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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Athabascan RavenAthabascan Winter Studies
The Dene'
Indigenous People of Interior

Kindergarten Unit

FNSBSD Alaska Native Education


Origin of the Name Athabascan
The name "Athabascan" comes from the large lake located in the Canadian providences of Alberta and Saskatchewan called "Lake Athabasca." Lake Athabasca was given its name by the Cree Indians. In Cree, Athabasca is a descriptive name for the lake which means "grass here and there." The name was later extended to refer to those Indian groups which lived west of the lake. It also refers to the large language family by which all the languages of the of the Athabascan Indians are a part of.

The Athabascan Language
The Athabascans of Alaska are members of one of the largest indigenous linguistic groups in North America. Athabascans occupy a vast region that stretches from western interior Alaska through northern interior Canada eastward to the western shores of Hudson Bay; as well as the plateau-prairie lands located in northern British Columbia and the prairie providences. Two other major regions inhabited by people who speak Athabascan are the Pacific Coast states of Washington, Oregon, California, an area in Northern Mexico and southwestern United States where Navajo and Apache languages are spoken.

Historical and comparative linguists have classified the Native people of these three regions in North America as Athabascans. All people designated Athabascan, whether they inhabit the northern, pacific or southwestern areas, speak variations of the same language.

Alaska Athabascan Languages
There are nine different groups of Athabascan languages in Alaska. Within each group there are language differences as well as the local bands which may have their own dialects. The nine Athabascan groups by region are: Riverine-Ingalik, Koyukon, Tanana and Holikachuk; Upland-Kutchin, Han and Upper Tanana; Pacific-Ahtna and Tanaina. Look on the Alaska Native Language map to see where each group is located.

Athabascans may have much the same culture, that is, the same way of living and the same ideas about life, but each language group may not understand each other. Dialects in the past corresponded with a social and geographical unit called a "regional band." These regional bands are made up of 30 to 100 nuclear families. A nuclear family is a self-contained family unit consisting of parents and their children. Sometimes Athabascans lived together as extended family units which were larger and consisting of parents, children and other close relatives, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles, who would live and work together.

Alaska Athabascan Social Groupings and Band Beliefs
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 would utilize resources available efficiently. Different resources or activities required different hunting and gathering techniques. Therefore one could belong to several different social groupings in any one year. The largest organization unit, the band, was composed of several local groups. But throughout most of the year, life was lived in a family or local group. These groups would work, travel and hunt together as a unit and sometimes they would even come together with other families or local groups for the purpose of having different kinds of celebrations such as a gathering up ceremony or potlatch.

The second principle which determined social grouping was kinship. Local band members were generally related to each other in some manner, either through their mother or father. Although kinship was determined on both sides, each person belonged to the same "side", "clan", or "sib" as their 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. In additional, wars and gathering-ups (potlatches) the responsibility of sibs.

The third principle governing social grouping was individual choice. Each person was free to choose their local band affiliation within certain bounds. This allowed a person to join a band as long as they had relatives in the band. By allowing for flexibility and movement in memberships changes could be made as needed because of availability of game, personality conflicts or a person's own choice. Each band utilized a well-defined territory, separate from those belonging to others. Families, household and local groups had their own sections of the Band territory. In some areas territorial rights tended to be flexible, but in others, individual families claimed ownership of certain fishing sites and trapping areas. This can even be seen today by the fact that many Interior Athabascans return to specific river sites, their fish camp, which may have been in the family for many generations. Each regional band established their own ways of life, beliefs and customs. Certain generalizations can be made about the Athabascan way of life despite the differences between bands. Common factors within their environments such as using every available resource in their food quest were very similar throughout the interior. Slight variations did occur where there were some differences in the surrounding Athabascan environment.

The belief that each thing, animal, men, trees, rocks, etc. had a yega or spirit was common to all Athabascans. The beliefs were actually an extension of what hunters knew and continued to learn about their environment. Athabascans believed that all creatures, and even some inanimate objects, had spirits which were active powerful parts of a creature. The spirits enabled an animal to know more than what was more than immediately apparent to them. The spirit was very protective. There were very definite rules that people had to respect and follow in hunting and caring of the animals and other activities they did based on the Athabascan beliefs in spirits. It was also believed that if a human being did something that displeased a spirit, the spirit itself would remain withdrawn from the people and that the people might starve. For example, if a beaver was killed in the proper way and his body was handled properly and the bones disposed properly the beaver yega (spirit) would be satisfied. But, if a man were to do something improper in his killing or handling of the beaver, then the beaver yega would take revenge. The beaver yega would see to it that the man caught no more beaver or had other kinds of bad luck. Specific rules differed from area to area, but the general concept was the same throughout.

Believing in animal spirits by the Athabascans was actually an extension of what hunters knew about their changing environment. Logic and past experience would help a hunter know where game should be in a given area. If an animal was not there, then there was the belief that the hunter or a member of their band had angered the animal's spirit or broken a taboo. A ceremony was then held as an attempt to gain favor with the animal's spirit.

Athabascan Cultures
Athabascan cultures are similar throughout Interior Alaska. Although, there might be some variations dependent on specific environmental conditions within a specific area. Singing and dancing were very important to the Athabascan people. People often made up songs about events, love songs, war songs, or about relatives who had died, for the death potlatch. The children at potlatches and community events observed the adults as a means to learn how to dance and sing. Children learned to sing very early as it was very important to the Athabascan way to carry on their teachings through oral languages.



The winter season begins after the first snowfall in October or early November and lasts until the spring thaw sometime in April. Activities around the winter camp changed with the weather. When it is warm men would leave the camp to hunt, ice fish or secure supplies from nearby caches. But when it is cold there would be little activity beyond keeping warm and cooking.

Shelters used by Athabascans from late fall through the winter months included brush lean-to dwellings, domed tents with a second layer of skins with the hair left on for added warmth and sometime houses that were dug partly under ground or semi-subterranean. The type of houses the Athabascans used varied from region to region and was much dependent on what was available and the climatic conditions of the winter. Following contact with outsiders in later years, the log house or cabin became a popular winter residence and is still used much today.

Survival Activities

Winter Months

Moose rutting time


Slush Ice moves downstream


Ice freezes solid


Little moon or short days


Little longer days


Eagle moon and little longer days


Hawk moon or snow is getting soft


Crust on snow, ice melts then freezes

Other months

Leaves begin to come out


When animals have young


Moon of the king salmon


Leaves turn yellow

Gathering wood was a major wintertime activity throughout the snow season. Families rarely gathered and piled more than two weeks of wood at a time, so they were usually had to look gather wood even during intense cold spells.

During early winter, the Athabascan people would fish through the ice using spears, fish lures, bone hooks or traps and nets set under the ice. October was always a busy time for making fish traps and catching fish. This activity would continue in most regions until the ice grew too thick. Later, women would trap around the camp. They would trap marten, lynx and other animals for fur which was again being dependent on the resources in the area they were living. Smaller game such as grouse, ptarmigan, hares and squirrels were also taken with a variety of deadfall traps and snares made by the elders, women and children. Hares were not only important for their food source, but also for their fur. The hare fur would be used for the making of parkas or could be cut into thin strips and woven into blankets.

Another major wintertime activity for hunters was looking continuously for moose, caribou and sometimes sheep. When a kill was made, families, traveling together would sometimes move to the fresh meat supply. Bears were also hunted during late fall and into the winter even after they had gone into their den to sleep. Everyone participated in the food-gathering work. Even women and children worked together in helping to gather food because it was necessary for their survival.

During the winter, children helped with certain activities and would learn by watching and listening to their elders. Elders, the keepers of knowledge, were the educators of the young. Elders taught children their genealogy knowledge. Elders contributed to the group by making snowshoes, basketry or other materials needed by the family. Elders also told stories to children as a means to teach as well as to pass on the language and their rich cultural heritage. It was most important that a child learned to take care of themselves. This value of self-sufficiency seemed to permeate many experiences recalled by adults. Childhood was not only listening and watching other social interactions or play, but also filled with small tasks. Children were sent to fetch wood, haul water, and later for watching fish traps. A girl's task also included taking care of younger children. Children were most likely to be disciplined by the mother as fathers were often seen as indulgent and loving.

When food supplies ran low in camp, the young men were often sent for fresh supplies from some of the caches stocked during the summer and fall. Some would go to fish camp, some where sheep, caribou or moose hunting had been good. Sometimes the Athabascan people would camp near a cache that was not too high in the mountains.

Winter also meant the time for the making of garments, leggings and boots. Boots were often made of skin from moose, reindeer or caribou skins with the hair left on in the inside. Leaving the hair on boots and their garments provided the Athabascans with added warmth. For summer garments and boots the animal hair was usually removed. Wolf skin was sometimes used to make the top of boots. Even though it was winter, time was also spent making birch bark baskets. Birch was cut and allowed to thaw before cutting the bark off. Spruce root would have been gathered earlier in the year and saved. The root was then soaked before it could be used to make baskets and other containers needed for uses during the winter.

Mid-winter was also a time when the Athabascan people would gather together for a celebration. This mid winter celebration was called a "grub potlatch" by the Athabascans in the Salcha region. Other areas had different names or reasons for gathering during mid winter. The mid winter potlatch usually focused on feasting, dancing and game playing. Dance and songs centered on such themes as happiness or the antics of animals. These festivities would last about two weeks. Not all band members would join the larger groups at this time and others celebrated with other bands. Following this community activity the bands would again disperse to their traditional areas to spend the rest of the winter.

Later in the winter, during February and March, families would sometimes travel to nearby lakes and areas where beavers could be trapped. March was also a time where supplies and food could become low. Starvation was not uncommon. Spruce bark and roots could be scraped and used to ease the crisis of hunger.

As April came closer, families would begin to get ready for their move to spring camp. It was also the time of the year when they would trap muskrats. Muskrats were trapped for their furs and were also a valuable food source. Trapping would continue until the snow melted and there was lots of water. During ice break up everyone had to be ever mindful of the possibilities of floods and the changing ways of the rivers. Knowledge of the river, its flow, its patterns of strengths and dangers, was very important to the survival of the Athabascans in Alaska. When the time was right, the Athabascan family would finally pack everything needed into their canoes and the journey to spring camp would begin.

ANE Curriculum Overview
Unit Overview



Athabascan Art Sampler


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Last modified August 17, 2006