Athabascan Indians

The Athabascan Indians traditionally lived in Interior Alaska, an expansive region that begins south of the Brooks Mountain Range and continues down to the Kenai Peninsula.

Athabascan Culture Area Map in AlaskaThere are eleven linguistic groups of Athabascans 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.

Paleo-Arctic History

Archaeological sites in Alaska (East Beringia) are where some of the earliest evidence has been found of Paleo-Indians.

Alaska Interior or Interior Alaska has been continuously inhabited for the last 12,000 to 14,000 years, and evidence of this continuum of human (ancestors of the Athabaskans) activity is preserved within and around Fort Wainwright’s training lands.

Interior Alaska’s ice free status during the last glacial period provided a corridor connecting the Bering Land Bridge and northeastern Asia (West Beringia/Siberia) to North America.

The earliest cultural remains in interior Alaska, as on the coast, are chipped stone blade complexes about 10,000 years old, with close relationships to Siberian materials.

In February 2008 a proposal connecting Asiatic Yeniseian languages of central Siberia to American Na-Dené languages (Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit) into a Dené–Yeniseian family was published and well received by a number of linguists.

The homeland of the Athabaskan languages is northwestern Canada and southern/eastern Alaska.

After initial colonization, archaeologists generally divide Interior Alaska’s prehistory into three broad archaeological themes:

The Paleo-Arctic Tradition (12,000–6,000 years ago) is a term now generally used by archaeologists to refer to the earliest settled people known from all over Alaska.

In Interior Alaska, Paleoarctic Tradition historically included two cultural divisions called the Nenana and Denali complexes.

Nenana Complex

The Nenana Complex was defined by W. R. Powers and John F. Hoffecker. The Nenana complex began approximately 11,000 years ago and this complex is widely regarded as part of the Palaeoindian tradition and a likely Beringian progenitor of the Clovis Complex.

Many Nenana Complex archaeological sites are located in the Tanana Valley: Broken Mammoth, Chugwater, Donnelly Ridge, Healy Lake, Mead, and Swan Point.

Denali Complex

The Denali Complex, dated roughly to 10,500 to 8,000 years ago, was originally defined by F. H West. Some Denali Complex archaeological sites: Mt. Hayes, Swan Point, and Gerstle River.

Both Nenana and Denali technology persist in central Alaska throughout the Holocene. The relationship between the proposed Nenana and Denali complexes is as of yet unresolved.

The boreal forest in Interior Alaska (Interior Alaska-Yukon lowland taiga of Tanana region and Copper Plateau taiga of Ahtna region) was established 8,000 years ago]

Two ice-age infants discovered at an ancient residential campsite (Upward Sun River site was first discovered in 2006) in Interior Alaska near the Tanana River east of Fairbanks are the oldest human remains ever found in the North American Arctic and Subarctic, and among the oldest discovered on the entire continent, according to researchers with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Discovered in 2013, the remains of the two infants date from 11,500 years ago, near the end of the last ice age.

Northern Archaic Tradition

The Northern Archaic Tradition flourished 6,000–1,000 years ago. Site density increased again after about 6,000 years ago in Interior Alaska.

This population increase coincides roughly with the Northern Archaic Tradition and the appearance of side-notched projectile points.

Douglas D. Anderson originally defined the Northern Archaic Tradition to specifically address notched point bearing stratigraphic horizons that did not contain the microblades found at the Onion Portage site (Onion Portage Archeological District of Kobuk Malimiut tribes of Inupiat people region) in northern Alaska.

Notched point assemblages occur in many sites in Interior Alaska, including over one dozen on Army’s Fort Wainwright lands.

Several sites, including the excavated Banjo Lake site in Donnelly Training Area, have also produced middle Holocene dates from hearth charcoal.

The 6,300- to 6,700-year-old dates from Banjo Lake were also associated with a microblade component.

Athabaskan Tradition

The Athabaskan Tradition flourished 1,300–800 years ago. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Athabaskan culture may have appeared in the Tanana Valley as early as 2,500 years ago.

Through ethnography, oral history, and a broad array of cultural items, much has been learned about Athabaskan culture and history in the region.

Artifacts associated the Athabaskan culture are exceptionally diverse and include bone and antler projectile points, fishhooks, beads, buttons, birch bark trays, and bone gaming pieces.

In the Upper Tanana region, native copper (from trading with Ahtna people or “Copper Indians”) was available and used in addition to the traditional material types to manufacture tools such as knives, projectile points, awls, ornaments, and axes.

A late prehistoric Athabaskan occupation is recognized at several sites in and around U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Wainwright’s training lands.

The Athabaskan Tradition includes late prehistoric and proto-historic cultures generally believed to be the ancestors of Athabascan tribes who currently inhabit Interior Alaska.

Excavated Athabaskan sites are rare, but the limited body of evidence allows for several generalizations. Athabascan settlement patterns depended greatly on the availability of subsistence resources, and Interior bands lived a nomadic lifestyle

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.

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.

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.

Athabascan Clothing

Traditional clothing reflects the 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 skin sewing.

Athabaskan Transportation

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.

Athabascan Regalia

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.

Athabascan Traditions

Activities were marked by the passing moons, each named according to the changing conditions: “when the first king salmon oomes,” “when the moose lose 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.

Eleven Athabaskan Tribal Groups

The Alaska Dene are generally divided into eleven tribal groups, some of which are also found in the adjacent Yukon and Northwest-Territories (from northwest to southeast).

Since most Alaska Athabaskans are known under anglicized names of neighboring – often non-Athabascan peoples – the most common tribal designations are reproduced here, second (in brackets) their autonyms and third the background or source of the today common tribal names (unless otherwise stated the autonym simply means “men” or “people”):

1. Koyukon (Dinaa or DenaaTl’eeyegge Hut’aane – ″People with a common language,” often the individual regional bands and local groups simply called themselves Hut’aane / Hotana meaning “one who dwells” or “resident of [a region]” with a place or river name as an addition; name background: Koyukukhotana – ″People along Koyukuk River″)

  • Kaiyuhkhotana or Lower Yukon Koyukon (lived along the Yukon River between Anvik River and Koyukuk River inclusive the Innoko River drainage area 63rd parallel north, were regarded as enemies by the Koyukukhotana and Yukonikhotana / Unakhotana, only they opposed the Europeans)
  • Koyukukhotana or Koyukuk River Koyukon (drainage area of the Koyukuk River, their autonym is the source for the collective name for all Koyukon people)
  • Yukonikhotana / Unakhotana or Upper Yukon Koyukon (drainage area of the Yukon River, from south of the mouth of the Tanana River to the mouth of the Koyukuk River)

2. Gwich’in or Kutchin (Dinjii Zhuu – ″Small People″, but figuratively it refers to all Indians, not just Gwich’in; name background: Gwich’in – “one who dwells” or “resident of [a region]”, most northern group of Native Americans / First Nations peoples, lived mostly above the Arctic Circle in the Yukon Flats, along theYukon, Porcupine, Chandalar, Peel, Mackenzie and Arctic Red rivers in northern Yukon and Northwest-Territories as well into northeast Alaska).

3. Hän or Han (JëjeeHwëch’in / Han Hwech’in – “People of the River, i.e. Yukon River”, but often by the affiliation of their regional band / group as Hwëch’in – “one who dwells” or “resident of [a region]”; name background: the name Hän or Han is a shortening of their own name as Hwëch’in / Han Hwech’in, and of the Gwich’in word Hangʷičʼin for the Hän, both literally meaning “People of the River, i.e. the Yukon River”, lived along the Upper Yukon River, Klondike River, Bonanza Creek and Sixtymile River straddling what is now the Alaska-Yukon Territory border – often mistaken for another Gwich’in band)

4. Holikachuk or Innoko (Dina, often combined with the Koyukon, although they are culturally closest to the Deg Hit’an)

5. Deg Hit’an or Ingalik (Dena or Dina, today Deg Hit’an – ″Locals″ or ″Local People″)

6. Upper Kuskokwim or Kolchan / Goltsan (Dina’ena, today: Dichinanek’ Hwt’ana or Digenegh xit’an– ″Timber River people″)

Tanana Athabaskans

7. Tanana / Lower Tanana and / or Middle Tanana (Dena or Kokht’ana)
8. Tanacross or Tanana Crossing (Dendeh / Dendeey or Koxt’een / Koxt’en iin)
9. Upper Tanana (Dineh or Koht’iin)

10. Dena’ina or Tanaina (Dena’ina, but often by the affiliation of their regional band / group as Ht’ana – “one who dwells” or “resident of [a region]”;are the only Northern Athabascan group to live on saltwater and this allowed them to have the most sedentary lifestyle of all Northern Athabascans).

11. Ahtna or Copper River Athabasken (Atna Hwt’aene – ″People along the ‘Atna’ River, i.e. Copper River″, auch meist jedoch Koht’aene [kote-an-eh] / Hwt’aene – „Bewohner einer Gegend“ oder „Volk entlang, von, vom …“, um durch eine Ortsangabe die Zugehörigkeit zu einer regionalen Band/Gruppe zu bestimmen; Namensherkunft: anglicisation of the autonym of one of the four regional Ahtna bands as Atna Hwt’aene / Atnahwt’aene (“People on the ‘Atna’ River”, variants: Ahtna, AhtenaAtnatanaAhtnakotanaAhtna-Khotana or Ahtna-Kohtaeneda, their tribal territory (Atna Nenn’) was along the Copper River (Atna River) – which was known to them simply as ‘Atna’ tuu, meaning “river of the Ahtnas” – and its tributaries in southeast Alaska)

  • Lower (Copper River) Ahtna or Atna Hwt’aene / Atnahwt’aene (″People along the ‘Atna’ River, i.e. Copper River″, lived at the mouth of the (‘Atna’) Copper Rivers into the Gulf of Alaska)
  • Central Ahtna, Middle Ahtna or Dan’ehwt’aene
  • Western Ahtna or Tsaay Hwt’aene / Dze Ta Hwt’aene (″People in the midst of the mountains, i.e. Nutzotin Mountains″, sometimes also called Hwtsaay Hwt’aene / Hwtsaay hwt’aene – ″Small Tree People, Small Timber People″)[15]
  • Upper (Copper River) Ahtna or Tatl’a Hwt’aene / Tatl’ahwt’aene (″People of the headwaters [of the (‘Atna’) Copper River]″)

The Gwich’in or Kutchin are generally grouped within the Alaskan Athabascans or Alaska Dene (although resident both in Alaska and the Yukon and Northwest Territory), because the Gwich’in language shares the ″Han-Kutchin subdivision″ with the Hän language or Hän (Häɬ goɬan) / Hänkutchin of the Hän as one of the subgroups of the Northern Athabaskan languages.