Alaska's Cultures

Alaska's Tribal Governments: Traditional Societies
Paul Ongtooguk

Tribal governments have existed in Alaska for thousands of years. Governments varied from tribe to tribe in many ways, including how they were organized, the structures that were established, and how formal or informal they were. However, all tribal governments were the result of communities and societies making rules that established how that community or society would function. The systems that evolved established clear expectations as to how individuals and groups would support the well being of the larger group. Traditional governments were not separated from daily life, as governments are today, but rather they were a part of the fabric of the social organization. In other words there were not separate political systems, but rather there were leaders, i.e., people who had more voice in decision making than others. People became tribal leaders because they had a position of prominence in the social and/or economic activities of the community.

In the Inupiat communities of present day Alaska, it might have been the Umialik, the captain, or leader of an "umiak" crew, who held an important leadership position in the community. The umiak, or skin boat, was vital to the continuation of the community and it was natural that a social organization would develop around its construction and use. Umiaks enabled trade that occurred sometimes hundreds of miles away. Umiaks were used for moving the community from one location to another and for harvesting a variety of animal, game and other foods. Members of the society had to cooperate for this system to work and the men who made up the hunting crew were organized. Each had a role that was essential to the success of the hunt and each role demanded different skills. Generally, a member of the umiak crew started at the back as a paddler and then moved forward. The more forward positions were associated with higher social ranks and position.

Tribal leaders also emerged from other social structures. There were community houses for men in northern Alaskan communities and even small villages might have more than one house. Often the younger men who were too old to stay in family homes, but who were not yet married, lived in these houses along with elderly men. The community houses ran something like apprenticeship programs, as the elderly men would give advice, tell stories, and demonstrate how to repair and make equipment. The leaders of these community houses might not be the umialik, but they were important people whose voice would be taken into consideration as decisions about the community were made. Women were also organized into coherent social structures in traditional northern communities, such as the sewing groups in whaling villages. In some villages a woman might even be the head of the village. In part this occurred because in traditional Inupiat culture names were genderless, i.e., the same name could be given to a boy or a girl. People inherited the names of people who had passed away and it was believed that they inherited some of the characteristics of that person also.

Typically there was not just one person making decisions in tribal governments, but rather there were balancing forces. In addition to the umialiks and the community house leaders, the elders would advise and you had to think carefully, if you were going to ignore that advice. Practitioners of traditional medicine and beliefs were also powerful people in societies and they might serve as a counter to the formal structure of governance. An umialik's wife might not have much of a public role, but when she did speak her voice would be carefully considered. Her recommendations on how to fix a social wrong or how to conduct things were important.

One of the functions of any government is to develop ways to deal with people who are doing wrong or who are engaged in disputes of some kind. In a community house, if there were an ongoing dispute, or hard feelings, then it might be dealt with through 'teasing.' For example, the house leaders might organize an event where the two sides would compose songs about the other person. The best song won and the side with the losing song had to pay compensation. Wrestling matches were also held as a way to resolve disputes. In more serious cases the behavior might be ignored and in varying degrees the wrong doer would be ignored. Perhaps that person would not be invited to participate in the various social structures of the community. In the Arctic not being able to contribute or be a part of a community is a very dangerous situation, as life and continued existence depended on being a part of a social network. The most extreme punishment would be banishment.

Tribal governments protected communities from external threats to their lands, water and areas of traditional use. In Northwest Alaska there was a conflict with the Siberians that is a notable part of the history. In response to this threat from Siberia people developed armor, specifically, bone plate protection and thick, tough, hide undercoats. Communities had to organize to protect the areas that were traditionally used for sealing, hunting, and fishing. These areas had to be protected from encroachment from neighboring tribes. Inupiat communities, for example, fought with other Inupiat communities as well as with neighboring Athabaskan communities.

Tribal leaders fostered community cohesion by establishing social organizations to host feasts for other villages. Feasts were important social occasions where events were commemorated and songs, food, provisions and gifts were shared. In Southeast Alaska the social relationships were more elaborate and detailed than in some other traditional societies. The Tlingit, for example, developed complex relationships of clans, moieties, and houses. However, all tribal governments addressed both external and internal matters.

These systems of tribal governments served Alaska Natives well for thousands of years and continued to serve Alaska Native societies when the Europeans arrived. At first the Europeans interacted with the Tribes in order to find fresh water, food, and shelter. Soon, however, they were showing up in great numbers and with force, particularly firearms. The Russians were not particularly interested in promoting a European system of government, as much as engaging in systematic exploitation. Tribal governments were not silent in response to the Russian threat, but rather responded in a variety of ways. Sometimes there was cooperation or perhaps the establishment of trade relations and the acquisition of trade goods. At times access to areas was allowed and at other times access was restricted. There were limitations put on contact and there was open warfare. Throughout this first period of contact with European civilizations tribal governments were trying to figure out how to acquire the new power represented by sailing ships, guns, cannon and the amazing trade goods - metal knives, pots, and firearms. The goal was to cooperate for the benefit of the people of the tribe, as much as possible but at the same time to avoid subjugation. That is the story to this day.