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Alaska's Human History

Alaska's First Residents
European Settlement
Alaska Today

[Traditional Athabaskan Family Group]

Alaska's First Residents

[Alaska Native Languages Map] Native people began to cross the land bridge from Asia to Alaska 10,000-20,000 years ago. The people who would become Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Haida settled in the moist and moderate climate in Alaska's panhandle. Yup'ik and Inupiaq cultures moved into the western and northern portions of the state. Eyaks occupied an area of the southcentral coast, and Aleuts moved out the Alaska peninsula and Aleutian chain. Athabaskans made their new home in the vast heart of the state occupying the Interior boreal forest; a land laced with wetlands and rivers.

Map source: "Alaska a Land in Motion"


[Wooden Boat] Life in a New Land Interior rivers became highways for winter and summer travel as Native people traveled almost constantly in pursuit of scarce resources. Each person developed a detailed mental map of the land and water they traveled which contained the location of edible plants and berries, animal trails, and locations in rivers, streams and lakes where fish could be caught. Wildlife populations fluctuated drastically and resources were scarce.

[Traditional Athabaskan Fishing Camp]

Because fish were so critical to survival, they entered every aspect of Native existence. Fish were a primary food source for people, and sustained dog teams which made winter travel easier in the interior. Fish skins were made into waterproof clothing and carrying containers. Songs, prayers, stories, and rituals were passed through generations to help ensure that the fish spirits were honored and would continue to provide for Native people.

Each Native group in Alaska developed different fishing technologies depending on their environment, the type of species they fished for, and the raw materials available to them. Athabaskans were skilled at trapping, dip netting, and spearing returning salmon along with pike, whitefish and other resident species.

[Woman Cutting Salmon] Present-Day Reliance on Fisheries
Fishing techniques and equipment have changed through time, but fish continue to be an important part of the Native culture and subsistence economy for over 200 rural Alaskan villages. Fish comprise 70% of the subsistence harvest in some areas. Rural Alaskans each consume an average of 230 pounds of fish each year.


[An early photograph of Ruby, Alaska]

European Settlement


Alaska's fisheries helped to shape the European settlement patterns in the state. Fish, furs, and minerals were the three treasures that drew settlers north. Nearly every present-day Alaskan community is located near one of these resources. Alaska's fish wealth was an important reason this area became a U.S. territory and later a state.

[An eighteen dog freight team] Dogs were the primary freight animals of the early northern settlements. The demand for Alaskan furs created a source of income for interior Natives, and Athabaskan families started keeping dog teams to tend their expanded winter trap lines. Dogs also pulled the huge sleds of mail and freight destined for remote villages and mining camps. They hauled thousands of cords of wood to the river banks as fuel for summer steam ship travel.

[Racks of drying fish] The primary fuel for dog team transportation was fish. A single fort in the interior at the turn of the century required 40 tons of dried salmon each year to feed their working dog teams. Racks of drying fish became a common sight along the Yukon as the human population grew, and dogs became more numerous.

Fish Wheels appeared on Interior rivers at the turn of the century. They proved so efficient that they quickly replaced most other traditional fishing methods.

[Fish Trap] Even more efficient fishing methods were coming into use in other places. Giant fish traps that blocked river mouths and intercepted the migration of entire salmon runs were routinely in use along coastal rivers by the turn of the century. This wholesale pursuit of Alaska's fisheries wealth caused a major decline in the State's salmon stocks starting in the 1930's. This population decline inspired the first fishing regulations and fisheries management efforts in the state.


[Fisherman with chum salmon]

Alaska Today

Subsistence, commercial, and recreational fisheries continue to be a strong part of the state's culture and economy. Fishing techniques and equipment have changed through time, but fish continue to be an important part of the Native culture and subsistence economy for over 200 rural villages. Fish comprise 70% of the subsistence harvest in some areas. Rural Alaskans each consume an average of 230 pounds of fish each year. Commercial and recreational fisheries now provide more jobs for Alaskans than any other state industry.


Text by USFWS staff
Historical photo information
Last modified 25, February, 2009

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