The Athabascans traditionally lived in Interior Alaska, between the Brooks Mountain Range and the Kenai Peninsula. There are eleven distinct linguistic groups among the people who made their homes along the five major rivers: Yukon, Tanana, Susitna, Kuskokwim, and Copper. A nomadic people, Athabascans traveled in small groups to fish, hunt, and trap. Today there are approximately 16,000 Athabascans living in Alaska, and call themselves “Dena,” or “the people.” In the Anchorage area, the Dena’ina Athabascan people made their homes throughout has now become the largest urban setting in the state.
The resources of the land are important to the Athabascan people, who are taught respect for all living things. Each year, summer fish camps were base for the people, who would move to a different location in the winter. Depending on the season and the resources available, the Athabascan people have multiple house types appropriate to the region and the weather.
The Athabascan people had ample access to stone, antlers, wood, and bone, and used them to be make houses, boats, snowshoes, clothing, and household goods. Birch trees were a staple.
Athabascans are a matrilineal people, in children claim membership in their mother’s clan, rather than the father, with a couple of exceptions in specific tribes. Clan elders made decisions ranging from trade to marriage.
Traditional clothing was another good indicator of the resources that were most plentiful in the area. Caribou and moose hide provided sturdy and warm outer clothing including boots. Men and women were often adept at sewing, although traditionally women were the largest producer of skin sewing.
Canoes made it possible to take advantage of the plentiful fish in the region. Cottonwood, a common tree in the area was combined with birch bark and moose hide. Athabascans also used sleds – with and without dogs to move belongings and goods, and built snowshoes to making walking on the often deep snow possible.
Athabascan people were heavily involved in trade with other communities. Forming those trade relationships not only benefited the community through the trade of goods, but also made it safer for people to travel outside the community.
Regalia varies from region to region, but could include men’s beaded jackets, dentalium shell necklaces that are traditionally work by chiefs, men’s and women’s beaded tunics, and women’s beaded dancing boots.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center is built on Dena’ina land, and we are blessed and honored that we have been allowed to carry out our mission here. As part of our current activities, we are working with local partners on a project that will bring back Dena’ina place names to traditional locations, like the former Grass Creek, now properly re-named Chanshtnu. On our campus in East Anchorage, a traditional Athabascan home sits alongside Lake Tiulana.
We invite you to come learn more about the Athabascan people by visiting the center, seeing Athabascan art and traditional objects, and touring the Athabascan site guided by our youth interns, many of whom are descendants of Athabascans and who are eager to share their knowledge of their ancestors with guests.