The boundaries of Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge encompass 932,000 acres; however, some of these acres are owned by the state of Alaska or private citizens, leaving 682,604 acres managed by Tetlin Refuge that include snowcapped mountains and glacier-fed rivers, forests, and treeless tundra and an abundance of wetlands.
In July 1980, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the U.S. government set aside approximately 730,000 acres of land in eastern interior Alaska as the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. The purpose of the Refuge is to conserve fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity, to provide interpretation and environmental education to the public and to provide subsistence hunting opportunities to rural inhabitants. Tetlin Refuge is visited by thousands of migratory birds each spring and fall. Being the first refuge that travelers encounter when driving into Alaska, Tetlin Refuge is in a strategic location to provide the initial Alaskan experience to visitors.
Change to Alaska
Russian explorers entered the Copper River drainage, but failed to gain access to the Upper Tanana. The first American explorers to enter the upper Tanana River valley was led by Lt. Henry Allen, US Army, in 1885 from the Copper River drainage. His expedition mapped the region which led to future expeditions. Most of the early contacts (late 1800’s) of the Upper Tanana Indians were made with traders on the Yukon River and gold miners in the Fortymile country.
The discovery of gold in the Yukon and Alaska in the late 1800s opened the doors to thousands of newcomers from all over the world and unrelenting change in eastern interior Alaska. Some bands in the Eastern Interior contracted with miners to provide food and services.
The rapid construction of the Alaska Highway during the Second World War brought permanent changes to the region. This 1,523 mile Canadian-Alaskan military road was constructed in just seven months. It was built as a supply route to military forces in Alaska during World War II. The men worked tirelessly in lengthy shifts, sometimes in temperatures of -40° F. A record temperature of -79° F was set during construction. This highway remains the only road connecting Alaska to the continental United States and serves as the northern boundary of Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge.
Until the late 1800’s the indigenous people of the Upper Tanana region, Dineh (Athabascan) speaking Indians of eastern interior Alaska, roamed over 500,000 square miles across the northern Boreal Forest in migratory bands. They followed the seasonal migrations of caribou, waterfowl and fish, gathered berries, and hunted and trapped mammals and game birds. By taking advantage of every opportunity to feed, clothe and shelter their families, they became expert in the use of snares, deadfalls, fishing weirs, fish nets and the construction of miles of caribou fences placed in strategic locations. This enabled them to create extensive cross-regional social networks, which circulated goods, people, clan relationships and ideas.
Clan relationships and trade with their Ahtna neighbors to the south brought copper and salmon to this valley. Husbands and wives worked together as a team, and there were many spiritual rituals and taboos associated with daily life and the appeasement of spirits. The bands are crow and seagull composed of eight clans; children are born into the mothers’ clan line. Rites of passage and mortuary potlatches were the primary cultural celebrations. The potlach is the embodiment of a family’s bereavement process, expressions of thankfulness, and the display of love. This is sometimes considered a display of wealth; however, these gifts are given to the opposite clans thanking them for being there in this time of great loss. Gifts are a representation of the love they had for the lost and they share this love with their opposite clans, in turn, one day these will be repaid and is a cycle of reciprocity between clans that continues today and contributes to their migratory relationships today.
Today, the Native people of eastern interior Alaska continue to participate in many of the traditions of their ancestors while also integrating western culture and technology into their way of life. Tribal councils address such issues as environmental impacts on native lands, safe drinking water and sewage disposal, employment, infrastructure development, health care and wellness issues, as well as political concerns. Subsistence continues to be an important and necessary activity for the people. Although much of the culture continues to be passed on through the traditional potlatch celebrations, culture bearers and language mentors. One of the outstanding characteristics of the Athabascans of interior Alaska has been their adaptability. Just as in the distant past, the people continue to enjoy their homeland as they adapt to the challenges of the twenty-first century.