Aleut, Eyak, Haida, Inupiat, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Yupik, and numerous Northern Athabaskan cultures are Alaska Natives or First Alaskans. They are largely defined by their language groups. Many Alaska Natives are members of 13 regional organizations that oversee land and financial claims.
Thousands of years ago, Native Alaskans arrived in two waves. Some are from the third immigrant wave to northern North America — no southward migration. Genetic testing shows they are not linked to indigenous South Americans. Anthropologists say they could only have traveled to Alaska via the Bering land bridge or sea route.
Alaska Native ancestors created multiple indigenous, sophisticated cultures in the Arctic and circumpolar north. They created clever solutions to make it through the difficult climate and environment. Historical communities are defined by languages from many main language families. More than 20% of Alaskans are Alaska Natives.
The word “Eskimo” has fallen out of favor due to its negative connotations and has been replaced by “Inuit” in both Canada and Greenland. On the other hand, the word “Eskimo” is still acceptable and, in some cases, favored as a collective noun among certain Alaska Natives of Inupiaq (Inuit) and Yupik descent.
All the Alaska Native or Native Alaskan peoples are listed here, with their historic languages and the various tribes that make up each civilization: Alaskan Athabaskans, Ancestral Beringians, Eskimoes, Eyak, Gwich’in, Haida, Hän, Holikachuk, Inupiat (Inuit), Koyukon, Lower Tanana, Tanacross, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Upper Kuskokwim (Kolchan), Upper Tanana, Yupik (Unangan), and Yup’ik.
Before the 1890s and 1900s gold rushes, Americans and Europeans had limited contact with Alaska Natives. The 1887 Dawes Act did not grant Alaska Natives individual titles in severalty; the 1906 Alaska Native Allotment Act did. Vitus Bering discovered Alaska. 18th-century Russians first met Alaskans. Since Alaskan Native groups were separated, their interactions with Russians varied. Middle-18th-century Russians sailed from Siberia to the Aleutian Islands to trade with Alaska Natives.
Russian Orthodox missionaries settled near trading posts. Russian missionaries translated the Bible into Tlingit first. This early legacy is reflected in the substantial number of Russian Orthodox Christian congregations in Alaska. The Russian Tsarist government invaded Native Alaskan land for geopolitical reasons. During trading years, it drained natural resources and evangelized Russian Orthodoxy.
Their arrival into highly populated Indigenous nations changed demographics and topography. Alaska’s resources were plentiful. Alaska’s natural wealth, including gold, drew U.S. attention. In 1867, the United States gained Alaska from Russia but Native Alaskans’ wishes weren’t considered, and they weren’t citizens. White settlers could seize Alaska Natives’ land without compensating them. Only missionaries could educate Alaska Natives. White immigrants thought Alaska Natives were less intellectual than European Americans and didn’t understand their sophisticated traditions.
Roughly 86,000 Alaska Natives called Alaska home in 1990, with another 17,000 living elsewhere, according to the Alaska Natives Commission. According to a study conducted in 2013 by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, there are more than 120,000 Alaska Natives in the state. The bulk of Native Alaskans live in outlying regional hubs like Nome, Dillingham, and Bethel, but the percentage of the population residing in metropolitan areas has been increasing. The percentage of people living in cities increased from 38% in 2000 to 44% in 2010. In 2018, Alaska’s indigenous population made up 15.4% of the state’s overall population.
Traditional Native Alaskan religions center on interactions with the afterlife and the spirits of the departed. These beliefs and practices were once widespread among the peoples of the Arctic, especially the Inuit (including the Inupiat), the Yupik, the Aleut, and the Northwest Coastal Indian tribes. By the time the first serious ethnological research was done, they were already on the decline in many communities. By the end of the 19th century, for instance, Sagdloq, the last traditional healer of the people then known as “Polar Eskimos” in English, had died. He was rumored to have the ability to fly or dive through the floor of the ocean, and he was famous for his sleight of hand and ventriloquism.
Native Alaskan traditions have a profound impact on our daily lives, from the names of mountains, rivers, and communities in traditional areas to the architecture, art, and culture of our urban centers. Alaska is home to around 730,000 people, 15% of whom are Native Americans from 20 diverse cultural groups speaking 300 different dialects. Many Alaska Natives in the scattered communities dot the river and coast of the state and sustain on traditional means, hunting and fishing. All five of Alaska’s geographic areas, as well as its main cities and small towns, have been inspired by the Alaska Native people’s language, storytelling, artwork, customs, and ceremonies.
When Europeans arrived in Alaska, modern history truly got underway for the indigenous people who lived there. Unusually for North America, the initial contact was made in the 18th century by Russians sailing from Siberia. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that British and American merchants, particularly from eastern North American cities, began to make their way to the region. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Christian missionaries began arriving in Alaska. The ancestry of the Alaska Native people can be traced back to the first individuals to traverse the Bering Land Bridge across Asia to North America.
Native Alaskans make up about 15% of the state’s current population but belong to any of 229 recognized tribes. Others have adopted Western ways of life while many others still rely on subsistence hunting and fishing. The indigenous people of Alaska are divided into 11 distinct cultural groups. These cultures are categorized according to their shared customs, languages, and geographic locations. The state’s cultural diversity is one of its defining characteristics, ranging from the indigenous Tlingit in the Inside Passage to the Inupiat of the Arctic Slope.
There are roughly 20 distinct languages spoken in Alaska, with the vast majority being members of just two families. They are the Na-Dene and the Inuit-Unangan (sometimes called Eskimo-Aleut) (a.k.a. Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit). The Aleut language is a subset of the Eskimo-Aleut language family, along with the Inuit and Yup’ik languages. (There are differing opinions on whether the Sirenik Eskimo language should be classified as a Yupik language or a separate group altogether.) Since its founding in 1972 by the Alaska Legislature, the Alaska Native Language Center has collected and documented Alaska’s Native languages.
The lineage of Alaska Natives may be traced back to two major migrations that occurred thousands of years ago. There are numerous Native American tribes, but there are primarily six that make up the bulk of the population. These include the Aleut, Tsimshian, Inupiat, Tlingit-Haida, and Yup’ik. While the Native American population was concentrated in a relatively small number of communities, its members spoke more than 300 distinct languages.
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The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/Jonathan Nafzger
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- Alaska Native Heritage Center, Available here: https://www.alaskanative.net/
- Alaska Federation of Natives, Available here: https://www.nativefederation.org/alaska-native-peoples/
- U.S. Department of the Interior, Available here: https://www.bia.gov/regional-offices/alaska/tribes-served