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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Do not quote or copy without permission from Mike Gaffney or from Ray Barnhardt at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska-Fairbanks.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 Five The Six Parts of Culture


The broad scientific field of anthropology is built on the concept of culture. It figures in almost everything anthropologists and ethnohistorians do, whether studying ancient human remains or a society’s social organization or a people’s folklore and oral traditions. Even political scientists talk about a “civic culture.” This is why we have said that the concept of culture is has become quite elastic. Indeed, there are almost as many definitions of culture as there are books on anthropology and ethnohistory. Why? Because each has its own purpose which requires defining culture in a specific way. Certainly the concept of culture is central to our work here. To fit our purposes here, we define culture as a distinct way of life and way of thinking about life that is closely share by a socially organized group of people over an extended period of time. The remainder of your Cultural Profile Project deals with traditional use and occupancy of land, social organization, worldview, and cultural products – the very essence of Native life in those days. So before proceeding, we take a timeout here to break this definition down into its six essential parts.

Part 1 – Culture is distinctive. Something about a group’s culture — their way of life and how they think about that life — distinguishes them from other groups. Their cultural identity is directly tied to their feeling that “unlike other people known to us, we believe and practice these things.” In turn, other groups acknowledge such differences from their own cultural perspectives. It can be argued that the word “culture” would not exist if all people everywhere looked the same, spoke the same language, organized their societies the same way, and shared the same values, and traditions.

Part 2 – Culture is shared. A distinct way of life and way of thinking about life, is closely shared by members of the group. The cultural rules, core values, and cherished traditions are learned at an early age and understood by all members. This learned cultural knowledge provides a mental road map for navigating through everyday life. It is a road map we carry in the back of our heads. We do not consciously think about these cultural rules, values, and traditions as we go about our daily lives. We simply do our culture, mostly without giving it a second thought.1

Anton Chekhov, the great Russian playwright, once observed that “Any idiot can face a crisis. It is this day-to-day living that wears you out.” Chekhov was talking about daily life within his own cultural setting. But what about living and working in very different cultural surroundings where we start out with few clues on how to appropriately act as daily events unfold? Imagine how exhausting life would be if we had to stop and think about every encounter we had with a local person and about each word we uttered during the day. Anyone who has lived for any length of time in a very different cultural setting knows of this experience. Often it is called “culture shock.” We are not talking about the short, protected experience of a tourist. We are talking about, for example, the experience of Peace Corps volunteers who spend two years working in foreign environments, often in remote areas. We are talking about elderly Native people whose whole life has been in the village of their ancestors but who now must go to the city to find work or receive specialized medical care. And we are talking about the young non-Native teacher who accepts a position teaching in an isolated Alaska Native village after spending his entire life in New York City.

Part 3 – Social organization and cultural rules. If a way of life – a culture – is recognized as having distinctive elements closely shared by a group of people, than it must be considered a living reality. Culture is not simply an abstract idea in some outside observer’s mind. It is a real thing having real meaning and consequences for members of the group. And to have such meaning and consequences, the culture must have a social organization, an institutional structure which at least meets the basic needs of the group.

To identify a social institution we ask this question: Is there a clearly defined category of people who repeatedly come together to accomplish certain tasks or to regulate certain activities of their society? In modern American society, for example, we have religious institutions where various activities of the faithful take place in churches, temples, mosques, and synagogues on a regular basis. Our capitalist economy is largely driven by the institution of the private corporation. In all of these institutional settings, a clearly defined category of people repeatedly come together to accomplish a certain task. In traditional Native societies we have such examples as the I˝upiaq and Siberian Yupik whaling crews, the potlatch among the Tlingit, and the men’s house (qasegiq) among the Central Yup’ik. In each case the same category of people – a whaling crew, a Tlingit clan or house group, Yup’ik men living in the same settlement – come together on a regular basis to perform specific tasks.

Perhaps the most obvious social institution in any culture is some form of a family. Within any cultural group we can detect a pattern of how various family members are expected to treat each other as opposed to treating non-family members. This also includes how to treat members of the larger kinship group such as aunts, uncles, and cousins who may live in a different household or even a different settlement. When viewed across cultures, we can see different kinds of relationships between husband and wife, between parents and children, or between grandparents and grandchildren. Sometimes we can even identify special relationships between aunts and their nieces and between uncles and their nephews. In some societies there exist clear cultural expectations of how older children shall care for their younger sisters and brothers.

Most important, all social institutions are governed by sets of cultural rules. But what do we mean by cultural rules? We mean those commonly understood principles and expectations which guide people’s behavior in everyday life. These rules, moreover, make up a large part of that cultural road map we carry about in the back of our heads as we go about our daily routines. It matters not whether the task is as routine as food preparation for the family or as dramatic as preparing for war. Understanding family roles and relationships within a particular culture, for example, becomes easier once we know the rules for how family members should relate to one another — the son to the father, the granddaughter to the grandmother, the husband to his wife. Of course we can reverse this investigative process. We can try to understand the cultural rules by observing over time the pattern of behavior that takes place among family members

Part 4 – Culture persists over time. The fourth idea helping to define our concept of culture is over time. A distinct culture closely shared by a socially organized group of people most likely arose from adaptations their ancestors made to demands of a particular natural and social environment many years ago. As long as these environments remain reasonably stable down through time, so too should a people’s social institutions remain stable.

Such cultural stability was the historical condition of Alaska Native life until the invasions brought sustained contact with powerful, culturally different outsiders. This, however, does not mean that pre-invasion Native life was without events triggering major social change for many Native communities. Indeed, the more we learn about pre-contact Native life, the more action-packed it becomes, filled with tales of hostilities between Native groups that lasted for years and resulted in the death of many and the dislocation of entire communities. Nevertheless, such pre-invasion conflict and change was usually confined to a region and affected only several Native groups at any one time. Certainly there was death and destruction in traditional times. But it was not the basic social organization and cultural values of the warring parties that was under attack. Even if beaten in battle or hit by a natural catastrophe, the customs and values of the surviving people continued much as before. With the Russian and American invasions, however, it was precisely Native social organizations and cultural values that came under direct attack.

Part 5 – A distinct speech community. The emphasis here is on speech community, not language as such. In both modern and traditional times, the way people speak a language may be as significant a badge of cultural identity as speaking the language itself. A group of people may speak the same language as other groups inhabiting the same general culture area. But they speak and use it in ways that distinguishes them from these other groups. Consider the famous line attributed to Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during World War Two. He remarked that “Great Britain and the United States are two great democracies divided by a common language.” If he were to use our terms, Churchill would reword his statement to say that Great Britain and the United States share a common language but are two different speech communities.

Although, for example, its basic vocabulary and grammar is commonly shared by other American speech communities, the everyday English spoken by many African-Americans can be quite distinctive in its spoken style and vocabulary. In fact, words and phrases used by many Americans have their origins in the “Black English” speech community. Here are just a few examples: cat – originally a jazz musician, now anyone of the male gender; cool – calm, controlled; dig it – to understand, appreciate, pay attention; bad – really good. The Head of the African and African-American Studies Department at Harvard University, Henry Louis Gates Jr., makes this point:

“It [black English] becomes part of the mainstream in a minute," the poet Amiri Baraka told me, referring to the black vernacular. “We hear the rappers say, 'I'm outta here' - the next thing you know, Clinton's saying, 'I'm outta here.'" And both Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush are calling out, "Bring it on," like dueling mike- masters at a hip-hop slam. Talk about changing places. Even as large numbers of black children struggle with standard English, hip-hop has become the recreational lingua franca of white suburban youth...2 [vernacular = everyday spoken language different from formal written language.]

So, you might ask, what does certain characteristics of the African-American speech community have to do with Native Alaska? We have known for many years that there is an increasing shift from Native languages to English. Those who believe that “to lose your language is to lose your culture” see this language shift as spelling doom for Native cultures. This grim view of a Native future seems to forget two things. The first is the distinctiveness of Native village life historically based a subsistence way of life no matter what language is spoken. The second is the development of various forms of “Alaska Native English.” Consider the following question: Like African-Americans, is there now emerging in Alaska different Native-English speech communities? Perhaps we are at a point in Native history when, for example, a person from an Athabaskan village can say, “Aha, the way that guy speaks and uses English tells me he is, like me, a Koyukon Athabaskan from the Nulato area!”

We have taken time to discuss the idea of speech community because it is a key feature of any culture, whether in modern or traditional times. No concept of culture is complete without some discussion of linguistics – of a group’s language and its characteristics. It is true that language shifts and the development of new speech communities were not major issues in traditional Native times. Bear in mind, however, that even back in those days the particular way one spoke I˝upiaq or Tlingit or any other Native language would reveal one’s home community or region to other speakers of same language, perhaps signaling whether that person is friend or foe.

Part 6 – Worldview is the heart of culture. This sixth element is absolutely central to any description of a cultural group. A people’s worldview is the unique way they think of themselves and make sense of the world they know. It deserves special attention. This is why all of Chapter Seven is devoted to worldview and its various elements. For a definition of worldview we go to the work of the late Oscar Kawagley, a Central Yup’ik scholar. In his book, A Yupiaq Worldview, Dr. Kawagley says:

A worldview consists of the principles we acquire to make sense of the world around us. Young people learn these principles, including values, traditions, and customs, from myths, legends, stories, family, community, and examples set by community leaders...

...Once a worldview has been formed, the people are then able to identify themselves as a unique people. Thus, the worldview enables its possessors to make sense of the world around them, make artifacts [material things] to fit their world, generate behavior, and interpret their experiences. As with many other indigenous groups, the worldviews of the traditional Alaska Native peoples have worked well for their practitioners for thousands of years. 3

Worldview is indeed is the heart of our concept of culture. Why? Because it provides a everyday meaning and legitimacy to a group’s social institutions and cultural identity. It is their worldview that defines, even celebrates, the group’s best image of itself. It describes and promotes what is regarded as the proper attitude toward the spiritual world, the social world of fellow humans, and the natural world and its living creatures.*

As suggested by Professor Kawagley, much of a culture’s worldview is revealed by what adults insist be taught to the young. Whether modern or traditional, every society down through time has established institutions to educate the young in all aspects of the group’s worldview. The long-term survival of any culture and cultural identity ultimately depends on how effectively a coherent worldview is passed down from generation to generation. In modern society, for example, we have schools, youth organizations, and children’s television programs like Sesame Street. In one form or another, these American institutions teach cultural values as well as skills and information.

In traditional Native societies it was other kinds of institutions which performed vital educational functions. Among the matrilineal societies of southern Alaska, for example, there existed an important educational institution called the avunculate. In matrilineal kinship systems a person traces genealogical descent through the mother’s side. In the matrilineal society of the Tlingit, for example, a person’s most significant kinship ties are with members of the mother’s clan. Personal benefits such as inheritance, property rights, and social status are tied to clan membership. In patrilineal societies, on the other hand, a person’s significant kinship ties and benefits are determined by genealogical descent on the father’s side. European monarchies, for example, traditionally used patrilineal descent to establish who, male or female, ascended to the royal throne as king or queen. [Genealogy: tracing one’s family history back to earliest ancestors.]

The avunculate found in matrilineal societies refers to the relationship between the mother’s brother and her son. In Western terms, it is the relationship between a nephew and his uncle on the mother’s side. This avuncular relationship is considered an educational institution because it was the uncle’s responsibility to oversee the education and training of his sister’s son who, of course, is his nephew. The biological father certainly has parental responsibilities to his son, and the son had a special connection to his father’s clan. But we should not forget that he also had avuncular educational responsibilities within his own clan to his sister’s son. In modern educational terms, the avuncular relationship was like having your own personal instructor in a home schooling situation. This was a fundamental cultural rule. It was a major way the group’s values and knowledge were transmitted to the next generation of males.

Summary lesson. Our six-part concept of culture should remind us that Alaska Natives persisted as culturally organized communities from ancient times. It suggests that this cultural cohesion could only have happened if the group’s institutions and cultural rules continually met the essential human needs of its members under demanding environmental conditions.


Review Questions.

How have we defined the concept of culture?

Why do we have “speech community” rather than language as one of our six parts of culture?

Can you give some examples of cultural rules you follow in your own daily life without having to constantly thinking about them?

Why do we consider worldview to be the heart of any people’s culture?



Suggested Readings:

Major Ecosystems of Alaska (Anchorage: Joint Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission for Alaska, 1973).
Joan Townsend, “Ranked Societies of the Alaskan Pacific Rim,” Senri Ethnological
, 4, 1979, pp 123–156.

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 the elements of the environment shown above. They are exactly the same as listed in the Cultural Profile Project Outline on page three. The chapters to come on Land Use and Occupancy, 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?

Describing elements of a regional environment is fairly straight forward. The climate, topography and so forth are much the same today as they were in traditional times. It needs mentioning, however, that today’s climate appears to be undergoing significant change. As climate changes, so also will topography, flora, and fauna. It presents new environmental conditions to which humans must adapt. Retreating arctic sea ice and its impact on Eskimo whaling is an example. For purposes of this assignment we assume basic elements of today’s regional environments still closely resemble those of traditional times.

The Big Picture

South vs. North. The first thing to notice at the beginning of this chapter is the line of arrows ↓↓ pointing down from Regional Environment to Land Use and Occupancy (Chapter 7), Social Organization (Chapter 8), and Cultural products (Chapter 10). The arrows are intended to 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 that region. Again, the amount and kind of subsistence and material resources available in a particular environment largely determined what that Native society looked like demographically, socially, and technologically. The Aleuts, 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 any map of Alaska which shows the Alaska Range. Denali (Mt. McKinley) is the best known topographic feature of this mountain range which stretches across 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.

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. Their settlements, moreover, were much more permanent because they had easy access to their subsistence resources throughout the year. Unlike many northern Native societies, people did not have 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

Here is another important point. 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 subsistence 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, their clan, or even payment for services by others within the larger community.

Figure 5-1
Interior of Whale House of Chief Klart-Reech, Klukwan,Alaska. c. 1895.

We the People Parch

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 (See Figure 5-1). Sometimes these “longhouses” were as large as 40 x 60 feet. (A full-size basketball court measures 50 x 84 feet). The head of the 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 seasonally marginal subsistence resources found north of the Alaska Range – particularly for interior Athabaskans – meant smaller, more 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 because it has environmental features found in both.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 specialization or no development of specialized 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 Ten.

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.

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 the 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 [Emphasis ours]

Figure 5-2
Alaska Reindeer Camp, c. 1913
A Checkerboard Reservation

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 false dichotomy in modern Native times. A good example of a widely held dichotomy misrepresenting Alaska Native life today is traditional versus modern. One harmful example of this unfortunate dichotomy arose in the 1970s when the Bowhead whale was declared an endangered species and many people in other parts of the world said Eskimo whaling should be completely stopped. They argued that it was no longer a “traditional” subsistence activity because Umialiks (whaling captains) and their crews use modern hunting gear such as harpoon bombs and modern transportation devices such as outboard motors. They further argued that the nine Alaska Eskimo whaling communities now have many modern conveniences such as electricity and access to store-brought foods as well as other consumer goods. Therefore these Iñupiaq and Siberian Yupik whaling communities lead modern lives and can no longer claim a cultural or economic need for subsistence whaling.

Of course these outsiders knew little about the vital role whaling has always played within the subsistence culture and economy of Eskimo whaling communities. What they did not understand or chose to ignore is described by the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC):

The size of the (bowhead) whale makes it an important part of the annual subsistence harvest. The taste of the various parts of the whale makes it prized as food. The communal nature of the hunt and the sharing of the whale give it a central place in the spiritual and physical culture of the region. The bowhead provides life, meaning, and identity to the Eskimo whalers and their communities.

Sharing the whale with the whole community, and with other communities too, is an old and highly- valued practice. At the butchering site, the parts of the whale are divided among the whaling crews, with some shares reserved for elders and widows and other parts kept for festivals. At these festivals, including Thanksgiving and Christmas as well as the traditional feasts of Nalukataq and Qagruvik, the food of the whale is given to everyone who comes to take part. In this way, tons of meat find their way throughout the region all year long.6

Outside pressure on Alaska Eskimo whaling communities intensified in 1977 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a complete ban on Eskimo whaling. The IWC ban was in response to scientific reports that the bowhead whale population had fallen to a total of 2,000, maybe even as low as 600. Not long after, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) was organized. Its members were Umialiks representing the nine whaling villages and they quickly went into action. They disputed these numbers, arguing that they were much too low, and that the ban did considerable harm to the health and culture of their whaling villages. But they were only successful in getting the IWC to shift from a complete whaling ban to a small quota of allowable whale strikes. The key term here is “strikes”. Obviously “to strike” a whale does not guarantee that you will ultimately harvest that whale. A whale may survive the strike and escape, which means you have used up one of your allotted strikes and achieved no benefit. If they were to abide by this international rule yet meet their subsistence needs, Eskimo whaling crews had but one option — to use the most modern and effective equipment to ensure that a whale struck was a whale harvested.

This increased use of modern devices gave still more ammunition to all those outsiders pressing for a end to all whaling, including that done by subsistence-based indigenous communities throughout the Arctic. Many of these people were members of large, well organized, and powerful environmental and animal rights groups. So the political pressure was immense and the Eskimo whalers were trapped in the dilemma of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” If they didn’t use modern equipment, they could not close the strike – harvest gap. On the other hand, if they did use the latest equipment, then they were labeled “modern” and judged to have no essential ties to the cultural traditions and nutritional benefits of whaling.

The dichotomy is proven false. After a series of confrontations with federal officials, the AEWC reached an agreement with The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency responsible for managing whale protection. In 1981, NOAA delegated to the Umialiks of the AEWC management authority over Eskimo whaling. This allowed the AEWC to manage the hunt without the presence of federal agents in whaling communities. Today it is the Umialiks who supervise whale hunting in the nine whaling communities and report to NOAA.

Using traditional Eskimo knowledge of whale behavior along with modern scientific technology, there are now much better methods for estimating the population of bowheads. As a result, the ICC reported in 1992 that the population level of bowheads was increasing and no longer a cause for concern. This has helped the whalers secure increased quotas based on the subsistence needs of the whaling villages. In cooperation with NOAA, a Whaling Weapons Improvement Program was organized in an effort to increase the safety and reliability of whaling weapons and equipment. One example is use of a float equipped with a radio transmitter to find whales in fog and rough water.7

After years of political strife and cultural distress, it is now understood that thinking based on the traditional – modern dichotomy greatly distorts the realities of Eskimo whaling cultures. The dichotomy was also found to be a major obstacle to resolving the international issue of how to maintain healthy bowhead whale populations. By using traditional Eskimo knowledge of whale behavior along with modern marine science, this ancient culture of the Arctic and the whale population on which it depends has a much better chance of survival.

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 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 hunting and gathering, what were their primary and secondary subsistence resources, and what hunting and fishing 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 topographical 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 topographical 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: a summary. The first thing your Cultural Profile must do is describe the regional environment to which your selected Native group had to make adaptations over time. In later chapters you will go below the line of arrows to land use, social Organization and cultural products and describe how the Native group made these necessary adaptations. Environmental adaptation is the concept tying together all these elements. And again, we mean by this concept the process by which a Native society socially organized itself and developed the technology and knowledge to effectively harvest the resources of its region. Obviously a Native group had to have the right hunting and fishing technologies to survive within 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, finally, 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.

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 life in traditional as well as in modern times?

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

* Professor Kawagley employs the appellation Yupiaq when referring to Central Yup’ik people. In his Native People of Alaska, Steve Langdon favors Yupiit.4 To be consistent throughout our project, we stick with the Alaska Native Language Center’s appellation of Central Yup’ik. [Appellation: the name by which someone or some group is known.]



  1. The idea that cultural knowledge largely consists of mundane, taken for granted, often invisible rules governing social interactions in everyday life is well explained in the works of James Spradley and David McCurdy. See their: The Cultural Perspective. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. 1989. Also see: Susan Philips The Invisible Culture: Communication in Classroom and Community on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation (Long Grove, Ill:Waveland Press,1992).

  2. Henry Louis Gates Jr. ”Axing a Few Questions About Black Vernacular,” New York Times, October 2004.

  3. Oscar Kawagley, A Yupiaq Worldview (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. 1995) pp. 7-8.

  4. Steve Langdon, Native People of Alaska (Anchorage: Greatland Graphics, 5th edition, 2002).

Table of Contents | Chapter 6

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Last modified July 6, 2011