Alaska’s Native people comprise many distinct cultural groups, with numerous social subgroups, using at least 20 different languages and more than 50 dialects. The Dena’ina people were the first residents of the Anchorage area, settling in the Upper Cook Inlet basin at the end of the last Ice Age (500 – 1000 AD). The Dena’ina positioned themselves in a prime location, with the Anchorage area used as a center of trade for other indigenous groups in Alaska.
Athabascan people originated in interior Alaska and have the largest land base of any other Alaska Native group. Athabascan people were known for being efficient hunters and fishers, and the moose, caribou, salmon and birch tree are their most important resources. These provide food, clothes and shelter.
In summer, traditional Athabascan people spent a great deal of time at their fish camps along major river systems – including the Yukon, Tanana, Innoko, Chandelar, Koyokuk and Tolovana rivers. In winter, they hunted caribou, moose and smaller animals.
The area stretching from Prince William Sound west along the Gulf of Alaska to the Aleutian Islands is home to the Unangax and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) peoples. The natural marine environment defines subsistence lifestyles and cultures that date back more than 8,000 years. The Unangax and the Alutiiq people differ in language and culture, but a commonality was created from experiencing first contact with Russian explorers in the 18th century.
Traditional Alutiiq people were known for their skill in building and handling kayaks. The Unangax were known for being expert boat builders and sailors, and were similarly known for their kayaks.
The Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik people originated in a region that stretches from the St. Lawrence Island to the northern Canadian border and beyond. Their territory also included most of the Brooks Range. Today, as in the past, food is based largely on subsistence hunting and traditional use of foods such as, berries, salmon, moose, whale, walrus, seal, duck and other marine mammals.
Tlingit, Haida, Eyak and Tsimshian people, originally from southeastern Alaska, are considered to be a part of the Pacific Northwest coast culture area. Each group speaks a distinct language and has its own clan systems. The four cultures are similar in the use of art and oral traditions, as well as complex legal and social systems based upon matrilineal clans. They share a similar use of art and are known for their totem poles and dramatic carvings.
The Yup'ik and Cup’ik people, named after the two main dialects of the Yup’ik language, live in southwestern Alaska from Bristol Bay along the Bering Sea coast to Norton Sound. The availability of fish, game and plants determined the location of seasonal camps and villages. Yup'ik and Cup’ik people traditionally hunted moose, caribou, whale, walrus, seal and sea lions, and harvested salmon and other fish from the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Nushagak rivers.
Meet Alaska's First People
Experiencing Alaska Native culture first-hand is a daunting task in a state that covers one-fifth the size of the entire U.S. and is spread over five distinct geographic regions. The good news is that all of Alaska's Native cultural groups are well represented at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. In fact, there is no better place to meet Alaska's first people. The center is designed and operated by Alaska Native people expressly for the purpose of sharing their history and way of life.