Identity, Language and Culture Who are Alaska Natives? What is important to know about Alaska Native cultures? How many Native languages are there? Is it important to save them? Who Are Alaska Natives?

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Identity, Language and Culture
Who are Alaska Natives?
What is important to know about Alaska Native cultures?
How many Native languages are there? Is it important to save them?

Who Are Alaska Natives?
The term “Alaska Natives” is used to describe the peoples who are indigenous to the lands and waters encompassed by the State of Alaska; peoples whose ancestors have survived here for over ten thousand years. They belong to several major cultural groups – Aleut/Unangan, Athabascan, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Eyak, Eskimo (Yup’ik, Cup’ik, Siberian Yupik, Sugpiaq/Alutiiq, Inupiaq), and many different tribes or clans within those groupings. Each of these cultures is very distinct, with unique and varied languages, complex kinship structures, highly developed subsistence hunting and gathering practices and technologies, belief systems, art, music, storytelling, spirituality, dance traditions, and so on. However, they also share many similar values, such as honoring the land and waters upon which life depends, having respect and reverence for fish and wildlife, valuing community over individuality, sharing with others, and respecting and learning survival skills and wisdom from elders. Alaska Native cultural worldviews are wholistic in nature, where Natives accept that everything in creation is connected, complex, dynamic, and in a constant state of flux. Alaska Natives have a deep and sophisticated qualitative understanding of the environment they live in as a result of stories passed down for generations, life experiences, learning from mentors beginning at a very young age, observations of others in the community, and guidance of elders.
The different Alaska Native cultural groups today occupy the lands they traditionally occupied when they migrated to Alaska. The Inupiaq live in the Arctic; the Yupiaq live in Southwestern Alaska; Unungan live in the Aleutian Chain and Pribilof Islands; Athabascan live in the Interior and Southcentral part of the state; the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimpshian live in Southeastern Alaska; and the Supiag and Eyak in the lower southcentral Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak. Although it is difficult to estimate what the overall population was in early history, stories and archeological investigations prove that they used and occupied all lands in the state except the mountain and glacier areas.
There are over 100,000 Alaska Natives in the state today (1), with many more whose ancestry includes some strand of Alaska Native heritage. From the time they theoretically migrated across a now water-covered landbridge (between Eurasia and what is now Alaska) until 1930, Alaska Natives are estimated to have composed between 100% to over 50% of the state’s population at any given time. Today, due to the influx of non-Natives, Alaska Natives represent approximately 16% of the state’s population. (2) Most Alaska Natives live in small rural villages accessible only by air or boat; some 16% of Anchorage (or between 20 to 30 thousand) Anchorage citizens are Alaska Native. Nearly one-quarter of the K-12 school population statewide is Native. (3)
Alaska Natives are vitally involved in the political and economic landscape of modern Alaska. Politically, Alaska Natives have long been active and vocal on issues of importance within the state. The Alaska Native Brotherhood (founded in 1912); Alaska Native Sisterhood; the Tundra Times newspaper (1962); the Alaska Federation of Natives (1966); the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (1975); and many other organizations, tribal leaders, Native legislators, and individuals have ensured a powerful voice for Alaska Natives on a host of issues, including subsistence, land claims, civil rights, education, cultural and linguistic preservation, energy cost and alternatives, climate change, and more.
With the creation of 13 Native corporations as a result of the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 (see section on ANCSA), Alaska Natives have also become among the most powerful economic forces in the state. According to one report, these corporations have combined revenues of over $4 billion , and have poured huge sums into the Alaskan economy through job creation, business investments, dividends, and charitable contributions. (4) However, many corporations are still struggling to realize financial gains for their shareholders, and most Alaska Natives dwelling in rural areas live near poverty levels and depend upon subsistence activities for their survival.
Alaska Natives, past and present, are a profoundly complex, extremely varied groups of people with a rich history and vibrant subsistence cultures. They are involved in all levels of Alaskan public and professional life, while at the same time deeply rooted in traditional cultures tied to the land, waters, and marine and wildlife of Alaska. They are the original inhabitants and “owners” of the land that is Alaska; all other Alaskans are, in some very essential way, guests upon these lands. In order to make good decisions about the issues that face us today and into the future, it is vital that all Alaskans understand some of the remarkable history and culture of Alaska Natives as well as the, opportunities and challenges they – and all Alaskan citizens – face. We hope this reader helps build that understanding.
1) Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development. (2006).

2. Statewide Library Electronic Doorway

3.Department of Education,

4. Calista Corporation Report 2006

What is important to know about Alaska Native cultures?
There are so many things that are important to know about Alaska Native cultures that hundreds of books have been written in an attempt to answer this question. However, at a bare minimum, here are some fundamentals to keep in mind:
Alaska Natives cultures:

  • have developed over thousands of years in Alaska in response to environmental conditions among the most challenging on earth;

  • Are many and varied, representing at least seven major groups across the state – Aleut/Unangan (Southwestern Coastal Alaska), Inupiaq (Northwestern and Northern Coastal), Athabascan (interior), Tlingit (Southeastern), Tsimshian(Southeastern), , Haida(Southeastern), , Eyak(Southeastern), Yup’ik, Cup’ik, Siberian Yupik, Sugpiaq/Alutiiq (Southwestern), with many different tribes or clans within those groupings;

  • Are very distinct from one another, with unique and varied languages, complex kinship structures, highly developed subsistence hunting and gathering practices and technologies, belief systems, art, music, storytelling, spirituality,and dance traditions, and so on;

  • Share many values, such as honoring the land and waters upon which life depends, respecting and sharing with others, and respecting and learning from elders; living with an attitude of humility and patience; honoring the interconnections between all things; being careful with what one does and says; knowing one’s roots and who one is in this context, including one’s history, traditions, and ancestors.

  • Are completely rooted in and tied to the land and waters of a particular region, and the practices and customs necessary to survive and thrive in that region;

  • Have been hard hit by a myriad of forces over the past two centuries (including disease brought by European immigrants and traders; enslavement and oppression by colonizing powers including the United States government, territorial government, Russian government, and religious organizations; a huge influx of non-Natives, which has impacted access to subsistence foods and resulted in hugely restrictive regulations; the arrival of western technologies, religions, economic systems, industrial development, and educational systems; climate change; and so on);

  • Nonetheless continue to survive and thrive throughout the state.

It is important to note that traveling to the remote villages where most Alaska Natives live is like traveling to a foreign country in every sense of the word. The casual observer may note that Alaska Natives appear to be “Americanized” in that they use modern tools, clothes, and machinery, and most speak English and wear western clothes; however, the bulk of Alaska Native identity is beneath the surface. Each village has different relationship and communication protocols, different customs and traditions, and different worldviews even within a single region of Alaska, let alone between other indigenous cultures and the mainstream.

Alaska Native peoples have had intimate contact with their immediate environments for hundreds of generations and thus have a profound understanding of place and an equally profound sense of place. Alaska’s indigenous peoples have used and occupied most of the lands in Alaska for thousands of years but were politically compelled to give up much of their aboriginal claims to the lands and waters through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act so that oil could be developed on the North Slope and the state could conduct its business.
Alaska Natives have struggled, since the arrival of westerners, to hold onto their rights to hunt, fish, and gather on their traditional lands and waters as the subsistence ways of life defines who they are and is the foundation for their cultural, spiritual, economic, and nutritional well-being. Alaska Native history is fraught with stories of conflict with western legal systems and theories about land, fish and wildlife, and individual vs. communal rights to this day. Many Alaska Natives believe it is going to become more and more difficult to protect their rights as Alaska draws in more and more people from outside the state who do not know much of anything about Alaska’s first peoples.
Given the wisdom and understanding that Alaska Native peoples have about fish, wildlife, habitat, weather, climate, and geography, many people feel that Alaska Native cultures, worldviews, knowledge, and wisdom have much to offer the world as humanity struggles to address ever more daunting environmental issues that threaten the survival of all life on this planet.

How many Native languages are there? Is it important to save them?

Human relationships are embedded in the grammar and become a subconscious part of the Athabascan soul. . .If we are to truly understand this place, we have to understand the language of this place."

Alan Boraas, Anchorage Daily News, 7-7-02

Languages …shape thought and epistemological modes of learning. Take this Iñupiaq term: aavzuuk. First, it is a complete sentence meaning “constellation consisting of two stars which appear above the horizon in late December, an indication that the solstice is past and that days will soon grow longer again.” …Structurally polysynthetic, the Iñupiaq language allows the speaker to economize on sound to maximize meaning with simply inclusion and replacement of key morphemes. Such morphemes are explicit in terms of direction, number of speakers, number of listeners, height from the horizon line, and time. Second, in this example Inupiat epistemology makes use of language to impart astronomical knowledge of the constellations, calendric data, and patience about the presence or absence of light. Implied within the term, aavzuuk, is the suggestion that the Iñupiaq speaker will learn what to expect of the environment and other creatures in it at this time of year. Thus, the Iñupiaq sense of a maturing self grows with knowledge of the language. Phyllis Fast, Alaska Native Language, Culture and Identity, 2008
Our Language, Our Soul”
Alaska is home to twenty Alaska Native languages, along with a multitude of regional dialects. In Native cultures, as in every culture, language serves as a vessel for entire ways of thinking and relating to the world, a storehouse of accumulated knowledge, wisdom, information, philosophical views, sense of place, history, relationships, social and political organization, identity, learning styles, and beliefs and attitudes about everything from food to land to marriage to spirituality. Language expresses the unique cumulative, shared experience of a group of people over generations and generations and offers the rest of the human race another view of how to live in the world.
From indigenous people’s perspectives, language is birthed from the land in which they live and contains the vibration of these lands in the sounds of the words used. As such, each tongue spoken is unique, the result of thousands of years of living in a specific area. No other language can ever replicate what a particular indigenous language can communicate. Alaska Native words and languages are multi-dimensional in meaning. Some words or phrases communicate not only information, but also spiritual and emotional dimensions reflective of the holistic worldview of Alaska Native peoples. This is why Alaska Native elders often speak in their own language rather than in English in group settings, even when speaking to an English-only group. To them, the English language cannot convey the depth of meaning their own language can.
The destruction or erosion of the languages of Native peoples all around the planet is of central concern to indigenous nations, anthropologists and linguists, and people of all backgrounds who understand the value and necessity of preserving cultural, linguistic and intellectual diversity on behalf of the human future. Of the 6,000 languages spoken around the globe, linguists fear that up to 90% of them could disappear by the next century.
Native languages in Alaska are suffering some of the greatest losses. Out of the twenty languages, seventeen have 300 or fewer speakers remaining. (1) (Include the chart)
Marie Smith, chief of the Eyak nation, long the last surviving speaker of the Eyak language , a 3000-year old language from southcentral Alaska, died in January 2008. Although she and others worked very hard to pass the Eyak language on to the next generation, there is now no one alive today for whom Eyak was their primary tongue, their fundamental way of understanding the world.

Native languages have been endangered or eroded by the forces of colonization for the past several hundred years. Beginning with their arrival in the 1700’s, and acting on a misguided belief that forcing Alaska Natives to abandon their traditional ways and become like “white” people was a progressive act, many missionaries, government officials, and educators actively promoted policies and practices aimed at destroying or marginalizing the languages spoken by Native peoples. With a few notable exceptions, most mission or boarding schools (including those attended by many Native adults living today), forbade Native children from speaking their own languages and harshly punished them if they persisted in doing so. By breaking the linguistic bonds that tied children to their cultures and elders, a chasm opened up between many Alaska Native elders and youth and much vital knowledge and wisdom was lost or forgotten.

Unlike immigrants to the United States who gave up their original languages in order to assimilate into U.S. society, indigenous peoples of the U.S. have no country of origin to which they can return and in which their native tongue is still being spoken. Italian-Americans can return to an Italy where their traditional language is still actively used; Chinese dialects are still alive to Chinese-Americans who wish to reconnect with their linguistic and cultural roots. Without denying the losses and struggles descendants of immigrant groups face in this arena, it must be acknowledged that Alaska Natives are in a very different position in terms of their languages. Alaska Natives are living on their ancestral lands; if they lose their cultures, lands and/or languages, there is nowhere else for them to return to. Those languages -- and ways of living, connecting to, and viewing the world -- will be lost forever.
In spite of recent efforts to marginalize Alaska Native languages -- such as the “English-only” laws passed in 199_ which sought to require that all official businesses in the villages take place in English alone -- many efforts have been underway for the past few decades to preserve and pass on Alaska Native languages wherever possible. Many schools throughout Alaska now offer bilingual programs; the Alaska Native Languages Center and a host of other sites offer online resources (see list below); UAA offers classes in the Yu’pik language; the statewide Alaska Native Oratory Society competition at UAA recognizes high school and college students who can speak their traditional languages. Many oral history projects seek to preserve the speech of elders from various regions (cite these projects), and Alaska Native elders and leaders throughout the state are encouraging young people to learn to speak their original languages. Being able to speak both English and traditional languages is a strength which will allow these young people to walk in two worlds and preserve a valuable heritage for their children and the rest of humanity.

  1. Krauss, Michael, “The Vanishing Languages of the Pacific Rim,” 2007 (see ADN reference, Wed. Jan 23, 2008, p. A-10)

"The children that were brought to the Eklutna Vocational School were expected to learn the English language. They were not allowed to speak their own language even among themselves." - Alberta Stephan, Cheda

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