Athabascans of Interior Alaska: 4th Grade Social Studies Unit: Alaskan Athabascans
Patricia H. Partnow
Cover design by
Indian Education Act Project
Anchorage School District
Under Grant #0969A
Part A, Title IV
All human beings need certain things to stay alive. You know what they are: food, air, water, clothing, and shelter. All human beings need these things, but different people get them in different ways. It is the different ways that Alaska Natives have used to get their basic needs that you will be studying. These ways are part of what we call a culture.
Before learning about people in other places or times, look at the way you fulfill your needs right now in Anchorage. How do you get food, air, water, clothing, and shelter? Where do the things you need come from? Could your family get them if you were the only people living in the area? If there were no town, stores, or money, could you fulfill your basic needs?
Perhaps you can imagine how you would survive: You would make use of the natural environment of the area. You would get your food clothing, shelter, water, and air from the plants, animals, minerals, and features of the natural environment.
What is your natural environment? The natural environment in Anchorage is not always easy to find. You have to imagine this area without all its houses, roads, buildings, bike trails, footbridges, water wells, playgrounds, and lawns. These things are all part of the man-made environment of Anchorage.
Lets look at Anchorage without its man-made environment. It is an area with some birch trees, some spruce and hemlock. There are swampy areas. There are marshy areas where birds nest. There are clear streams flowing down from the mountains, with salmon, and trout swimming up them in the summer and fall. There is tundra on the hills above the treeline. And there are many kinds of wildlife, such as moose, bears, sheep, clams, fish and birds.
This natural environment is what the Tanaina (also spelled Denaina) Athabascans found when they first arrived in the Anchorage area a long time ago. It was from this natural environment that they fulfilled their basic needs.
When those early Tanainas came to Anchorage, the first thing they had to do was learn about the environment. They had to learn what resources were in it. They had to know what time of year to get the resources. They had to know where and how to get the resources. It took each person many years to learn all those details. You'll be learning a few of them in this unit.
After the early Tanaina Athabascans In this area got the things they needed to fulfill their basic needs, the next step was to use those things. It takes a lot of knowledge to use the natural environment well. For instance, after they had found, tracked, and killed a moose. the Tanainas needed to know how to butcher it. They needed to know which parts could be used for food, which parts to make tools, which parts could become clothes. They need to know how to preserve the meat.
The ways in which people use or change the things from their natural environment to meet a need are called their adaptations to the natural environment. One example of an adaptation to our natural environment is a house. A house uses materials from the environment to protect against the rain, snow, and cold. It helps keep people warm, and so fulfills the basic need for shelter.
The early Athabascans made many adaptations to their environment. And today, all Alaskans. both Athabascans and non-Athabascans are still making and using adaptations. Many of our adaptations today no longer meet basic needs. Paved roads, for instance, are an adaptation to the need to travel quickly in cars. But that is not a basic need.
In this unit, you will be looking at some of the ways some Alaskan Athabascans have adapted to their environments in the past. You will learn that, unlike the way many Alaskans live today, the early Athabascans used mostly their natural environment in adapting. You will learn, too, that even today, many Athabascans prefer to live where they can be close to the natural environment, adapting to it in old and new ways.
If you are an Athabascan Indian, you are one of about 200,000 people in North America. There are more Athabascans than any other American Indian group. In Alaska alone there are about 6,400 Athabascans, and there are also Athabascan groups in Canada, California, and the American Southwest. But what does the word Athabascan mean?
The word "Athabascan" is used to talk about a group of languages which were once, thousands of years ago, the same language. Over the years people moved away from each other and their languages started to become different. At first, just the accents were different--something like the difference between a Southern accent and an English accent. But people were so far apart that they never talked to each other, and slowly different
words took on different meanings, or the words themselves changed. For Instance, the word for "gloves" became "gech" for one group of people and "gis" for another group of people. Through the years the differences between the two groups became greater and greater until people in one area could no longer understand people in another area. Whenever that happens, we say that the two groups of people speak different languages.
That is what happened to the Athabascan language. Today there are eleven Athabascan languages in Alaska alone: Ahtna, Tanaina (also spelled Denaina), Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Han, Kutchin (more correctly spelled "Gwich'in"), and Ingalik (more correctly Deg Hit'an). There are other Athabascan languages in Canada. And there are two well-known Athabascan languages in the American Southwest: Apache and Navajo.
The word "Athabascan" is used to talk about both the languages and the people who speak (or whose ancestors spoke) that language. The name "Athabascan" originally came from the large lake in Canada called "Lake Athabasca". The lake was given its name by the Cree Indians, who lived east of it. In Cree, "Athabasca" means "grass here and there", and described the lake. The name was also used to talk about the Indian groups that lived west of the lake.
You can see on the language map of Alaska that the area inhabited by Athabascans is one of the largest of the Native areas in the state. The area is all inland, except for the part around Cook Inlet. Find the Athabascan settlements on the map. You can see that most of them are located on rivers, what needs can you think of that rivers might help fulfill?
UPPER TANANA ATHABASCANS
The map of Alaska shows eleven different groups of Athabascan Indians speaking eleven different languages in Alaska. You don't have time to learn about every group, so you will concentrate on one group in this unit: the Upper Tanana Athabascans. As you learn about that group, remember that each Athabascan area is a little different, and so are the customs of the people living in each area.
You will be reading a book called Tetlin As I Knew It. It was written by Shirley Jimerson, an Upper Tanana Athabascan who now lives in Anchorage but who grew up in Tetlin. In her book, she describes the way life was when she was a little girl, in the 1950's. Life changes for people all over the world, and life has changed in the Tetlin area too. Nowadays there are more stores, and snowmachines and more people going to school than there were in the 1950's. Nowadays men don't trap with their families as much. Instead, they go with friends and leave the families in town so the children can go to school. And nowadays more and more men and women are working for money, instead of surviving from the natural environment.
Life is different now from the way it was when Shirley Jimerson was little. As you read, try to find clues to the way life was different for Shirley than for her mother and father when they were little.
THERES MORE TO CULTURE THAN BASIC NEEDS
You've learned a little bit about how the Upper Tanana Athabascans adapted to fulfill their basic needs in the area around Tetlin. But you've also learned something else: you've learned some of what the life meant to the people as they were busy getting their food, water, clothing, and shelter. You've learned what they thought about their hunting and trapping. These thoughts are another part of their culture. In your mind, review what you've read and try to think of all the feelings and thoughts Shirley Jimerson expressed about her life.
Then think about your own life. You have certain feelings and thoughts about it too. Most of us have strong feelings about our birthdays, vacations, school, family, and friends. These are all parts of the culture we live in.
Shirley Jimerson's book was written about a time not too long ago when life was beginning to change for the Upper Tanana Athabascans. The next book you'll read is about a time longer ago than that. It is about a time fifty years ago and more. In those days, people didn't live in villages. They moved around throughout the year, even more than Shirley's family did. They called a very big area of land their home, and each camp they stopped in was home too. And they knew the miles of land in between camps as well as you know your own yard or playground.
This next book, called When People Meet Animals, explores more of the cultures of some of the Athabascan groups. It tells more about the feelings and thoughts the people had about the things they did in fulfilling their basic needs.
AN UP-DATE - TANAINA (DENAINA) TERRITORY TODAY
At the beginning of our study of Athabascan culture, you learned that the Tanaina (or Denaina) Athabascans came to the Anchorage area long ago. At least 300 years ago, perhaps longer, they first began living here.
Of course, Tanainas still live in the Anchorage area. Many Tanainas live in Anchorage itself, while others live in villages close to town. The closest one is Eklutna, north of Anchorage near Eagle River and Chugiak.
Eklutna has been a winter village of the Tanainas since they first came to this area. It is close to Cook Inlet fishing resources. Eklutna flats plant resources, and good sheep hunting areas. Eklutna was one of many settlements which the Cook Inlet Tanainas used. Other Upper Inlet Tanainas used the land in the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys, up and down the Knik and Susitna River systems. They had villages in all of those areas. The large and small lakes, including Big Lake, Nancy Lake and Eklutna Lake were part of their territory. The Upper Inlet Tanainas also used the land where the city of Anchorage is now. The area at the mouth of Ship Creek was at one time an important Tanaina fish camp.
In the 1800's, Russians traveled up Cook Inlet to Tanaina territory. They brought money and goods to exchange for furs. They also brought something else--their religion.
More than a hundred years ago, a Russian Orthodox church was built in the village of Eklutna. That church, along with a new one completed in 1963, still stands today. Many Tanainas belong to the Russian Orthodox faith.
In the late 1800's and early 190O's, many Tanainas trapped for furs and sold the furs to traders. They used the money they got to buy some items of food, clothing, and tools. They still used many of the old skills and knowledge of their natural environment. And they still hunted for most of their food. Even so, they had adapted to a new way of life which used money.
Then in 1914 the Alaska Railroad was begun. This was to run from Seward to Fairbanks, and it cut right through the Tanaina area. Many Upper Inlet Tanainas worked on building the railroad. Eklutna itself became one of the railroad stations along the route. The people living there could now easily get the goods they wanted from other parts of Alaska and the lower 48. They had winter jobs on the railroad close to their homes. They fished commercially during the summer months. Their fishing sites were the same ones they had used before the new town of Anchorage was started. In fact, some of these sites on Fire Island and Point Possession have been in the same families for 100 years.
Soon after the railroad was built, a school to train people for jobs was started in Eklutna. Many Tanainas got training to work in the new town of Anchorage. But new jobs meant that people didn't have as much time for hunting and fishing as they had in the past. Many people had to buy most of their food and clothing. They had adapted to still another way of life.
In the 1930's, there was another change in the Upper Inlet Tanaina territory. During that time a number of settlers came to the Matanuska Valley from the mid-western part of the United States. These settlers cleared land. They built farms in the territory that had been Tanaina land. With some of the hunting and trapping areas now gone, even more Tanainas moved further south to Anchorage where they could find jobs.
In the early 1950's a tunnel was built through the mountain from Eklutna Lake. This brought water to a power plant which provided electricity to the Anchorage area. It also provided jobs for some village people.
Today, most adults from Eklutna work in the Anchorage area. Some of the older people still fish commercially for a living. Their children go to local schools. People buy most of their food and clothes in stores.
Yet something still remains of the older culture. Parents and grandparents know a lot about the area and its natural resources. Some of them can recall the old ways of adapting to the environment, and some of the old beliefs about the environment. Many people still use the natural resources in fulfilling some of their basic needs. They hunt moose and ducks, pick berries, and fish for some of their food and money. They still feel that the land and its creatures are to be respected and thanked for providing for them.
The Indian Education Program Anchorage School District
Under Grant #0969A
Part A, Title IV