Athabaskan (Dene)

Athabaskan or Athabascan (also Dene, Athapascan, Athapaskan) is the language of a large group of indigenous peoples of North America, located in two main Southern and Northern groups in western North America and in Alaska.

The four spellings: “Athabaskan”, “Athabascan”, “Athapaskan”, and “Athapascan,” are in approximately equal use.

Particular communities may prefer one spelling over another.
For example, the Alaska Native Language Center prefers the spelling “Athabascan,” following a decision in favor of this spelling in 1997 by the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

Michael Krauss had previously endorsed the spelling “Athabaskan” (1987).
Ethnologue uses “Athapaskan” in naming the language family and individual languages.

The word Athabaskan is an anglicized version of a Cree language name for Lake Athabasca (Cree: Aδapaska˙w “[where] there are reeds one after another”) in Canada.

The name was assigned by Albert Gallatin in his 1836 classification of the languages of North America.

The Athabaskan language family is the second largest language family in North America in terms of number of languages and the number of speakers, following the Uto-Aztecan family which extends into Mexico.

In terms of territory, only the Algic language family covers a larger area. Most Athabaskans prefer to be identified by their specific language and location; however, the general term persists in linguistics and anthropology despite alternative suggestions such as Dene’

In 2012 the annual Athabaskan Languages Conference changed its name to the Dene’ Languages Conference.

Athabaskan-Eyak Language Group

Eyak and Athabaskan together form a genealogical linguistic grouping called Athabaskan–Eyak (AE) – well demonstrated through consistent sound correspondences, extensive shared vocabulary, and cross-linguistically unique homologies in both verb and noun morphology.

Athabaskan Languages
Apachean Languages
Eastern Apache
Dine (Navajo)
Western Apache
Northern Athabaskan Languages
Central Alaska-Yukon Athabascan Languages
Degexit’an (Ingalik)
Lower Tanana
Upper Tanana
Upper Kuskokwim
Southern Alaskan Athabascan Languages
Ahtna (Ahtena)
Central British Columbia Athapaskan Languages
Dakelh (Carrier, Yinka Dene)
Northwest Canadian Athapaskan Languages
Kaskan Languages (Nahanni)
Dane-zaa (Beaver)
Dene Suline (Chipewyan)
Dene Tha (Slavey)
Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee)
Pacific Coast Athabaskan Languages
Oregon Athabaskan Languages
Upper Umpqua
California Athabaskan Languages
Wailaki (Sinkyone/Lassik)

Eyak is the other language in the Athabaskan-Eyak family.

Tlingit is distantly related to the Athabaskan–Eyak group to form the Na-Dené family – also known as Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit (AET). With Jeff Leer’s 2010 advances, the reconstructions of Na-Dene (or Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit) consonants, this latter grouping is considered by Alaskan linguists to be a well-demonstrated family.

Because both Tlingit and Eyak are fairly remote from the Athabaskan languages in terms of their sound systems, comparison is usually done between them and the reconstructed Proto-Athabaskan language.
This resembles both Tlingit and Eyak much more than most of the daughter languages in the Athabaskan family.

Possibly Athabaskan:

Although Ethnologue still gives the Athabaskan family as a relative of Haida in their definition of the Na-Dene family, linguists who work actively on Athabaskan languages discount this position.

The Alaska Native Language Center, for example, takes the position that recent improved data on Haida have served to conclusively disprove the Haida-inclusion hypothesis.

They have determined Haida  to be unrelated to Athabaskan languages.
New Athabaskan Hypothesis.

The major advance in Athabaskan and Na-Dene external classification resulted from a symposium in Alaska in February 2008.

Edward Vajda of Western Washington University summarized ten years of research, based on verbal morphology and reconstructions of the proto-languages, indicating that the Yeniseian and Na-Dené families might be related.

Vajda’s research was published in June 2010 in The Dene–Yeniseian Connection in the Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska (ISBN 978-0-615-43296-0).



Article Index:

A new Athabascan dictionary is available

The Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has published a new Athabascan dictionary.

The “Dena’ina Topical Dictionary ” is an effort to document and preserve Alaska’s Native languages. The university said this is the most complete topical dictionary for any of the 20 Alaska Native languages.

Dena’ina is also known as Tanaina and is a language spoken by Alaska’s Athabascan Indians.

Apache migration patterns

The Athabaskan people originally lived in what is now Alaska and Northern Canada. In the 1500s they began a slow migration South. The Athabaskan people we now know as Apaches migrated as far as southern Texas and Mexico.

The Apaches arrived in the Texas panhandle region sometime around 1528. We know this because in 1541 the Pecos Pueblo people told the Spanish explorer Coronado about, “the new people” who had moved into the region just to the east of Pecos. The Apache spoke a form of the Athapaskan language group. They were not the only Athapaskan speakers who migrated south at this time. The Navaho and western Apaches also came south into New Mexico and Arizona.

The Apache and Navaho called themselves the Dine, pronounced din-eh.

Dine in Apache or Navaho means, “the people.”

At first the Apache farmed on the south plains. They probably were semi-sedentary. This means they would farm and stay in one place part of the year. When the crops were in they would switch to a nomadic lifestyle and hunt and gather for food. They farmed corn, beans and squash like the other Indians around them. In fact, they probably learned to farm and got their first corn from the Pueblo Indians. They did not yet have horses.

When the horse arrived with the Spanish, all this changed. Now Apache hunters on fast horses could zoom in on the buffalo and chase them. If the buffalo charged them they could ride away and escape. Hunters with horses  could also follow herds for several days and travel long distances to find herds. All this means that hunting buffalo became an easier way to get food than hunting small game and farming. So the Apache quit farming and became nomadic hunter gatherers.

The Apache kept spreading farther south until they occupied the Texas Hill Country. This is where the second wave of Spanish explorers found them in the 1700s.

Around 1700, the Comanche came south along the same route the Apaches had followed years before.

The Comanche were fierce warriors and chased everyone but the Kiowa out of the whole panhandle and southern plains region. The Apache were pushed further south.

By around 1740 the Comanche occupied the same regions the Apache had occupied only a few years before. The Apache were forced south and west in two groups. The Lipan group went south into the south Texas region once occupied by the Coahuiltecan cultures and part of the western end of the Karankawa’s lands. The Mescaleros went west into the regions the Jumano had once lived in.

After the Comanches arrived, the Lipan Apaches settled around the Spanish missions for protection from the Comanche and other tribes. By this time they were refugees looking for help and a new place to live. The missions took many of them in.

This did not work very well and the Apaches revolted and burned the first mission they stayed at and ran away. The Spanish then decided to put a mission at San Saba in Apache territory. This did not work very well either and the Apaches revolted here too. They attacked the mission along with some other tribes and killed the missionaries and burned the mission.

The Spanish tried several more missions, but none of them was successful.  The last Spanish mission to take in Apaches was the mission in Refugio. 

All this makes the Apaches sound ungrateful and warlike.

After all, it seems like the Spanish were trying to help them, but that isn’t the full story.  The Spanish missions were not very good places for Indians to live. The priests and monks who ran them treated the Indians much like slaves. They worked them from sunrise to sunset in the fields and shops.

The food was poor and the living conditions were not very good. They had to get up very early every morning for Mass and spend a couple of hours in more church services every evening. Also living in the missions crowded the Indians and priests together in close quarters. When European diseases came to the missions this crowding made sure that almost all the Indians would catch the disease. Because the Indians had no immunity to the new diseases, many of them would die, sometimes as much as  75% of a community would die from a single epedemic.

Based on new research using church records, the diet of a mission Indian had about 1400 calories a day.  By comparison, an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp received about 1500 calories a day and a negro slave on a sugar plantation received about 4000 calories per day.  

Church records also show there was an usually an abundance of food available from the mission farms and herds of cattle and sheep.  The same fields and herds the Indians were being used to tend.  While mission Indians were dying, the surplus food was being shipped back to Mexico for a profit. 

The Indians were forced to work at hard labor from dawn till dark six days a week.  Their living conditions were bad.  Records describe the Indian living quarters in missions as being like large wooden cattle pens.  There was little protection from the cold and from rain.  Each Indian was given a space of 2 feet by 7 feet  on the dirt floor  to sleep on. 

Men and women, even married, were kept separated from each other and from their children.  

Only Indians confirmed by the Catholic Church as Christian Indians were allowed to marry and live together.  It could take several years for an Indian to get his or her official Catholic confirmation.  Most Indians in missions didn’t live long enough to get confirmed.   So Indian family members were kept apart.

Indians who tried to flee the missions were hunted down by solders, brought back the missions and severely punished for running away. This punishment was often a near fatal whipping.

Native life spans in the Spanish Missions were drastically cut short 

Studies have found that adult Indians in missions only lived a few years and children usually died in less than two years.  Death by disease is the usual cause of death given in records.  Malnourished people living in grossly substandard shelter being worked 100 hours a week at hard labor usually are very weak and in poor health.  Even a simple cold can be fatal. 

Most larger missions had a death rate of around 500+ Indians a year (missions varied greatly in size).  Do the math.  In Texas, with about 5 missions running in any given year, times 100+ years in operation, times 500 Indian deaths equals 250,000 Indian deaths.  

In the 1860s most of the Lipan moved across the border into Mexico. From Mexico they would raid into south Texas. In 1873 the US army crossed the border into Mexico and captured the Lipan villages. They took the Lipan to the New Mexico reservations to live with the Mescalero Apache. That is where the descendants of the Lipan and Mescalero Apache still live.





Chilula Indians

With the Hupa and Whilkut, the Chilula formed one group of the Athapascan linguistic stock.

Dakubetede Indians
Hupa Indians
Kato Indians
Lassik Indians
Mattole Indians
Nongatl Indians
Sinkyone Indians
Tolowa Indians
Wailaki Indians
Whilkut Indians
Who are the Athabaskan peoples?