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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.