Before contact with non-Natives, the Tanainas lived around the drainage of Cook Inlet, Alaska. From perhaps 4,500 in the mideighteenth century, the Tanaina population dropped to around 3,000 in 1800. Tanaina, an Athapaskan language, includes two major divisions—Upper Inlet and Lower Inlet—as well as many subdialects.
Everything in nature was said to have a spirit. The people recognized three groups of beings in particular: mythological beings; supernatural beings, such as giants and tree people; and beings that interacted closely with people, such as loon, bear, and wolf spirits. There was also a fourth group of creatures, including Hairy Man and Big Fish. Ceremonies included memorial potlatches and first salmon rites.
Male and female shamans mediated between the human and spiritual worlds, using spiritual powers acquired in dreams to cure illness and to divine the future. To cure illness, shamans wore carved wooden masks and used dolls to locate and exorcise evil spirits. Shamanic power could be used for good or for evil. In addition to their spiritual power, many shamans enjoyed a great deal of political power, occasionally serving as the village leader ("rich man"), usually the wealthiest members of their clan lineage groups.
Tanainas traditionally organized into three distinct societies: Kenai, Susitna, and Interior. The three developed separately because of the difficulty of communicating across the hazardous Cook Inlet. The village was the main political unit. It was headed by one or more leaders ("rich men"). Leadership functioned mainly as a redistributive mechanism, wherein goods flowed to the rich man and were redistributed by him according to need. The leader was also responsible for the moral upkeep of his people.
The power of these leaders was noncoercive, and their "followers" were bound to them only out of respect. Leadership qualities, in addition to wealth, included generosity, bravery, and hunting ability. A man who aspired to this position needed help and material support from his relatives.
Relatively stable winter villages gave rise to social hierarchy and other complex organizations. A dual societal division was further broken into matrilineal clans, approximately five in one division and ten in the other. Clans owned most property and controlled marriage as well as most hunting and fishing areas. Social control was maintained primarily by peer pressure, although revenge, physical retribution, and payments played a role also.
"Rich men" gave potlatches as an important means of economic redistribution and of increasing or maintaining their prestige. They were provided crucial support by their relatives. Potlatch occasions included life cycle events as well as other opportunities to express generosity. Dentalium shells, certain furs, and, later, glass beads were the primary symbols of prestige. "Rich men" had several wives as well as slaves. The latter were generally well treated and not kept for more then several years. In general, women had a relatively high degree of prestige and honor and could become wealthy in their own right.
Men served their future in-laws for at least a year. Children were born in a separate house, and adoption was common. Puberty recognition was accorded to both sexes. Boys fasted, either in a room (Interior) or in the woods (Susitna), and ran in the morning. Girls were confined for the better part of a year, during which time they learned appropriate skills and proper behavior. They also endured various behavioral taboos during this time, including the prohibition against looking directly at anyone else.
People made loud noises around the sick and dying to keep malevolent spirits at bay. Corpses were cremated, their ashes placed either in boxes on posts or buried and their possessions destroyed or given away. Members of another clan were responsible for making all the funeral arrangements. A mourning period of several weeks followed funerals. Memorial potlatches were held about a year after death.
A winter village consisted of from one to ten or more partially excavated houses with tunnel entries, and the population averaged between fifty and 200 people. These rectangular houses had log walls covered with grass and dirt. Spruce-bark or planked gabled roofs were also covered with dirt. There was a large main room with several side sleeping chambers. The total length ranged from ten to 100 feet.
The houses featured rooms for several families, including a main room with a fire and sleeping platforms for adolescent boys. Compartments for married couples and their young children as well as adolescent girls were located underneath the platforms. Other chambers were for sweating, menstrual isolation, and sleeping for the elderly. Villages were often concealed or camouflaged against enemy attack.
Summer houses were similarly designed, but lighter. The people also built temporary houses, such as birchbark or skin tents or log and sod structures, at fish and hunting camps. These houses held only nuclear or small extended families. House styles began to change in the nineteenth century with Russian influence.
There was a wide dietary divergence among groups. Some, such as those in the extreme south, depended mainly on marine life, whereas the northern interior people were mainly hunters and fishers. Most groups depended on fish, especially all five kinds of salmon. Other important species included eulachon (smelt), halibut, and catfish.
Important sea animals included seals, otter, and beluga whale. Land animals included caribou, bear, moose, beaver, and rabbit. Caribou herds were driven into lakes and speared or shot, or they were channeled with fences into snares and surrounds. The people also ate birds and fowl as well as various roots and berries. Coastal people gathered shellfish.
The Tanainas acquired kayaks and umiaks from the Alutiiqs, serving also as intermediaries between those people and interior groups. The Tanainas participated in regional trade networks stretching across Alaska. Informally and at trade fairs, they traded with other Tanaina groups as well as with groups farther away. Wealthy men with established trade partners were especially successful. Traditional exports included wolverine skins, porcupine quills, and moose products. Imports included copper, dentalium shell, and cedar arrow shafts.
Water transportation included birchbark canoes and moose skin boats as well as Inuit-style sealskin kayaks and umiaks. People traveled overland in the winter on foot (snowshoe) and on dogsleds, which date from the midnineteenth century.
Tailored clothing was made of tanned caribou or sheepskins. Both sexes wore a knee-length under-garment, a shirt, and boots. Fur coats and shirts were added in the winter. Rain gear included a whale membrane parka and waterproof salmon skin boots. In the winter, the long undergarment had knee-high bear or beluga whale–soled boots attached. Blankets were made of sewn rabbit skins. Skin shirts were worn in the summer.
Clothing was often dyed brown or red, embroidered with porcupine quills, and decorated with fur trim and shells. Decoration often reflected social rank. Tattooing and face painting were common, especially among the wealthy. Women wore bone labrets in their lower lips. Both sexes pierced their ears and septa for shell decorations.
Captain James Cook entered the area in 1778, followed by more British traders. Local Indian groups already possessed iron and other items of non-Native manufacture when Cook arrived. Although Indians welcomed the Europeans as traders, they strongly and, for some time, successfully opposed non-Native settlement.
Russians built the first trading posts in the late eighteenth century. Relations between the Russians and Native Americans were difficult, even though the two groups regularly intermarried. Russians often attacked the Native people and took them as hostages, ultimately turning many Indian and Inuit groups into forced labor. Russian control was generally brutal. As the violence subsided and more posts were built in the early to midnineteenth century, many Native people became active in the fur trade.
A severe smallpox epidemic in 1838 took thousands of Indian lives. Other non-Native diseases such as syphilis and tuberculosis also killed many Indians. The people had guns by the 1840s. Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived in force about 1845; the people were nominally converted within two generations, especially along the coast.
Although population decline and game shortages caused interior groups to consolidate their villages, the late nineteenth century was generally a time of increasing prosperity, owing mainly to the extension of credit and growing involvement in the fur trade. The peak years were between 1867 (when the United States purchased Alaska) and the fur market crash of 1897. As a consequence, traditional "rich men," or Indian trade leaders, became even wealthier and more powerful. One consequence of the U.S. purchase of Alaska was that the Tanainas lost legal rights as Russian citizens. U.S. citizenship was not granted until 1924.
The discovery of gold in the area around 1900 brought a flood of miners and other non-Natives. Other factors, such as the growth of commercial fishing and canning industries (with their attendant pollution and resource monopolization), improved transportation, and continuing population declines and game shortages, weakened social distinctions and contributed to the people's general decline.
These developments also hastened the transition from a subsistence to a wage economy. Canneries and commercial salmon fishing boomed by the midtwentieth century. Schools, at least through the eighth grade, have been available to most Tanainas since the 1960s.
Tanainas are generally acculturated, although many retain a strong pride in their heritage and traditions. The three traditional societies are no longer distinct. The clan system is still important in most areas. Most people are Russian Orthodox Christians, although some elements of traditional religion survive. The Kenai-tynecks used revenue from oil leases in part to modernize village facilities. Local concerns include bridge construction and road improvement. A Tanaina Athapaskan Indian cultural facility has been proposed, perhaps to be built in Iliamna.