American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Athapaskan Peoples

Title: Athapaskan mother and children
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Athapaskan peoples dwell in a vast territory covering several ecological zones, both above and below the Arctic Circle, from tundra to boreal forest and subarctic mountains and plateaus, stretching across Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and the Northwest Territories, and south into northern British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The Apache and Navajo are Athapaskan-speaking peoples who live far to the south of the northern forests in California, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.

In Alaska, the various Athapaskan groups are known as the Koyukuk, Ingalik, Kolchan, Tanacross, Ahtna, Han, Tanana, Denaina, Gwich'in, Holikachuk, and Nabena; while in Canada they include the Dogrib, Sahtu, Kaska, Tagish, Gwich'in, Witsuwit'in, Dunne-za, Slavey, Dene Tha, and Chipewyan. Many northern Athapaskans call themselves Dene or Dena, which means "human beings," and speak languages that belong to the Athapaskan branch of the Na-Dene family of languages (in general usage, "Athapaskan," or "Athabascan," or "Athabaskan" is a linguistic label for these related languages). In the Northwest Territories, Dene nation has become the preferred self-designation to refer to Athapaskan peoples collectively.

Archaeologists generally say that Athapaskan-speaking peoples probably crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia to Alaska between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. These people moved into North America as the great glaciers and ice sheets of the Pleistocene period receded. Most Athapaskan artifacts, however, can be dated to only about 2,000 years ago, and there are many gaps in the archaeological knowledge of Athapaskan prehistory. Much of what is known about Athapaskan origins comes from both archaeology and linguistic research.

The archaeological view of Athapaskan origins is at odds with Athapaskan oral traditions and religious beliefs, which express the view that all Athapaskan peoples emerged from the same spot at the beginning of time. Like the hazy archaeological knowledge as to the emergence of Athapaskan culture on the North American continent, the exact time of this creation is difficult to pinpoint. Athapaskans say this happened in the Distant Time. Although the Distant Time is a remote, ancient time, oral histories nonetheless recount its events in incredible detail, reflecting an immensely rich spiritual and cultural heritage. The stories of the Distant Time provide accounts of Athapaskan origins and the place of people in relation to the world around them. Distant Time stories provide indigenous accounts of the origins of the world, the elements, and the animals. These stories also reveal how, like other northern peoples, the Athapaskans live in an aware world, where everything (humans, animals, rivers, lakes, trees, thunderstorms, etc.) has consciousness. Athapaskan oral history describes how features of the landscape or the elements—the wind, the sun, the moon, stars, and so on—were originally human beings whose spirits are now embodied in aspects of the natural world. The Raven (or Raven Man) is a central figure in Athapaskan origin stories: Before the beginning of time—in fact even before the beginning of Distant Time—there existed only darkness until Raven created the world by revealing the daylight. Having revealed the daylight, Raven then created the first people.

The forests, rivers, and lakes of Alaska and northern Canada have provided Athapaskan peoples with a rich variety of resources that have formed the basis for diverse economies and modes of subsistence. Traditionally and in modern times, life in Athapaskan communities has revolved around an annual seasonal round of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Athapaskan peoples have traditionally exploited a wide ecological niche and have hunted, when the need has arisen, almost every species of animal in their traditional areas. Moose and caribou are especially important animals for many communities in providing a source of meat for the entire year. Smaller animals, birds, and fish also provide an important part of the Athapaskan diet. In the Alaskan interior, especially for communities on the banks of the Yukon, Tanana, and other rivers, although the hunting of large animals is a vital part of local economies, fishing has given particular stability to the Athapaskan way of life throughout the year. The Gwich'in of northeast Alaska and northern Yukon have depended almost entirely on the porcupine caribou herd, while the Denaina of Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska have depended a great deal on sea mammal hunting. In the past, settlement patterns corresponded to the annual subsistence cycle, and even winter dwellings were either temporary or semipermanent. Today, although Athapaskan hunters and fishers travel great distances in search of game and often spend the summer in camps, they live in permanent villages and their daily lives are influenced heavily by the institutions of North American society.

Traditional social organization was based on kinship groups, with northern Athapaskans living in autonomous bands with their own hunting, fishing, and gathering territories. Athapaskans carried out potlatch-type ceremonies, similar to those of the Alaska and British Columbia coast. Athapaskan culture was affected initially by contact with Russians in Alaska and with British fur traders in the Canadian Northwest in the eighteenth century. As well as economic, cultural, and ideological influences, explorers and traders brought new diseases to Athapaskan lands to which the indigenous peoples had little or no immunity. The historical record shows that, in some places, entire communities were wiped out by diseases such as smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, measles, and typhoid. Missionary activity also had a profound effect on the Athapaskan worldview. The lives of Athapaskan peoples changed as a result of their involvement with the fur trade; most noticeably, the trapping of fur-bearing animals meant that hunting became more specialized and concentrated on only a few species.

However, perhaps even more dramatic changes swept through Athapaskan communities during the twentieth century. Because of formal non-Native schooling, together with policies of modernization and assimilation into mainstream American and Canadian societies, many traditional skills and activities have been lost and the everyday use of Athapaskan languages has declined. Today, in Canada's Northwest Territories, major developments in the oil and gas industries, together with a proposed gas pipeline running up the Mackenzie Valley, dominate discussion over the future of Athapaskan communities. Cultural survival, however, has been made possible in part through land claim agreements in Alaska (the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971) and Canada (comprehensive land claims agreements in the Northwest Territories and self-government agreements in Yukon). The rights and interests of Athapaskan peoples in Alaska and Canada are represented in the Arctic Council by the Arctic Athabaskan Council (AAC).

Mark Nuttall

Further Reading
Arctic Athabaskan Council. No date. Available at:; Cruikshank, Julie. 1992. Life Lived Like a Story. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.; Nelson, Richard K. 1973. Hunters of the Northern Forest. Chicago: Chicago University Press.; Savishinsky, Joel. 1994. The Trail of the Hare. New York: Gordon and Breach.

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