Athabaskan (Athapaskan) of Alaska

The Athabascan people traditionally lived in Interior Alaska and Northwestern Canada, a large region that spans south from the Brooks Mountain Range to the Kenai Peninsula and from the most western reaches of the Alaska Mountain Range to the McKenzie River region in Canada. There are eleven linguistic groups of Athabascans in Alaska. The People have traditionally lived along the five major river ways of Interior Alaska: the Yukon, the Tanana, the Susitna, the Kuskokwim, and the Copper River drainages.

Athabascans traditionally lived in groups of 20 to 40 people and migrated seasonally throughout their territorial range in order to utilize the resources through fishing, hunting, berry picking and trapping.   Summer fish camps and winter villages served as base camps.  Depending on the time of year and resources available, several traditional house types were used.

Winter was the longest season with deeply cold temperatures, extremely short periods of daylight, and hard frozen bodies of water, which assisted with travel. High summer offered mild to occasionally hot day, days on end without darkness, and frequent hordes of mosquitoes.   Bears in particular were a constant presence and concern during the summers, particularly when food protein was taken and then prepared. Seasonal berry gathering might also bring close-quarter encounters with bears.

Traditional tools were made of stone, antler, wood, and bone.   A few copper tools, such as awls, were made from deposits of the ore in the McCarthy River region. Tools were used to build houses, canoes, snowshoes, clothing, and cooking utensils. Birch trees, a heavy hard wood, were used wherever found, which is always upon a south facing slope. Canoes were made of birch bark, moose hide, and cottonwood. Athabascans used sleds and snowshoes. Dogs served as pack animals and were also used for pulling sleds. Traditional clothing was made of caribou and moose hide. Moose and caribou hide moccasins and boots allowed the People to go out in temperatures as cold as -60 degrees F.  The styles of moccasins varied depending on seasonal conditions.  Both men and women sewed, although women traditionally did most of the skin sewing.   Women were renown for their abilities to tan hides, particularly the moose and caribou.  

The Athabascans follow a matrilineal system: children belong to their mother's clan, rather than to their father's clan. Traditional Athabascan husbands were expected to live with the wife's family. In traditional Athabascan society, the mother's brother takes responsibility for training and socializing his sister's children so that the children grow up knowing their clan history and customs.

Today, Athabascans, who refer to themselves as Dena (or Dene), meaning The People, still live throughout Alaska. However, some have relocated to non-traditional towns in Alaska or even the Lower 48 States, often returning to their home territories to harvest traditional resources.  The subsistence lifestyle and experience honors and encourages the family and clan network, a powerful draw that calls to those members now living in the urban areas.