The Ahtna (also Ahtena, Atna, Ahtna-kohtaene, or Copper River) are one of the tribes of Athabaskan people in Alaska. The tribe’s homeland called Atna Nenn’, is located in the Copper River area of southern Alaska, and the name Ahtna derives from the local name for the Copper River.
The name Ahtena, also written as Ahtna and Atnatana, translates as “ice people.” In some documentation the Ahtna have been called Copper Indians because of their ancestral homeland located in the basin of the Copper River and its tributaries in southeastern Alaska.
The named Yellowknife has also been used in reference to the Ahtna’s copper-colored knives; however, another tribe, the Yellowknives, are also referred to as Copper Indians.
About 2,000 years ago the Ahtna people moved into the area of the Wrangell Mountains and the Chitina Valley. In 1781 the Russians made it to the mouth of the Copper River.
Over the course of years, Russians would try to go up the river only to be pushed back by the Ahtna. In 1819 the Russians built a post at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers, which was destroyed.
The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. A US military expedition led by Henry Tureman Allen in 1885 explored the Copper River and surrounding area.
Traditionally the Ahtna hunted many different types of animals such as the moose, caribou, mountain sheep, and rabbits. Salmon was a staple, being caught with nets in rivers and streams.
To support healthy prey populations, the Athna would monitor and reduce predator populations such as wolves, eagles and bears. They would keep track of wolf dens in traditional hunting areas and kill the pups. The wolf was a central figure in their mythology.
The Ahtna would prop up killed wolves and feed ceremonial meals to them. The Ahtna also gathered berries and roots.
The Ahtna were historically part of a trade network with other Athapascans, the Inuit and the Tlingit. They would barter furs, hides and copper, and eventually manufactured European goods after encounters with the Europeans.
Trade meetings took place three times a year at Nuchek on the Prince William Sound.When traveling by water, moose-hide boats were used.
In the wintertime, snowshoes and load-bearing toboggans were used. When traveling by foot and carrying goods, people, usually women, would use a tumpline.
The tumpline was made of animal skin or cloth and was slung across the forehead or chest to support a heavy load on the back.
In the summertime the Ahtna used temporary rectangular dwellings made of spruce and cottonwood. These structures had bark-covered sides and skin-covered entrances to provide access.
In the wintertime, families lived in large semi-underground homes. These homes were constructed from wood and covered with spruce bark. They could be as large as 10 feet wide by 36 feet long.
Sometimes a second room was attached to be used for sweating rituals.
Traditionally, the Ahtna shared social structure traits similar to those Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast.
Social stratification was represented in the governance of the community. Each village was ruled by a chief or tyone.
Subchiefs, called skilles, served as council and helped to oversee the common people and servant class.
Shamans also had political power and oversaw potlatch celebrations.
To take advantage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, the Ahtna formed Ahtna, Incorporated. The organization is a for-profit entity that oversees the land obtained under ANCSA. 714,240 acres were allocated, consisting of eight villages: