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The Subarctic region covers the vast interior of what is now Alaska and Canada, stretching some 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) from the Yukon River to the coast of Labrador. To the north it borders the Arctic tundra, treeless plains around the Arctic Circle that remain frozen most of the year, with subsoil that never thaws. To the south it runs along the temperate rainforests of the Northwest coast, the mountain forests of the Plateau, the grasslands of the Plains, and the woodlands of the Northeast. Though there is tundra in the northern parts and at higher elevations of the Subarctic area, it consists mainly of taiga—a Russian word meaning “land of little sticks”—a good description of the scraggly spruce trees that often characterize the region.

Two broad cultural groups are usually included as part of the Subarctic region: the Athabaskan (also known as the Dene) in Alaska and western Canada and the Algonquin-speakers in central and eastern Canada (Cree, Anishinaubeg, Métis, and Innu). It should be noted that Athabaskan, a Cree term, is still in use in Alaska, but frowned upon in Canada. Anishinaubeg is how the Ojibway often refer to themselves, while Innu is the preferred term for those formerly known as Montagnais and Naskapi. Though the Athabaskan and Algonquin communities are separated by different languages both within and between themselves, the fairly consistent nature of the forest across the Subarctic leads to certain similarities in lifestyle among them, especially their reliance on caribou and moose as primary subsistence animals.

Living inland in a challenging climate, the relatively scattered, nomadic (wandering) peoples of the Subarctic region tended to experience the arrival of non-Natives later than did other tribal nations. The early non-Natives arriving in the region were mostly fur trappers, followed by missionaries and miners. While the Subarctic groups were left somewhat more alone than other groups, in the latter half of the twentieth century their mineral, timber, and hydroelectric (producing electricity from water) wealth caught the attention of the industrial world. In response they have asserted their sovereignty (self-rule) in an effort to have a say in the future.


The Dene Nation (Athabaskan) in the Dehcho (Mackenzie River) delta of Canada dates its existence to at least thirty thousand years ago. Subarctic oral literature is full of creation stories set in a mythic time when people and animals could talk to each other, an era in which tricksters like Raven and Wolverine (Dene), Nanabush (Anishinaubeg), and Wesucechak (Cree) had many adventures that helped shape the world. These characters, however, are not always confined to particular areas or groups. The stories are told to entertain and to convey fundamental attitudes about the Earth and its creatures. The Koyukon in Alaska have a lovely story in which Dotson’Sa (The Great Raven) creates the world. As retold by John Smelcer, it tells of a place full of giant animals, many that no longer exist and of a great flood that drowns the Earth. Dotson’Sa tells Raven to save animals aboard a big boat. One of the rescued animals, Muskrat, swims below and brings up mud to rebuild the Earth. Dotson’Sa populates the new land with people made from clay. Versions of this story are widespread in Athabaskan (Dene) country.

Archaeologists (people who study the artifacts left behind by ancient civilizations) have only sketchy information on how or when human beings came to inhabit the Subarctic. Most believe that ice-age migrations over the Bering Land Bridge were involved. (Many scientists believe that sometime about twenty-five thousand to fifteen thousand years ago, a land bridge formed from lands that are now under the waters of the Bering Strait. They believe that over a period of years, small groups of hunters crossed the land bridge from Asia to Alaska. Eventually these people and their descendants spread throughout North and South America.) The archaeologists’ uncertainty about when human beings inhabited the Subarctic region is due to scarce digging sites, acidic soils, erosion, and the nomadic lifestyles of inhabitants who traveled lightly and left few artifacts of metal, bone, or stone.

As summarized by John W. Ives, here is how scientists think the Na-Dene people (whose language covers the largest territory in the Subarctic) came to be: as early as ten thousand years ago, following an original migration over the Bering Strait, proto-Dene (the earliest to be identified as a group) people began to develop their own identity. The locale of this genetic (relating to biological hereditary traits) and cultural birth seems to have been in the northwestern section of the Subarctic. Later periods saw a movement of Dene-speakers westward into the Dehcho (Mackenzie River) delta; another southward into the Northwest Coast and Northern California (the Tlingit, Haida, Eyak, and Hupa tribes); and a recent split perhaps just prior to European contact took the Dine (Navajo) and Apache peoples into the Southwest. As Kerry Abel has pointed out, oral history and scientific evidence suggest that a natural disaster (maybe a volcanic eruption) motivated the dispersal (the group’s breaking up and spreading out). To the dispersal we can add the Tsuu T’ina (Sarsi), a group of Dene-speakers who joined the Blackfoot Confederacy on the northern Plains.

Meanwhile, Algonquin speakers came to inhabit the central and eastern parts of the boreal (northern) forest: the Innu in Labrador, the Cree around Hudson Bay, the Anishinaubeg (Ojibway) just south of the Cree, and finally the recent mixed Indian-white population known as Métis. Two linguists, Richard A. Rhodes and Evelyn M. Todd, reported that proto-Algonquin people may have originated in southern Ontario and spread out into Cree and Anishinaubeg lands from there. Archaeologist James V. Wright has asserted that the caribou-hunting way of life remained more or less unchanged in Algonquin country for over seven thousand years.

Relations between scientists and Native people have not always been happy. Many local people are skeptical of the Bering Strait Land Bridge theory. Writer Vine Deloria Jr. in his spirited critique, has pointed out the scarcity of physical evidence, the daunting mountain ranges on either side of the land bridge, and the lack of oral history about crossing a land bridge. He also points out the political motivations involved in suggesting that if Native Americans are merely immigrants then perhaps their claims to the land are not so deep after all. On the other hand, cooperative ventures between archaeologists and Native elders began in the 1980s in several places in both Alaska and Canada. These studies have incorporated such elements as oral history and traditional place names, thus giving elders a new sense of purpose and younger people employment and a chance to learn about their past. In some cases commissioned by tribes themselves, such work draws upon the depth, richness, and complexity of traditional knowledge about the land.

Living from the land

Generally speaking, life in the Subarctic follows the rhythm of the seasons. Though there are significant differences within and between groups, the boreal forest and nearby tundra have produced a subsistence lifestyle (a way of life in which people hunt or gather the things they need to survive) that transcends many boundaries.

During the Subarctic’s long winter, when temperatures can drop to minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit or below, snow blankets the ground and ice locks up rivers and lakes. In the summer, when temperatures can top the 90s, animals and people move around more freely but forest fires become a threat, and in boggy areas clouds of mosquitoes harass anything that moves. The Sun ebbs and flows throughout the year, barely rising at the winter solstice, but virtually not setting at high summer. In-between there are two short but vivid seasons, autumn and spring, which usher in the ice and break it up, respectively. Autumn and spring also set the stage for annual migrations of caribou, geese, ducks, and salmon.

The two most important animals across the Subarctic are caribou and moose, whose meat, hide, bone, and sinew traditionally went into clothing, tents, tools, and, in some places, moose skin-covered boats. Caribou tend to migrate in herds between summer calving grounds and winter ranges, while moose tend to be solitary and to migrate within smaller areas. In pre-contact times, bands that stressed moose hunting had to remain small, perhaps the size of an extended family, at least until summer fish camps could support larger populations. Caribou-hunting groups could be somewhat larger and had to travel farther. The extra hunters probably were needed to deal with herds. Some peoples hunted (and still hunt) both animals, though now with rifles instead of spears.

The Gwich’in (Kutchin) in northern Alaska and the adjacent Yukon Territory depend on the Porcupine caribou herd, some 160,000 animals that each spring migrate north from the boreal forests, across the Porcupine River, and onto the Arctic plains where calves are born. In the fall they return inland. Up until the turn of the century Gwich’in hunters were known to build fences to corral some of the animals. Slobodin has documented that, because the Gwich’in and the caribou were closely related in early times described by Gwich’in mythology, the human heart still has a piece of caribou heart in it, and vice versa; they can share each other’s thoughts.

When caribou and moose are not available, smaller game like snowshoe hare, beaver, muskrat, otter, porcupine, squirrel, migratory geese, and grouse are hunted. Animals that are taken rarely, or only in limited places, include bear, musk-ox, elk, Dall sheep on some mountains, bison in lands bordering the Great Plains, and sea mammals in coastal areas. Many rivers provide salmon in the summer, while other waterways offer pike, whitefish, and grayling. Dried fish sustains both people and sled dogs during colder months. Forests and tundra yield bark for baskets and firewood and wood for snowshoes and spears, as well as Labrador tea, medicines, berries, roots, greens, and, in pre-contact times, seeds that were used for beadwork. The trapping of animals for the fur trade, a development of the past two hundred years, has also become an essential part of the economy throughout the Subarctic; pelts are most valuable when trapped in fall and winter.

The annual migrations between summer fish camps and winter hunting and trapping ranges still occur throughout most of the boreal forest, though many people now have permanent homes. Old-time housing might vary from semi-subterranean (partly underground) structures and temporary double lean-tos in Alaska to oval or conical tents in Canada; most were home to multiple families. In traditional times government generally operated by consensus (general agreement amongst the group), with headmen of extended families making decisions based on discussions with elders and other members of the family. At summer camps, or among larger caribou-hunting communities, consensus had to be reached among more people. Relations with other groups could alternate between warfare and trading, and even intermarriage, depending on circumstances. This complexity continued when non-Native people started coming into the north country.

Tribal distribution

Though Subarctic peoples have many similarities in their lifestyles, they do see themselves as belonging to bands and nations. Rivers are a typical focal point for organizing the landscape and distinguishing where people come from. One of the biggest, the Yukon, flows almost 1,900 miles (3,058 kilometers) from the upper Yukon Territory in Canada, through interior Alaska, to Norton Sound; its major tributaries include the Porcupine (which also begins in Canada), the Koyokuk, and the Tanana. The Yukon, along with the Kuskokwim River, is a defining feature of interior Alaska, the westernmost geographical and cultural region in the Subarctic. The Athabaskan (Dene) peoples here include the Koyukon around the Koyokuk and Yukon rivers; the Tanana around the Tanana River; the Deg Hit’an (formerly known as Ingalik) in west-central Alaska around the lower Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers; the Dena’ina in south-central Alaska around Tikahtnu (Cook Inlet) and Yaghanen (the Kenai Peninsula); the Ahtna around Ts’itu (the Copper River) just east of the Dena’ina; and the Eyak in the Copper River delta, a Athabaskan (Dene)-derived people who developed close ties with the coastal Tlingit.

The section immediately to the east of interior and south central Alaska is known as the Cordillera, a series of roughly connected mountain ranges between the Yukon River to the west and Dehcho (the Mackenzie River) to the east. Its northern part includes much of the Brooks Range around the Alaska/Yukon Territory border, home to the Gwich’in people and the Han just below them, while farther south it reaches into the Rocky Mountains in interior British Columbia and northwest Alberta, making homelands for the Kaska, Tahltan, Sekani, Carrier, and Chilcotin. The cultures and subsistence practices of those closer to the Northwest Coast and the Plateau reflect ties with those tribes.

The Dehcho (Mackenzie River) Delta to the east of the Rocky Mountains, unlike the Yukon, drains into the Beaufort Sea instead of the Pacific. This area is Denedeh, homeland of the Dene Nation of Canada, which is situated between the Cordillera and Hudson Bay. Although its formal membership has been evolving, in the mid-1980s the Nation listed the following constituents: the Dinjii Zhuh (Gwich’in or Locheux) in the north; the K’ashot’ine (Hareskin) northwest of Sahtú (Great Bear Lake); the Tlicho (Dogrib) between Sahtú and Tucho (Great Slave Lake); the Deh Gàh Got’ine (Slavey or Dene Dhá) along Dehcho and south of Tucho; the Shihts Got’ine (Mountain People), who live a little farther downriver; the Denesoliné (Chipewyan), the largest group whose area extends between the big lakes, Hudson Bay, and as far north as the Arctic coast; and some Cree and Métis immigrants.

Geographically, the Dehcho area overlaps the western side of the Canadian Shield, a massive plate of bedrock that was scraped by glaciers and erosion during the last ice age, leaving lowlands around both Dehcho and Hudson Bay, along with great mineral wealth underground. The relatively low elevations make for some enormous lakes, which aside from Sahtú (Great Bear Lake) and Tucho (Great Slave Lake) include Lake Athabasca, Reindeer Lake, and Lake Winnipeg. Because the Shield wraps around Hudson and James Bays all the way into Labrador, it makes up about half of Canada.

To the south of Denedeh, around the Peace River, live the Dene-speaking Beaver people; they are not members of the Nation but are related culturally. Their immediate neighbors to the east are the Cree, Algonquin-speakers whose language comes from an entirely separate family. (Some Cree fled into Northern Alberta in the late 1780s during a smallpox epidemic; their descendants became members of Denedeh.) Bands of Cree extend from the western forests all the way around Hudson and James Bays well into Labrador. The easternmost of these bands, the Innu, call their homeland in eastern Quebec and Labrador Nitassinan.

Other speakers of Algonquin dialects live in the southern reaches of the Subarctic. Some Anishinaubeg live in Manitoba and Ontario, along rivers that drain into the Hudson and James Bays. (Most live in the Great Lakes area, not in the Subarctic.) In the area around lower Lake Winnipeg live a people known as Saulteaux, cousins of the Anishinaubeg. Also south of Dehcho, in parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, live the Métis, descendants of unions between European fur trappers and Cree, Anishinaubeg, and Saulteaux women. In their two hundred years of existence the Métis have maintained the subsistence lifestyle of their Native American ancestors, hunting, trapping, and fishing in the boreal forest, although their proximity to the Great Plains introduced an element of the bison-hunting lifestyle as well.

Historical changes

European goods and diseases worked their way through native trading networks in the Subarctic region well before actual explorers and fur traders started building forts there in the late eighteenth century. Russian trade goods came into interior Alaska via annual Inuit trade fairs in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. The French and British came into the Subarctic from the east and southeast, allowing Algonquin middlemen to trade firearms and other items for furs. Coastal Tlingit traders used Russian goods to bolster their business dealings with the Athabaskan (Dene) in the southern Cordillera.

Relations with non-Natives involved less warfare than in other regions because fur traders generally were more interested in a supply of pelts than in stealing land. However, increasing dependence on outside goods did affect subsistence practices and occasionally resulted in violence. For example, the people on what is now Newfoundland, Canda, the Beothuk, misunderstood the private property concepts of French and English fishermen. Branded as thieves, they were hunted down for a scalp bounty and died out by the early nineteenth century.

In Alaska, where Russians brutally enslaved coastal tribes for the fur trade, the Ahtna, who lived in upper Ts’itu (the Copper River) repelled more than one party of Russians in the early colonial period. In one harrowing account told by Katie and Fred John, a party of Russians, apparently in the winter of 1794–95, drove the men out of a village to freeze to death and conscripted the women to tan hides. The Russians’ Dena’ina guide purposely mistranslated certain dialogue in order to give the Ahtna men time to retaliate, which they did, killing the entire party. No white people lived among the Upper Ahtna until after the Klondike gold rush of 1898, in part because the coastal Tlingit discouraged outsiders from disrupting their own trade relations with the interior.

In most parts of the Subarctic, where violent confrontations with outsiders did not occur, fur traders established posts that by degrees greatly affected the lived of Native people. The introduction of sled dogs enabled more trapping to be done but also increased pressure on summer fish camps to produce food. Tending trap lines affected the location and duration of winter camps, lessening mobility. Intermarriage was not uncommon and had far-ranging effects. The Métis nation, which grew out of mixed-race marriages, included both fur-trapping people in the north and buffalo-hunting people on the plains. The dominant trading company, the Hudson’s Bay Company, controlled forts and land from Hudson Bay to the Yukon until 1869, when it sold its huge territory to Canada. Conflicts between the Métis and Canada led to the only armed conflicts on the western Canadian frontier. These ended with the Second Riel Rebellion in 1885 near the Saskatchewan River, when Métis patriot Louis Riel (1844–1885) and Cree compatriots werefinally defeated. Tensions between the Métis and the Canadian government over land and sovereignty continue to this day.

Other contacts between Natives and fur traders demonstrated the creativity and adaptability of Subarctic peoples. The introduction of trade beads, the fur trade, and missionary instruction led to the blossoming of Athabaskan (Dene) beadwork, which formerly had been done with quills and seeds. Floral embroidery was introduced in the eastern Athabaskan (Dene) region in the nineteenth century and spread as far as Alaska. Kate C. Duncan has documented the long history of ornamented Athabaskan (Dene) art on such items as clothing, mittens, moccasins, baby-carrying straps, and dog blankets. Similarly, early contacts with Europeans led the Algonquin-speaking Innu to develop a tradition of painted caribou-skin coats that echoed the garments worn by Europeans. As documented by Dorothy K. Burnham, the coats were in use for well over two centuries, ending in the early twentieth century. These Athabaskan (Dene) and Innu developments show how outside materials and ideas breathed new life into long-standing traditions.

As with clothing and embroidery, Native people responded enthusiastically to new songs and dances. The Hudson’s Bay Company established a post at Fort Yukon in 1847, where men from Scotland, France, Canada, and the Orkney Islands introduced fiddle music to the Gwich’in and Han peoples. The locals loved fiddling so much that, even after the fort closed twenty years later, they kept on playing at social gatherings. Tribes farther south, such as the Tanana, learned of fiddling from Americans, and they incorporated it into ceremonial potlatches (feasts celebrating major life events such as birth, death, or marriage, in which goods are given away to show the host’s wealth and generosity) and a big celebration known as Nuchalawoya in late spring. Native people were often excluded from dance halls where non-Natives enjoyed such music, so the Native people incorporated fiddling into their own events. Starting in 1983 the Athabaskan Old-Time Fiddling Festival became an annual attraction in Fairbanks, Alaska. There audiences experience nineteenth-century Orkney Island fiddling, jigs, and reels while Athabaskan (Dene) people, some who cannot understand each other’s dialects, have an art form that all can appreciate.

While these gradual adaptations were taking place, the superpowers of Canada and the United States were preparing to exert their authority over the Subarctic. The United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, but it was not until Alaska approached statehood in the late 1950s that the Native people realized the enormity of their potential land loss. Neither treaties nor reservations had been established in the American Subarctic, as had been done in the lower forty-eight states. Desire to build the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline led the government in 1971 to enact the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which assigned to the Natives some 40 million acres of land and almost $1 billion in exchange for relinquishing their aboriginal claims in the rest of Alaska. The land was divided among 13 regional corporations, the largest of which is Doyon, Ltd., representing most of the Athabaskan (Dene) peoples of interior Alaska.

Meanwhile, tribal councils still exist, which leads to some confusion about who truly represents the future of the people. The village of Venetie in the 1990s sued the state, insisting that despite the ANCSA their village fits the definition of “Indian country” as exhibited in the rest of the states. (Indian Country is a term used in federal law that includes reservations, scattered Native American home sites, and sometimes areas near reservations as well. By law, tribal governments in Indian Country have the authority to make and enforce their own laws and negotiate government-to-government with the United States.) Although lower Venetie won the case in the lower courts, the Supreme Court overturned that verdict in 1998, ruling that Venetie did not meet the definition of Indian Country. In any case, the challenge for Doyon, as well as for the other corporations and tribal councils, is to navigate the modern capitalist economy without losing sight of basic cultural values.

Ancient subsistence practices and modern industries often do conflict. The Gwich’in, who number more than seven thousand people in both Alaska and Canada, have been resisting the efforts of the U.S. Congress and the coastal Inuit to develop an oil field in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Though they live inland, the Gwich’in depend on the Porcupine Caribou herd whose calving ground is in the Refuge. They fear that oil development in the delicate tundra environment will threaten the survival of the herd. The presence of Inuit people on the other side of the question prevents a simplistic Native versus non-Native interpretation of this conflict.

Canadian peoples face similar dilemmas, as the industrial world has taken a great interest in their oil, mineral, timber, and hydroelectric resources. Like the United States, Canada never bothered to make treaties in most of its northern reaches, so the late twentieth century witnessed a flurry of efforts to settle the land claims of the various nations, an agonizing process for the aboriginal people. The Innu, for example, have resisted efforts to develop resources in Nitassinan until their land rights are settled, knowing full well that such development is already happening. They have been negotiating directly with mining and timber companies in an effort to provide economic benefit for the people while protecting their subsistence base in the ecosystem (the way that a community and the environment work together). In 2001 the Innu Nation and the government of Newfoundland and Labrador signed a Forest Process Agreement, which gives the people a voice in resource management.

Since few people, if any, in the Subarctic live totally outside the cash economy, villages and towns across Alaska and Canada are attempting to balance the creation of jobs with the well-being of the land and people. This is a daunting challenge, but the various Athabaskan (Dene) and Algonquin nations certainly have long traditions of survival in their favor.

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Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska

Laurie Edwards

Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)

Laurie Edwards