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

Alaska Native in Traditional Times: A Cultural Profile Project

as of July 2011

Do not quote or copy without permission from Mike Gaffney or from Ray Barnhardt at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska-Fairbanks. For an overview of the purpose and design of the Cultural Profile Project, see Instructional Notes for Teachers.

Mike Gaffney

Chapter One
The Cultural Profile Project in a Nutshell


What is the Cultural Profile Project? Think of this project and its assignments as an educational expedition into Alaska Native history. As with any expedition – whether to explore unknown territory or collect scientific information or find new trade routes – it aims to accomplish certain objectives and perhaps discover exciting wonders along the way.

The purpose of this educational expedition is to construct a picture of Native life in traditional times. By traditional times we mean those times before Native societies were changed forever by sustained contact with the cultural habits, economic ambitions, and infectious diseases of invading Russians and Americans. As the title suggests, we call this historical research the Cultural Profile Project. You will select a Native group to study, perhaps from your region of Alaska. Or perhaps do a comparison of two Native cultures from different parts of Alaska. Using both oral and written historical materials, you will develop a “cultural profile” of your selected Native group(s) as they lived at the time of the invasions.

To “profile” means to describe the significant features of something or someone. The first thing the Cultural Profile Project asks of you is to research and describe significant features of your Native group’s regional environment. Was their territory mainly tundra and hills? Or was it forests and rivers? If, for example, they lived on the arctic coast, what role did sea ice play in their daily lives? What subsistence resources were available to them?

By the way, what do we mean by “subsistence”? Outside of Alaska, subsistence is most often defined as what people do to scratch out a minimum level of existence, especially when there is barely enough food or money for survival. When talking about Alaska Natives, however, subsistence means to support oneself and family through hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering. From the point of view of those living a “subsistence lifestyle,” it has nothing to do with being rich or poor. For example, Title VIII of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) defines subsistence as:

the customary and traditional uses by rural Alaska residents of wild, renewable resources for direct personal or family consumption as food, shelter, fuel, clothing, tools, or transportation; for the making and selling of handicrafts articles out of inedible byproducts of fish and wildlife resources taken for personal or family consumption; for barter, or sharing for personal or family consumption; and for customary trade.

After profiling the regional environment, you are asked to describe how your Native group settled upon and used the land and its resources. In what ways did the environment shape their settlement patterns and how they socially organized themselves? Did they, for example, live in large or small settlements? Did they frequently move from one place to another to find fish and game? What was the territorial range of their subsistence activities? How did they harvest the fish and game inhabiting this range to meet their daily needs?

Then you are asked to profile the Native group’s traditional social organization. This includes elements such as family and kinship structure, economic activities, and systems of law and politics. What were the rules regulating who could marry whom and where the new couple would live? Within the family, who was expected to do what? What, for example, did their seasonal round of subsistence activities look like? Did they always have enough to eat? How did they govern their community and maintain law and order? Did they have hostile neighbors and how did they defend themselves? What do we know about their traditional commerce – that is, about their trading relationships with other people and what was traded?

Because Worldview is the central feature of any society’s culture and deserves special attention, we devote an entire chapter to it. As used here, the concept of worldview refers to a traditional Native society’s beliefs about their social, natural, and spiritual worlds and how they should properly behave in all three. What exactly were these beliefs and how were they expressed in ceremonies and rituals? What role did shamans play in the society’s spiritual practices? Did Shamans have important duties beyond their spiritual role? What ideas were held about human nature and a person’s proper place in the natural world among all other living things? And how did a Native group’s ideas about their own history contribute to their cultural identity – to their view of themselves as a people with distinct values and traditions?

You will then describe their cultural products which includes their technology, science, and art. What was their housing like? What did they do for transportation? What kinds of weapons (including body armor) and tools did they use? What do we know about the scientific knowledge they developed in order to live productively within their environment? What about artistic expression and its relationship to other aspects of traditional Native life?

Elements of the Cultural Profile Project. If possible, expeditions like to have maps to show the way. On the next page is an outline of the Cultural Profile Project. This is our map. Take a good look at it. See how it is divided into the four major sections of Alaskan environments and Native adaptatons, social organization, worldview, and cultural products.

Within each of the four sections of the Outline are the specific elements you will research and describe. Keep in mind, however, that we cannot anticipate every significant aspect of traditional Native life you may find. Suppose, for example, you are working on worldview as part of a Central Yup’ik cultural profile. In your research you come across a 1998 announcement of an museum exhibit of Southwestern Alaskan culture and art called Agayuliyararput or "Our Way of Making Prayer.” You find that the purpose of the exhibit is “to bring Yup'ik masks and ceremonial materials to a wide audience in their native context.” This connection between masks and ceremonies gets your attention. You then find that Ann Fienup-Riordan, the curator of the exhibit, wrote an accompanying article entitled, “The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks.” You read this article and conclude that an exciting way to portray the spiritual aspects of the Yup’ik worldview is by describing the meaning of various masks and their relation to the song and dance of traditional ceremonies.1 But wait! You look at the Cultural Profile Outline and nowhere do you find masks as an element to be described. Don’t worry about it. Just include it as part of your discussion of worldview with perhaps a note on its overlap with Artistic Expression as discussed in Chapter Eight.*

The Cultural Profile Project

1. Alaskan Environments and Native Adaptations (Chapter 4)

Climate – arctic, sub-arctic, maritime, seasonal changes
Physiography – physical features of the area – tundra, forests, rivers, mountains, valleys, ocean conditions (e.g., sea ice)
Flora – plant life
Fauna – land animals, sea mammals, water fowl, fish
Land use and occupancy – Demographics: Size & distribution of population, Settlement patterns
Land use – Mapping uses of lands & waters – location and boundaries, establishing community security

2. Social Organization (Chapter 6)

Social Relations – main social institutions: family structure, kinship system, social stratification, regional groups and relations between regional groups.
Economics – primary and secondary subsistence resources Commerce: trade routes and relationships, trade goods
Governance – group decision-making, leadership, law and order

3. Worldview (Chapter 7)

Spirituality – belief system, ceremonial practices, shamanism
Core values – social rules, cultural identity, historical legacy

4. Cultural products (Chapter 8)

Technology – hunting/fishing gear, tools, weaponry (and body armor), housing, transportation Applied Science – specialized knowledge developed to maintain and improve the group’s quality of life
Artistic Expression – artistic purposes, design, decoration, materials


Why Study Native life in Traditional Times?

Cultural and civic competence. We all should know our culture’s history from earliest times to the present. This seems particularly important for Native Americans whose historical experiences are so different from mainstream American culture. Without this historical knowledge, how can one become a culturally competent adult able to pass on to younger generations the traditions and values of the group? Cultural competence is most in demand when valued traditions seem in danger of being overwhelmed by modern life’s confusing mix of competing belief systems and instant temptations. Unfortunately, this modern confusion can sometimes include the harsh social realities of alcohol and drug abuse.

Here is a question: Without this knowledge, is it possible for one to become a well informed citizen capable of making positive contributions to the civic affairs of the community? All Alaskans – Native and non-Native – will be better citizens for having studied the various cultural traditions and historical experiences of Alaska Natives. We will certainly be smarter about how this history has shaped Native views on such civic issues as land management, subsistence protections, and tribal sovereignty. This fact has been recognized by many non- Native students at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. As the Alaska Native Studies program developed over the years, non-Native enrollment in its classes steadily grew. Why? Because they understand that as professional people working in Alaska, most likely they will be in contact with Native people. And they understand that knowledge of Native life past and present will surely increase their effectiveness.

The Cultural Profile Project: A practical application. Suppose there is an Alaska Native community not on the congressionally approved 1994 list of 227 federally recognized Alaska tribes. Without federal recognition, this group has few tribal powers and is not eligible for many of the federal programs and grants designed to assist Native American tribes. But now this tribe thinks they can prepare a strong petition for federal recognition. To comply with the current Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) petitioning process the tribe must do extensive historical research proving that they have maintained a distinct cultural identity and political cohesiveness since first contact with American authorities. This is no easy task. After petitioning for thirty-two years, for example, the Shinnecock tribe of New York state finally received federal recognition in 2010. According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), The current procedure for federal recognition is:

... a rigorous process requiring the petitioning tribe to satisfy seven mandatory criteria, including historical and continuous American Indian identity in a distinct community. Each of the criteria demands exceptional anthropological, historical, and genealogical research and presentation of evidence. The vast majority of petitioners do not meet these strict standards, and far more petitions have been denied than accepted. In fact, only about 8 percent of the total number of recognized tribes have been individually recognized since 1960.2

Like your assignment, one BIA research requirement calls for what amounts to a detailed “cultural profile” of tribal life at the time of contact with outsiders. Although certainly more extensive, the research necessary to satisfy this requirement is much like the research you will do to complete the Cultural Profile Project. Here is something to think about: Putting the necessary time and effort into the Cultural Profile Project gives you valuable experience for doing later historical research, whether required by the BIA or by any other agency or organization, including Native organizations. Similar research was done to determine the amount and location of land to be retained by Natives as shareholders in the regional and village corporations established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971.3

Side trips: Sometimes expeditions get word of an interesting phenomenon calling for a side trip to understand it more fully. We also will take side trips during our expedition into Alaska Native traditional times as well. Our side trips explore useful ideas and information from various fields such as anthropology, sociology, and political science. Certain aspects of federal Indian law and ANCSA also relate to our cultural profile work. Now we take our first side trip.

A short side trip: ANCSA basics. We first must understand that Alaska Natives retained land under ANCSA. They were not given or awarded land by the United States. Why? Because a basic principle of federal Indian law is that although Native American lands certainly fall under the sovereign authority of the United States, tribes retain a right of use and occupation – an “aboriginal title” – to their lands until clearly extinguished by a negotiated agreement with the federal government.4 Historically in the Lower-48, such agreements usually took the form of treaties. No treaties, however, were negotiated with Alaska tribes.

It is, moreover, the legal obligation of the federal government to protect a tribe’s aboriginal title against “all others” until a settlement is reached. The “all others” refers to state or territorial governments and outside commercial interests such as fishing, logging, and mining companies The Court of Claims ruled in 1959 that the United States government had completely failed to protect the aboriginal title of the Tlingit and Haida tribes of Alaska.5 And if it failed the Tlingit and Haida, surely it failed other Alaska tribes as well. With the passage of ANCSA twelve years later, the federal government sought to remedy this 104 year violation of its own law.

ANCSA is the largest single land transaction between Native Americans and the federal government in United States history. Indeed, ANCSA can be called a “treaty substitute”.6 Like Indian treaties, ANCSA extinguished the remaining aboriginal title of all Alaska tribes. And like Indian treaties, Native groups retained smaller tracts of land, in this case 44 million acres of Alaska’s total of 375 million acres. (All together, Lower-48 tribes currently occupy only 52 million acres of land, mainly as reservations under federal supervision.) Alaska Natives also received $1 billion in compensation for lands lost. And, finally, like Indian treaties, ANCSA required Alaska Natives to accept a set of rules specifying how the retained lands and financial compensation were to be used.

By the strict letter of American law, therefore, it was the United States and not Alaska Natives who actually received a clear title to land under ANCSA. In return, Natives as shareholders in ANCSA regional corporations now have clear title to 44 million acres of the lands they used and occupied before the American invasion.

Traditional times and the study of social change. Here is another very good reason for doing the Cultural Profile assignment. To understand the full impact of the Russian and American invasions on Native societies, we first must have a good idea of what Native life was like before that life was changed so dramatically. Clearly we cannot assess the changes in anything – be it climate or a chemical element or a human society – without knowing the prior state of that thing. In many parts of the Aleutians, for example, the Russian fur harvesting system resulted in the near extinction of the sea otter by the 1790s. But what were the consequences of this excessive harvesting of the otter on Aleut culture and subsistence needs? To answer this question we need to know about the Aleut relationship with the otter as it existed before the arrival of the Russians in 1744. Unlike the Russians, perhaps the Aleuts saw the otter as something more than valuable peltry to be bought and sold. Was it an important subsistence resource? Did it occupy a revered place within their worldview? William S. Laughlin, an anthropologist and longtime student of Aleut history and culture, reports that in “pre-Russian times the sea otter was an honored animal considered by Aleuts to be of human origin.” Moreover, its “meat did not taste good and it skin of limited value. Therefore it was hunted infrequently...” 7

Project Mechanics

At this point you may be thinking: Okay, I understand what the Cultural Profile Project is all about and why I should do it. But how do I do it? What exactly is expected of me to complete the Project? Good question. So let’s look at the Project’s mechanics.

Preliminary work and review questions. We cannot simply jump into the research and write-up of a cultural profile without first having a clear understanding of the ideas and materials we will use to get the job done. Therefore some preliminary work is in order. You are first asked to think about words and ideas we use to organize the Cultural Profile assignment and to direct our studies. You are asked, for example, to think about such commonly used terms as tribe, Native, Native American, tradition, culture, cultural identity, and the pluralism of Alaska Native cultures. So you have two more chapters to read (about 20 pages) before starting on the actual cultural profile assignment.

At the end of this chapter is a short list of “review questions” to help you summarize what you just read. Indeed, review questions are provided at the end of all eight chapters. If you can answer each of these questions, then you can be confident that you understand the material. Of course your teacher may have other testing exercises in mind as well.

Research mechanics. Most likely the research you will do is called a literature review. This means you will study what written materials exist on your Native group or groups. Some of these materials are also found on websites like Alaskool and Project Jukebox. Your teacher may have rules on using internet sources. Be sure you understand and follow these rules.

To assist your literature review, you will find at the end of this book an extensive bibliography of available books, articles, and internet sites. The bibliography begins with a list of source materials on Alaska Native cultures generally. Then it is broken into sections, with each section listing materials on a specific Native culture. Obviously you will want to study the materials listed for the Native group or groups you are profiling. A number of these materials have been compiled into a single volume organized around a particular theme or covering a specific Native culture area. Two examples are Crossroads of Continents and three volumes of the Handbook of North American Indians. Where this is the case, I have listed the relevant readings and page numbers. This should facilitate your research efforts.

If at all possible, you are urge to talk with Native elders in your community and hear what they have to say about life in traditional times. They may provide important oral history not found in your readings. Moreover, it gives you an opportunity to compare their account of past times with what you read in your literature review. If what they say matches what you read, then you can feel more confident in the accuracy of the information you are collecting.

Chapter Three – the turning point. Chapter Three on the pluralism of Alaska Native cultures is a major turning point. When you finish this chapter, you must select or be assigned a Native group or groups to profile. Then you move directly into researching the regional Environment and Native use and occupancy of the land, the first part of the Cultural Profile.

Project design. You will find that each of the four sections of the Cultural Profile Outline (page 3) has its own chapter. The chapter must be read before proceeding with actual research on that section of the Cultural Profile. Why? Because the readings offer explanations and examples of what you should look for in your research. Chapter Six, for example, covers Social Organization, the third section of the Cultural Profile. It includes researching economic and political systems. Among other things, you are asked to describe the primary and secondary subsistence resources of your Native group. But what is meant by primary and secondary resources? And why make this distinction in the first place? Chapter Six answers these questions.

On the living connection between the past and the present, the prominent Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes says this:

There is no single time: all of our times are alive, all of our pasts are present.8

With Mr. Fuentes’ words in mind, let’s begin our expedition into Alaska Native traditional times.


Review questions

What do we mean by “traditional times”?

To “profile” a thing or a person is to do what?

How does the definition of “subsistence” in Alaska differ from the usual dictionary definition?

What are some good reasons for studying Alaska Native life in traditional times?

In your own words, explain what the Cultural Profile Project asks you to do.


* Endnotes. From time to time you will come across a small elevated number such as after “traditional ceremonies” where we discussed Yup’ik masks just above. This signifies an endnote found at the end of the chapter. As used here, endnotes carry no additional information, so there is no need to interrupt your reading to view them. They only cite the source of the information or quotation used in our work here. This is an ethical requirement whenever you use someone else’s words and ideas. Not to so is considered plagiarism, a transgression that could destroy one’s academic reputation and career.


  1. Artic Studies Center’s website for the exhibit’s announcement. Portions of Feinup-Riordan’s “the Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks” can be found on the Tribal Arts website.

  2. National Congress of American Indian’s Task Force on Federal Recognition, 2003

  3. Alaska Natives and the Land, Robert Arnold et al. Federal Field Committee for Development Planning in Alaska (Anchorage, Alaska, 1968).

  4. Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U. S. ( 6 Pet.) 515, 1832.

  5. Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. the United States. 182, Ct. Claims. 130, 1959.

  6. Charles Wilkinson, American Indians, Time, and the Law ( New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) pp. 7 – 9. C

  7. William S. Laughlin, Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge (New York: Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1980) p. 42-43.

  8. The Carlos Fuentes quote is from: Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon’s Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy. (NewYork: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004). Although originally from Panama, Mr. Fuentes has become one of Mexico’s most celebrated writers.



Table of Contents | Chapter 2

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Last modified July 6, 2011