This is the time we try the ancient skill our fathers taught
for ivory or bone:
The patiently whirling of the teeth-held
drill, the careful cut with copper knife or stone,
The tribal pattern and the graceful line -- yet simple forms
are all we ever choose>
But always there must be a pure design of beauty in the
native things we use.
There are 229 federally recognized
Alaskan villages and five unrecognized Tlingit Alaskan Indian tribes.
About 20 percent of Alaska’s
650,000 residents are Native or have Native descent
(numbering 119,241 as of the 2000 Federal census). In over 200 rural
villages and communities
Alaskan Natives make up
a significant segment of the population. Many Alaskan Natives have
retained their customs, language, hunting and fishing practices and ways
of living since "the creation times."
earliest human beings to inhabit North America are known as Paleo-Indians.
Although it is not known precisely when they first arrived at North
America, archaeologists believe they crossed the Bering Strait about
12,000 years ago and migrated from Siberia to Alaska. These people were the ancestors of the
Eskimo and Aleuts, whose material culture was founded in the
Siberian-American Paleoarctic tradition.
Artifacts have shown that another migration of Ancients took
place, but they sailed through the Bering Strait on hide-covered watercraft
instead of crossing the bridge. This migration possibly
included the ancestors of interior Alaskan Indians and the Pacific Northwest
coast Indians. These people were nomadic gatherers and caribou hunters whose abandoned camps are scattered across
eastern Siberia and interior Alaska.
Using tools created from stone, bone,
sinew, wood, fiber, and moss, they invented secure dwellings and tailored skin
clothing. They developed expert control of fire, including the use of
alternative fuels such as animal dung, finely broken bone, and fat or oil in
areas lacking woody plants. They learned to travel over snow and ice. They also
learned to cope with long hours of winter darkness. These ancient people were skilled in many of the arts and sciences we pursue
today. They possessed profound biological knowledge - the nutritional and
medicinal properties of many plants and the habits and anatomy of many animals.
They were experts at finding geological deposits that contained stone suitable
for flaking into tools and grinding into pigments. They were storytellers who
entertained and educated themselves by passing on oral histories and knowledge
from one generation to another.
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
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
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
You should know Alaskan Native tribes...
Though there are eleven cultures, only five major cultural
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
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
There are eleven linguistic
groups of Athabascans in Alaska: Ahtna (Ahtena); Degexit'an (Ingalik);
Giwch'in; Han; Holikachuk; Koyukon; Kuskokwim; Tanacross;
Tanaina; Tanana; Tutchone.
Northwest Coast - Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian
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.
Inupiaq & St. Lawrence Island
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
It is these people who are usually associated
with the kayak, dogsled, mukluks and parkas from skins, and beautifully
carved ivory objects.
Yup'ik & Cup'ik
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.