Athabascan Native American History

Navajo History

Historically, the Ahtna and Upper Tanana Athabascans resided in the interior of Alaska. No one knows for sure when humans first reached the Copper River Basin of Interior Alaska, but by 8,000 yea

rs ago, caribou hunters began visiting Tangle Lakes, located at the head of the Gulkana River. As glacial ice retreated, humans eventually entered the Wrangell Mountains. Archaeological evidence has established a record of continuous human presence in the middle Copper Basin for the past 1,000 years, although it was probably occupied much earlier. Some believe that the area was originally settled by the Eyak. The Ahtna, however, replaced them long ago, and the Eyak lived in villages on the coast of the Gulf of Alaska.


Athabascan people customarily lived in Interior Alaska, an expansive region that begins south of the Brooks Mountain Range and continues down to the Kenai Peninsula. There are eleven linguistic groups of Athabascans in Alaska. Athabascan people have customarily lived along five major river ways: the Yukon, the Tanana, the Susitna, the Kuskokwim, and the Copper river drainages. Athabascans were predominantly nomadic, traveling in small groups to fish, hunt and trap. Today, the Athabascan people live throughout Alaska and the Lower 48, returning to their home territories to harvest traditional resources. The Athabascan people call themselves ‘Dena,’ or ‘the people.’ In traditional and contemporary practices Athabascans

are taught respect for all living things. The most important part of Athabascan subsistence living is sharing. All hunters are part of a kin-based network in which they are expected to follow traditional customs for sharing in the community.

The Athabascans traditionally lived in small groups of 20 to 40 people that moved systematically through the resource territories. Annual summer fish camps for the entire family and winter villages served as base camps. Depending on the season and regional resources, several tradition

al house types were used. Athabascan Indians have the largest land base of any other Alaska Native group. The Athabascan are efficient hunters and fishers and the moose, caribou, salmon and the birch tree are the most important resources. These provide food, clothes and shelter. In summer, they spend a great deal of time at their fish camps along major river systems – including the Yukon, Tanana, Innoko, Chandelar, Koyokuk and Tolovana rivers. In winter, they hunt caribou, moose and smaller animals. There are 11 different lan

guages spoken by Alaskan Athabascans.

Usual tools were made of stone, antlers, wood, and bone. Such tools were used to build houses, boats, snowshoes, clothing, and cooking utensils. Birch trees were used wherever they were found. Traditional clothing reflects the resources. For the most part, clothing w

as made of caribou and moose hide. Moose and caribou hide moccasins and boots were important parts of the wardrobe. Styles of moccasins vary depending on conditions. Both men and women are proficient at sewing, although women customarily did most of skin sewing. Canoes were fashioned of birch bark, moose hide, and cottonwood. All Athabascans used snowshoes and sleds, with and without dogs to pull them; and dogs as pack animals. Traditional regalia varies from region to region. Ceremonial dress may include men’s beaded jackets, shell necklaces, beaded tunics and women’s beaded dancing boots.

The Athabascans have matrilineal system in which children belong to the mother’s clan, rather than to the father’s clan, with the exception of the Holikachuk and the Deg Hit’an. Clan elders made decisions concerning marriage, leadership, and trading customs. Often the core of the traditional group was a woman and her brother, and their two families. In such a combination the brother and his sister’s husband often became hunting partners for life. Sometimes these hunting partnerships started when a couple married. Traditional Athabascan husbands were expected to live with the wife’s family during the first year, when the new husband would work for the family and go hunting with his brothers-in-law. A central feature of traditional Athabascan life was, and still is for some, a system whereby the mother’s brother takes social responsibility for training and socializing his sister’s children so that the children grow up knowing their clan history and customs. Trade was a principle activity of Athabascan men, who formed trading partnerships with men in other communities and cultures as part of an international system of diplomacy and exchange. Traditionally, partners from other tribes were also, at times, enemies, and traveling through enemy territory was dangerous.

Denali, the “High One,” is the name Athabascan native people gave the massive peak that crowns the 600-mile-long Alaska Range. Denali is also the name of an immense national park and preserve created from the former Mount McKinley National Park. Denali National Park and Preserve exemplifies interior Alaska’s character as one of the world’s last great frontiers, its wilderness is largely unspoiled.