Alaska Subsistence
A National Park Service Management History
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Chapter 1:

A. Alaska's Native Cultures

Before the arrival of the first European explorers, an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 people lived in the area now known as Alaska. Three separate groups of people lived there: Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos.

Of these groups, Indians occupied more of Alaska's territory at the time of contact than any other Native group. A broad panoply of Athabaskan Indian groups, including the Dena'ina, Koyukon, Tanana, and Ahtna, occupied the vast interior valleys of the Yukon, Tanana, Copper, Koyukuk, and upper Kuskokwim rivers. Among these groups, which collectively comprised about 10,000 individuals, the Dena'ina were the only group that occupied coastal territory. In addition to these groups, a variety of coastal Indians—most notably the Tlingit, Haida, and Eyak—lived in what is now southeastern and south-central Alaska. Their territory was far smaller than that of the Athabaskans, but because of their richer resource base, the population of these three groups also numbered about 10,000.

Along the western margin of Alaska lived the Aleuts, about 15,000 of whom lived at the rime of European contact. Aleut villages were scattered along the lower Alaska Peninsula and in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. The various Eskimo peoples numbered about 30,000 in the mid-eighteenth century. The Eskimos, then as now, were coastal people who occupied the Arctic coastal plain, all of western Alaska, much of the Alaska Peninsula, and the Gulf of Alaska. The four main Eskimo peoples were the Inupiaq, Siberian Yup'ik, Central Yup'ik, and the Alutiiq or Sugpiaq. [1]

European exploration and settlement, which began in 1741, impacted some Native groups more than others. Hardest hit were the Aleuts, the first Native group to be exposed to the Russian fur hunters; within fifty years after the arrival of the first explorers, much of the Aleut population had been either annihilated or subjugated. To a lesser extent, many groups that lived along the coast of south central or southeastern Alaska were negatively impacted by hunting and settlement activity during the 126-year period that Alaska was known as Russian America. In addition, Natives in the middle Yukon River basin—particularly those who lived near the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Yukon—were influenced by the interior fur trade, and the Inupiat living in communities bordering the Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean were influenced by the commercial whaling trade. (Both the interior fur trade and the coastal whaling trade commenced during the 1840s.) But Native groups living elsewhere had little or no contact with Europeans, and their lifeways and population levels continued much as they had for generations. Though many Russians had little regard for Alaska's Native populations (they characterized them as "uncivilized"), [2] their narrowly focused pursuit of a single commodity—sea otter pelts—and the small number of Russian settlers were ameliorating factors in their overall influence on Native lifeways.

Map 1-1. Alaska's National Parks, Monuments and Preserves.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

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Last Updated: 14-Mar-2003