THE YUKON RIVER AND ITS PEOPLE

Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives

In this section you will learn about:

  • The territory and characteristics of each of the nine regional Native groups in the Interior
  • How the Interior Natives lived before the newcomers arrived
  • Important trade routes between coastal and interior Natives
  • The network of Athapaskan trails which was later used by fur traders and miners

The Yukon River holds the world together

Interior Alaska has no border with the sea, which has been a source of food for many people throughout history. Yet humans were present on this land as early as 11,000 years ago. By the eighteenth century, 6,000 to 7,000 Athapaskan Indians were living in the Yukon basin. To them the Yukon River's name meant mighty river." As did the sea in other parts of the world, the Yukon River provided much food for those who lived along its banks. The river was a route for winter end summer travel. Some Natives pictured the Yukon as a thread that held the world together.

Search for food links Athapaskans

Just as the word "British" includes the English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish, the word "Athapaskan" is a general term that includes nine distinct Native groups of the Interior. Each group had its own special characteristics and territory. Regardless of where they lived or differences in their languages and customs, these Athapaskan groups all covered great distances in their constant search for food. Chief Sam of the Tanana Athapaskans remembers what life was like for the Interior Athapaskan groups:

In the old days people seldom stayed in the village. Always they were on the trail hunting and camping. In July whitefish were dried and cached at fish camps. Then the people went moose hunting, caching the meat. In the winter they visited the caches and then when the caribou came they killed the caribou. After the moose season people went up to the head of the Nabesna to secure sheepskins for the winter. They would return to the village, make their clothes and then take the winter hunting trails to Ladue Creek, the Chisana Basin and the White River. In the spring when the leaves came out they returned to the village. They would take birch bark and sew it together to make new tents and then wait for the caribou to come back again.

Although families usually hunted and fished for themselves, Athapaskans sometimes worked together. To round up caribou, they built corrals out of spruce logs. The animals were herded into the corrals where they were shot with bow and arrow or speared. Villagers also built large weirs to catch salmon in the rivers.

Variety of houses shelter Athapaskans

Athapaskan houses varied as much as their territories. Some were built partially underground. Others were of rectangular log and frame construction with sod roofs. Skins from animals taken for food were used for shelter. Dome-shaped structures might be covered with caribou skin or with sewn birch bark. For temporary camps the Indians often constructed small shelters of brush or birch branches.

In addition to family dwellings, Athapaskan villages often included sweat houses, butcher houses, fish and meat smokehouses, and small burial houses. Some villages had a community ceremonial house, which was used for potlatches or other special occasions. The ceremonial house might be simple or very elaborate, depending upon the village.

Neighboring Native groups trade

The wanderings of the Interior Athapaskans brought them into contact with other Native groups. This led to trade among the neighboring groups. Athapaskans along the lower Yukon and upper Kuskokwim rivers traded with coastal Eskimos. At Unalakleet, on the coast of Norton Sound, a three-way trade developed among the Interior Athapaskans, the Siberian Chukchi Eskimos, and the Eskimos of King and Sledge islands and the Buckland River. In this way, reindeer hides, tobacco, and iron pots made their way from Siberia to be exchanged for black fox and beaver skins, and wood plates and bowls from Interior Alaska. At Nulato, on the Yukon River, the Koyukon Athapaskans met with the Eskimos to exchange beaver, marten, and mink furs for sea lion leather, shoe soles, fancy tanned parkas, and copper-pointed spears.

Native trade routes. Athapaskan trade trails crisscrossed Alaska. Some went into Canada, where the Hudson's Bay Company exchanged European goods for furs. A three-way trade took place at Unalakleet between Siberian Chukchi Eskimos, King and Sledge Island Eskimos, and Athapaskans. Nulato was another place where Athapaskans and Eskimos traded.

Rivers were not the only routes for trade and travel. Long before the first non-Natives made their way to Alaska overland trails crisscrossed the Interior. Indian traders memorized landmarks along these routes and passed the information to succeeding generations. Later, non-Native traders and miners made use of many of the trails. A route shared by the upper Tanana Athapaskans and Chilkat Tlingits came to be known as the Dalton Trail when prospectors followed it to upper Yukon River gold fields. Another upper Tanana Athapaskan trail, through the valley of the Mosquito Fork of the Fortymile River, was eventually used to carry mail from Valdez to Eagle.

Other trails crossed the Brooks Range to the north, while some went to Southcentral and Southwest Alaska. Trade routes extended along the Porcupine and Yukon rivers into Canada. There European goods were available from the British Hudson's Bay Company which in 1848 established Fort Selkirk on the upper Yukon River.

Summary questions

  1. Name nine subdivisions of Athapaskans.
  2. What did all Athapaskan groups in Alaska have to do to obtain food?
  3. What items were traded between Interior Alaska and coastal Eskimos?
  4. When did Athapaskans work in large groups?

Inquiry questions

  1. Compare the trade routes shown on Map 2-3 with modern roads. Are they the same?
  2. Look around your community. Are there any modern buildings like the dome-shaped winter houses of the Athapaskans?
  3. Why do you think dome-shaped buildings are used even today?

THE YUKON RIVER AND ITS PEOPLE
1800-1869 THE RUSSIANS AND ENGLISH MEET
1869-1896 STARS AND STRIPES UP THE RIVER
1896-1910 CHANGING LIFESTYLES, DIFFERENT VALUES
1910-1940
1940-1980 CONSTRUCTION BOOM
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