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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  People of the North  >  Native Peoples
Alaska's First People
By Tricia Brown Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Alaska's first people have lived in this land for many thousands of years.

Within written history, Alaska has been populated by 11 separate Native cultures. Language experts have identified 20 different languages among Alaska's people groups. Each culture can claim its own distinct history, stories, dances, songs, spiritual beliefs, and ceremonies. Yet all are united in the concept of sharing as a central, essential part of Native identity and cultural survival.

Long ago, the notion of land ownership was foreign to Alaska's indigenous people; however, they did identify and protect the boundaries around their groups' traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Along borders, neighboring groups traded and warred, and sometimes adopted useful tools or ways from their neighbors.

From ancient days to the present, continuity is evident in Alaska's Native cultures; however, for many, the history of the people is divided by pre-contact and post-contact with the Western world. Contact was initiated in 1741, the year that Vitus Bering's crew first set foot on Kayak Island. Although his ship did not make it back to Russia, another did, as did members of Bering's crew. With them came samples and stories of the lush furs to be found in Alaska. When the fur hunters returned to Alaska, they brought disease, firepower, and a foreign religion. The cultures of people along the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak, and Southeast Alaska especially were ravaged by the outsiders. However, Russian Orthodox linguists working with Natives in the Aleut (Unangan) and Tlingit regions did help with literacy advancements by helping develop a written alphabet and translating portions of Scripture.

Organizations such as the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, and various alliances such as Tanana Chiefs, built political strength in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thanks to Native leaders and lobbyists, passage of laws concerning equal rights to education and Native land claims stand as landmarks in Alaska history.

In uncountable ways, Alaska's Native people have adapted to, or resisted, change in their cultures. The formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1966 seemed to signal a new day. In the 1960s and 70s, a cultural reawakening among Native groups has resulted in stronger bonds culturally, politically, and economically. And the theme of sharing continues.

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Gallery of Images
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Indian potlatch dancers, Kasaan
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"Tananah Indian squaw returning from a hunt"
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Cleaning walrus tusks
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Azoon River Indians

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