Alaska Fun Fact: Who are Alaska Natives?

When travel season ends, who remains in Alaska to weather the snows of winter? Who lived in Alaska long before the tourists came?

alaska native

There are five distinct groups of indigenous people, who are jointly called Alaska Natives, including the Aleuts, Inupiaqs (Northern Eskimos), Yupiks (Southern Eskimos), Athabascans (Interior Indians) and the Northwest Coastal Indians (Tlingit and Haida). Anthropologists believe that today’s Alaska Natives came from Asia crossing over the Bearing land bridge from Siberia or traveling by watercraft along the shore lines.

The Aleut people were originally distributed along the rocky arc of the Aleutian Islands and the Alaskan Peninsula taking their name from the Koryak or Chukchi languages of Siberia. Archeologists suggest that the Aleuts are the descendants of those who established themselves at Anangula Island more than 7,000 years ago. They are distinguished among the peoples of the world for their successful maritime adaptation to the cold of the Aleutian Island chain relying primarily on resources of the sea and coastal area for their food, clothing, shelter, heat and tools.

The Inupiaq (Inuits) people settled along the north coast of Alaska and Canada migrating from islands in the Bering Sea. They were traditionally hunters and fishermen living off the animals inhabiting the Arctic for their food, clothes, footwear and some tools. The Inuits are thought to be descended from the Thule culture. The Inuits have commonly been known as Eskimos in Alaska though the term is considered derogatory by many in Canada. The term Eskimo is used in Alaska to refer to both the Yupik and the Inupiat peoples.

The Yupik are the indigenous peoples of western, southwestern and south central Alaska. They are the most numerous of the Alaska Native groups numbering over 20,000.The Yupik languages are still widely spoken with three quarters of the Yupik population deemed fluent. In Yupik culture, families traditionally spent spring and summer at camps for fishing and wintered in villages. The men lived in a communal house called the qasgiq with women and girls living in the women’s house nearby called the ena. Boys lived with their mothers until the age of five when they went to live in the men’s house. In a unique tradition, the Yupik named their children after the last person in the community to have died.

The Athabascan people traditionally lived in Interior Alaska along five major rivers in a region expanding south from the Brooks Mountain Range to the Kenai Peninsula. There are eleven linguistic groups of Athabascans in Alaska. The Athabascans call themselves “Dena” meaning “the people.” The culture is a matrilineal system in which children belong to the mother’s clan and husbands were expected to live with and work for the wife’s family during the first year of marriage. The mother’s brother held the social responsibility to train and socialize his sister’s children so that they grew up knowing the history and customs of their clan. The Athabascan people taught and practiced respect for all living things.

Northwest Coastal Indians

The Haida, Tlingit, Eyak and Tsimshian tribes were neighbors and often intermarried. The original homeland of the Haida people was the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia, Canada from where a group migrated north to the Prince of Wales Island area in Alaska. The Haida lived in large rectangular cedar-plank houses with other families from the same clan. Women gathered plants and herbs, wove baskets and cloth, reared the children and cooked. The men were fishermen and hunters, and when needed warriors. Status was determined by possession of property and the Haida people were sharp traders. They were also known to be the best carvers, painters and builders of the North West coast.

The Tlingit people occupied the islands and mainland of southeast Alaska and were well-known for their totem poles and other elegantly carved objects. Status was conferred based on wealth, character and ancestors. The oldest male was the head of the family group. The Tlingit lived in large beachfront rectangle homes with sloping peaked roves held up by four decorated corner posts and a ridge beam. They subsisted on the bounty of the sea and hunted primarily for furs. Summers were for fishing and hunting while winters were spent on household activities. Winter was also the ceremonial season. The Tlingit were fierce warriors as the first Russian settlers in Sitka learned. The Tlingits drove them out despite their guns and cannons.

Russian explorers brought change, disease, environmental degradation and harsh treatment to the native peoples of Alaska between 1740 and 1867. The Russian Orthodox Church did not gain influence until after Alaskans lived a number of decades under American Rule. Over time Alaska Natives blended Christianity with their spiritual beliefs to create something meaningful, a form of Alaska Native Christianity that continues to this day. The sale of Alaska to the United States brought an influx of Americans with innovative technology, modern goods, new forms of transportation, conflicting religious systems, disease, alcohol and capitalism.

Alaska Natives account for about 15% of the total Alaskan population. The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage is the largest cultural institution in Alaska featuring a stage for Alaska Native dancing, games, storytelling and demonstrations. There are art exhibits, craft activities, and full size authentic Native dwellings.

Community Blood Center invites you to register to donate blood May 2 – September 3, 2016 at any of its locations or blood drives to be entered to win a trip to America’s Last Frontier, Alaska. For more information visit To schedule a donation appointment visit or call 1-800-388-4483.




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