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Local Culture

Julius Sam, a Northway elder, with a canvas canoe

Until the late 1800’s the indigenous people of the Upper Tanana region, Dendeey shyuh iin (Athabascan) speaking Indians of eastern interior Alaska, (pdf-2.04mb) roamed over 500,000 square miles across the northern taiga and tundra in small bands, isolated from the outside world. 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 and clothe their families, they became expert in the use of snares, deadfalls, and the construction of miles of caribou fences placed in strategic locations.

Arranged marriages 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 rituals and taboos associated with daily life and the appeasement of spirits. The bands were divided into Gull and Raven clans, descending along mothers’ family lines.  Rites of passage and mortuary potlatches were the primary cultural celebrations.

Alaska Natives Today
Martha and Heather  512 wide
Northway elder, Martha Sam, shows tools for making birch bark baskets to Heather Johnson

Julius with arrow
Julius Sam working on an arrow for a hand-made bow

Today, the Native people of eastern interior Alaska (pdf -2.04 mb) 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 a myriad other 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 and language mentors, the passing on of many of the elders who were fluent Athabascan speakers has impacted the cultural and traditional worldview of younger generations. 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.

Cultural Resources

Tetlin Refuge is collaborating with village councils, native elders, a university PhD candidate, and regional archaeologist, Debbie Corbett, to update cultural resource guides for Tetlin National Wildlife Reufge and other refuges in Alaska.

Page Photo Credits — Martha Sam shows tools for birch bark basket making, Steve Hildebrand, USFWS, Julius Sam working on an arrow for a hand-made bow, Steve Hildebrand USFWS, Julius Sam, a Northway elder, with a canvas canoe he made, Photo Credit  Steve Hildebrand, USFWS
Last Updated: Jun 10, 2013
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