Indigenous groups have been inhabiting Alaska for thousands of years. While some settled by crossing the Bering land bridge, others established homes through traveling by watercraft along the state’s coasts.
Since the original settlements in the land, at least 11 cultures have become familiar, surviving through a subsistence lifestyle of fishing, hunting and gathering. Indigenous people have continued to use the same resources as their ancestors, and in some areas, food obtained through a subsistence way of life has contributed to 50 percent of groups’ intake.
Indigenous people in certain areas have also held traditional ceremonies, as well as relayed knowledge of artistic and constructional activities like beadwork, dancing and kayak building to promote the continuation of lifestyles that have persisted for millennia.
Cultures that represent the majority of indigenous groups currently living in Alaska include the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, who inhabit the state’s Southeast, Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik, which live in the North, Yup’ik and Cup’ik Alaska Natives, who occupy the Southwest, Athabascan, which settle in the central land, and Sugpiaq and Unangax̂ groups, who reside in the South and Aleutian islands.
The Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, who have partially depended on the region’s location near the sea, have lived in Alaska’s Southeast territory for more than 10,000 years. Using resources like berries, deer, goat, halibut, moose and salmon, as well as the waters for transportation and wood for shelter, the groups have continued a culture originally formed by a value of the surrounding materials.
In the North, the Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik still greatly value the land which they inhabit, as the people still survive on the surrounding natural resources and animals. Birds, fish, seals, whales and walrus are some of the creatures the indigenous groups hunt, while berries are also gathered when available. The lifestyle is similar to that of the Yup’ik and Cup’ik Alaska Native people.
Also referred to as the “Genuine People,” the Yup’ik and Cup’ik Alaska Native groups depend on fishing, hunting and gathering activities and incorporated the environment into their shelters in the past, as the people constructed semi-subterranean huts with underground entryways, as well as separate dwellings for men and women, called qasgiqs and enas, respectively. The older citizens tell younger ones about their culture, which placed emphasis on family.
Located in Alaska’s interior are the Athabascan, who instituted a matrilineal system in which elders made significant decisions for a group averaging between 20 and 40 people. Outside of the community, men often exchanged goods with other groups. Within the society, important units consisting of a woman and her brother existed, and the brother was responsible for the education of certain children.
For the Sugpiaq and Unangax̂, the Russian Orthodox Church has been a significant figure since Russians arrived in southern Alaska in the 1700s. Approximately 3,000 years before the Russians came, the Unangax̂ settled in the land, valuing the ocean and its creatures given the food that was able to be obtained from it. While certain characteristics of the people may have changed over the last few centuries, one may still be able to appreciate the groups’ traditions by visiting the land.