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Alaska Native Groups & Cultures

In general, there are three groups of Alaska Natives – Indian, Eskimo and Aleut.

The two main Eskimo groups, Inupiat and Yupik, are distinguished by their language and geography. The former live in the north and northwest parts of Alaska and speak Inupiaq, while the latter live in the south and southwest and speak Yupik.
About a third of Alaska Natives are American Indians. Major tribes are the Athabascan in the central part of the state, and the Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida in the southeast.
The Aleuts, native to the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak Island, the lower Alaska and Kenai Peninsulas, and Prince William Sound, are physically and culturally related to the Eskimos. About 15% of Alaska Natives are Aleuts.

The most recent category of native peoples are the Creoles of the Russian-American era, who had a mixed ancestry that was both Russian and Alaska Native. Having borrowed the term Creole from the colonial French experience, the Russians applied it to people who typically had a Russian father and a native mother. In this way, many Alaska Natives in time had at least a modicum of Russian heritage. Owing to the chronic shortage of Russian laborers in Alaska, the importance of the Creoles to the tsarist colony proved immense. Indeed, the Russian-American Company increasingly turned to them as a means to fill staff positions. By the 1860s, the Creoles easily outnumbered the Russians and were a mainstay of the colonial economy.

You should know Alaskan Native tribes...

are divided into eleven distinct cultures
speak 20 different languages
are organized under thirteen Alaska Native Regional Corporations
belong to five geographic areas


Though there are eleven cultures, only five major cultural families emerge.  A brief introduction is given for each group, then resources are listed, many in pdf format and available for download.

The Five Regional Cultures

Aleut & Alutiiq The Aleuts lived on the coasts of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands.  These maritime people were almost completely dependent on the sea for their way of life.  Knowledge of these resources and skill in harvesting them define the cycle of life in a village.  Aside from food, even materials for clothing came from the sea - sealskin being an example.  The plentiful supply of food permitted development of permanent villages characterized by huge houses sheltering from 10 to 40 families.  The men in theses permanent settings became famous as sea hunters, and the women excelled in handicrafts, including manufacture of some of the world's finest baskets. The intensity of the weather that travels through their islands governs activities more than any other factor.

The Aleut and Alutiiq cultures were heavily influenced by the Russians, beginning in the 18th century. The Orthodox Church is prominent in every village, Russian dishes are made using local subsistence food, and Russian words are part of their common vocabulary.

Life and Work of Innocent, Archbishop of Kamchatka, the Kuriles and the Aleutian Islands by Ivan P. Barsukov (pdf 2.06 MB)
Athabascan The Athabascan people call themselves ‘Dena,’ or ‘the people.’ The Athabascan people traditionally lived in the rugged interior of Alaska, an expansive region that begins south of the Brooks Mountain Range and continues down to the Kenai Peninsula. In past times, these people migrated seasonally, traveling in small groups hunting and gathering. This lifestyle prevented them from establishing permanent villages.  They did however, establish extensive trade relationships with other Alaskan groups, exchanging furs and other possessions for oil, copper items, blankets, and others things not abundant in their home territory.

There are eleven linguistic groups of Athabascans in Alaska: Ahtna (Ahtena); Degexit'an (Ingalik); Giwch'in; Han; Holikachuk; Koyukon; Kuskokwim; Tanacross; Tanaina; Tanana; Tutchone.

Indians of the Yukon and Tanana Valleys by Matthew K. Sniffen (5.96 MB)
Ten'a Texts and Tales from Anvik, Alaska by John W. Chapman & Pliny E. Goddard (32.85 MB)
Northwest Coast - Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian The Eyak, Tlingit (pronounced Klinkit), Haida and Tsimshian share a common and similar Northwest Coast Culture with important differences in language and clan system. Anthropologists use the term "Northwest Coast Culture" to define the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures, as well as that of other peoples indigenous to the Pacific coast, extending as far as northern Oregon. Their region is one of lush forests, mild climate, abundant fish, game, and edible plants which enabled these people to live in permanent villages. Their culture produced totem poles, ceremonial garb, and exquisite blankets. These are the Indians who practiced the well-known potlatch ceremony - the practice of giving away possessions to gain honor and prestige.

The Tlingit and Haida are the two largest Indian groups in the southeastern part of the State. Tlingits were known to be fierce warriors. When the first Russians tried to settle in Sitka, the Tlingits drove them out, despite the guns and cannons brought by the intruders. 

Totem Lore of the Alaskan Indians by Harry P. Corser (11.42 MB)
Coast Indians of Southern Alaska and Northern British Columbia by Albert P. Niblack (22.77 MB)
Among the Thlinkits in Alaska by Charles Erskine Scott Wood (1.38 MB)
Study of the Thlingets of Alaska by Livingston French Jones (31.72 MB)
Apostle of Alaska : the story of William Duncan of Metlahkatla by John William Arctander (pdf 19.80 MB)
Inupiaq & St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik The Inupiaq and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik People, or “Real People,” are still hunting and gathering societies. The harsh weather and topography of the north and northwest provided techniques for dealing with their unkind physical environment.  Permanent villages were the rule, but temporary winter and summer camps convenient to food resources were needed.  Food was obtained largely through hunting on land and sea, for which Eskimo men are famous.  They subsist on the land and sea of north and northwest Alaska. Their lives continue to evolve around the whale, walrus, seal, polar bear, caribou and fish.

It is these people who are usually associated with the kayak, dogsled, mukluks and parkas from skins, and beautifully carved ivory objects. 

Culture and Change for Ieupiat and Yupiks of Alaska by MacLean
The Eskimo About Bering Strait by Edward W. Nelson ( pdf 47.97 MB)
Yup'ik & Cup'ik The southwest Alaska Natives are named after the two main dialects of the Yup'ik language, known as Yup'ik and Cup'ik. The estimated population, at the time of contact, was: Nunivak 500, Yukon-Kuskokwim 13,000 and Bristol Bay 3,000. The Yup’ik and Cup’ik still depend upon subsistence fishing, hunting and gathering for food. Elders tell stories of traditional ways of life, as a way to teach the younger generations survival skills and their heritage.
The Eskimo About Bering Strait by Edward W. Nelson ( pdf 47.97 MB)


For additional information on Alaska Native resources see "Records of Alaska Natives in Religious Archives" compiled by Larry Hibpschman, Archivist at the Alaska State Archives.




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