The name "Athabascan" comes 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 was a descriptive name for the lake. The name was extended to refer to those Indian groups which lived west of the lake. It also refers to the large language family of which all the languages of Athabascan Indians are a part.
There are eleven different Athabascan languages in Alaska, many others in Canada, some in California and Oregon, and the Navajo and Apache languages in the Southwestern United States.
The Athabascan people call themselves ‘Dena,’ or ‘the people.’
Athabascan Regional Bands
Within each of the eleven Alaskan Athabascan language groups there are local dialects, and in the past each dialect corresponded with a social and geographical unit called a "regional band," made up of from 30 to 100 nuclear families. (A nuclear family is a unit consisting of parents and their still dependant children.)
The eleven language groups themselves were not political units, and Athabascans did not recognize membership in any group larger than the regional band (dialect group). For example, although the language of several regional bands was Ingalik, members of those regional bands did not consider themselves part of a large group called "Ingalik". The eleven language groups are externally observed groups, not groups in the minds of the Athabascans themselves.
Group formation was dependent on the number of people who could most efficiently utilize the resources available. Since different resources required different numbers of people, a person belonged to several different social groupings in any one year.
For instance, summer fish camp often brought an entire regional band together. There were enough fish for all, and often the site for fish camp was the part of the local river system which was most abundant in fish. The entire regional band might also join together for fall caribou hunts, when the cooperation of all members was necessary to repair and man the caribou fence.
Athabascan Local Bands
In the winter, the regional band might split up into smaller units, called local bands, each one made up of perhaps four nuclear families. Each local band had its own territory within the territory of the regional band, and engaged in hunting and trapping activities at this time of year.
The regional band might meet again at a predetermined place and time in mid-winter for a gathering ceremony called a potlatch, and then split up again for beaver and muskrat trapping.
Athabascans loosly recognized membership in a regional band (dialect group) as described above, but the more important social unit was the local band.
Athabascan Kinship Roles
Local band members were generally related to each other in some manner, either on the mother's or father's side. Although kinship was determined on both sides, each person also had a more specific identification with relatives in the maternal line.
A person belonged to the same "side", "clan" or "sib" as his mother, and all other members of the same sib were relatives of a very special nature. One couldn't marry a member of the same sib (but one could marry members of one's father's sib). In addition, wars and potlatches were sib affairs.
Most of the Alaskan Athabascan Indian groups recognized three sibs, and each sib was in some cases divided into smaller named family units. Sibs have not operated in some areas for many years, however, and neither Indians nor anthropologists are aware of the total importance which the sibs had in pre-contact days.
Athabascan social grouping also honored individual choices
Each person was free to choose his local band affiliation within certain bounds. In general, a person was accepted into a band as long as he had relatives in the band. Aside from this limitation, people could choose among several local bands within a regional band. This allowed the local bands to be fluid groups, with individuals changing membership as personality conflicts or availability of game dictated.
Each regional band (and, to some extent, each individual) had its own life-ways, beliefs, and customs. Despite the differences between bands, certain generalizations can be made about Athabascan life. Those things which were common to all the groups, were on the one hand, the parts of the culture which were most dependent on the environment. And were most closely adapted to the environ-ment, and on the other hand, were a series of beliefs about the environment which remained fairly constant across the linguistic boundaries.
For instance, Athabascans used every available resource in their food quest. Thus, the general pattern of life was one of fishing in the summer and fall, to take advantage of the salmon runs and schools of whitefish and grayling, with hunting caribou in the fall, trapping water mammals in the spring, and harvesting vegetable foods (roots and berries) in the spring, summer and fall. The food quest was, of course, much more complicated than that, but the general pattern was very similar throughout the interior.
Variations occurred where the environment was slightly different from the inland wooded riverine environment. Thus, the groups who lived on Cook Inlet took advantage of the abundant source of sea mammals which was available to them. The Ingalik and Lower Koyukon groups which lived along the Lower Yukon where fish runs were large and regular spent a greater part of their year harvesting fish than did those groups farther inland. Finally, people in groups such as the Chandalar Kutchin, who lived in the foothills of the Brooks Range, spent a larger percentage of their time hunting big game animals like caribou and mountain sheep.
Athabascan beliefs and customs
The animistic belief system was common to all Alaskan Athabascan groups. All creatures, and some inanimate objects, had spirits which were active and powerful components of those creatures. The spirits enabled an animal to know more than was immediately apparent to him. Thus, if human beings did something which displeased the animal's spirit, the animal itself would remain aloof from the people, and the people might starve. There were very definite rules which people had to follow in dealing with animals based on this belief in animal spirits. The specific rules differed from area to area, but the general concept was the same.
Material culture was also similar throughout Interior Alaska, again with variations depending on the specific environmental conditions of specific areas. The Ingalik, with their heavy reliance on fish, had many more specialized fishing implements than did other groups. The Tanaina, bordered by Eskimos and close to Tlingits, borrowed various elements of material culture from those cultures.
Winter camp was made up of several households, and although the exact house plan and building materials varied from area to area, the winter houses of many Athabascan groups were similar.
They were semi-subterranean structures made of a wood frame covered by birch or spruce bark, which was itself covered by moss, and topped with dirt. All that was visible of the houses from ground level were mounds of snow with smoke curling out of the centers.
The most obvious variations from this type of winter house appeared in the Cook Inlet Tanaina and Ingalik areas. Tanaina winter houses were also semi-subterranean, but they were larger than the interior Athabascan houses, and housed several families. The outsides of Tanaina houses were composed of wood boards chinked with moss between the boards and then thatched with grass, rather than the bark/moss/dirt combination adopted by most Athabascan bands. They were called "barabaras" by the Russians, and that name has since been adopted to identify Tanaina houses.
Ingalik homes were also semi-subterranean, though they were built on a model which closely resembled Eskimo winter houses more than the "typical" Athabascan model described above. Eskimo influence was also evident in that Ingalik villages contained kashims, or large men's houses, used as men's sleeping quarters and workrooms and as ceremonial centers.
The semi-subterranean house plan used by most Alaskan Native groups in winter is excellent for retaining heat, because there is little surface area through which heat can escape, and cold winds cannot penetrate the structure. In addition, the many layers of insulation used on Interior Athabascan winter houses kept the inside quite warm.
The make-up of an Athabascan household was variable, even within a single band. An extremely charismatic leader, who was usually a good hunter, might house several families in his home. Other households might hold two nuclear families, or might hold an extended family consisting of a man and woman, their young children, a sibling or two, and their aged parents.
Often the core of this traditional group was a woman and her brother. The brother and his sister's husband often became hunting partners for life. Sometimes these hunting partnerships started when a couple married.
In traditional families, 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.
The exception is the Tanaina household, which contained several nuclear families. In almost all cases, more than one set of adults lived in a single house. This had implications for child rearing, since any children in the house benefited from having a variety of role models and protectors, as well as potential step-parents should their own die.
The Athabascans have a matrilineal system in which children belong to the mother's clan, with the exception of the Holikachuk and the Deg Hit'an.
Athabascan Wars and Feuds
Relations between neighboring bands were not always friendly. Wars among people of different bands and between the Indians and neighboring cultures (particularly Eskimo and Tlingit) were quite frequent in pre-contact times. These wars took the form of surprise raids and ambushes rather than open, planned, hand-to-hand combat. A war became a feud when two groups continually raided each other's settlements in retaliation of casualties incurred during previous attacks.
The original motives for wars seem to have been desire for women and for goods, and, in the case of ongoing feuds, revenge. When a member of a person's family was killed, it was his duty to avenge that death. If the murderers were of a different band and totally unrelated, the death of a member of the murderer's family was often the only satisfactory payment for the first murder. On the other hand, a family sometimes accepted payment in goods for the death of a relative, the amount of payment depending on the status of the dead person. People were more likely to accept payment from a close friend or relative than from strangers or members of an enemy group.
Most feuds were basically family or sib affairs, not regional band affairs. It was the family's responsibility to avenge the death of one of its members, although other band members who were not members of the same sib sometimes went along.
Since kin relationships extended beyond the band, often a member of one band might warn a relative in an enemy band that an attack was imminent. This seems to have happened as often as did cooperation among different families within the band. A person could choose whether or not he wished to take part in a raid.
Today there are eleven Athabascan languages in Alaska: 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.
Are Eskimos and Inuit the same people?
I answered a letter a while ago, from someone at a museum in Alaska. They wanted to know why Inuit (which I am of) dislike being called "Eskimos." After all, many Alaskans don't mind being called Eskimos, and even seem to dislike the term "Inuit" when southerners apply it them, however well-intentioned. I am not surprised by the confusion.
Alaskan Native Cultures
There are three types of Alaskan Natives with different cultural and linquistic history. They are Indian, Eskimo and Aleut. These are further defined by eleven distinct cultures.
Eskimo / Esquimaux
Eskimo is the term used when speaking of Inupiaq and Yupik people collectively or to mean all Inuit and Yupik people of the world.