Alaska Natives

Alaska Natives

Blanket Toss Native Alaskan Dancer Native Alaskans Native Alaskan Child

Please note that this is a very brief overview of the history of the Alaska Natives. You will need to do further research by clicking on the links listed at the bottom of this page.

Anthropologists believe that today's Alaska Natives originated in Asia, either crossing over the Bering land bridge from Siberia or traveling by watercraft along the shorelines. While it is clear from archeology and Native history that people have lived in parts of Alaska for 10,000 years, there is some evidence that colonization first took place many thousands of years earlier. As our knowledge of archeology, Native oral history, and geology grows, so does our understanding of Alaska's first peoples.
 

Caribou Graphic

In Alaska today, there are five distinct groups:

  • Northwest Coast Indians
  • Inupiaqs
  • Yupiks
  • Aleuts
  • Athabascans
 

The following brief summaries about Alaska Native cultures are written in the past tense only because they refer specifically to life prior to contact with Russians and people of European descent; this should not suggest, however, that the content is necessarily outdated.

In Southeast Alaska, a region of lush forests, mild climate, abundant fish, game, and edible plants, the Tlingit (pronounced Klinkit), Haida, and Tshimshian Indians thrived. Their highly developed culture produced totem poles, ceremonial costumes, and exquisite blankets. The Tlingits were also fierce warriors. When the first Russians tried to settle in Sitka, the Tlingits drove them out, despite the guns and cannons possessed by the intruders.

The Athabascan Indians of interior Alaska and Canada faced harsher living conditions and were more often faced with famine than their neighbors on the coast. Close relatives of the Navajos and Apaches, the Athabascans were accomplished hunters. They followed herds of caribou and moose for long distances, fished for salmon and other river fish, and gathered roots, berries, and edible plants. Their fringed and beaded skin garments were highly prized by other Natives and, along with furs and other items, were often traded with neighboring Tlingit, Yupik, and Inupiaq. Athabascans were divided into many different tribes with distinct dialects.

The Inupiaqs settled along the north coast of Alaska and Canada, (where they are known as Inuits), and the Yupiks settled in Southwest Alaska. Both groups hunted, fished, and gathered the berries and roots that grew during the brief, cool summers. Inupiaq and Yupik hunters harpooned whales from small covered canoes called umiaks. Depending on their location, walrus, seals, and polar bears were also taken along with the caribou that migrated across the frozen tundra.

The smallest group of Alaska Natives, the Aleuts, made their living from the rich sea that surrounded their home on the Aleutian Islands. Their food, clothing, shelter, heat, and tools came from creatures living in the ocean or along its shorelines. Exceptional mariners, the Aleuts sometimes paddled hundreds of miles in skin-covered canoes, (kayaks), called baidarkas to trade, visit, hunt, or stage daring raids on enemy villages. Ducks, otters, whales, and fish were among the animals used by the Aleuts.

Today, Alaska's diverse Native peoples remain a strong presence in Alaska, comprising approximately 16% of the state's population. Rapid changes in communications, transportation, and other services to remote villages have dramatically changed Native life. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 gave Natives rights to about 10% of Alaska and nearly $1 billion dollars and effectively ended their ability to live a complete subsistence lifestyle. Even the most remote villages, which may be hundreds of miles from the nearest road, are connected to modern technology and have television, phones, and Internet access, (at least in the local school), and snowmobiles have largely replaced sled dogs in the interior.

Nevertheless, much of Native culture is still practiced. In many areas, particularly around rural villages, Natives hunt, fish, and gather the same plants and animals as did their ancestors and continue to practice much of their traditional culture. In some areas, subsistence food makes up more than 50% of Native diets. Even urban Natives often have connections to relatives in villages who supply them with Native foods. Ceremonies and traditional gatherings take place as well as modern celebrations of Native heritage. Elders are making an effort to pass on knowledge of Native art forms, (such as blanket weaving, wood and ivory carving, beadwork, kayak building, and dancing), to younger generations.

For more in-depth information about Alaska Natives then and now, visit the following links:

Cultural/Historical Information Native Arts
Alaska Native Knowledge Network Alaska Native Arts Resource Directory

Alaska Native Language Center

Alaska Crafts
Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Resource Center Export Guide to Native Art
Alaska Native Curriculum and Teacher Development Project  
Alaska Native Heritage Center  
LitSite Alaska  
First Alaskans Institute  
Arctic Studies Center  

Alaska Facts

State Nick Name: "The Last Frontier" - the name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word "Aleyska," meaning "great land."

State Motto: "North to the Future"

State Capital: Juneau, located in the Southeast region of Alaska, has a population of 31,275 (2010 Census)

Alaska Map:

Map of Alaska

Alaska Flag:

Alaska state flag is dark blue with yellow stars in the shape of the big dipper with the North star

NOTE: The State of Alaska is not responsible for the content/information on any site outside of a State of Alaska department.