Eyak Natives

The Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian share a common and similar Northwest Coast Culture with important differences in language and clan system.

Anthropologists use the term “Northwest Coast Culture” to define the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures, as well as that of other peoples indigenous to the Pacific coast, extending as far as northern Oregon.

The Eyak have a complex social system consisting of moieties, with many clans.

Eyak, Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian Map

Eyak, Haida, Tlingit,
Tsimshian Map

The region from the Copper River Delta to the Southeast Panhandle is a temperate rainforest with precipitation ranging from 112 inches per year to almost 200 inches per year. Here the people depended upon the ocean and rivers for their food and travel.

Eyak occupied the lands in the southeastern corner of Southcentral Alaska. Their territory runs along the Gulf of Alaska from the Copper River Delta to Icy Bay.

Oral tradition tells us that the Eyak moved down from the interior of Alaska via the Copper River or over the Bering Glacier.

Until the 18th century, the Eyak were more closely associated with their Athabascan neighbors to the north than the North Coast Cultures.

No full blood Eyak people remain

The Eyak Indians are the smallest native group in Alaska. Their traditional village on the Copper River highway on the Malaspina Coastal Plain was absorbed into the town of Cordova, Alaska in 1906, when their numbers had dwindled to only about 60 Eyak remaining.

In January of 2008, the last full-blooded member of Alaska’s Eyak Indians  died at the age of 89. She was the only known speaker of the Eyak language who could still speak the traditional Eyak language fluently.

Eyak Language

Eyak was a Na-Dené language that was a sub-branch of the Athabascan language, in the Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit language family.
Marie Smith Jones was the last remaining fluent speaker of the tribe’s native Alaskan language.

Following the death of the last of her siblings in the 1990s, Jones worked to preserve the Eyak’s heritage, helping to compile a dictionary of their language so it might be resurrected by future generations.

Jones was born in Cordova in 1918 and grew up on Eyak Lake, where her family had a homestead. Many of her siblings died young when smallpox and influenza tore through the Eyak population.

Eyak House Types and Settlements

Before and during early contact with the non-aboriginal population, the Eyak people built their homes from red cedar, spruce, and hemlock timber and planks.

The houses, roofed with heavy cedar bark or spruce shingles, ranged in size from 35’-40’ x 50’-100’. All houses had a central fire pit with a centrally located smoke hole. A plank shield frames the smoke hole in the roof.

Generally, each house could hold 20-50 individuals, usually of one main clan, with a village size between 300-500 people.

The people had winter villages along the banks of streams or along saltwater beaches for easy access to fish-producing streams. The location of winter villages gave protection from storms and enemies, drinking water and a place to land canoes.

Houses always faced the water with the backs to the mountains or muskeg/swamps. Most villages had a single row of houses with the front of the house facing the water, but some had two or more rows of houses.

Each local group of Eyak had at least one permanent winter village with various seasonal camps close to food resources. 

In each Eyak village, there were two potlatch houses, outside of which was a post topped with an Eagle or Raven. The dwelling houses were unmarked.

Eyak Clothing

The Eyak used animal fur, mountain goat wool, tanned skins and cedar bark for clothing. Hats made of spruce roots and cedar bark kept the rain off the head. After western trading, wool and cotton materials were common.

Culture and Social Organization

In Eyak culture, no central government existed. Each village and each clan house resolved its differences through traditional customs and practices; no organized gatherings for discussions of national policy making took place.

Decisions were made at the clan, village or house level, affecting clan members of an individual village or house.

The people had a highly stratified culture, consisting of high-ranking individuals/families, commoners and slaves. Unlike present day marriages, unions were arranged by family members. Slaves were usually captives from war raids on other villages.


The Eyak were organized into two moieties, meaning their clan system is divided into two reciprocating halves or “one of two equal parts.”

Their moieties, Raven and the Eagle, equated with the Tlingit Raven and Eagle/Wolf and with the Ahtna Crow and Sea Gull moieties. The names and stories of the clans in these moieties show relationships with the Tlingit and Ahtna.

Eyak Marriage Customs

The Eyak had an exogamous (meaning they married outside of their own group), matrilineal clan system, which means that the children trace their lineage and names from their mother.

This means the children inherit all rights through the mother, including the use of the clan fishing, hunting and gathering land, the right to use specific clan crests as designs on totem poles, houses, clothing, and ceremonial regalia.

Eyak Clan System

The Eyak clan system is divided into two moieties, the Raven and the Eagle. Traditionally, clans owned the salmon streams, halibut banks, berry patches, land for hunting, intertidal regions, and egg harvesting areas. As long as the area was used by the clan, they owned the area.

Their moieties, Raven and the Eagle, equated with the Tlingit Raven and Eagle/Wolf and with the Ahtna Crow and Sea Gull moieties. The names and stories of the clans in these moieties show relationships with the Tlingit and Ahtna.

Eyak Subsistence

The food was seasonal and therefore had to be preserved for the winter months and for early spring. The food was preserved by smoking in smokehouses or was dried, either by wind or sun.

These subsistence patterns are still a crucial part of Southeast Alaska Native people’s cultural identity.

They collected clams from the beaches. They netted eulachon from the Copper River between February and April.

In the fall they hunted ducks, geese, and swans. Grouse and ptarmigan were hunted year round.

Dogs aided in hunting for brown and black bear. Beaver, fox, lynx, marten, muskrat, and weasel were taken with deadfalls and snares.

Tools and Technology

Southeast Alaska produces many tall and massive trees. Wood was the most important commodity for the people.

Houses, totem poles, daily utensils, storage and cooking boxes, transportation, ceremonial objects, labrets (worn by high status women), clothes all were made of wood and wood products.

The tools to make the wood into usable items were adzes, mauls, wedges, digging sticks and after contact, iron. To cut the wood people used chipped rocks, bones, beaver teeth and shells.

For light, the Eyak used a clamshell with seal oil or pitch and a lump of fat for a wick in the sleeping room. Dried ooligan (a kind of oily smelt fish) were used as candles. Also, hollowed sandstone with cotton grass were fashioned  into wicks.

Various means were used to harvest the seasonal salmon runs. Fish weirs (fences) and traps were placed in streams. Holding ponds were built in the inter-tidal region.

Dip nets, hooks, harpoons and spears were also used to harvest salmon during the season. A specialized hook, shaped in a ‘V’ or ‘U’ form allowed the people to catch specific sized halibut.

Various baskets were used for cooking, storage, and for holding clams, berries, seaweed and water. Basket weaving techniques were also used for mats, aprons, and hats.

Mats woven of cedar bark were used as room dividers and floor mats, as well as to wrap the dead prior to burial or cremation. The inner cedar bark was pounded to make baby cradle padding, as well as clothing such as capes, skirts, shorts and blankets (shawls).

The main means of travel was by canoes. The people traveled regularly for seasonal activities such as subsistence and trading.

Eyak Trade

The Eyak initially moved out of the interior down the Copper River to the coast. There they harvested the rich salmon fishing grounds. When the Russians arrived, they recognized the Eyak as a distinct culture and described their territory on their maps.

They also traded with the Eyak and sent them missionaries. Because of their small population, they were often raided and their territory boundaries were under pressure from the Chugach to the west.

The Tlingit, on the east side, had better relations with the Eyak and this led to intermarriage and assimilation of many Eyak. This pushed the Eyak’s territorial boundary further west and contributed to the Eyak’s decline.

When the Americans arrived, they started canneries and competed with the Eyak for salmon. This, combined with integration with, and novel diseases introduced by non-native settlers led to the further decline of the Eyak.

Eyak Shamans

As populations decreased the remaining Eyak began to congregate near the village of Orca. Eyak Shamans used drums or painted wooden figures of humans, mammals, and other critters that were made powerful when in the shamans’ possession.

These objects were used to heal, foretell the future, prevent evil spirits, grant fertility, and/or travel into the spirit realm.The Eyak adapted some of the customs of their Alutiiq Eskimo neighbors, and others from the Tlingit.

They hunted seal and sea otter. These were only a minor part of their diet; salmon was their chief food. They fished for halibut with hook and line from canoes.

Traditions and Ceremonies

The Eyak are known for a ceremony called the “potlatch.” 

High-ranking Eyak clans and/or individuals were expected to give potlatches. However, a potlatch could be given by a commoner who could raise his position by doing so.

Potlatches were held for the following occasions: a funeral or memorial potlatch, whereby the dead are honored; the witness and validation of the payment of a debt, or naming an individual; the completion of a new house; the completion and naming of clan regalia; a wedding; the naming of a child; the erection of a totem pole; or to rid the host of a shame.

Potlatches might last days and would include feasting, speeches, singing and dancing. Guests witnessed and validated the events and were paid with gifts during the ceremony. In potlatches, there would be a feast, however, a feast does not constitute a potlatch.


Regalia worn at potlatches were the Chilkat and Raven’s Tail woven robes, painted tanned leather clothing, tunics, leggings, moccasins, ground squirrel robes, red cedar ropes, masks, rattles, and frontlets.

Other items used at potlatches include drums, rattles, whistles, paddles, and staffs. Only clan regalia named and validated at a potlatch could be used for formal gatherings.

The Chilkat robes were made of mountain goat wool and cedar wraps. The Chilkat weaving style is the only weaving that can create perfect circles.

The Raven’s tail robe is made of mountain goat wool.

Some of the headpieces had frontlets that would also have sea lion whiskers and ermine.

After contact with Europeans, robes were made of blankets, usually those obtained from the Hudson Bay trading company, adorned with glass beads and mother-of-pearl shells, along with dentalium and abalone shells.