Athabaskans came to North America is not known. Alaskan Athabaskans are related linguistically to Native people in the American Southwest. Prehistoric evidence to link the groups has not been discovered.

In general, Alaska Athabaskans occupied the vast interior coniferous forests. Only during the last 1,000 years did several Athabaskan groups move to coastal areas. There they occupied the shores of Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska.

Alaskan Athabaskans are the northernmost members of a larger group

Athabaskan language groups. The Eyak, who occupied the Copper River delta, were linguistically related to the Athabaskan. They were, however, culturally distinct.
Most of the Athabaskans are in Alaska and northwestern Canada. Their eastern relatives occupy northwestern Canada to Hudson's Bay. Their southern relatives include groups in Oregon and California and the Navajo and Apache of the American Southwest. In Alaska, where they are the oldest, there are 11 groups identified by the languages they speak. These are the Ahtna, Han, Holikachuk, Ingalik, Koyukon, Kutchin, Tanacross, Tanaina, Tanana, Upper Kuskokwim, and Upper Tanana. By the eighteenth century the population of these groups totaled approximately 10,000. Each group had its own well defined territory.

Athabaskans rely on caribou and salmon

All Alaskan Athabaskans relied on hunting and trapping animals, fishing, and gathering edible plants. They often covered great distances in their quest for food. The changing seasons, the weather, and the behavior of fish and game ordered the Athabaskans' lives.

The Tanaina, who recently moved to Cook Inlet, partially adapted to a maritime environment. Influenced by their Alutiiq Eskimo neighbors, some Tanaina became sea mammal hunters. They adopted Eskimo hunting methods using tools such as detachable barbed head harpoons and kayaks. They relied less on land animals for food than other Athabaskan groups did.

The Ingalik Athabaskans who lived along the lower stretches of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers incorporated aspects of the lifestyles of their inland Yupik Eskimo neighbors. They lived in more permanent villages than Athabaskans to the east. They relied more heavily on salmon than on large animals for their food.

The other Alaska Athabaskan groups hunted large animals, particularly caribou, in the fall. At that time of year, caribou began their migrations, moose gathered near rivers in search of mates, and fattened bears prepared to enter their dens.

To catch caribou, Athabaskans built corrals out of spruce logs. They herded the animals into them to be shot with bow and arrow, knifed, or speared. Bows were made from birch, black spruce, or willow branches and measured four to six feet long. Knives and spear points were made of stone. The Athabaskans also drove caribou into lakes or streams where they were more easily killed. They also hunted bear and moose. In late fall and early spring, the Athabaskans trapped smaller fur-bearing animals including rabbits, muskrats, porcupine, beaver, and squirrel.

The Athabaskans used all parts of an animal. They ate the meat and fat. They crafted bones into tools and weapons. When dried, the ten dons provided sinew that the women used for sewing. They used the hides for clothing and tent covers. Similarly, the Athabaskans used all parts of a fish. They sometimes used fish skin to make waterproof parkas and boots.

In spring many Athabaskans moved from winter villages to fish camps along the rivers. They fished for salmon with dip nets, basket shaped traps, poles with hooks, and spears. A popular method to catch fish was to construct a weir or fence near the mouth of a small stream. This fence channeled fish into basket traps or nets.

The Athabaskans made their traps out of thin strips of spruce tied with spruce roots. They usually made their fish nets from willow bark. The Athabaskans also fished for Dolly Varden, grayling, ling cod, blackfish, whitefish, and pike. They cleaned, split, dried, often smoked, and stored the fish in caches to be eaten through the winter. During the first and last months of winter, when river and lake ice was not too thick to be cut, the people caught fish through the ice with spears, lures, hooks, and dip nets.

Ptarmigan, spruce hens, ducks, geese, roots, and berries supplemented the Athabaskans' diet. The supply of fish and game increased or decreased because of many factors. When the supply was low, some Athabaskans died of hunger despite their hunting and fishing skills.

Athabaskans' clothing and shelter reflect the area's resources

The Athabaskans made clothes from the different animal hides. They preferred to use caribou hide for clothing because of its warmth and pliability. They removed the hair from the hide for summer clothing. For cold weather clothing they left the hair on the hide and turned it inward. Winter clothing for men and women included trousers with attached moccasins, a long coat with belted waist, a separate hood or hat, and mittens. Athabaskans made warm, light underclothes from skins of the snowshoe hare. Wide straps held babies to mothers' backs to free their hands.

The Athabaskans often decorated their clothing. They used skin fringes, furs, feathers, and porcupine quills. When they began to trade more extensively with other people they decorated their clothes with dentalia shells or elaborate bead designs.

During the long, cold winters some Athabaskans lived in houses built partially underground. Others lived in rectangular log houses with sod roofs. Still others lived in dome-shaped structures covered with caribou or moose skin or sewn birch bark. They constructed their summer houses of birch bark. For temporary camps the Athabaskans built small shelters of brush or birch branches.

Because food was difficult to obtain, most Athabaskans did not live in large or permanent villages. While other Alaskan Athabaskan groups traveled constantly, the Tanaina and Ingalik groups moved only seasonally. They lived in larger, more permanent villages and traveled to designated family fishing, hunting, and trapping sites. Some of their winter villages had up to a dozen houses.

In addition to family dwellings, Athabaskan villages often had sweat houses, fish and meat smokehouses, and small burial houses over graves. Many villages had a large community ceremonial house.

Travel encourages trade

As Athabaskans traveled to hunt, fish, and trap they came into contact with other Native groups. This involved trade. Athabaskans along the lower Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers traded with coastal Eskimos. At Unalakleet, on the coast of Norton Sound, the Athabaskans traded with Yupik and Inupiaq Eskimos. Reindeer hides, tobacco, and iron pots from Siberia might be exchanged for black fox and beaver skins, wood bowls, and caribou skins from Interior Alaska. At Nulato, on the Yukon River, Koyukon Athabaskans met with Yupik Eskimos to exchange beaver, marten, and mink furs for sea lion skins and fancy tanned parkas. Kutchin Athabaskans traveled to the Arctic Ocean coast where they traded with Inupiaq Eskimos. Tlingits crossed the Coast Mountains to trade seal and eulachon oil for furs and copper.

An Ahtna Athabaskan camp on the east bank of the Copper River. The drawing was made by a U.S. Army explorer in 1895.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Alaska Centennial Collection.
Identifier: PCA 020-0035
Rivers served as the main avenues of transportation in winter and summer. Athabaskans used birch bark canoes, rafts, or, moose skin boats. They sewed the seams with spruce roots and waterproofed them with hot spruce pitch. In the fall the Athabaskans constructed log rafts and moose skin boats to return from hunting trips.

In winter, the Athabaskans traveled on snowshoes and pulled toboggans by hand. They built the toboggans from small birch trees or branches. Occasionally they used dogs for packing, but more often used them for hunting. The Athabaskans trained their dogs to chase animals and hold them at bay until they arrived to kill the animals.

Athabaskan trade trails.
The Athabaskans made two types of snowshoes for travel. They constructed long and wide ones to cross deep powder snow. They made shorter, narrower snowshoes to cross packed snow. For both styles, they made the frames of birch and the webbings of caribou or moose sinew with fastenings of rawhide. Usually men made the frames and women laced the webbing.

In addition to rivers, the Athabaskans had overland trade and travel trails. Some trails crossed the Brooks Range to the north, and others went to Southcentral, Southwest, and Southeast Alaska. Trade routes extended along the Porcupine and Yukon rivers into Canada.

Families are the focus of Athabaskan social organization

Athabaskans regarded themselves as members of small local bands and not as part of the vast Athabaskan culture. Each band usually had 25 to 100 members, but might number as many as 200. Each band belonged to a larger regional group that shared the same language and occupied a defined territory. A regional group had from several hundred to 1,000 people. They were not politically united. This was the important group for selecting marriage partners. A family joined others for large-scale hunting or social events. Families traced their ancestry through the female line in most Athabaskan groups.

The nucleus of a small, local band was often a single family. Such bands most often had informal leaders. This person might be a skillful hunter or the wealthiest member in the group.

Neighboring bands of Athabaskans were often enemies. Raids on another group were common. Raids usually caused return attacks.

Children had tasks assigned to them when still quite small. They learned by observation and practice. Children became adults at puberty. When a girl reached womanhood she was secluded from the family and restricted by taboos on all aspects of her behavior. Above all, she had to avoid contact with men because her menstrual flow contained spiritual power that could alienate animals and bring on scarcity. Throughout her adult life a woman followed monthly taboos and seclusion. A girl usually married shortly after reaching puberty. Parents arranged marriages with others in the same language group. After they selected a husband, he moved in with the woman's family and worked for them for up to a year.

Celebrations are important in Athabaskans' lives

During the early winter months Athabaskans celebrated the successful hunting and fishing seasons. At these celebrations they renewed ties with family or friends and arranged marriages. They also socialized with others through trade meetings and gatherings to honor the dead. At these celebrations the Athabaskans feasted, played games, danced, sang, and told stories. They also rewarded and punished individuals. Reward included group recognition. Punishment was usually criticism. Each Athabaskan band had traveling songs, love songs, war songs, mourning songs, and songs of happiness. They also had stories. Their stories related their history, adventures, and taught right and wrong.

Most Athabaskan groups had ceremonies to honor the dead. The Koyukon Athabaskans called their ceremony the stick dance. The celebration lasted seven days. The Koyukon feasted, danced, and sang. The stick was a tall, decorated spruce pole. People danced and sang around it through one night. At the end of the dancing, they took the stick down and danced through the village. Finally, they broke the stick into several pieces.

The Athabaskans believed that at one time animals and people spoke a common language and shared a common society. Thus, animals had spirits that had to be treated with deference and respect. Most Athabaskan groups believed that Raven created the world. According to an Upper Tanana Athabaskan story, Raven created the earth by bringing rocks from a sea and building an island where mountains and forests emerged. In a Koyukon Athabaskan story, Raven's spear struck a huge wave and turned it to rock that created Mount McKinley.

The Athabaskans had a number of games. They played tug-of-war and darts, wrestled, ran, and raced canoes. One of the games, shinny, resembled hockey. Four persons played. They buried a square wood block in the middle of a field. Opponents raced to dig the block out of the hole and, using sticks, attempted to knock it to one or the other end of the playing field. In another game, one player pulled a moose skin from one point to a designated point while others tried to stop the skin's movement by poking sticks into it. If the person pulling the skin got it to the end of the course, he or she was considered shrewd and clever.

The Eyak occupy the Copper River delta

Eyak Indians occupied the Copper River delta. They are linguistically related to the Athabaskans, but constitute a separate branch of the Athabaskan-Eyak language family. Prehistoric information about them has not been discovered.

The Eyak adapted some of the customs of their Alutiiq Eskimo neighbors, and others from the Tlingit. They hunted seal and sea otter. These were only a minor part of their diet; salmon was their chief food. They fished for halibut with hook and line from canoes. They collected clams from the beaches. They netted eulachon from the Copper River between February and April. In the fall they hunted ducks, geese, and swan. Grouse and ptarmigan were hunted year around. Dogs aided in hunting for brown and black bear. Beaver, fox, lynx, marten, muskrat, and weasel were taken with deadfalls and snares.

The Eyak had several permanent settlements and several summer camps. The permanent settlements had rectangular houses with walls of vertical planks set into horizontal grooved poles at top and bottom. Central smokeholes in the roofs of such structures, reached by ladders, provided ventilation and access.

Their base on the shore of Prince William Sound allowed the Eyak to serve as go-betweens in trade between the Chugach Eskimos and the Interior Athabaskans.