Athabascans of Interior Alaska: 4th Grade Social Studies Unit: Appendix A

Athabascan Raven


4th Grade Social Studies Unit

Written By
  Patricia H. Partnow

Brief Description of Alaskan Athabascan Culture

Interior Alaska has some of the harshest environmental conditions in the world. Its continental climate is a study of extremes - extreme cold in the winter (it is not unusual for temperatures to be in the -50's) and extreme heat in the summer (often in the 80's). In addition, summer days become exercises in patience and endurance because of the hordes of mosquitoes which abound at that time of year. The land is wooded with spruce, willow, and birch, and is traversed by many river systems.

Athabascan Indians have lived in this environment characterized by forest, rivers, and extreme climate for centuries, their ancestors for thousands of years before them. As might be expected, their way of life has incorporated a series of adaptations to the environment, and many aspects of the culture can be traced to these adaptations.

The name "Athabascan" comes from the large lake in Canada called "Lake Athabasca". The lake was given its name by the Cree Indians, who lived east of it. In Cree, "Athabasca" means "grass here and there", and was a descriptive name for the lake. The name was extended to refer to those Indian groups which lived west of the lake. It also refers to the large language family of which all the languages of Athabascan Indians are a part.

There are eleven different Athabascan languages in Alaska, many others in Canada (see the Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska map), some in California and Oregon, and the Navajo and Apache languages in the Southwestern United States. Within each of the eleven Alaskan Athabascan language groups there are local dialects, and in the past each dialect corresponded with a social and geographical unit called a "regional band", made up of from 30 to 100 nuclear families. (A nuclear family is a unit consisting of parents and their ungrown offspring.) The eleven language groups themselves were not political units, and Athabascans did not recog-nize membership in any group larger than the regional band (dialect group). Thus, although the language of several regional bands was Ingalik, members of those regional bands did not consider them-selves part of the same large group called "Ingalik". The eleven language groups were thus externally observed groups, not groups in the minds of the Athabascans themselves.

Three major principles affected the social groupings of Alaskan Athabascans:

The first principle was pragmatism. Group formation was dependent on the number of people who could most efficiently utilize the resources available. Since different resources required different numbers of people, a person belonged to several different social groupings in any one year.

For instance, summer fish camp often brought an entire regional band together. There were enough fish for all, and often the site for fish camp was the part of the local river system which was most abundant in fish. The entire regional band might also join together for fall caribou hunts, when the cooperation of all members was necessary to repair and man the caribou fence.

In the winter, the regional band might split up into smaller units, called local bands, each one made up of perhaps four nuclear families. Each local band had its own territory within the territory of the regional band, and engaged in hunting and trapping activities at this time of year.

The regional band might meet again at a predetermined place and time in mid-winter for a gathering-up ceremony or potlatch, and then split up again for beaver and muskrat trapping.

Athabascans thus recognized membership in a regional band (dialect group) as described above, but the more important social unit was the local band. Members of this local band lived together and moved around the territory together.

The second principle which determined social grouping was kinship. Local band members were generally related to each other in some manner, either on the mother's or father's side. Although kinship was determined on both sides, each person also had a more specific identification with relatives in the maternal line. A person belonged to the same "side", "clan" or "sib" as his mother, and all other members of the same sib were relatives of a very special nature. One couldn't marry a member of the same sib (but one could marry members of one's father's sib). In addition, wars and gathering-ups (potlatches) were sib affairs.

Most of the Alaskan Athabascan groups recognized three sibs, and each sib was in some cases divided into smaller named family units. Sibs have not operated in some areas for many years, however, and neither Indians nor anthropologists are aware of the total importance which the sibs had in pre-contact days.

The third principle governing Athabascan social grouping was individual choice. Each person was free to choose his local band affiliation within certain bounds. In general, a person was accepted into a band as long as he had relatives in the band. Aside from this limitation, people could choose among several local bands within a regional band. This allowed the local bands to be fluid groups, with individuals changing membership as personality conflicts or availability of game dictated.

Each regional band (and, to some extent, each individual) had its own life-ways, beliefs, and customs. Despite the differences between bands, certain generalizations can be made about Athabascan life. Those things which were common to all the groups, were on the one hand, the parts of the culture which were most dependent on the environment. And were most closely adapted to the environ-ment, and on the other hand, were a series of beliefs about the environment which remained fairly constant across the linguistic boundaries.

For instance, Athabascans used every available resource in their food quest. Thus, the general pattern of life was one of fishing in the summer and fall, to take advantage of the salmon runs and schools of whitefish and grayling, with hunting caribou in the fall, trapping water mammals in the spring, and harvesting vegetable foods (roots and berries) in the spring, summer and fall. The food quest was, of course, much more complicated than that, but the general pattern was very similar throughout the interior.

Variations occur where the environment is slightly different from the inland wooded riverine environment assumed above. Thus, the groups who lived on Cook Inlet took advantage of the abundant source of sea mammals which was available to them. The Ingalik and Lower Koyukon groups which lived along the Lower Yukon where fish runs were large and regular spent a greater part of their year harvesting fish than did those groups farther inland. Finally, people in groups such as the Chandalar Kutchin, who lived in the foothills of the Brooks Range, spent a larger percentage of their time hunting big game animals like caribou and mountain sheep.

The animistic belief system common to all Alaskan Athabascan groups might be briefly characterized as follows: All creatures, and some inanimate objects, had spirits which were active and powerful components of those creatures. The spirits enabled an animal to know more than was immediately apparent to him. Thus, if human beings did something which displeased the animal's spirit, the animal itself would remain aloof from the people, and the people might starve. There were very definite rules which people had to follow in dealing with animals based on this belief in animal spirits. The specific rules differed from area to area, but the general concept was the same throughout.

The belief in animal spirits was actually a logical extension of what the hunters knew about their environment. When all past experiences and logic told a hunter that game should be in a certain area, and it was not there, then the conclusion the hunter drew was that there was a reason for the animal's aloofness. And the reason was, often, that the hunter or a member of his band had broken a taboo and angered the animal's spirit. A sub-sequent ceremony attempted to conciliate the spirit.

Material culture was also similar throughout Interior Alaska, again with variations depending on the specific environ-mental conditions of specific areas. The most notable variations from the inland hunting and fishing emphasis displayed by these artifacts occurred among the peripheral Athabascan groups, the Ingalik and Tanaina. The Ingalik, with their heavy reliance on fish, had many more specialized fishing implements than did other groups. The Tanaina, bordered by Eskimos and close to Tlingits, borrowed various elements of material culture from those cultures.

Movement from place to place was an essential part of the lives of most Alaskan Athabascans. The local band was generally the social unit which stayed together in the travels for food.

The following excerpt from Olson's Master's Thesis (1968: 41) describes the yearly movements of one group, the Minto Lower Tanana:

There was a regular pattern to the hunting and fishing migrations which demanded that the people be on the move almost continually throughout the year. They had to travel in small bands. Late in the fall, men who controlled the moose or caribou fence would gather their friends and relatives and set out for the small encampment near the fence. This is where the log houses were located. They would remain in this camp until mid-December or January. If there was to be a potlatch, they would travel to a central point where they would meet others for the celebra-tion. If any were going down the Kuskokwim, they would start in January and return about three months later. Later on in January, they would be back out in small bands searching for caribou or moose, and trapping smaller animals and birds until late in the spring. In the warm weather, they would move to the lakes before break-up to trap beaver and muskrats. As summer approached they moved to their fish camps on the small rivers where they fished and hunted water fowl until the fall.

For Alaskan Athabascans, mid-winter meant a slowing down of activity and a temporary settling down for a few months. Each local band generally settled down at a site near the river, but set back into the woods a bit and up on a rise where tempera-tures are usually a little warmer than they are in hollows. The winter camp was often in the locale of the caribou fence that the band used and was inhabited from the time of the hunt until January or February, when days were longer and warmer and families moved out to hunting camps. Exceptions to this general pattern were the Ingalik and Tanaina groups, whose regional bands inhabit-ed their winter villages for the greater part of the year, depart-ing in summer for fish camps.

Winter camp was made up of several households, and although the exact house plan and building materials varied from area to area, the winter houses of many Athabascan groups were similar.

They were semi-subterranean structures made of a wood frame covered by birch or spruce bark, which was itself covered by moss, and topped with dirt. All that was visible of the houses from ground level were mounds of snow with smoke curling out of the centers.

The most obvious variations from this type of winter house appeared in the Cook Inlet Tanaina and Ingalik areas. Tanaina winter houses were also semi-subterranean, but they were larger than the interior Athabascan houses, and housed several families. Also, the outsides of Tanaina houses were composed of wood boards chinked with moss between the boards and then thatched with grass, rather than the bark/moss/dirt combination described above. They were called "barabaras" by the Russians, and that name has since been adopted to identify Tanaina houses.

Ingalik homes were also semi-subterranean, though they were built on a model which closely resembled Eskimo winter houses more than the "typical" Athabascan model described above. Eskimo influence was also evident in that Ingalik vil-lages contained kashims, or large men's houses, used as men's sleeping quarters and workrooms and as ceremonial centers.

The semi-subterranean house plan used by most Alaskan Native groups in winter is excellent for retaining heat, as there is little surface area through which heat can escape, and cold winds cannot penetrate the structure. In addition, the many layers of insulation used on Interior Athabascan winter houses kept the inside quite warm.

The make-up of an Athabascan household was variable, even within a single band. An extremely charismatic leader, who was usually a good hunter as well, might house several families in his home. Other households might hold two nuclear families, or might hold an extended family consisting of a man and woman, their young children, a sibling or two, and their aged parents. Again the exception is the Tanaina household, which contained several nuclear families. In almost all cases, more than one set of adults lived in a single house. This had implications for child rearing, since any children in the house benefited from having a variety of role models and protectors, as well as potential step-parents should their own die. It also meant that there was little individual privacy inside. It might be noted that the concept of individual privacy as Anglo culture knows it is a recent innovation in the history of humanity.

Life in the winter camp was a bit more slow moving than life during the rest of the year. Extreme cold, sometimes below -40, prohibited extended trips for weeks at a time. Some food gathering activity still took place; for instance, snares were put out all around the camp, deadfalls were set to catch larger game, and men went out on short hunting trips for a couple of days at a time. Still, most of the local band was in camp at any one time during the dead of winter.

Favorite activities during the winter were story telling, singing, and dancing. Not only were old legends, humorous hunting stories, and myths told, but children were also given instruction in proper modes of behavior. Many Athabascan stories contain morals which were made quite explicit to children.

Winter was also the time for the annual Gathering-Up festi-vals, lately called potlatches after the somewhat similar affairs which were held along the Northwest Coast. Neighboring bands were invited in mid-winter for one or two weeks of feasting, dan-cing, and singing. The Gathering-ups were given in honor of a deceased sib member, and presents were given away in his memory. The festivals also served to enhance the prestige of the persons who hosted them. In addition, social and kinship relationships were sometimes established by the arranging of marriages be-tween members of different regional bands. Trade relation-ships were also sometimes established at Gathering-Ups when men from different regional bands decided to become trading partners.

As with other elements of Athabascan culture, there were regional variations in the form and function of the winter potlatches. For instance, Lower Koyukon Athabascans at Nulato and Kaltag hold a Stick Dance, as did people in Shageluk and Holikachuk in the past.



Although the family and the local band have been stressed up until now as representing the social world of Alaskan Athabascans, the interior Indians did have periodic contact with people from other groups. The Gathering-Up Ceremony or potlatch has been discussed in the previous section. This was one event at which people from different local and even region-al bands met. The several regional bands attending a potlatch might have spoken slightly different dialects which were none-theless close enough to each other to be mutually intelligible. The importance of potlatches in establishing friendly ties with outside groups has already been discussed: marriages and trade partnership often grew out of association at a potlatch.

Wars and Feuds

Relations between neighboring bands were not always friendly, however. Wars among people of different bands and between the Indians and neighboring cultures (particularly Eskimo and Tlingit) were quite frequent in pre-contact times. These wars took the form of surprise raids and ambushes rather than open, planned, hand-to-hand combat. A war became a feud when two groups con-tinually raided each other's settlements in retaliation of casualties incurred during the previous attack.

The original motives for wars seem to have been desire for women and for goods, and, in the case of ongoing feuds, revenge. A principle which seems to have underlain feuds was similar to a Judaeo-Christian precept, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth". When a member of a person's family was killed, it was his duty to avenge that death. If the murderers were of a different band and totally unrelated, the death of a member of the murderer's family was often the only satisfac-tory payment for the first murder. On the other hand, a family sometimes accepted payment in goods for the death of a relative, the amount of payment depending on the status of the dead per-son. People were more likely to accept payment from a close friend or relative than from strangers or members of an enemy group.

Another important concept for understanding wars and feuds is the insider-outsider dichotomy which was part of the pre-contact Athabascan world view. Language and kinship relationships served to define who was a member of the in-group to some extent, but even more, the people to whom one was closely related and with whom one came into contact day after day (the local band members) were considered part of one's group. The less well one knew another person and the other person's customs, the less one identified with him, and the less his death affected one personally.

Since the extended family (which made up the membership of a local band) was the most important social unit to an individual, it is not surprising that feuds were basically family or sib affairs, not regional band affairs. It was the family's responsibility to avenge the death of one of its mem-bers, although other band members who were not members of the same sib sometimes went along if the war leader were charis-matic enough to persuade them. Since kin relationships extended beyond the band, however, it was often also true that a member of the band might warn a relative in the enemy band that an attack was imminent. This seems to have happened as often as did cooperation among different families within the band. The individualistic nature of Athabascan society is highlighted in this aspect of their culture as with others: a person could choose whether or not he wished to take part in a raid.


Another type of contact with outsiders took the form of trade relationships. As was stated above, men often established trade partnerships with a member of a neighboring Athabascan band or Eskimo community, so that they could conduct trade on a person-to-person level and be assured of safe travel in strange territory.

Extensive trade routes were well established between Athabascan groups and their neighbors before white men came to Alaska. In pre-contact days, the commodities the Athabascans obtained from neighboring Native groups had sometimes origin-ated in Europe and had filtered through the trade routes until they finally reached interior Alaska (usually the end of the route for trade goods) from the east or west. But there were

also Native goods which were traded from area to area. No one part of the north was abundant in all resources, and inland peoples traded with seashore peoples to their mutual advantage.


Late in winter, from March until May, was a time of long days and often good travel conditions. Snow obtained a crust which made hunting on snowshoes easy, but which was not sturdy enough to hold moose. Hence moose hunting was good at this time of year. Other hunting and trapping activities in-creased, as described in Chapter IV of Tetlin As I Knew It. Local bands began their travels once again, leaving the semi--permanent winter houses behind and hauling skin tents to good hunting and trapping locales.

 The lengthening of the days signaled the time for another activity, at least for the Koyukon Indians: it was the time to pose riddles. Father Jette' noted,

 As the story telling occupies the long winter evenings and entertains the Ten'a (Koyukon) during the time that precedes the winter sol-stice, so also the proposing of riddles is the time-honored recreation for the latter half of the winter, when the days wax long, and the chilled hearts, under the sun's increasing brightness and warmth, begin to cheer, and fill with glowing anticipation of the exuberant summer life.* (*Father Julius Jette', "Riddles of the Ten'a Indians" in Anthropos 1913, p. 181.)

The pattern of hunting and trapping subsistence activities by day, often followed by riddle telling at night, continued until just before break-up. Break-up was perhaps the roughest time of year for pre-contact Athabascans. Caches were almost empty and animals were thin from a long, cold winter. Fish hadn't started to run yet, birds hadn't returned to the north, ice was dangerous to travel on, but the water wasn't open, so travel by canoe was impossible.

Once break-up finally came, though, spring, and soon afterward summer, had finally arrived. Shoots from new plants were gathered, fishing started again, and the busy summer and fall activities were under way.

Produced By
The Indian Education Program Anchorage School District
Under Grant #0969A
Part A, Title IV
PL 92-318   

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