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ETHNONYMS: Dena'ina, Tnaina, Kenaitze, Kenai, Knaiakhotana


Identification. The Tanaina are an Athapaskan-speaking American Indian group located in Alaska. Tanaina synonyms are variations of "Dena'ina" (people) or "Kenaitze." The latter may refer only to the people of Kenai Peninsula, but frequently it is extended to include all Tanaina.

Location. Tanaina are located in the Cook Inlet and adjacent areas of southwestern Alaska between 59° and 63° N and 148° and 157° W. Traditionally and today they comprise three subdivisions, or "societies," based on cultural similarities and on levels of interaction and social interchange Including intermarriage. The Kenai subdivision occupied the southeastern shore of Cook Inlet including the Kenai Peninsula, except for the Pacific Ocean side. The Susitna subdivision encompassed the Susitna, Matanuska, and Yentna river valleys including the area now occupied by the modern city of Anchorage and the northwest shore of Cook Inlet. The Interior subdivision was northwest of Cook Inlet. Today, some Tanaina are still found on the Stony River, but the Mulchatna villages have been abandoned. The Lake Clark (Kijik) population has moved south to Sixmile Lake (Nondalton). Iliamna Lake has one Tanaina village (Pedro Bay). Only Tyonek Village remains on the northwest shore of Cook Inlet. Tanaina still reside on the Kenai Peninsula, up the Susitna, Matanuska, and Yentna rivers, and around the city of Anchorage. The region is mountainous or hilly with many lakes, rivers, and streams. Boreal spruce forest with some cottonwood and birch stands on the east shift to taiga at the far western perimeter. The climate is mild in summer with a dry early and wet late period. Winters are cold, reaching 20° F.

Demography. Exact population figures for Tanaina are Especially difficult to calculate. According to my estimations, precontact Tanaina must have numbered at least four thousand to five thousand. After severe epidemics of the late 1800s, the figure apparently dropped to about fifteen hundred. Modern census figures do not segregate Tanaina ethnically, and many villages are multiethnic. A rough estimate would be at least fifteen hundred.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tanaina speak an Athapaskan Language with two dialects: Upper Inlet (Susitna subdivision) and Lower Inlet. Lower Inlet dialect is subdivided into Outer Inlet, Iliamna, and Interior. Today, all except the elderly speak English, and some young people speak no Tanaina. In recent years a resurgence of interest has stimulated its teaching again.

History and Cultural Relations

Tanaina entered their current location, presumably from the interior, in prehistoric times. Russians discovered Alaska in 1741, but the Tanaina's first European contact was with Capt. James Cook in 1778. They had, however, received a few European goods earlier through trade. In spite of opposition, the Russians were able to establish a post on Kodiak Island as the base of their operations in 1784 (after 1799, the Russian-American Company mercantile monopoly) and from that post managed to establish other trading posts. Some Tanaina intermarriage occurred with Russians, but most was with Koniag Eskimos (from Kodiak Island) and Aleuts who worked for the company. The resulting population of Creoles was most often used by the company to trade with other Tanaina groups. As a result, cultural contact was not purely Russian, but was mediated through Eskimo and Aleut cultural perspectives. Western contact was less severe than in other Alaskan groups, and Tanaina society tended to flourish within its own cultural milieu as a result of Russian trade integrated within the already existing trading complex. With the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Russian trade monopoly was replaced by independent competing traders, but there was little in the way of U.S. government control. Native populations were neglected until well into the twentieth century.

Local education is available today at least through the eighth grade, and children may complete high school at boarding schools or in cities such as Anchorage. A few take advantage of university or trade school training. Following the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, twelve Regional corporations were established to represent natives throughout the state. The Kenai and Susitna subdivisions joined the Cook Inlet Region, Inc.; those near Iliamna Lake affiliated with the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Ahtna territory abuts the Tanaina on the east and northeast. Culturally and linguistically similar, they share a hunting region west of Talkeetna along the Susitna River. Tanaina feel a close relation with Ahtna in part because they believe they share clan affiliations. To the north and northwest are the Kolchan and Ingalik. To the east and southeast are Pacific Eskimo groups. West of the Tanaina are the southwestern mainland Eskimos. Tanaina settlements near Eskimo and Athapaskan groups were active with them in trading and intermarriage as well as raiding.


Tanaina villages were located on or near streams and rivers with salmon runs. There were usually at least two lineage houses in a settlement and frequently ten or more. During periods of conflict, a village might be hidden in the woods to guard against attack from enemies. A village population ranged from around fifty to one hundred or more. In spring and summer, people moved into smaller campsgroups of small nuclear or extended family houses or skin tents either at a lake mouth or spread out along a lake or river shore to facilitate salmon fishing. In late prehistoric and historic times Winter houses were semisubterranean (up to about three feet deep), lineage-owned structures. There was one large room about twenty feet square with a central fireplace. Each Nuclear family had a small compartment for sleeping, and rooms might be attached as sweatlodges or menstrual huts. Summer houses at fish camps and in hunting areas were small, wood, above-ground houses or skin tents for one or two nuclear families. During the second half of the nineteenth century, houses began to be constructed above ground in log-cabin style, and at summer fishing camps commercial canvas tents were often used. Some Tanaina, particularly those in interior villages, continue today to move to "fish camp" in the Summer. Winter houses today are of a small European style and usually made of milled lumber with wood floors.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Tanaina have traditionally been hunters, gatherers, and fishermen. Fish, particularly salmon, has been the basis of the subsistence economy both prehistorically and today. The abundance of salmon during the summer runs and fish preservation techniques made possible permanent winter villages in most areas. Freshwater fish were also exploited. Seal hunting was conducted both at Iliamna Lake and in Cook Inlet. Moose, caribou, bear, and mountain sheep were important resources, but small mammals such as porcupine, squirrel, and hares were also significant. Wild berries were abundant in summer; other wild plants were gathered where available. Fur-bearing animals were trapped for personal use and trade. These Subsistence activities persist today, particularly in more remote villages, and many villagers maintain small vegetable gardens.

Fish canneries opened after 1880 and monopolized the best salmon-fishing streams. Tanaina began to work for salmon canneries after 1915 and became directly involved in commercial fishing in Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet after 1940; today many obtain a major part of their income from this activity. Game and fur-bearing animals became more scarce from overhunting, but fur trapping still provides supplemental income for some, although its importance has declined. A few own small planes and make commercial flights locally; others guide vacationing hunters and fishers, work for Government installations, or take wage employment in larger towns and cities.

The only domestic animal is the dog. It was used for packing and hunting in prehistoric times. Teams of sled dogs were maintained until the mid-twentieth century, and some people still use them.

Trade. Tanaina, like other southern Alaskan societies, maintained extensive intra- and intertribal trade and trade fairs in precontact times. Trade items included furs, caribou skins, native copper, porcupine quills, sea mammal products, dentalium shells, and slaves. After contact, the Russians also supplied dentalium shells from southeastern Alaska as well as glass beads, and metal products, especially iron. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Tanaina began to trade some of their furs to Russians, and trade, especially between the Kenai Tanaina and the Russian-American Company, increased. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, the assets of the Russian-American Company were assumed by the Alaska Commercial Company. The price of furs dropped considerably at the end of the nineteenth Century. In 1911, the Alaska Commercial Company sold its interests in the area to private traders. Since that time, the fur trade has become almost moribund.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginally, stone flaking and grinding were the techniques for manufacturing cutting and piercing weapons. Hammered copper was also used for arrowheads and knives. Bone and antler were used for tools as well. The, sinew-backed bow and arrows and the spear and spear thrower were the primary weapons. Skins were worked into clothes and foot gear. Basketry, birchbark, wood, and hide provided containers. Birchbark canoes, moose-skin boats, and sealskin open and decked-over boats similar to the Eskimo umiak and kayak were used for water transportation. For winter use, snowshoes were made of birch wood, with bear- or moose-skin webbing (babiche ). Sleds were manufactured from wood and rawhide. Today, most goods are Commercially made, but some people continue to make skin boots, sleds, and snowshoes. Locally made wood skiffs have replaced earlier watercraft.

Division of Labor. In prehistoric and historic times, men hunted large game, trapped and fished, and manufactured weapons and tools. Women snared small animals, split and dried fish, prepared other game, collected berries and plants, prepared skins, manufactured clothing, embroidered with porcupine quills, and made some containers. Today men are most active in commercial fishing from boats, and women usually tend commercial set nets and work in canneries. At home, men and sometimes women hunt and trap. Women set and tend subsistence fish nets, as well as split, dry, and smoke salmon. Both sexes are involved in freshwater fishing. Men continue to manufacture sleds, boats, and snowshoes and are most active in trapping, although women assist in the last. Men are usually the pilots and sport hunting/fishing guides. Women sew, prepare and preserve food, and continue to act both as midwives and village first aid practitioners.

Land Tenure. Aboriginally, land use was based on clanlineage affiliation. In some areas, lineages had fishing rights at specific locales along a stream. Trap lines have never been registered; a person has the right to trap or hunt in an area he or his family has consistently used. Except for Tyonek, on Cook Inlet, no Tanaina land has been a reservation. People could, however, register a house or homesite but few did so. After the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, village sites were established and individuals allowed to claim specific tracts of land if they could establish that they are at least one-quarter Alaskan native.


Kin Groups and Descent. Tanaina were organized into moieties and between eleven and eighteen matrilineal exogamous clans. Clans often cross-cut societal and language boundaries. Today, some clans remain active during funeral potlatches and influence the selection of marriage partners.

Kinship Terminology. Twentieth-century terminology probably reflects changes over the last two hundred years of European contact as well as the geographic distances between groups. Iliamna dialect uses Iroquois cousin terms and bifurcate merging avuncular (first ascending generation) terms. The Inland dialect uses Crow cousin and bifurcate merging avuncular terms; Upper Inlet is Iroquois and bifurcate collateral; Outer Inlet dialect is Hawaiian cousin and mixed avuncular terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage was moiety and clan exogamous in the past and to some extent today. Cross-cousin marriage, especially of a male to his father's sister's daughter, was preferred, but there was no strict rule regarding village endogamy. Brideprice or -service and polygyny were practiced. Residence was matrilocal in some instances, but particularly after wealth and prestige became significant, avunculocality was practiced. After about 1900, neolocality and bilaterality with some patrilineal emphasis began to appear. Divorce was simple, but apparently not common in traditional times.

Domestic Unit. By the nineteenth century, the residence unit was a lineage segment headed by a "richman" composed of two or more generations of matrilineally related males and their families. Today, the nuclear family predominates.

Inheritance. Inheritance was matrilineal with regard to affiliation and clan property, but personal property was often destroyed or placed in the grave. Recently, except for certain kinds of clan paraphernalia, inheritance has become primarily bilateral within the nuclear family.

Socialization. Children raised in the extended family were socialized by the residence group, but people were generally permissive. Ridicule was a common means of highlighting unacceptable behavior.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Tanaina social organization was based on ranking, which was most prominent in the Kenai subdivision and in other villages near the coast. As one moved inland, rank became less crystallized. There were two ranks: richmen and commoners; slaves were outside the System. Women seem always to have held positions equal to men of the same rank and could accumulate wealth in their own right. Each village was composed of one or more local lineage groups of clans. Each lineage was represented by a richman (highest ranking man of the lineage) who was aided by a group of male relatives of his lineage, usually residing avunculocally either within the lineage house or in individual houses nearby. The richman was responsible for the economic, Political, and social well-being of his lineage. He led trading expeditions and maintained trade partners in other Tanaina, Indian, and Eskimo villages. Trade partners not only ensured amicable trade but were also used to negotiate peace between warring villages. After the Russian entry into the fur trade, Influential men, usually the most prominent richmen, were appointed as "chiefs" to act as liaisons between the Russians and Tanaina and to lead trading expeditions for the Russians. The added wealth that flowed to selected richmen enhanced their prestige further. With the fur price collapse of 1897, the richmen lost the economic prestige base, and the rank system became less important. Slavery was practiced in late precontact times, with Indian and Eskimo slaves acquired through raiding or trading and retained by richmen.

Political Organization. Each Tanaina village was Politically autonomous. Leadership, which rested primarily within the lineage, involved authority rather than power. Richmen and elders held primary leadership and decision-making positions, but people were generally free to dissent if they wished. Women and men had complementary authority, but it was related to inherited wealth, prestige, and rank rather than merely gender. Although autonomous, each village maintained close ties with nearby villages with ties based on Marriage, presence of the same clans, and trade.

Social Control. The leading richmen of a village acted as authorities. Gossip was and still is one of the most effective means of social control. Ostracism, revenge killing, beating, or paying wergild (compensation) could be used if lesser measures failed. If harm occurred within a clan or moiety, it was for the injured person or a close relative to seek revenge. For problems between clans or moieties, members of the aggrieved kin unit took revenge. At times, this resulted in civil war; prisoners were ransomed back by their kin groups.

Conflict. Tanaina conflicts, primarily raids, were village-specific rather than with an entire society. Occasionally conflicts were between Tanaina villages, but most were with neighboring Eskimo or other Indian villages. Thus, an alliance might exist between one Tanaina and one Eskimo Village at the same time that the Tanaina village raided another Eskimo village. Minor conflict occurred between Russians and Tanaina during the early years of contact, but overall Relations were comparatively amicable because of the economic advantages for both parties during the fur trade.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The concept of a remote supreme deity living in the North Star may have preceded Russian contact. The world was filled with spirit powers. There was a close relationship between humans, animals, and the spirit realm; everyone had a familiar in which his or her soul could travel. A special alliance existed between humans and the highly Respected bear; wolf was a brother who would come to the aid of a person who was lost and hungry. The world was peopled with spirits and quasi-spirits. The trickster, Raven, was the mythological creator. Harmful spirits in the woods hurt or kidnapped people and stole fish and other goods. Other woods and mountain spirits were benign in their relation to humans. Another category of quasi-spirits have reportedly been sighted by Eskimo, Tanaina, and European-Americans in recent years. One, called the "Hairy Man," is equivalent to the Sasquatch. Finally, the belief in luck and hunting magic persists in attenuated form. Offerings may be made at special locales for good luck, and magical songs sung to assist in hunting. Omens are believed to foretell the future, especially potentially bad events. Russian Orthodox priests came into the Kenai area in 1794, but it was another thirty years before active missionization began in any locale. By the end of the nineteenth century priests had become accepted and actively attempted to wipe out shamanism. Some former shamans incorporated themselves into the church hierarchy as deacons. Most Tanaina today are nominally Russian Orthodox. Active missionization by more fundamentalist Protestant groups began after the turn of the twentieth century, and some have become aligned with that faction.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans were the primary Religious and medical practitioners. They often were wealthy, holding authority similar to richmen. They could be of either sex and received their calling in dreams. Although normally "good," assisting their people, they occasionally turned evil.

Ceremonies. A first salmon ceremony was held at the Beginning of fishing season. Girls at menarche were confined from forty days to a year during which time they were taught sewing and other women's skills and proper behavior. Potlatches were originally held following a death, but later were held by richmen at trading and other times as a display of wealth to garner prestige.

Arts. Singing and dancing at potlatches and the singing of magical songs in hunting were common. Clothing was Elaborately decorated with porcupine quill embroidery, sometimes incorporating valuable dentalium shells. After contact, glass beads were worked into long belts of dentalium shells for use at potlatches. Animal and human figures were painted on such items as skin quivers. Some rock paintings may be attributed to Tanaina.

Medicine. The shaman, wearing a mask, used the spirit in a powerful doll to discern and remove the cause of illness. His long staff was also used to assist in driving out illness. Illness might be caused by soul loss or magical intrusion of objects. Helper spirits located lost souls; intrusive objects were sucked out. In addition, herbal medicines, potions, teas, and plant compresses were used by both shamans and lay people to effect cures. Today, Western medicine is the primary recourse in illness. Trained nurses' aides and midwives are found in some villages, but serious illness requires travel to cities with hospitals.

Death and Afterlife. At death, the "breath-soul" flew away, but the "shadow-soul" might remain to be near friends or to take revenge. Eventually they journeyed to the lower world where they lived in a way similar to that on earth. Before Christians introduced burial, the deceased was cremated and ashes were buried. At least by early contact times, over the grave a small house might be erected in which the deceased's personal goods were placed. Subsequently, food offerings were left. Members of the opposite (father's or spouse's) clan of the deceased took care of the funeral arrangements. Between forty days and a year following the death, a potlatch involving feasting and distribution of valued goods was given by the deceased's clan for the opposite clan in appreciation for assistance. At times, the deceased's spirit would return to relatives and disturb them, especially if he or she thought the potlatch inadequate. Although not yet documented specifically for the Tanaina, there is some indication of a belief in reincarnation.


Fall, James A. (1981). "Patterns of Upper Inlet Tanaina Leadership, 1741-1918." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin.

Osgood, Cornelius (1937). The Ethnography of the Tanaina. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, no. 16. New Haven, Conn.: Department of Anthropology, Yale University.

Townsend, Joan B. (1965). "Ethnohistory and Culture Change of the Iliamna Tanaina." Ph.D. diss., University of California.

Townsend, Joan B. (1970). "The Tanaina of Southwestern Alaska: An Historical Synopsis." Western Canadian Journal of Anthropology 2:2-16.

Townsend, Joan B. (1980). "Ranked Societies of the Alaskan Pacific Rim." In Alaskan Native Culture and History, edited by Y. Kotani and W. Workman, 123-156. Senri Ethnological Studies, no. 4. Osaka, Japan: National Museum of Ethnology.

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VanStone, James, and Joan B. Townsend (1970). Kijik: An Historic Tanaina Settlement. Fieldiana: Anthropology, vol. 59. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History.