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Alaska & Yukon: A Guide to the Great North’s Native Cultures

This photo is used under a Creative Commons license by Jay Galvin.

Alaska and Yukon’s Native cultures are as inseparable a part of the area’s landscape and texture as the mountains, rivers and glaciers. Just a short look into Alaska and Yukon Natives’ history exposes an amazing story of people who lived in some of the world’s harshest conditions, learned to coexist with and live off their lands and seas and overcome great challenges.

In the Yukon Territory, the native people are referred to as Yukon First Nation people. That name represents eight different cultures: Gwitchin, Han, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Kaska, Tagish, Tlingit and Upper Tanana. Yukon First Nations made their living hunting, trapping and fishing and have a profound understanding of the land they call home. Among the First Nation people are gifted artists and artisans that continue to draw from traditional practices and materials. Today more and more of them combine the traditional practices with certain modern approaches. Some examples of their art include beautifully beaded moccasins, mukluks, carvings, jewelry and masks made from antler bone, wood, mastodon ivory or horn.

Alaska Natives are divided into 11 distinct cultures that can be gathered, by similarities and geographical proximity, into five culture groups. Southeast Alaska is home to the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Eyak and Haida. The ocean and rivers are their main source of food, with supplemental nutrition provided by plants and land mammals such as mountain goat, moose and deer. In the past, most subsistence activities required travel by canoe or walking great distances to hunt, harvest eggs and pick berries. There are strong similarities in these four cultures’ art, which is most famous for expressive totem poles and dramatic carvings. Formal attire is colorful and consists of tail woven robes, painted tanned leather, moccasins, masks and rattles.

To the west, in the most southern portion of the state and including the Aleutian Islands, live the Unangax (pronounced U-Nahn-Gash), Aleut and Alutiiq people. Described as “maritime people,” these cultures have a deep knowledge of the waters surrounding them and the ways to harvest them in accordance with the harsh weather that bombards the region. These Natives used to live in semi-subterranean houses that protected them from the elements. Kinship and family relations are, to this day, very important symbols of their cultures and dictated day-to-day decisions about village life. The Unangax, Aleut and Alutiiq clothing is made of skin and sea mammal stomach lining and stitched in incredible precision to form a waterproof garment, decorated with natural dyes, feathers, puffin beaks or ivory.

Just north, in western Alaska, are the Yup’ik and Cup’ik people. To this day fishing, hunting and gathering are their main methods for subsistence and much of their daily life and culture surround these activities. Elaborate community celebrations center around the relationship between humans, animals and the spiritual world. This can be seen in their drumming and dancing that are very rhythmic and mimic real subsistence activities in their movements. With the region being as vast as it is, trade between the inland villages and the coastal villages was inherently crucial to these peoples’ survival.

The Athabascan people originated from Interior and Southcentral Alaska – an expansive stretch of land between the Brooks Mountain Range in the north and the Kenai Peninsula in the south. The Athabascan are known for great hunting and fishing skills, with moose, caribou, salmon and birch tree being prominent staples. The same resources used for food also supply materials for clothes and shelter. Traditionally, the Athabascan spend their summers with family at their fish camps along major river systems, and winters are spent hunting and processing moose and caribou to last throughout the year.

To the north, around the North Slope and Northwest Arctic, is the Inupiaq region that also includes the St. Lawrence Island Yupik people. To this day, the villagers in this region fight to continue the traditions of their forefathers to keep the culture alive despite soaring prices of essentials such as gas and food. The harvesting of whale, walrus, seal, polar bear, caribou, fish and berries continues to be the main key to survival in this harsh climate, and the skills involved are passed on from generation to generation. Song duels, competitive games that test strength and stamina and community dancing are still very prominent symbols of these peoples’ culture and are performed at a variety of ceremonies and festivals that take place around the region.

While this post only provides a glimpse into this rich world of cultures, you can learn a lot more by adding a visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage to the itinerary for your next trip with Gray Line Alaska. The heritage center has a variety of fascinating displays, exhibits and films about Alaska’s cultures as well as dance performances and live demonstrations. If you are interested in visiting certain areas to learn more about their culture, be sure to check out our tour section for a listing of destinations.

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