While Alaska has only been known to the wider world for a relatively short period of time, it has been inhabited by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. The Bering land bridge, a landmass that connected Alaska and Siberia tens of thousands of years ago, is believed to be the means by which human beings originally settled North America. Humans spread out across the North American continent, but many peoples chose to stay in Alaska, creating varied indigenous cultures that persist to this day.
The indigenous peoples of Alaska have many significant differences in their cultures and ways of life, but they are all unified by their adaptations to the land’s extreme climate, with lifestyles that revolve around fishing, whaling, hunting, and gathering. Here is a brief guide to the indigenous peoples of Alaska.
Indigenous Peoples of Alaska
Native Alaskans are generally grouped into several different peoples: the Athabascans, the Eyak, the Tlingit, the Tsimshan, the Eskimos, and the Aleut. While the term “Eskimo” is sometimes used to describe all Native Alaskans, this is incorrect.
The Athabascans are a group of tribes who historically inhabited the Alaskan interior. They include the Ahtna, the Tanacross, the Lower Tanana, and a number of other smaller groups. The Athabascan peoples historically subsisted off of inland creek fishing and hunting and gathering, though the Dena’ina, who live alongside the Cook Inlet, also subsisted off of coastal fishing. The Athabascans are also noted for their matrilineal family structure, in which children who are born belong to the mother’s clan; the Deg Hit’an and Holikachuk are an exception to this due to influence from the Yup’ik.
The Eyak are a small tribe that reside near the city of Cordova, on Alaska’s southern coast. Historically known as fishers, they were one of the first Native Alaskan groups to make contact with Europeans when Russian explorers began trading with them and sending Christian missionaries. The Eyak saw their territory shrink over the centuries due to war and intermarriage with neighboring tribes; the Alaska Purchase, which saw Americans migrate to the area and start canneries, further harmed the Eyak by introducing competition for salmon. Intermarriage and disease caused the number of full-blooded Eyak to shrink; Marie Smith Jones, the last pure Eyak and speaker of the Eyak language, died in 2008. The Eyak were noted for their shamanistic beliefs, using drums and painted wooden figures to heal others, predict the future, and ward off evil spirits.
The Tlingit are a Native American tribe residing in the Alaskan Panhandle, with smaller populations in the Canadian province of British Columbia and the territory of Yukon. The Tlingit first made contact with Russian explorers in 1741 and adopted many Russian customs, including Orthodox Christianity and the Russian language, both of which persist today. Like other Native Alaskans, the Tlingit were severely harmed by the introduction of foreign diseases to which they had no immunity. Like the Athabascan peoples, they also have a matrilineal family structure. Tlingit culture places importance on food; Tlingit who subsist entirely off “beach food” are looked down upon and are expected to travel inland or out onto the sea to hunt or fish for their sustenance. The Tlingit are also noted for their elaborate longhouses and their complex, animist religion, though many Tlingit converted to Orthodox Christianity in the 1800’s in order to resist American assimilation.
The Tsimshian are an Alaskan tribe residing in the extreme southeastern corner of the state, as well as in British Columbia. This tribe was first contacted by British explorers in 1787 as part of their expeditions to map out the west coast of North America and uncover the Northwest Passage. The Tsimshian were heavily devastated by foreign diseases in the 1800’s, with a number choosing to move to Alaska for greater economic opportunities. Tsimshian culture revolves around salmon fishing and their families have a matrilineal structure. They are also known for their potlatch ceremonies and for woodworking with western red cedar, a common tree in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska Panhandle.
The Eskimos are a grouping of tribes that historically inhabited the Arctic regions of North America and Asia. Major Eskimo tribes in Alaska include the Iñupiat of the North Slope and the Yup’ik of southwestern Alaska. Eskimo culture has traditionally been driven by fishing and whaling due to their position on the coast and the harsh conditions of the local climate preventing agriculture. They are also known for living in igloos during cold parts of the year.
The Aleut people reside in the Aleutian Islands of southwestern Alaska and far-eastern Siberia. They were among the first Native Alaskans to make contact with Russian explorers, with many eventually converting to Orthodox Christianity; a significant number of Aleuts have partial Russian ancestry. The Aleuts initially traded furs with Russian merchants, but tensions between the two led to an uprising in 1784. The Aleuts would later become famed traders across the entirety of the North American Pacific Coast, and were responsible for a genocide against the Nicoleño tribe of San Nicolas Island in northwestern Mexico. During World War II, the Japanese captured the southwesternmost islands of Alaska and transported a number of Aleuts to internment camps; the U.S. would later evacuate more Aleuts to camps in the Alaskan Panhandle, where many died of disease. Traditional Aleut life revolved around hunting and fishing, and they built complex underground houses called “barabara” to survive the harsh Alaskan winters. The Aleut are also known for their elaborate art, which includes unique clothing, tattoos, piercings, weapons, and fishing boats.
There are many unique facets to Native Alaskan life, far more than can be covered in a single article. However, Native Alaskan culture is fascinating, an example of how human beings can effortlessly adapt to their environment, no matter how remote or foreboding. Despite disease and colonization, Native Alaskan peoples continue to honor their heritage to this day, and if you visit Alaska, you may get a chance to partake in their unique folkways.