Native North Americans of Alaska

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Native North Americans of Alaska

Scientists have long held that Alaska was the original point of entry for Native Americans into the Americas from northeast Asian areas such as China, Siberia, and Mongolia. (See First Americans, Origin Theories of ). It is theorized that they were able to walk to the continent due to the frigid climate of a glacial period (a period of extreme cold when great portions of the earth were covered with masses of ice called glaciers) that had begun around one hundred thousand years ago. So much water froze that the sea level dropped about three hundred or four hundred feet below what it is today. Scholars believe that the low water level exposed a vast land bridge spanning the distance across the Bering Strait, from Siberia in northern Russia to the northwest tip of North America (present-day Alaska). The Bering Land Bridge probably remained exposed until about twelve thousand years ago when the climate began to warm.


Many historians believe that Alaska's native peoples arrived in several migrations that may have begun tens of thousands of years ago and took place over thousands of years. The native peoples of Alaska—the Athabascans; the Northwest Coast Indians, the Inuit (or Eskimos), and the Aleut—may have arrived in the Americas at different times.

The climate in most of Alaska ranges from arctic to subarctic. The arctic region of the globe is the closest to the North Pole and is extremely cold. Subarctic regions are just south of the arctic regions and are also very cold. In Alaska, only the Northwest Coast in the southeastern part of the state is not part of the bitterly cold arctic or subarctic climate. The other Alaskan groups adapted to their extreme environment.

The native peoples of Alaska shared a number of cultural traits. They were nomadic, meaning they moved around to find food and resources at different times of the year. Most depended on land- and sea-mammal hunting and ocean-or river-fishing. Their religious beliefs were based on a world inhabited by spirits. All groups had shamans, religious specialists who treated illness and dealt with the supernatural. Most groups engaged in occasional feuds and warfare. All areas of Alaska had well-established trade networks, with periodic trade fairs along the coasts and at convenient inland locations.

The Aleuts

The nine-hundred-mile-long Aleutian Islands, a chain of more than three hundred islands extending westward from mainland Alaska, is home to the Aleuts. It is usually foggy, damp, and windy, and has excellent ocean resources.

The Aleuts are believed to have split from a common Aleut-Eskimo background about four thousand years ago. They numbered fifteen thousand or more at the time Europeans arrived in Alaska. The Aleuts lived in large, communal (shared by the community) houses in permanent villages. They used kayaks made from animal skin for hunting and larger boats for travel. They exploited all the ocean resources available, including sea mammals, birds, shellfish, and fish. They used poison-tipped spears to hunt whales and nets and weirs (dams) to fish. In some areas, they hunted caribou. Aleut social organization was simple. Social rankings included nobles, commoners, and slaves.

The Inuit

The Inuit had a complex culture emphasizing land- and sea-mammal hunting and fishing. By 1000 bce, they were making pottery, using oil lamps, building permanent houses, and whaling. At the time of

European contact, the Inuit in Alaska numbered twenty-six thousand to thirty thousand.

The coastal Inuit lived in Alaska's coastal tundra—treeless plains of the arctic regions, with year-round frozen subsoil. Tundra supports only low-growing plant-life such as mosses and dwarfed shrubs. In winter, Inuits in the more northern areas fished through the ice and hunted seals at breathing holes. More southerly groups hunted in open water much of the year. In summer, the Inuit used skin-covered kayaks to hunt seal, walrus, and whales. They used umiaks, large open boats made of skins stretched on a wooden frame, for travel and, in some areas, for whaling. Other Inuit groups lived in western and southern Alaska, where their culture was similar to the Athabascans. In some areas, they caught salmon in stone weirs and hunted caribou.

The Inuit used dog sleds for travel. They normally moved between winter villages and other locations for fishing and hunting. Villages consisted of rectangular family dwellings, with a larger kazigi, or ceremonial men's house. During periods of travel, the Inuit lived in skin tents. Their communities ranged from fifty to three hundred individuals or more, with informal leadership. Inuit religious life stressed belief in a world of spirits. Inuits observed taboos—acts, such as touching the head of an elder, that were forbidden because they were believed to harm the wellbeing of the community.


The Athabascan Indians live in the subarctic forests of interior Alaska. Much of the vast region is made up of northern evergreen forest with long, cold winters and brief, hot summers. Food resources are meager in this environment, and the Athabascan Indians lived in small, sparsely distributed groups speaking different dialects. When Europeans arrived, the total Athabascan population of Alaska was an estimated ten thousand to twelve thousand.

The Athabascans traveled from place to place regularly, using toboggans, bark-covered canoes, and snowshoes for transportation. From spring through fall, they engaged in the pursuit of caribou and salmon. They hunted waterfowl in the fall months and pursued moose and hares all year. In late winter and spring, they often went hungry. They lived in bands of fifty to one hundred members. Leadership was informal, and religious life stressed control of animal and nature spirits.

The Indians of the Northwest Coast

The major groups of natives of the Northwest Coast in the milder climate of southeastern Alaska included the Tlingit (pronounced KLINK-et) and northern Haida (HY-dah). They lived in a temperate rain forest with abundant resources. Northwest Coast Indians totaled ten thousand to twelve thousand at the time the first Europeans arrived.

The Northwest Coast Indians developed a complex social life. Salmon runs provided an abundant harvest, which people preserved for later use. The Indians used canoes to hunt sea mammals and caught a wide variety of fish. The Tlingit in the north also hunted caribou. The Northwest Coast groups were superb woodworkers who constructed ornate houses and large dugout cedar canoes. In their villages, they erected totem poles in front of their houses. These were tall carved and painted wooden posts consisting of a series of totems, or family crests, for commemoration and status.

Religious life on the Northwest Coast focused on animal spirits, particularly in connection with the annual salmon migrations. The concept of a personal protective or guardian spirit was widespread. Northwest Coast people celebrated with the potlatch, an elaborate gift-giving feast. (See Native North Americans of the Pacific Northwest .)

Europeans arrive

Russian trade goods reached Alaska by the late 1600s, but it was the discovery of Alaska by Danish-born navigator Vitus Bering (1681–1741) in 1741 that began the period of sustained white contact. During the early Russian occupation, the fur trade was beneficial to the native people, particularly along the southern coast. Beginning in 1841, Americans began commercial whaling in the Bering Sea, which resulted in extensive contact with the Inuit. Missionary efforts started in 1794 and continued after the United States purchased Alaska in 1867. A gold rush brought many new white settlers to Alaska in the late 1800s. The missions and American occupation led to rapid social and cultural change.

It was not until the 1940s that non-Natives actually outnumbered natives in Alaska. With little contact, Native Alaskans had been slower to adopt mainstream American customs than other Native American groups. This meant that they were more vulnerable to being tricked out of their lands and livelihoods. Unlike other American groups, they had not entered into treaties with the U.S. government.

Beginning in the 1830s, disease caused major population declines among Native Alaskans—by some estimates, 90 percent died during the nineteenth century. From the late 1880s to the 1950s, Christian missions and schools became widespread, health care improved, and native populations grew rapidly. The 2000 census listed the total number of Native Alaskans at more than ninety-nine thousand.

Protecting land and rights

Alaska became a state in 1959. Then major oil fields were discovered in northern Alaska in 1968. As the new state claimed more of their lands, Native Alaskans organized to fight, pressing their claims in court. They stalled the construction of the Alaska Pipeline until 1971, when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was signed into law. Under the terms of ANCSA, Native Alaskans received $962 million and 44 million acres of land in exchange for giving up title to the rest of their lands in Alaska.

The United States entered into ANCSA with the goal of assimilating (causing to blend in) Native Alaskans into mainstream American society by imposing on them a system of private ownership and free enterprise. The government set up a system of regional and village-level profit-making native corporations to guide economic development among the Native Alaskans. However, a high incidence of poverty, poor access to quality health care, and the suppression of religious freedom resulted.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, Native Alaskans sought to limit the role of the ANCSA corporations, strengthen tribal governments, and resurrect their traditional communal economies. Some gains were made in quality of housing and income in some regions, but economic discrimination and poverty remained problems.

Native Alaskans faced growing concerns about climate change in the twenty-first century. Alaska's climate had warmed an estimated 4 degrees over the past thirty to forty years, causing the permafrost (soil that remains frozen year-round) and ice to thaw. Since many Native Alaskans rely on the resources of their arctic environment, they are harshly affected by these changes.

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Native North Americans of Alaska

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