Local Culture

Local Culture

(Mimi Thomas)

Native Alaskans living within and near the Yukon Flats are primarily Gwich'in Athabascan Indians. Until fairly recent times, Athabascans were highly mobile people, moving in family groups throughout a home territory. Following contact with Europeans, Athabascans started settling in more permanent villages that evolved around trading posts and newly constructed schools. 

Subsistence activities are central to Athabascan social and cultural values. Athabascans believe that the act of physically harvesting their food is intrinsically related to other aspects of their world and link them with the animal resources and lands upon which they depend. Subsistence also links each village, in many ways, with its past. Young hunters learn skills and animal lore from older, experienced hunters. For these reasons, Athabascans see threats to subsistence as threats to their cultural survival.

Athabascans follow patterns of subsistence activities that reflect the seasonal cycle of harvestable resources. In the spring, ducks, geese, muskrats, bears and fish provide sustenance. In the summer, locals establish seasonal fish camps along the rivers to catch salmon with fish wheels and set nets. Fall marks the start of the moose and caribou hunting seasons. Berries and other foraged plants supplement the high-meat diet. All foods are preserved using various methods (ex. drying, smoking, canning) for year-round enjoyment. 

With the introduction of trapping for European fur traders, the pure subsistence lifestyle of Native Alaskans changed to incorporate wage-earning labor. While employment opportunities in most of the villages are limited, some residents are employed at schools, post offices, clinics, state and federal agencies, and village councils. Seasonal employment can be found in construction, trapping, selling firewood, producing handicrafts, and firefighting. Despite these developments, subsistence activities continue to remain a major component of Athabascan life.

Further Reading:
Berger, T.R. 1985. Village Journey: The Report of the Alaska Native Review Commission. Hill and Wang, New York. 202pp.

Case, D.S. and D.A. Voluck. 2002. Alaska Natives and American Laws, 2nd Edition. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks. 515 pp.

Fast, P.A. 2002. Northern Athabascan Survival: Women, Community, & the Future. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 304pp.

Fredson, J. and E. Sapir. 1982 (reprinted 1995). Hàa Googwandak (Stories Told by John Fredson to Edward Sapir), edited by K. Peter and J. McGary.

Joseph, D.S. 1997. Fishcamp. Maverick Publications, Bend, Oregon. 143pp.

Langdon, S.J. 1993. The Native People of Alaska. Greatland Graphics, Anchorage. 96pp.