Tanana / Tanacross

The Tanana Athabaskans, Tanana Athabascans or Tanana Athapaskans are an Alaskan Athabaskan peoples of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group.

They are the original inhabitants of the Tanana River (in Tanana languages Tth’itu’ , literally “straight water”, in Koyukon language Tene No’ , literally “trail water”) drainage basin in east-central Alaska Interior, United States.

A little part of the Athabaskans (White River First Nation) lived in Yukon, Canada.

Tanana River Athabaskan peoples are called in Lower Tanana and Koyukon language Ten Hʉt’ænæ (literally “trail people”), in Gwich’in language Tanan Gwich’in (literally “people of Tanana River”).

In Alaska, where they are the oldest, there are three or four groups identified by the languages they speak. These are the Tanana proper or Lower Tanana (Kokht’ana) and/or Middle Tanana, Tanacross or Tanana Crossing (Koxt’een), and Upper Tanana (Kohtʼiin).

The Tanana Athabaskan culture is a hunter-gatherer culture and has a matrilineal system.

Tanana Athabaskans were semi-nomadic and living in semi-permanent settlements in the Tanana Valley lowlands. Traditional Athabaskan land use includes fall hunting of moose, caribou, Dall sheep, small terrestrial animals, and also trapping.

The Athabaskans did not have any formal tribal organization.

Tanana Athabaskans were strictly territorial and used hunting and gathering practices in their semi-nomadic way of life and dispersed habitation patterns.

Each small band of 20–40 people normally had a central winter camp with several seasonal hunting and fishing camps, and they moved cyclically, depending on the season and availability of resources.

Subsistence hunting and gathering are still a big part of these Indian’s livelihood, since employment in the area is scarce, except in the summer months.

Tanacross is located on the south bank of the Tanana River, 12 miles northwest of Tok, off of the Alaska Highway. The community is located in the Fairbanks Recording District. The area encompasses 78 sq. miles of land and 1 sq. mile of water.

Residents are Tanah, or Tinneh Indians. They are Athabascan Indians. Most villagers relocated from Mansfield Village, Kechumstuk and Last Tetlin in 1912 when Bishop Rowe established St. Timothy’s Episcopal Mission.

The village was originally located on the north side of the Tanana River, and was called “Tanana Crossing.” A trading post opened near the mission in 1912, and the St. Timothy’s post office opened in 1920.

More Natives moved from Mansfield when a formal school opened in 1932, although classes had been held at the mission.

The name was eventually shortened to Tanacross.

In the mid-1930s, an airfield was built across the river from the village.

In 1941, the village gave the military permission to use its airfield as an emergency deployment post during World War II. The airfield was paved in 1942, and temporary camps were established.

Thousands of troops were deployed through Tanacross airfield during the War.

People of the village served as volunteer scouts and backup support for the army.

After the war, the airfield was closed. In 1972, the village relocated from the north bank of the Tanana River to the south bank, due to water contamination.

In 1979, the old village site burned when a grass fire spread out of control.

The word Tanacross has been used to refer both to the village in eastern Alaska and to the language spoken there.

A more appropriate term may be Dihthaad Xt’een Aandeg’ The Mansfield People’s Language, referring to the traditional village of Mansfield, north of Tanacross.

Tanacross is the ancestral language of the Mansfield-Ketchumstock and Healy Lake-Jospeph Village bands. It is spoken today at Healy Lake, Dot Lake, and Tanacross on the middle Tanana River.

The total population is about 220, of whom about 65 speak the language.

Originally included in “Transitional Tanana” (transitional between Minto and Upper Tanana) by Dr. Michael Krauss, University of Alaska Fairbanks, as late a 1973, linguists defined Tanacross as a separate Athabaskan language in 1974.

A practical alphabet was established in 1973 and a few booklets have been published by the Alaska Native Language Center. Very little language material was published between the late 1970s and early 1990s.

More recent linguistic scholarship (since the 1990s) includes research on Tanacross phonology and the preparation of handouts and language exercises developed for classes and workshops.

Tribal entities

Historically, the Tanana Athabaskan people did not think of themselves as living in “tribes,” a relatively recent term connected with political recognition by the U.S. government. The following Alaska Native tribal entities for Tanana Athabaskans are recognized by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs:

Tribal entities Location (native name) Ethnolinguistic group
Native Village of Minto Minto (Menh Ti) Lower Tanana
Nenana Native Association Nenana (Toghotthele) Lower Tanana
Village of Dot Lake Dot Lake (Kelt’aaddh Menn’) Tanacross
Healy Lake Village Healy Lake (Mendees Cheeg) Tanacross
Native Village of Tanacross Tanacross (Taats’altęy) Tanacross
Northway Village Northway (K’ehtthiign) Upper Tanana
Native Village of Tetlin Tetlin (Teełąy) Upper Tanana

The Alaska Native Regional Corporations of Tanana Athabaskans were established in 1971 when the United States Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

Native Village Corporation Community Alaska Native Reg. Corp. Ethnolinguistic group
Seth-do-ya-ah Corporation Minto Doyon, Limited Lower Tanana
Toghotthele Corporation Nenana Doyon, Limited Lower Tanana
Dot Lake Native Corporation Dot Lake Doyon, Limited Tanacross
Mendas Cha-ag Native Corporation Healy Lake Doyon, Limited Tanacross
Tanacross Inc. Tanacross Doyon, Limited Tanacross
Northway Natives Inc. Northway Doyon, Limited Upper Tanana
Tetlin Indian Reservation Tetlin Doyon, Limited Upper Tanana

Tanana Chiefs Conference

The Tanana Chiefs Conference is a traditional tribal consortium of the all Central Alaskan Athabaskans (or Interior Athabaskans), with the exception of the Southern Alaskan Athabaskans (or Southern Athabaskans:Dena’ina and Ahtna).

On the broad cultural profile factors of regional environment, land use and occupancy, and social organization, Southern Athabaskans (Dena’ina and Ahtna) life more closely resembled the other southern Native societies.

In the North, the life of the Interior Athabaskans more closely resembled other northern Native societies.

  • Yukon-Tanana Subregion
    • Minto Traditional Council, Minto, members are Minto band of Lower Tanana
    • Nenana Traditional Council, Nenana, members are Nenana-Toklat band of Lower Tanana
  • Upper Tanana Subregion
    • Dot Lake Village Council, Dot Lake, members are Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band of Tanacross
    • Healy Lake Traditional Council, Healy Lake, members are Healy River-Joseph band of Tanacross
    • Tanacross IRA Council, Tanacross, members are Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band of Tanacross
    • Tok Native Association, Tok, members are Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band of Tanacross
    • Northway Traditional Council, Northway, members are Lower Nabesna band of Upper Tanana
    • Tetlin IRA Council, Tetlin, members are Tetlin-Last Tetlin band of Upper Tanana