There are eleven linguistic groups of Athabascan Indians in Alaska. Athabascan people have traditionally lived along five major river ways: the Yukon, the Tanana, the Susitna, the Kuskokwim, and the Copper river drainages.
Athabascans migrated seasonally, traveling in small groups to fish, hunt and trap.
Today, Athabascans 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 Athabascan Indians traditionally live in Interior Alaska, an expansive region that begins south of the Brooks Mountain Range and continues down to the Kenai Peninsula.
The area occupied by northern Athapaskan Indians lies directly south of the true arctic regions in a belt of coniferous forests broken in places by high mountains and stretches of treeless tundra.
Except in the far western portion where the Rocky Mountains occur, much of this area is of relatively slight elevation, and there are numerous low, rolling glaciated hills.
Climate of the Athapaskan Region
The climate of the region is is characterized by long, cold winters and short, warm summers. Snowfall is heavier than along the arctic coast, and in general the climate is quite different from the desert-like coastal areas inhabited by the Inuit and Inupiat.
House Types and Settlements
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 traditional house types were used.
Athabascan Tools and Technology
Traditional tools and technology reflect the resources of the regions. Traditional 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.
Athabascan Culture and Social Organization
The Athabascan culture is a 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 culture 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.
Traditional clothing reflects the local resources. For the most part, clothing was 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 adept at sewing, although women traditionally did most of skin sewing.
Canoes were made of birch bark, moose hide, and cottonwood. All Athabascans used sleds –with and without dogs to pull them – snowshoes and dogs as pack animals.
Traditional regalia varies from region to region. Regalia may include men’s beaded jackets, dentalium shell necklaces (traditionally worn by chiefs), men and women’s beaded tunics and women’s beaded dancing boots.
Activities were marked by the passing moons, each named according to the changing conditions: “when the first king salmon comes,” “when the moose loose their antlers,” “little crust comes on snow,” and so on.
The winter was “the time we gathered together.” when scattered families returned to thier winter villages, hunted smaller animals close by and gathered for potlaches and other community celebrations.