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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
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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Do not quote or copy without permission from Mike Gaffney or from Ray Barnhardt at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska-Fairbanks.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 Three
Alaska Native Cultures – Think Pluralism!

Note: At the end of this chapter you will begin the Cultural Profile assignment by selecting the Native group or groups you wish to research. In the next chapter you start work on their Regional Environment and their use and occupancy of the land, the first part of your Cultural Profile.


There is no such person as an Alaska Native!

In Chapter Two we spent time deciding what names to use when identifying the indigenous peoples of North America. Now we further develop the identification and naming process for the different Alaska Native cultures. But the first thing we need to understand is that there really is no such person as an “Alaska Native.” Here is why.

When talking or writing about Alaska Natives, many times we say the “Natives” or the “Native people.” We say things like, “a Native perspective” or “Native studies” or “Native rights.” But we must keep in mind that the term Native is simply a quick, convenient way to distinguish Native people and their experiences from those of non-Native people. Even a passing glance at the multi-cultural realities of Native Alaska tells us that there has never been just one Alaska Native cultural group. There has never been a single Native language or single Native society or single Native history. There are Haida, Tlingit, Eyak, Chugach, Alutiiq, Aleut (Unangan), Central Yup’ik, Siberian Yupik, Iñupiaq, and a variety of Athabaskan-speaking peoples. These are human groups dating from ancient times with cultures and languages distinct from one another. Thanks largely to the work of the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC) at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, we can even take Athabaskan speaking groups and sort them into eleven regional societies, each with its own language and history. We should never forget this reality of Native cultural pluralism when we hear, read, or say the word “ Native.”

As previously discussed, the term Alaska Native is a foreign concept brought to Alaska by Russians and Americans to distinguish themselves from the indigenous peoples. Much of Alaska’s history is about how the invaders – particularly the Americans – constructed colonial systems to maintained this distinction. If the term Alaska Native has any basis in reality, it is as a concept reflecting the common political and legal interests of all Alaska Natives regardless of culture, language, or geographic region. It is even said by some that the term Alaska Native was not often heard in Native communities until the land claims movement of the 1960s. As Natives from all regions of the state became more aware of the land claims issue, they found common ground as Alaska Natives, not just as Eskimos or Indians, or as Iñupiaq or Tlingit. During the land claims struggle, for example, there emerged the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), a statewide organization representing the interests of all Native peoples within the larger Alaskan and American political and legal systems.

Mapping Native Cultures

The ANLC Map. This textbook includes a smaller foldout version of the map, Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska published in 1982 by the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC) at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Now is the time to take out your copy of the ANLC map. Shortly instructions are provided for studying map. But first some background information on the map’s purpose and design.

In the 1970s, ANLC undertook a research project to map the Native languages of the state. In 1982 they updated their research and published a new Alaska Native language map. ANLC wished to determine the extent to which Native languages continued to be spoken in the everyday life of Native communities throughout the state. They were especially interested in the number of youngsters speaking their Native language because this is a good indicator of a language’s current and future strength. What makes this map so useful is that it places a large amount of significant information right in front of us. At a single glance we have what we need to understand the remarkable pluralism of Native languages and cultures. But note that the research represented by the map was completed decades ago. More recent research suggests that the total number of Native language speakers is less today then in 1982, perhaps in some cases much less. Yet the relative numbers seem to have remained fairly constant. That is, when compared to other Native groups, those having the most speakers of their Native language in 1982 (e.g., Siberian Yupik) still have the most speakers today.1

We know, for example, that the total number of everyday speakers of Central Yup’ik has declined since 1982. Nevertheless, according to the 2000 United States census, there are about 16,000 Central Yup’ik people living in Bethel and surrounding villages. Of these, that same census estimates that over 60% still speak their Native language in the home. In contrast, the Tlingit Indian population of Alaska is about 10,000, but has only about 500 speakers of the language. The current population of Koyukon Athabaskans is about 2,300, of whom only about 300 speak the language. Therefore, compared to the Tlingit and the Koyukon, the Central Yup’ik in the Bethel region have experienced much less of a language shift to English. ANLC also assists our study with short explanations on the map itself. Note how each village has a dot ? the size of which indicates the population size of the village. The extent to which a dot is blacken indicates the estimated number of children speaking the Native language in that village in 1982 ( e.g., = most children speaking the language ).

Language shifts and historical questions. At this point you might be asking questions such as: Isn’t this a history project? Why are we using what is essentially a map of language demographics – a map of language statistics about Native populations? In fact, the only time the word “history” appears on the ANLC map is in a short paragraph on how Native languages were suppressed by schools where children were actually punished for speaking their language. So what is the connection between this map and Native history?

While the map does not contain historical information, it does raise big historical questions. For example, we have already said that the map shows a much greater language shift to English among the Tlingit and the Koyukon Athabaskan than among the Central Yup’ik. The interesting historical question raised here is: What happened to cause a much greater shift to English among the Tlingit and Koyukon compared to the Central Yup’ik? To answer this question requires research into Yup’ik as well as into Tlingit and Koyukon contact histories to see how they differ. Indeed, the map raises other historical questions of a similar nature. Just within the Central Yup’ik region there is this historical question: Why is the Yup’ik language much stronger along the Kuskokwim River and the Bering Sea coast than in the Bristol Bay area and along the Yukon River? Again, several different Native contact histories must be examined for the answer.

The ANLC map is therefore worth close examination for two reasons. The first is that it clearly displays information showing the pluralistic nature of Native languages and cultures. This is absolutely required information. It makes no sense to attempt a more detailed study of Native cultures and histories without first understanding this pluralism. Secondly, the more we study the map, the more likely it is that comparative historical questions will occur to us. We will see that not only is there a pluralism of Native cultures but also a pluralism of Native histories – that the contact histories of Native regions can differ significantly one from the other. Consider this question: Why were the Tlingit much more successful than the Aleuts in resisting Russian colonization? We use a “comparative conditions” approach to answer this question. We ask: Were the Aleuts and Tlingits operating under different conditions? If so, did these different conditions contribute to the different outcomes? Here is how the comparative conditions approach works.

Condition 1 – Environment:

Aleuts – Mostly barren Island environments offered little physical protection and few land-based subsistence resources. They were easily cut off from the sea which held their primary subsistence resources. Materials for building fortifications was scarce.
Tlingits – Heavily forested islands and mainland offered considerable protection and contained adequate subsistence resources if cut off from the sea. Abundant forest products provided materials for building strong fortifications.

Condition 2. Demography:

Aleuts – Small scale contact. Small island populations meant small scale contact which favored the Russians because it did not take a large force to invade and establish control one island at a time.
Tlingits – Large scale contact. Invading Russians confronted large, densely populated settlements – for example, the Sitka Battles.

Condition 3. Social Organization:

Aleuts – Weak inter-island relationships, hence military alliances difficult to assemble at the time of the invasions. Russian divide and conquer strategy worked well.
Tlingits – Wide ranging clan-based kinship system united groups across Tlingit settlements, thus providing a built-in military confederation. If invaded, one Tlingit group could call upon other kin-related groups in other locations for support.

Condition 4. Technology:

Aleuts – No access to firearms.
Tlingits – Access to firearms and other military equipment through trade with the British and Americans.

Condition 5. Foreign Relations:

Aleuts – No alternative to the Russians. Until 1867 the Russians were the only foreign presence of any significance in the Aleutians.
Tlingits – Multiple early contact history. Unlike their monopoly of force in the Aleutians, the Russians faced rival European powers in Tlingit country. Tlingit contact with British and American traders gave them a strong bargaining position when dealing with the Russians.

So we see that under each of the five conditions the Tlingits had a clear comparative advantage over the Aleuts. And when all these Tlingit advantages are added together, we have the answer to our comparative history question. As you study the map, think pluralism, both in terms of Native cultures and Native histories.

ANLC Map: A Study Guide

Often overlooked features of the ANLC map. There are ten features of the map that are sometimes overlooked or which deserve special attention because they raise important historical questions.

1. Be mindful that the purpose of the ANLC map is to display the different Native language regions of Alaska, but not the different Native cultures of Alaska. Certainly in the broadest sense, the boundaries shown between languages represent boundaries between cultures, for example between the Iñupiaq and Interior Athabaskans. Yet the Alaska Native cultural picture is actually more complicated. Within the Iñupiaq-speaking region, for example, there are important differences between the coastal whaling communities and the inland settlements along the Noatak and Kobuk rivers and the interior caribou hunting people of Anaktuvik Pass. We also find differences within the large Central Yup’ik and Interior Athabaskan language/culture regions.

Native cultural pluralism gets even more complicated. Not only do we find different ways of life within a Native region, but we also find that similar elements of social organization can transcend these Native regional boundaries. For example, all Native societies south of the Alaska Range – from the Aleuts in the far southwest islands on down to the Tlingit and Haida in Southeast – had stratified societies containing different social classes, including the institution of slavery. In the next chapter we explore in more detail this distinctive southern Native social organization and compare it to the different settlement patterns and social organization of Native groups north of the Alaska Range.

Note the several places on the map where a broken line – – – is found within a Native region. This indicates a boundary between different dialects of the same Native language. This could mean still more cultural differences. It may be that an important element of a community’s cultural identity was how their dialect – the way they speak the language – distinguished them from others of the same language group.

Always keep in mind that the map’s broad language boundaries do not reflect all aspects of Alaska Native cultural and historical pluralism.

2. Look at the Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) region along the Gulf of Alaska and the North Pacific. Also known as the Pacific Eskimo region, it includes Kodiak (Koniag people), the Alaska Peninsula, and Prince William Sound. According to ANLC, in traditional times the people called themselves Sugpiaq (suk 'person' plus -piaq 'real'). The appellation (or name) Alutiiq was adopted from a Russian plural form of Aleut, which the invaders applied to the Native people they encountered from Attu to Kodiak. Unlike the Aleut (Unangan) language, however, the Alutiiq language is closely related to Central Yup'ik. Over time, Sugpiaq has given way to Alutiiq as the appellation of that region’s language.

3. You should memorize the correct spelling of Native groups, including all eleven groups within the larger Athabaskan language region. Substitute Gwich’in for Kutchin since it is now the most commonly used appellation for this Athabaskan group. Likewise, note on the map the preferred appellation for Ingalik is Deg hit’an.

4. Study the North American insert in the upper right-hand side of the map. Note the extension of the Athabaskan language throughout much of Northwestern Canada. Also note that the language resurfaces among several small tribes on the pacific coast in Oregon and Northern California. It then makes a huge geographical leap to the Southwest where it is spoken today by the largest Indian nation, the Navajo, and by several Apache groups. This linguistic connection between Athabaskan speakers in the Far North and the Navajo and Apache Athabaskan speakers in the Southwest certainly raises intriguing questions about ancient Native American history.

We should also note that Dene, meaning “the people” in Athabaskan, is the most common appellation used in Canada. One example is the Native political organization Dene Nation of the Canadian Northwest Territory. Also the word, Dine, meaning “ the people” in the Navajo Athabaskan language is rapidly becoming the preferred appellation within that Indian nation.

5. Again look at the North American map insert. Note the extension of the Iñupiaq/Inuit language across the entire North American Arctic rim into Greenland. Although marked by dialectical differences — for example, between Iñupiaq spoken in Alaska and Kalaallisut spoken in Greenland — it is one Inuit language family.

Knud Rasmussen, the famous Arctic explorer of the early 20th Century, found this to be the case during his 1921 - 1924 “Great Sled Journey” across the North American Arctic. He was born and raised in Greenland, the son of an Inuit mother and Danish father. His first language was Kalaallisut. Danish was his second language which he learned in school. Upon reaching Iñupiaq settlements in Alaska, he made this observation:

In so prolong a separation, it would be natural for the language and traditions of the various [Inuit] tribes to have lost all homogeneity [similarity]. Yet the remarkable thing I found was that my Greenland dialect served to get me into complete understanding with all the tribes. 2

Of course this raises another interesting historical question: How did this language cohesiveness survive over such a wide area of extreme terrain and climate for so long?

6. Now look at the population figures found in the Language Table on the left-hand side of the map. Notice how much stronger the Athabaskan and Inuit languages are in Native communities outside of Alaska – in Canada, Greenland, and among the Navajo. Why is this? Only comparative historical research will yield the answer.

7. Look for St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait. The map shows that the Siberian Yupik language is also found on the Chukchi side of the Bering Strait, not on the Alaska side. Moreover, Siberian Yupik ancestral ties are found on the Chukchi side and not the Alaska side of the Strait. Finally, notice that the Siberian Yupik language is among the strongest in Native Alaska. Why?

8. Look for Metlakatla at the southern most point of Alaska. The green area is Annette Island, home of a Tsimshian tribe who occupy the island as the only Indian reservation now existing in Alaska. Here is another historical question: Are all Native groups shown on the ANLC map indigenous to Alaska? Of course the answer is no. In 1887 the United States government gave a missionary and his congregation of Tsimshian Indians from Old Metlakatla in British Columbia, Canada, permission to settle at New Metlakatla on Annette Island and establish a reservation. The Tsimshian are the only non- indigenous Native tribe in Alaska. (Incidentally, the Court of Claims in the 1959 Tlingit and Haida case ruled that the Tlingits held aboriginal title to Annette Island and must be compensated for its illegal taking by the United States.)

9. Look for the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. Be sure to note that these islands are occupied and locally governed by Aleut communities. They should be marked as Unangan or Aleut on whatever map test you may take.

10. Look, finally, at the southern coast of the Seward Peninsula and note the isolated Central Yup’ik area on Norton Sound. Here are more historical questions: What are the Central Yup’ik doing there? Is not this area part of the traditional homeland of the Iñupiaq? Actually, even larger portions of the southern Seward Peninsula may have been occupied at one time by the Central Yup’ik .


The First Cultural Profile Assignment

Selecting a Native group for cultural profiling. Now it is time to take the first step in completing the Cultural Profile Project. You first must decide whether to focus on a larger Native culture area or on a smaller group occupying a distinct environmental niche within that area. When you begin constructing your cultural profile in the next chapter, you are first asked to describe the main elements of the environment within which your selected Native group lives. Why do we need this information at the very beginning? Because the nature of the environment and the amount and kind of subsistence resources it contained largely determined the social and technological adaptations a Native group had to make in order to most effectively live in that place. The concept tying together the relationship between the environment and a Native group’s social organization and cultural products is environmental adaptation.

For now, think of environmental adaptation as the process by which a traditional Native society socially organized itself and developed technologies to effectively live in and harvest the subsistence resources offered by the environment.

Regional vs. local Environment as a major selection factor. Let’s take the Iñupiaq as an example of why environment is a major factor influencing your selection of a Native group. You can do a general profile of the larger Iñupiaq culture area as it is shown on the ANLC map. But remember that the ANLC map displays only language regions within which may exist different environments. This means you have different Iñupiaq groups making adaptations to different environments. So you might consider focusing on a local environment within the larger Iñupiaq region such as coastal sea mammal hunting areas or the more inland settlements along the Noatak and Kobuk rivers. If, for example, you chose the coastal Iñupiaq, then sea ice is a major environmental feature – a feature absent from the Iñupiaq riverine environment. Or you can move deeper inland and select the Iñupiaq of Anaktuvik Pass. Here again we are reminded that cultural pluralism is a defining feature of Native Alaska, both past and present.

Emphasizing cultural pluralism also forces us to make a similar decision for other large Native language/culture areas. Within the large Athabaskan speaking region, for example, there are major differences between the environments of the Tanaina people south of the Alaska range and that of Koyukon people north of the range. Of course the selection process is much easier when an entire Native culture area essentially occupies the same regional environment. Examples are the Unangan (Aleut) in the Aleutians, the Siberian Yupik on St. Lawrence Island, and the Tlingit and Haida in Southeast Alaska.


Now having firmly in mind the pluralistic nature of Alaska Native cultures and histories, it is time to take the first step in completing the Cultural Profile Project by selecting the Native group or groups whose life in traditional times you will research.


Review Questions

Why do we say there is no such person as an Alaska Native?

Why do we emphasize the pluralism of Native histories as well as Native cultures?

Can you explain why regional differences in Native language shifts to English raise interesting historical questions?

On the next page is a blank map of Alaska. From memory, can you reproduce the ANLC map, including correct spelling of the different Native groups?


Figure 3-1




  1. Go to: www, accessed March, 2010.

  2. Rasmussen Knud, Across Arctic America, Putnam & Sons, 1927, p. x.

Table of Contents | Chapter 4

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Last modified July 6, 2011