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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Do not quote or copy without permission from Mike Gaffney or from Ray Barnhardt at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska-Fairbanks.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 Four
Alaskan Environments and Native Adaptations


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

As shown above, this chapter gets you started on the Cultural Profile of your selected Native group or groups. It provides you with an instructional guide for profiling elements of the environment inhabited by your Native group(s) and their use and occupancy of land. These elements are exactly the same as listed in the Cultural Profile Project Outline on page three. The chapters to come on Social Organization, Worldview, and Cultural Products offer similar instructional guidance for completing your project. You will find, however, that this and the remaining chapters offer much more than a simple guide. As said before, we want to carefully explain the concepts we use to organize our thinking about Native societies in traditional times. What exactly do we mean, for example, when we use concepts like environmental adaptation or land-use patterns or social stratification or governance or shamanism?

The Big Picture

South vs. North. Here we emphasize the idea that elements of the environment set the parameters, the outer limits, of what environmental adaptations were possible for subsistence- based Native societies occupying a particular region. Again, the amount and kind of subsistence and material resources available in the environment largely determined what that Native society looked like demographically, socially, and technologically. The Aleuts (Unagan), for example, could do things within their maritime island environment that Interior Athabaskans could not do within their landlocked sub-Arctic environment. Of course interior Athabaskans could do things that Aleuts could not.

Now let’s take a moment to paint the broadest possible picture of the relationship between Alaska’s different environments and the social organizations of Native groups inhabiting these areas. Look at a map of Alaska which shows the Alaska Range. Denali (Mt. McKinley) is the best known topographic feature of this mountain range which stretches across most of Alaska from east to west. Now draw or imagine a line along the top of the Alaska range. South of that line – south of the Alaska Range – we find very different environments and traditional Native social organizations from what we find north of the Range. Note that the Alaska Range does not extend into Southwest Alaska and the Central Yup’ik homeland. Shortly we discuss this regional environment as a “transitional zone.”

The South. Easy year-round access to abundant marine resources in the oceans and rivers south of the Alaska range supported larger Native populations. It is true that in important ways the southern Alaskan regional environments of the Aleut and the Tlingit are different. The Aleuts lived mainly on barren, windswept islands and the Tlingit in areas of high mountains, old growth forests, and sheltered bays and coves. But the important point is that both of these very different regional environments yielded a steady supply, even surpluses, of subsistence marine resources.

Not only were southern Native populations larger but their settlements were more densely populated and more permanent than those found in the north. By “densely populated” we mean a large concentration of people within an given area. There are, for example, many more people living within each square mile of New York City than people living within each square mile of Fairbanks, Alaska. The southern settlements, moreover, were much more permanent because they had easy access to their subsistence resources throughout the year. Unlike many northern Native societies, people were not forced to move with the seasons or spend weeks on a hunting or fishing expedition just to meet the basic dietary needs of their families. To say that their primary subsistence resources lay just outside their front door is not much of an exaggeration.

When added together, these factors — large, permanent, densely populated settlements with abundant resources — led to the development of a more elaborate social organization to regulate tribal affairs. Certainly we will find more and larger government departments and neighborhood institutions such as churches and schools in New York than in Fairbanks. Another prominent feature of the more complex southern Native societies was their hierarchical social structure. A hierarchical or ranked society exists when there is an unequal distribution of wealth, power, and social status among different classes of people. When we ask about the structure and distribution of wealth, power, and social status, we are asking about a society’s social stratification – its system of social ranking.

The social stratification of southern Native societies was based on the hereditary ranking of families and clans. This meant that the social status of the family and clan into which a person was born largely determined what social and economic advantages were available to that person, both as a child and later as an adult. General speaking, these ranked societies consisted of an aristocracy of clans at the top of the social pyramid, with commoners occupying the middle and lower reaches of society. In all southern Native hierarchical societies, the lowest social rank or class was occupied by slaves obtained through war and trade.1 Among the Tlingit, for example, the most basic social unit at the local level was the household group. It consisted of men of the same matrilineal line and their families living together in very large wooden plank-and-beam houses Sometimes these “longhouses” were as large as 40 x 60 feet. (A full-size basketball court measures 50 x 84 feet). Figure 4-1 shows exterior and interior views of a Tlingit longhouse.

Figure 4-1
Men in ceremonial regalia in front of Klukwan clan house, c. 1880s
Men in ceremonial regalia in front of Klukwan clan house, c. 1880s
Winter and Pond Collection

Watercolor painting by Theodore Richardson, showing interior of Tlingit clan house
(no date)
Watercolor painting by Theodore Richardson

Because of very accessible and abundant resources, not everyone had to be involved in the daily round of subsistence activities. This meant that certain individuals possessing special talents could devote a major portion of their day to work other than hunting, fishing, and gathering. Consequently there arose occupational specialization in important areas such as medicine, arts and crafts, spiritual leadership, political organization, and in the conduct of war and commerce. If the knowledge and skills of a particularly talented person became highly valued, he or she could concentrate time and energy on that specialty while their subsistence needs were provided for by their household group or clan. They may even have received payment for services from others within the larger community. Among the Tlingit, for example, the elder head of a household group usually did not physically participate in subsistence activities. He had instead a full time job as the political and ceremonial leader of the household and as their chief historian and educator. If their skills were especially prized, individuals could gain wealth and privilege ordinarily reserved for those of a higher hereditary rank. The possibility of upward social mobility through demonstrated expertise in a valued specialty was certainly important to slaves. It was one way they could rise above their wretched social rank and avoid a life of despair and the possibility of being sacrificed at a potlatch. In a word, there existed a more elaborate division of labor based on occupational specialization than we find in northern Native societies.

The North. With some exceptions, the often marginal subsistence resources found north of the Alaska Range – particularly for interior Athabaskans in Winter – meant small, highly mobile Native populations spread over large areas. In contrast to the south, there was far less permanence and density of settlements. The exceptions were some Central Yup’ik areas around Bristol Bay and in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. In fact, the Central Yup’ik region has been described as a transitional zone between north and south. Without a substantial mountain range to shield the region from southern exposure, it has environmental features found in both the north and the south.2 Another exception was the Point Hope region of Northwest Alaska in the early 1800s. At that time the area’s subsistence resources, mainly marine mammals and fish, sustained a large settlement area estimated at 1,000 people. 3

For the most part, the social stratification of northern Native societies was more egalitarian in structure. Unlike the social hierarchies of the south, there was no easily identifiable ranked social order where power and privilege differed significantly among classes of people. Normally birth into a particular family was not the chief factor determining a person’s opportunities in life and future adult social standing. The northern societies offered a more level socio-economic playing field to all members of the group. Unlike the southern hierarchical society, individual effort and merit were more likely to determine a person’s social status. The institution of slavery, moreover, did not exist north of the Alaska Range.

Because everyone was always involved in some part of the harvesting and preparation of subsistence foods and material products, less time was available to develop the kind of occupational specialization that occurred in the south. This does not mean there was no development of specialized skills and knowledge in the north. Every Native group had to develop the necessary science and technology to successfully meet the unique demands of their environments. We should not be surprised that expertise in weather forecasting and in animal behavior are well developed areas of traditional Native science throughout Alaska. Examples of Native technologies included the construction of sea worthy hunting craft such as the kayak and umiak, various hunting tools and weaponry, protective battle vests, weather resistant housing, dog sleds and snowshoes. We will have a fuller discussion of Native applied science and technology when we discuss cultural products in Chapter Eight.

Social stratification: beware of false dichotomies. We have said that social stratification refers to the structure of wealth, power, and social rank in society. We have discussed two seemingly opposite forms of traditional Native social stratification — the southern hierarchical societies versus the northern egalitarian societies. In so doing, however, we must be careful not to create a false dichotomy by implying that these are two quite separate and distinct systems of social stratification. The word “dichotomy” means the separation of a thing or idea into two opposite parts. A dichotomy is an either-or proposition — it is either this thing or that thing. It is either apples or oranges.

So what is the problem? The problem is that there is no such thing as a purely hierarchical society or purely egalitarian society, either in modern or traditional times. What we have are human societies which are more – sometimes much more – hierarchical than egalitarian and vice versa. And when we talk about the more or less of things, we are talking about variables. Variables are not absolute and permanent things. They are constantly influenced by other factors and therefore always subject to change. In the real world, social stratification is very much a variable because any society can have a mix of hierarchical and egalitarian elements. As much as its members may wish or claim, no society is completely egalitarian. Some form of social ranking is always present. Some individuals or families or groups in society have more power and resources than others.

Figure 4-2
Alaska Reindeer Camp, c. 1913
A Checkerboard Reservation

In their study of reindeer herding and social change among the Iñupiaq of the northern Seward Peninsula, the late Linda Ellanna and her co-author, George Sherrod, emphasize this important social fact. Their study even includes a chapter entitled “The Myth of the Egalitarian Society” in which they detail how wealth and power were never distributed evenly. Nor did these Inupiat expect to live in a purely egalitarian community. There were always some who were more clever and more ambitious than others. There were always some families who prospered more than other families and passed these advantages on to later generations. Ellanna and Sherrod make this interesting observation on control of vital subsistence technologies and key hunting and fishing sites:

Technologies employed in collective harvesting endeavors included umiat {skin boat], caribou surrounds, and fish weirs and nets. These items of technology were not owned by the society nor owned equally by all segments of a large extended local family. Instead, this technology was associated ... with the eldest productive male of the group possessing the skills, knowledge, and wealth necessary to supervise construction, maintenance, and use of these means of production. Additionally, this individual and his closest kin controlled key geographic sites from which these technologies were deployed.4

In the South, the occupational specialization of the Tlingit and Haida hierarchical societies did allow for the egalitarian element of upward social mobility. No matter the status of one’s family or clan, an individual could achieve a higher social rank based on demonstrated merit – on proven ability and accomplishment in an occupation or skill valued by the society. Moreover, a society’s social order can be changed by historic events such as internal revolts and revolutions or by external forces such as invasion and occupation by a foreign power. In 1886, for example, a federal court ruled that the 13th amendment of the United States Constitution prohibiting slavery also applied to Tlingit and other Native groups regardless of what inherent tribal sovereignty they may otherwise possess. Obviously this legal ruling significantly changed Tlingit society by removing a major social and economic stratum — slaves —from their traditional hierarchical structure.5

So we must learn to think in terms of more or less hierarchy or egalitarianism, not in terms of either or , not in terms of either a completely hierarchical or a completely egalitarian society. Some argue, for example, that despite its ideal values of equality and the rule of law, the social stratification of American society falls somewhere between hierarchical and egalitarian because it has characteristics of both social structures. Please understand that we use the dichotomy of hierarchy versus egalitarian only as a starting point, only as a framework for thinking about the different kinds of social stratification that may exist. If you are doing a cultural profile of a northern Native society, do not hesitate to look hard for elements of social ranking. Likewise, if you are researching a southern Native society, look hard for elements of egalitarianism such as social mobility – the ways individuals could rise above or fall below the social rank of their birth.

A South – North summary. We can compose a brief outline to summarize the contrast between the north and the south. The symbol means “results in”.

Southern Native societies (south of the Alaska Range)

Abundant subsistence resources, even to the point of producing surpluses

Larger, more permanent and more densely settled Native communities

Hierarchical societies with an uneven distribution of power and wealth, with a more complex division of labor based on occupational specialization

Northern Native societies (north of the Alaska Range)

With some exceptions, marginal, sometimes scarce subsistence resources

Smaller, more mobile and sparsely settled Native communities

More egalitarian social organization with much less division of labor based on occupational specialization.

Interior Athabaskans and Southern Athabaskans. In traditional times the only social facts the Interior Athabaskan groups north of the Alaska Range had in common with the Tanaina and Copper River Ahtna Athabaskans of the south was language and ethnicity. On the broad cultural profile factors of regional environment, land use and occupancy, and social organization, Tanaina and Copper River Ahtna life more closely resembled the other southern Native societies. In the North, the life of the Interior Athabaskans more closely resembled other northern Native societies.

Special features of the regional environment. Some features of the regional environment may require special attention. These are features which “set up” the significance of certain elements of Social Organization and Cultural products later in your Cultural Profile. The fauna [animal life] of any Native group’s region is probably the most obvious set-up element because people’s lives were almost totally organized around hunting and fishing. A clear description of the area’s fish and game resources therefore sets up what you later say about how the group organized its seasonal rounds of hunting, fishing and gathering, and what weapons and other materials were necessary for success.

But there may be other set up features also requiring special attention. If you choose to profile the coastal Iñupiaq, for example, you will describe the usual physiographic features of mountains, valleys, and rivers. Of course you will do this for whatever Native group you are profiling. But for the coastal Iñupiaq, an equally significant but often overlooked feature of their environment is sea ice. Think about the relationship between sea ice and Iñupiaq life. Does not much of the coastal Iñupiaq subsistence activities – from seal hunting to whaling – depend on sea ice conditions? If so, then the social and technological adaptations made by the Iñupiaq to different sea ice conditions were absolutely crucial for establishing a way of life that went beyond mere survival. Therefore a more detailed picture of sea ice and its seasonal changes is necessary to set up your later descriptions of coastal Iñupiaq social organization and cultural products.

Environmental adaptation. Obviously a Native group had to have the right hunting and fishing technologies to effectively adapt to a particular environment. What may not be so obvious is that Native groups first had to socially organize themselves in ways that a) maintained the most effective member participation in harvesting of subsistence resources, and b) most effectively distributed these resources among its members according to the values and traditions of the group. Note that already we are discussing different ways Native societies were organized. Even with the social organization part of the Cultural Profile still several chapters away, we are already using terms like social stratification, hierarchical societies, egalitarian societies. Why? Because significant features of social life in traditional times were shaped by the nature of the environment. It was imperative that Native groups socially organized themselves in ways that took best advantage of the opportunities of their environment while avoiding the dangers. Environmental Adaptation is the concept which ties all these elements together. In a moment we will add a final piece to this organizing concept.

Use and Occupancy of Land
Note: “Occupancy” as used in federal Indian law means the same thing as the more familiar term “settlement patterns”.

Here we want to know the demographics of our selected Native group in traditional times. We need some idea of the number of people living in their tribal homeland at the time of the invasions. But do not stop with just researching population size – with just the estimated number of people living within the group’s territory. Equally important for getting a good picture of what life was like back in those days is understanding the distribution of people across your Native group’s territory. This information gives us a picture of their settlement pattern. Did people occupy more densely populated settlements like the Tlingits? Or like the Iñupiaq, was their traditional territory dotted with smaller settlements of various sizes? Or like Interior Athabaskans with their still smaller and widely distributed population, did family and local band units regularly move from one hunting area to another, particularly during winter months? Right away we see that maps are crucial if we are to construct a complete picture of Native settlements and land use in traditional times.

As we should expect, Native communities in traditional times had to establish their settlements close by fresh water and with the best possible access to fish and game. Often these settlements were in places sheltered from violent weather. Yet many of these communities still had another factor to consider before settling down – what location offered the best physical security against potential enemies? For an example, let’s go to the Aleutians and the research of Waldemar Jochelson, a Russian anthropologist who did fieldwork among the Aleuts in the early 1900s. Reporting on the factors determining the location of Aleut villages, he says:

All the ancient Aleut villages were situated on the sea-shore, not on the high land above the sea, and usually on land between two bays, so that their skin boats could easily be carried from one body of water to another at the approach of foes. Thus the usual location of villages was on narrow isthmuses, on necks of land between two ridges, on promontories, or narrow sandbanks. An indispensable adjunct to a village was a supply of easily accessible fresh water – a brook, fall, or lake. River-mouths were never used as permanent dwelling places, because the topographical conditions were conducive to unexpected attacks. The underground dwellings of the old Aleut [Aleuts of traditional times]were much like traps; if an attack were made when the inhabitants were within, they could leave it alive only through a single opening in the roof. For this reason villages were built on open places, whence observations could be made far out to sea. Nearly every village had an observatory on a hill where constant watch was kept... 6

Be sure to look for similar kinds of information on problems of community security and how it was a factor in determining settlement patterns for your selected Native group.

Environmental adaptation: a final definition. Now we can complete our definition of environmental adaptation. The Aleut example of defensive positioning as a factor in village location makes it clear that we need to include the social world as well as the natural world in any definition of Alaska Native environmental adaptation. Unless truly isolated over long periods of time, any social group will have some relationship with other groups. As with individuals, all human groups must adapt to the larger social environment in which they live. At any given time this environment can include both friendly and hostile forces. Every Native group conducted some form of foreign relations and provided for its own defense. Warfare, commerce, and alliance-building falls within the general meaning of foreign relations. So we need a definition of environmental adaptation which includes the social as well as the natural environment. Accordingly, our final and complete definition is:

Environmental adaptation occurred when a Native society socially organized itself and developed technologies to a) effectively live in and harvest the material and subsistence resources of its regional environment, and b) to effectively established secure and beneficial relations with other Native groups within their larger social environment.

Land use and aboriginal title
Its not down on any map; true places never are.
” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska v. the United States. This historic Indian law case began way back in 1929 when the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) petitioned Congress to waive the sovereign immunity of the United States so that ANB could sue the federal government for not protecting their aboriginal title to lands in Southeast Alaska. In 1935, Congress agreed with ANB’s aboriginal title argument and said these tribes should have their day in court. Congress then passed what is known as a “jurisdictional act” authorizing the federal Court of Claims to begin investigating the Tlingit and Haida complaint according to certain congressional guidelines. When passing a jurisdictional act, the United States government consents to being sued, thus waiving its sovereign immunity for that purpose only. Sovereign immunity is a legal principle passed down from old English law proclaiming that “a king can do no wrong.” The principle has since been restated to say that one cannot sue the sovereign without the sovereign’s consent. The reasoning is that “sovereignty” would have little meaning if the sovereign does not have complete legal protection – that is, “immunity” – against all claims that might be made against it, whether by its own citizens or by foreign powers. If everyone having a disagreement with governing authorities can sue the state, then the state is without the necessary power to effectively rule. In the case of the Tlingit and Haida, what followed were years of delay and much investigation by the Indian Claims Commission, the only judicial body ever established for the sole purpose of hearing Native American complaints against the federal government and recommending compensation or other forms of restitution.

We know that in 1959 – also the year of Alaska statehood – the Court of Claims ruled in the Tlingit and Haida case that the federal government had indeed violated the aboriginal title of these Southeast Alaska tribes. Therefore these tribes had a right to financial compensation for lands illegally taken from them. Clearly it set the stage for ANCSA by establishing aboriginal title in Alaska as valid legal doctrine. Now all Alaska Natives had a persuasive legal argument to support their land claims petition in Congress. But unlike Native regions and villages under ANCSA, the Tlingit and Haida retained no land in 1959. It was a landless settlement. They received instead financial compensation for lands illegally taken from them over the years. Later, however, Tlingit and Haida villages would recover parcels of land through ANCSA.

Expanding the definition of Aboriginal Title. To prove use and occupancy usually means drawing maps based on the tribe’s oral history of the area, on the written accounts of early visitors to the tribe’s territory, and on other available social and scientific information. Mapping the proof of actual occupancy (the location of Native settlements) has not presented much of a problem. On the other hand, mapping proof of all the territory used by a Native group for subsistence hunting and fishing has resulted in major land claims controversies, not only in Alaska but also in the Lower-48 and in Canada.

Now let’s suppose that during a court hearing on a Native land claim, lawyers for the federal government make the following argument: Okay, we acknowledge these specific areas of the map accurately show where Native people actually resided in traditional times. And we agree that the tribe should be compensated for the loss of this and the immediately surrounding land. But we do not acknowledge the much larger territory they claim to have used for their yearly round of subsistence activities. We understand that aboriginal title means both use and occupancy, but we see no good evidence that the tribe regularly did subsistence on all of the lands claimed by them. In fact, we don’t see how they can make such an extensive claim since the area includes steep, rocky, and barren lands on which no subsistence hunting and fishing could have taken place.

In fact, the federal government actually put forth such a “barren lands” argument in the Tlingit and Haida case. They asserted that some of the claimed lands, particularly along the mountainous boundaries to the east, were inaccessible or useless and should not be included in any claim based on aboriginal title. The Tlingit and Haida had claimed aboriginal title to virtually all lands of southeast Alaska, from Klukwan in the north to Annette Island in the south. To the west they claimed all islands of the Southeast Archipelago as well as all of the mainland including the western slopes of the great mountain ranges to the east. The Court of Claims responded to the federal government’s argument by asking two questions: a) did Alaska tribes in fact use and occupy the lands they claimed? And b) if some of the claimed lands were “barren, inaccessible, and useless,” did the tribes still exercise dominion over these lands? Let’s have the Court speak for itself on this question:

We do not mean to depart in any sense from the rule of long standing that Native title to lands must be shown by proof of actual use and occupancy from time immemorial. But it is obvious from a study of the many cases involving proof of Native title to lands both in this court and at the Native Claims Commission where the Indians have proved that they used and occupied a definable area of land, the barren, inaccessible or useless areas encompassed within such overall tract and controlled and dominated by the owners of that surrounding land, as well as the barren mountain peaks recognized by all as the borders of the area of land, have not been eliminated from the areas of total ownership but rather have been assigned no value in the making of an award, if any, to the Indians. [Emphases ours]

We have emphasized those parts of the opinion where the Court of Claims expanded the definition of aboriginal title beyond use and occupancy. It now included lands over which tribes were traditionally recognized as having dominion, even if not regularly use and occupied by tribal members. Once this part of the case was concluded and full aboriginal land title had been established, a second hearing took place. At this hearing the court calculated the compensation the federal government owed the tribe by determining the value of the land at the time it was illegally taken. It was during the second hearing that the “barren and inaccessible” lands already ruled as part of the tribe’s aboriginal title were subtracted from the total compensation amount. Why? Because they are judged not to have had material value. In 1965, after all the maps were studied and all the financial calculations were done, the Tlingit and Haida received $7.2 million compensation for lands taken from them. (Here is an interesting historical note: The United States purchased Russia’s colonial interests in all of Native Alaska for the same amount, $7.2 million.)

So far we have learned that:

  1. Aboriginal title is a fundamental principle of federal Indian law.
  2. Proving a tribe’s historic occupancy (settlement pattern) of land has been much easier than proving their use of lands and waters which could stretch far beyond the actual settled areas.
  3. Although not compensated for, the barren, unusable lands traditionally under a tribe’s dominion are considered part of their aboriginal title.
  4. Whether in the Tlingit and Haida case or in ANCSA, Native land claims based on aboriginal title should closely match their actual land use patterns in traditional times.

ANCSA and mapping land use. You are required to describe how your selected Native group traditionally used and occupied their lands and waters. Certainly a complete description requires mapping their territorial boundaries and settlement pattern. This mapping exercise raises three interesting questions you should consider researching. First, does your map of traditional land-use correspond to the lands your Native group or groups actually claimed by right of aboriginal title? One place to begin your investigation is with a 1968 study conducted by the Federal Field Committee on Development Planning in Alaska. In order to have reliable information for judging various Native land claims, the Senate Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs asked the Field Committee to undertake a comprehensive research project. Among other things, the Field Committee researched Native patterns of settlement and land use in traditional times. The Committee’s findings were compiled in a major document entitled Alaska Natives and the Land published early in 1969. Their research clearly indicates that the Native claims to most Alaska lands based on aboriginal use and occupancy were valid.7

The second interesting question is: To what extent does your map or the maps in Alaska Natives and the Land correspond to a map of ANCSA lands your Native group actually retained in 1971? Do the boundaries lines match? Did your Native group retain more land or less land or about the same amount of land they originally claimed? The Native corporations in your region should have this information. They may even have the maps you need. In fact, the Field Committee suggested that a fair settlement would be for Alaska Natives to retain 60 million acres. But as we know, the final settlement had Natives retaining only 44 million acres.

And thirdly, there is the ongoing issue of whether Natives have some sort of aboriginal title to hunting and fishing rights on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) beyond Alaska’s three mile jurisdiction. These are federal waters and the courts could decide that ANCSA extinguishment of aboriginal title only applied to Alaska state lands and waters.8 If you are profiling a coastal Native group, two further research questions arise: Did they hunt and fish beyond the three mile limit? If so, can a map be drawn showing the area of the OCS where this subsistence activity took place in traditional times?


Review Questions.

Can you define environmental adaptation and explain how this process works?

Can you explain the major differences between Northern Native societies and Southern Native societies and the way different environments shaped the nature of these societies?

Why do we say beware of false dichotomies when studying Alaska Native societies?

Why have we been forced to look at aspects of traditional Native social life even before we get to the chapter on Social Organization?

Why is it important to add a social dimension to our definition of environmental adaptation?

Why is it easier to prove traditional settlement patterns than traditional land use?

How did the Court of Claims expand the definition of aboriginal title in the Tlingit and Haida case?

Some Alaska Native tribes may still have a claim of aboriginal title on the Outer Continental Self. Explain.



  1. The basic framework for illustrating differences between northern and southern Alaska Native societies is found in Joan Townsend’s “Ranked Societies of the Alaskan Pacific Rim,” Senri Ethnological Studies,4, 1979, pp 123–156.

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

  3. Burch Jr., Ernest, The Traditional Eskimo Hunters of Point Hope, Alaska, 1800–1875. Barrow, Alaska: The North Slope Borough, 1981

  4. Ellanna, Linda J. and Sherrod, George K., From Hunters to Herders:The Transformation of Earth, Society, and Heaven Among the Iñupiaq of Beringia, Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska – Fairbanks, August, 2004, p. 135.

  5. In re Sah Quah, 1 Alaska. Fed. Rpts. 136 (1886).

  6. Margaret Lantis, (Ed.), Ethnohistory in Southwestern and the Southern Yukon: Method and Content. The University Press of Kentucky, 1970, pp. 179-180.

  7. Alaska Natives and the Land, Chapter 3, “Land and Ethnic Relationships.” (See the bibliographic reference for a full citation and the document’s online location.)

  8. See: David Case and David Voluck, Alaska Natives and American Laws (Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press, 2002) pp. 306-307 .

Table of Contents | Chapter 5

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Last modified July 6, 2011