A Brief Introduction to Native Alaskan Cultures

In the first two days of our Alaskan adventure we visited a couple places that described Native Alaskan life.  The Anchorage Museum at the Rasmuson Center had a gallery devoted to the history of Alaska including Native cultures.  The next day we visited the Native Alaskan Heritage Center which had live demonstrations, people, and houses built to represent the villages of the different tribes.

Much like the continental United States, Alaska was inhabited by native people for thousands of years before developed nations began discovering new lands.  Alaska has a multitude of native tribes throughout the land, but the Alaska Native Heritage Center has organized them into “five culture groupings, which draw upon cultural similarities or geographic proximity.”  They are the Athabascans, Inupiaq & St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik, Yup'ik & Cup'ik, Aleuts & Alutiiqs, and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, & Tsimshian.
All of these groups are designated by land placement, their similarities and the languages they speak.  There are groups that reside mostly on the coast; the Aleut and Alutiiq live along the Aleutian Islands while the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian live along the Southeast panhandle.  Yup'ik and Cup'ik live on the Western side of Alaska while the Inipupiaq and the St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik live in the more northern regions of Alaska and share lots of similarities with tribes all across the top of Canada to Greenland.  The interior of Alaska is taken mostly by the Athabascan people.

From the Athabascan exhibit
in the Alaskan Gallery
 at the Anchorage Museum
 One of the first groups listed are the Athabascans or as they call themselves “Dena” or “the people.”  They live within the interior portion of Alaska, but travel and move on an annual basis.  They also live within the borders of Canada and along the Pacific Northwest.  The majority of their livelihood is based on fishing, hunting, and trapping animals. Something that is different of the Athabaskan tribes are they are a matrilineal culture, meaning they base their history and legacy on the mother rather than the father.  Their culture includes beading into a lot of their productions-- clothing, weapons, etc.  They have very ornate decorative items that are beaded which is unique in comparison to other tribes.

 Yup'ik & Cup'ik
Sign located at Yup'ik and Cup'ik village
 at Native Alaskan Hertiage Center
The Yup’ik & Cup’ik reside in the southwest region of Alaska.  They live mostly on the coast or along the rivers of that region.  These two groups speak two different dialects of the same language, Yup’ik.  They are groups that survive off of subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering.  They are a mobile culture and migrate or travel with the animals and fish as needed during the seasons.  Their homes are for the most part split by gender, most or all of the males live in a qasgiq or the “men’s house” which serves as the “community center” because of its size and importance for ceremonies and singing and dancing.  The women and children live in what is called an ena (which is smaller) with a skylight window sometimes made of seal skin.  They live in small groups, close family but use their “social culture” to socialize and  be “compatible” with other groups.  Gender determines social rank and cultural roles, i.e. the best hunters will become group leaders and the women will be left to sewing and child rearing.  Shamans were a large presence in these cultures.  There were both good and bad and some believe that shamans still retain some power.
Inupiaq & St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik
Inupiaq & St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik groups are from the North and Northwest regions.  They mainly focus on hunting and gathering.  Their typical game is whale, walrus, seal, polar bear, caribou and fish.  Since they live so far north, their homes have an underground tunnel entrance which provides insulation from the ground.   Community housing, called qargis, were used as work areas in Inupiaq culture. They wore mostly caribou skin clothing or parkas and would wear fur inside with their outer clothing having fur on the outside in order to remain properly insulated.  As a group they do believe in reincarnation.  It is common practice there to rename children after someone has recently passed and recycle the names.
Exhibit in Alaskan Gallery at Anchorage Museum
Baskets made by Aleuts
at Anchorage Museum
Aleuts & Alutiiqs
Aleuts and Alutiiqs live in similar locations and maintain similar lifestyles.  Both tribes are maritime people. If you recognize the name of the Aleuts, or Unangax as they call themselves, many of them inhabit the Aleutian Islands or live along the coast of mainland Alaska.  They have both permanent and seasonal homes.  Their permanent residence is semi-subterranean and varies by tribe.  Because of their location, these tribes have a prominent Russian influence on their food, religion, and even their vocabulary. The main religion of the area is Orthodox which was introduced to them in the 18th century.  They are a very diverse group who create a lot for clothing and trade.  Because they use the sea so much, the majority of their clothing is waterproof.   They also devise visors to wear while fishing that is made out of whiskers from animals.  They are also known for their craftsmanship and decoration; they are heavily involved in basketry and the like.
Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian
Tlingit home, roughly 40% smaller than
a real house, located at Native Alaskan Heritage Center.
Made out of red cedar.
The next group of natives are the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian. They are often referred to as part of the “Northwest Coast Culture” similar to those of the Pacific Northwest.  They share a temperate rainforest climate with a lot of rain.  Most of the tribes have different languages but share some similar qualities in culture.  The Haida are originally from Queen Charlottes Island; the Tsimshian from British Columbia area in Canada but have since moved to Anette Island.  The Eyak are more closely associated with the Interior Athabascans when discussing culture and lifestyles.
The Tlingit live along the Southeast panhandle but some do live within the Canadian border.  These groups use mostly wood for their homes such as red cedar and spruce because it is so readily available and sustainable.  Many tribes have permanent winter villages but also build seasonal camps for following animals during the different seasons.  The Tlingit are associated with something many people recognize-- totem poles.  Fishing still remains their main resource especially salmon subsistence fishing.  These groups also weave tapestry/clothing and are matrilineal and exogamous, meaning they marry outside of their own group.  They are also known for their canoes which can be built out of one cedar tree up to 60 feet.  Potlatches are popular among most of this group and were considered formal ceremonies, except for the Haida who used them as more casual feasts.


Sign, Alaska Native Heritage Center

I enjoyed visiting the Native Alaskan Heritage Center because it gave us the opportunity to see their culture live.  The had demonstrations going on when we arrived.  First they were showing different games and sports they play.  They are individual sports that require lots of balance and strength. It was interesting to learn that they do not compete to win or "be the best" but rather to do their best and will encourage each other in competition.  Afterwards they had a demonstration on dancing and songs.  I learned that it was common for the people to write their own songs and could be learned by the tribe; they have a living music culture.  At the Center they had buildings to represent the different villages of each group to visit.  One of my favorite spots was the Tlingit house.  It is designed to house up to 100 people and is made almost entirely of trees.  The Tlingits are the group we think of with totem poles. At the Tlingit village they had just recently, within the last 4 years, completed four totems to represent their ideals.  It was wonderful talking to the people there and about their culture.  Instead of just reading about their history and culture we were able to see it first hand- in person.  There are people there to talk to and ask questions they can answer with personal experience.

I will leave you with what is called an "outside song." An outside song is what a group would sing when in canoes to ask permission to come ashore.  This song is sung by a group of students from all over that are practicing their culture.  They are taught literature, music, history, crafts, etc. in school to help continue their legacies.

A special thanks to the Rasmuson Center Anchorage Museum and the Native Alaskan Heritage Center

                                                                                                                    -Kay Manuel

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