Athabaskan is the name of a language group, also called Na-Dene or Apachean, that includes languages associated with Native American and First Nation people that today live in Alaska, northwest Canada, and coastal Oregon and California.
Despite huge social and economic changes in interior Alaska and northern Canada in recent decades, Athabaskan peoples continue to rely on barren-ground caribou for traditional food, cultural continuity and spiritual sustenance.
A significant decline in the numbers of barren-ground caribou is expected as a result of climate change. Indeed, this species is a bellwether of the impacts and effects of climate change throughout northern North America and is a determinant of the health and welfare of Athabaskan communities.
The Athabaskan peoples, residing in Arctic and sub-Arctic Alaska, U.S.A., and the Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories of Canada have traditionally occupied a vast geographic area of approximately 3 million square kilometers. This vast region has been continuously occupied by Athabaskan peoples for at least 10,000 years and includes three of North America’s largest river systems (Mackenzie, Yukon and Churchill Rivers). It also includes vast areas of both tundra (barren lands) and taiga (boreal forest) as well as North America’s highest mountains (Mount McKinley and Mount Logan) and the world’s largest non-polar ice field (St. Elias Mountains). The southeastern boundary of the Arctic Athabaskan peoples’ traditional territories includes portions of provincial northern Canada.
The ancestors of contemporary Athabaskan peoples were semi-nomadic hunters. The staples of Athabaskan life are caribou, moose, beaver, rabbits and fish. Athabaskan peoples today continue to enjoy their traditional practices and diet.
Except for south-central Alaska (Tanana and Eyak) and the Hudson Bay (Chipweyan), Athabaskan peoples are predominately inland taiga and tundra dwellers. Collectively, the Arctic Athabaskan peoples share 23 distinct language and live in communities as far flung as Tanana, Alaska and Tadoule Lake, northern Manitoba, nearly 5400 kilometers apart.
Peoples of Arctic Athabaskan descent represent approximately 2% of the resident population of Alaska, U.S.A. (12,000), compared with about one-third of the Yukon Territory (10,000), the Northwest Territories and provincial norths (20,000) in Canada. Athabaskan peoples are a relatively young and growing population, compared with non-Aboriginal Arctic resident groups.
Forms of political and cultural organization vary, depending upon the place of residence of a particular Athabaskan people. In Alaska, Athabaskan peoples have organized themselves in accordance with federal and State statutes which provide funding for government operations, including the Indian Reorganization Act for tribal governments, Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act for incorporated Villages, and a variety of state- legislated and traditional political entities. In Canada, Athabaskan peoples have organized themselves into political bodies under federal legislation including bands created under the Indian Act , self-governing First Nations as mandated through negotiated Settlement Agreements, and regional umbrella organizations.