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ETHNONYMS: Gens des Buttes, Tannin-kootchin, Tenankutchin, Tennankutchin, Tennan-tnu-kokhtana


Identification. The Tanana are an American Indian group located in Alaska. The name "Tanana" is a corruption of the Tanana Athapaskan term Ten Dona ' which refers to the Tanana River valley. Among Tanana Athapaskans the term used for the Tanana River proper is Tth'eetoo', meaning "straight water." The names cited in historical accounts reflect the term applied by neighboring Gwich'in ("Kutchin") Athapaskan groups of the Yukon River valley. The Tanana Athapaskans do not refer to themselves by this larger grouping, but rather by the individual band name, such as "Mentekhut'ana" (people who inhabit the Minto Lakes). Nowadays "Tanana" is a linguistic term used to refer to Athapaskan-speaking people of the middle Tanana River and should not be confused with Koyukon-speaking Athapaskans who reside at the village of Tanana situated along the middle Yukon River.

Location. At contact the Tanana occupied and used the areas along the middle Tanana River between the Kantishna and Goodpaster rivers, the adjacent areas of the Tanana Lowlands and Minto Flats, as well as the surrounding hills of the Yukon-Tanana Upland north of the Tanana River and the foothills of the Alaska Range south of the Tanana River. This area is part of the boreal forest situated between 64° and 66° N and 144° and 150° W in central Alaska. Currently, most Tanana-speaking Athapaskans reside in the communities of Minto, Nenana, and Fairbanks.

Demography. In the early 1980s the Tanana population numbered about 500-600, residing primarily in the native Villages of Minto and Nenana and the urban center of Fairbanks. In 1910, Tanana Athapaskans totaled about 370 (Minto, Nenana, Chena, and Salcha).

Linguistic Affiliation. The Tanana language is one of twenty-three Northern Athapaskan languages of the Athapaskan family. At contact there were three dialects: Minto-Nenana, Chena, and Salcha-Goodpaster. Nowadays only the Minto-Nenana dialect is spoken.

History and Cultural Relations

Prehistoric evidence of human occupation in the area Historically occupied by the Tanana extends as far back as eleven thousand years ago at one of the oldest radiocarbon-dated sites in North America. Elsewhere in the area, there have been few archaeological investigations, and little is known of prehistory of the area or the late prehistoric period that might shed light on the precontact culture and origin of the Tanana. The Tanana language reflects contact with Neighboring groups to the west, south, and southeast where the Upper Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, and Tanacross Athapaskan languages, respectively, are spoken. Social contact with the Upper Koyukon and Tanacross speakers has persisted from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Direct contact with European-Americans dates from the mid-1800s, first with the Russians who established a network of trading stations to the south and west and the English to the north and northeast. Contact with Americans was later when, after the 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia, Commercial activity and exploration expanded. Continuous Contact among Tanana and European-Americans dates from the 1902 discovery of gold in the Fairbanks district and the subsequent intensification of mining at the core of the Tanana geographical area. Trading posts, roadhouses, telegraph stations, and commercial centers were established in the Tanana River valley; steamboats plied the Tanana River bringing goods and nonnative residents into the area. Furs were traded and dried salmon and cordwood became products of trade as dog teams and steamboats became central modes of transportation to supply and service mining operations and commercial activity.

Episcopalian missionaries established churches, schools, and medical facilities in the area during the first twenty years of the twentieth century. By the 1950s, the Salcha and Chena bands were nearly extinct and members of the Nenana, Wood River, Toklat, and Minto bands became consolidated at the villages of Nenana and Minto along the Tanana River. This marked the shift from a mobile hunting and gathering band population to a semipermanent village population. Hunting, fishing, and gathering of local fish and wildlife resources, however, continue to play an important role in the village economies of Minto and Nenana.


Aboriginally and in early contact times, Tanana Athapaskans traveled in small bands or extended family groups during the course of the year to harvest seasonally available fish and wildlife. Seasonal settlements were situated along salmon-bearing streams and at the mouths of major salmon-spawning streams during summer and early fall. Some bands occupied fishing settlements at the outlets of large lakes to harvest from the large migrations of whitefish during early summer and fall. During late fall and spring, families moved and set up seasonal camps from which they hunted caribou during their seasonal migrations. During winter families moved frequently, hunting moose and trapping fur animals. Some traveled to the foothills of the Alaska Range where they hunted sheep. The fishing stations were essentially semipermanent villages where family groups returned and the band joined Together for ceremonial and religious activities. Around 1900 there were about eight semipermanent villages of the Tanana; most were situated along the Tanana or at the mouth of major tributary streams. Numerous seasonal and temporary camps were dispersed throughout the area along lakes and smaller streams and in the flats and foothills. Band size ranged from about fifty to one hundred persons. By 1950 the population resided in two year-round villages as it does today, with many members also residing in the urban center of Fairbanks. Aboriginal housing included the use of semiPermanent log and sod houses and caribouor moose-skin tents. Throughout the twentieth century, canvas tents and log houses have been used for shelter along with wood-frame houses.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Tanana were a hunting, fishing, and gathering society. They hunted large and small game of the boreal forest, including moose, caribou, bear, sheep, muskrat, beaver, ptarmigan, hare, grouse, porcupine, and waterfowl. Several species of salmon and whitefish were taken by a variety of methods that included traps, fences, gill nets, dip nets, and fish wheels for salmon. Other fish species taken included northern pike, burbot, sheefish, and longnose sucker. Berries, edible plants, and wood were gathered for use. Nowadays, nearly all of these same fish and wildlife resources continue to be harvested for subsistence. In 1984, the village of Minto had among the largest per capita harvest of wild foods in the state1,015 edible pounds per person. Since contact, fish and wildlife have been used in trade with European-Americans to obtain manufactured goods. Furs, dried salmon, and cordwood were used in trade and for acquiring cash. A mixed subsistence-cash economy is characteristic of present-day Tanana villages. Trapping, commercial salmon fishing, and wage employment, although all limited, are the primary means for earning cash.

Industrial Arts. Handicrafts include the manufacture of birchbark baskets, dog sleds, snowshoes, fur caps and boots, and various articles of beadwork for sale and exchange.

Trade. Little is known of aboriginal trading practices, although an interregional trail network was clearly well developed as evidenced in several historic accounts that reported the presence of imported manufactured items in advance of European-Americans in central Alaska. After contact, trading trips were made regularly by certain band members to posts along the Yukon River and near the mouth of the Copper River to the south. A native trade fair was held frequently at a site near the junction of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, although its antiquity is uncertain. Trading expeditions Declined in the twentieth century as goods and products became available at stations and stores in the Tanana Valley proper.

Division of Labor. Aboriginally, men were responsible for hunting, providing firewood, cooking food, and manufacturing tools, snowshoe frames, boats, and canoes. Women tanned skins from which they made clothing, footwear, and tents. They made birchbark utensils and collected water, edible plants, and berries. Women carried the heavy loads and pulled toboggans loaded with gear and equipment. Women, then as now, could and did hunt large and small game. They cut and dried fish and meat, although men often assisted as they do nowadays. Both men and women fished. Now, traditional cooking of food, particularly for ceremonial purposes and in camp is done by men, and European-American-style cooking is done by women. Earlier in the twentieth century both men and women trapped; however, this is virtually a male activity nowadays. Commercial fishing is done primarily by men, although women commonly assist. Both men and women are involved in wage employment.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, individuals, family groups, or bands did not own property in the Western legal sense. The use and occupancy of lands were guided by usufruct rights based upon kinship and group affiliation. Band territory was open to all members of the band for subsistence use. Members of neighboring bands asked permission to use certain areas. Trapping areas were used by and associated with particular families and were handed down along family lines from one generation to the next as they often are today. The 1906 Alaska Native Allotment Act was extinguished in 1971 by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Prior to 1971 many natives applied for individual land allotments, although few have received patent to date. Land was granted to natives of Nenana and Minto in the form of profit-making corporations by the 1971 act, but these lands include a relatively small proportion of the land traditionally used and occupied by Tanana Athapaskans.


Kin Groups and Descent. Tanana society was divided into exogamous matrilineal kin groups, or sibs. Within each band were one or several sibs that were associated with one of two moieties. Sibs and moieties regulated marriages, partnerships, and economic and ceremonial exchanges. They were not land-holding groups, nor did they act as corporate groups in intraband affairs. Remnant evidence of the sib system nowadays is found primarily in ceremonial and religious activities associated with funerals and funeral and memorial Potlatches.

Kinship Terminology. Tanana kinship is characterized by Iroquois cousin terminology and bifurcate collateral terminology in the first ascending generation, although there has been a shift toward Hawaiian cousin terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditional marriage rules precluded marriage within one's matrilineage: cross-cousin marriages were preferred and sib exogamy was the rule. Residence was generally matrilocal. There was no bride-price or dowry, although the future husband was expected to help his parents-in-law and provide them with gifts. Formerly polygamy was practiced. Divorce was not common. Nowadays marriage is monogamous and avoided between first cousins. Residence tends toward matrilocality, and divorce is still rare.

Domestic Unit. Residence units were characteristically small extended families. Although nuclear families predominate today, extended family groups are still common in the residential unit and are characteristic of most task groups for hunting and fishing.

Inheritance. In the past, among the neighboring Upper Tanana, personal belongings were sometimes given to a close relative or friend prior to death or were supposed to be destroyed upon death. Among the Tanana, valuable items and personal belongings now are often given away at the funeral potlatch.

Socialization. Children were raised to exhibit humility and modesty in pursuits and accomplishments. They had freedom in their activities, and independence was valued. These ideals persist. Formal education is now mandatory through age sixteen, and most students complete high school, although few continue their education beyond the secondary level.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Leadership was provided by men who held the position of chief either by ascription or achievement. Their status had to be continually validated by their exhibiting qualities associated with chieftainshipswealth, generosity, wisdom, and hunting prowess. In some cases a wealthy woman who had exhibited industriousness and skill- fulness in subsistence activities could regulate activities in and out of camp. Both men and women had an equal voice in community affairs, and influential individuals of both sexes in modern communities are respected for their wisdom, industriousness, and generosity.

Political Organization. Prior to contact, bands, like Villages today, were politically independent from others. Trading chiefs were prominent during the Russian period (c. 1820-1867), but they had no power unless they also exhibited the qualities of a traditional leader. Similarly, in modern villages an elected chief of a tribal council formed under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act may or may not be a leader in the traditional sense. Traditional leaders and chiefs continue to be influential in community matters.

Social Control. Within Tanana society, social control was a family matter, whereas leaders often negotiated with those of other bands to settle disputes between bands. Social avoidance prevented confrontation as did temporary emigration from the camp or village. In some cases, emigration was forced through overt or subtle social pressure by community or family heads. Although members are subject to state and federal laws, traditional social controls often sanction offending persons as well.

Conflict. The Tanana have never entered into overt conflict with European-American society. Rather, individuals were judged on their personal qualities and characteristics. In historic and modern times, Tanana Athapaskans have been at the heart of native efforts to bring about claims settlements. They have been active leaders beginning with the first Tanana Chiefs Conference held in 1915 and, since the late 1960s, within the nonprofit native organization of the same name, which provides health, social, and advocacy services to natives of all of interior Alaska.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Aboriginally and in early historic times the shaman was the central figure of religious life. Magicoreligious practices included omens, charms, amulets, songs, taboos, and beliefs about the supernatural. Beliefs and practices were associated with certain animals, and many centered around hunting. Animal spirits appear to have predominated in Tanana spiritual life, although an evil spirit was manifested in a half-man, half-animal being. Spirits were influential in the activities of the living and in guiding the dead to their final resting place. As in other aspects of society, religious beliefs and practices were highly individualized and were a Personal matter. Christian missionaries of the Episcopal church established churches and missions in the area beginning in the early 1900s. Several members of Tanana society, including one woman, have become ordained ministers of the Episcopal church. Many traditional beliefs persist, however, and are particularly evident in ritual behavior surrounding death.

Religious Practitioners. Medicine making was carried out by shamans, both male and female, especially in the cure of the sick. They were integral in the society at least until the 1930s and probably much later. Both ordained and lay ministers are central in religious practices today.

Ceremonies. The most important religious ceremonies have been and continue to be potlatches, particularly the Funeral and memorial types. Both the ceremony following the death of an individual and the potlatch held one or several years later as a memorial are central to religious, social, and economic life in Tanana society.

Arts. Songs have been associated with supernatural power particularly surrounding hunting activities. Individuals often had their own songs to empower them in dealing with the natural world and its creatures. Songs continue to be composed in the native language and English to mark key events, as storytelling and as mourning songs sung at funeral and memorial potlatches commemorating deceased individuals.

Medicine. Sickness was rare prior to the coming of European-Americans. Both physical medical cures and shamanism were used to treat various ailments and diseases. Some herbal and traditional medicines continue to be used, and a village health aide staffs a medical clinic.

Death and Afterlife. The native attitude toward death is fatalistic, and death is faced with composure. Although there is no belief in an afterlife, appropriate ritualistic behavior by the survivors ensures that the soul of the deceased will be guided to the narrow trail that leads to the afterworld. The activities and behavior surrounding the death of an individual and the funeral potlatch are especially important in this regard.


Andrews, Elizabeth F. (1975). "Salcha: An Athapaskan Band of the Tanana River and Its Culture." M.A. thesis, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Andrews, Elizabeth F. (1988). The Harvest of Fish and Wildlife for Subsistence by the Residents of Minto, Alaska. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence, Technical Paper no. 137. Juneau.

Olson, Wallace M. (1968). "Minto: Cultural and Historical Influences on Group Identity." M.A. thesis, University of Alaska.

Shinkwin, Anne, and Martha Case (1984). Modern Foragers: Wild Resource Use in Nenana Village, Alaska. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistece, Technical Paper no. 91. Juneau.

Toghotthele Corporation (1983). Nenana Denayee. Nenana, Alaska: Toghotthele Corporation.


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Tanana (tăn´ənô), river, 600 mi (966 km) long, rising in W Yukon near the Alaskan border and flowing NW across Alaska to the Yukon River; navigable for small boats to Fairbanks, the largest city on the river. The Tanana valley, near Fairbanks, is central Alaska's chief farming area; grains, potatoes, and other vegetables are grown. The Tanana, explored by Russian traders c.1860, became an important route to the Yukon goldfields in 1898. A section of the Alaska Highway runs parallel to the river.

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"Tanana." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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