A Guide To The Alaska Athabascan Tribe: Location, Population, and More

Written by Jennifer Gaeng
Updated: October 25, 2022
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Alaska Natives who speak a language from the Athabaskan family are variously referred to as Alaskan Athabascans, Alaskan Athapascans, Alaskan Dena, or Dena. It was these people who occupied the interior of Alaska for the first time. In Alaska, home to some of the world’s oldest human populations, there are distinct tribes that can be identified by their unique languages, which include:

  • Ahtna or Copper River Athabascan (Hwt’aene)
  • Deg Hit’an or Ingalik (Hit’an)
  • Dena’ina or Tanaina (Ht’ana)
  • Holikachuk (Hit’an)
  • Koyukon (Hut’aane)
  • Tanana or Lower Tanaina (Kokht’ana)
  • Tan Upper Kuskokwim or Kolchan (Ht’ane)

Dena’ina of Cook Inlet was the only group of Athabascans to engage in both coastal hunter-gathering and inland creek and river fishing. Except for the Yupikized Athabaskans (Holikachuk and Deg Hit’an), the Athabascans of Alaska use a matrilineal system in which children are automatically accepted into the clan of their mother. The Athabascan Indians have endured the region’s rivers, woods, and severe climate for thousands of years. As may be predicted, their way of life has included several environmental adaptations, and these adaptations can be traced back to numerous aspects of their civilization.

Name

Alaska Natives were formerly known as the Tinneh. Dena is a subgroup of the Athabaskan people of Alaska who speak the language of the Athabaskan language family. They were the initial inhabitants of interior Alaska. For themselves, Athabaskans use the term Dena, which means “the people.” The word “Athabascan” comes from the name of a huge lake in Canada by the same name. Cree Indians, who originally settled on the lake’s eastern shore, are credited with naming it.

The Cree name for the lake, Athabasca, means “grass here and there.” Tribes west of the lake were also included in the name expansion. At the same time, it alludes to the extensive linguistic family to which the languages of the Athabascan Indians belong. Alaskan Athabascans (or Athapascans) and Dena are the names given to speakers of the Athabaskan language family who are indigenous to Alaska. In the interior of Alaska, they were the earliest inhabitants.

Location

The Athabascan homeland extends from the northern Interior to the southern Peninsula, from Cook Inlet to Norton Sound and beyond. The Athabascan people have spread over the entire state of Alaska and the lower 48 states, and they frequently return to their traditional territories to harvest their food and other supplies.

Population

There are 11 distinct Athabascan linguistic communities in Alaska. In the past, Athabascans have lived along the five major river systems that drain into the Arctic Ocean: the Yukon, Tanana, Susitna, Kuskokwim, and Copper. Today, there are still about 16,000 Athabascans living in Alaska; they name themselves “Dena,” which means “the people.” Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska, and the Dena’ina Athabascan people settled all throughout the area. 

A total of 119,241 Alaskans were born in the state (as of the 2000 census). There are 229 recognized Alaskan communities and an additional five Tlingit Alaskan Indian tribes that are not federally recognized.

Beliefs

One of the most important aspects of Athabascan subsistence is sharing. Another common belief is in animal spirits. All Alaskan Athabascans were animists. To them, all living creatures — even some inanimate objects — possessed powerful spirits. Spirits helped animals realize things that were unclear. If humans insulted an animal’s spirit, the animal would avoid them, causing them to go hungry. Because of the faith in animal spirits, there were strict rules for handling animals.

Alaskan Athabascans believed all animals possessed powerful spirits.

©Steve Hillebrand, USFWS / Free to use CC0, Pixnio – License

Culture

Local bands often had common parents or moms. Despite kinship on both sides, each participant identified more with maternal relatives. A person’s mother defined his “clan,” or “sib,” and all sib members were close relatives. Wars and potlucks were sibling occurrences. Most Alaskan Athabascan tribes recognized three sibs, with each sib sometimes broken into smaller named familial units. Sibs haven’t been active in some locations for quite some time, but neither anthropologists nor Indians know their pre-contact significance.

The Ingalik have specialized fishing equipment due to their dependency on fish. Tanaina, who lived alongside Eskimos and Tlingits, integrated their material cultures. Although house style and building materials vary by region, many Athabascan tribes maintained similar winter quarters. They were timber frames coated in spruce bark or birch, moss, and mud. From the ground, dwellings appeared as snowy mounds with spirals of smoke. Tanaina winter residences were semi-subterranean and larger than inner Athabascan homes. Tanaina homes’ exteriors were built of wood planks chinked with moss and covered with grass, rather than bark, moss, or dirt.

Language

In addition to Navajo and Apache, 11 Athabascan languages are spoken in Alaska. Many are also spoken in Canada, some in California, and some in Oregon. The 11 language groups did not function as governmental bodies, and Athabaskans did not recognize any entity greater than their local band (dialect group). Local dialects occur within each of Alaska’s 11 Athabascan language groups, and each dialect was historically connected with a “regional band” of 30 to 100 nuclear families. Parents and dependent children make constitute a nuclear family. Even while a few local bands spoke Ingalik, they didn’t consider themselves part of the “Ingalik” community.

The 11 language groups are not in the thoughts of the Athabascans, but rather outsiders. The ones still spoken in Alaska today are:

  • Ahtna
  • Han
  • Holikachuk
  • Ingalik (more accurately Deg Hit’an)
  • Koyukon,
  • Kutchin (more accurately “Gwich’in”)
  • Tanacross
  • Tanaina (often spelled Denaina)
  • Tanana
  • Upper Kuskokwim
  • Upper Tanana

Other Athabascan languages are spoken in Canada, while Apache and Navajo are spoken in the Southwest.

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The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Daniel Mark Robertson


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About the Author

Jennifer Gaeng is a writer at A-Z-Animals focused on animals, lakes, and fishing. With over 15 years of collective experience in writing and researching, Jennifer has honed her skills in various niches, including nature, animals, family care, and self-care. Hailing from Missouri, Jennifer finds inspiration in spending quality time with her loved ones. Her creative spirit extends beyond her writing endeavors, as she finds joy in the art of drawing and immersing herself in the beauty of nature.

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Sources
  1. Alaskan-Natives.com, Available here: https://www.alaskan-natives.com/alaskan-native-cultures/athabascan-cultures/
  2. DNA Consultants, Available here: https://dnaconsultants.com/native-american-alaskan-athabaskan/
  3. ExploreNorth, Available here: https://explorenorth.com/library/aktravel/bl-atha.htm