The Native Cultures of Arctic Alaska

The vast coast of Alaska has been home to diverse indigenous cultural groups for more than 10,000 years. Who are some of these groups and what challenges have they overcome and still face today?

5 min read

totempal-ketchikan-alaska-hgr-137472-foto shutterstock
The Early Days

It is believed that the ancestors of Alaska’s native people arrived in three waves, making an arduous journey either via a land bridge that connected Asia with the North American continent, or by sea. These intrepid souls managed to settle and survive by hunting moose, caribou, deer and bear on land, and whale, seal and walrus at sea. They also fished for salmon, cod, pollack, herring and more. Hunting and fishing still form a core part of Alaskan cultural groups today, even if the sea and the wilds aren’t as bountiful as they used to be.

Various native peoples eventually settled along the coast and throughout the archipelago. In central Alaska were the Athabascans, while all the way north, the Inupiat ruled the land. The far western part of the Alaskan Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands were inhabited by the Aleut, and southeast Alaska was Haida and Tlingit territory. Even today, the Haida still mainly occupy Prince of Wales Island, while the Tlingit have expanded throughout the territory, from the Canadian border all the way up to mainland Alaska.

Devastating Disease

The first wave of European colonists arrived in Alaska in the mid-18th century: Russians from Siberia, attracted by the lucrative fur trade. They brought with them Russian Orthodox Christianity and also disease. Many native nations had no immunity against these foreign diseases, and several tribes and settlements were nearly completely lost, including the Aleuts. Today, centuries later, the native population has thankfully recovered its numbers and about 15% of the Alaskan population are Alaska natives.

A Rich Heritage

Now in the 21st century, there are over 220 different tribes of Alaska Natives spread across five geographic areas and organised under 13 regional corporations. Between them, they speak 20 different languages and have 11 distinct cultures. They have done much to preserve traditions like shamanism, as well as handicrafts such as wood carving, needlework and jewellery making. Their proud heritage is evident throughout the region, in spite of the growing influence the modern world has on their lifestyle.

Totem pole face in Alaska Native Heritage Center. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Totem pole face in Alaska Native Heritage Center. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Totem pole, Haines, Alaska. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Totem pole, Haines, Alaska. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Totem poles, Sitka, Alaska. Photo Credit: Hurtigruten

Totem poles, Sitka, Alaska. Photo Credit: Hurtigruten

Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Anchorage, Alaska. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Anchorage, Alaska. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The Aleuts: Boats and Body Art

Living on the Aleutian Islands, the Aleuts are expert hunters and navigators, known for constructing their own boats; smaller kayaks made of sea lion skin for hunting in shallow waters, and larger ones to cross the sea. They are also skilled crafters, making their own parkas from the skins of seal and sea otter. These parkas are long and warm, protecting them from the extreme dampness that often affects this part of the world.

Like many other peoples of the Arctic, the Aleuts have a tradition of tattoos and piercings. The Aleuts believe that body art will protect them from evil spirits and please the good spirits. Often used to signify their religious views, tattoos also display the accomplishments of their family and their forefathers. The Aleut women receive a tattoo when they reach maturity and men will typically get their first one after killing their first animal. Both are important rites in the Aleut culture.

The Haida and Tlingit: Totemic Ancestry

Both nations are excellent seamen, dependent on the seaways for transport and hunting. They trade frequently with their neighbours and build long cedar canoes for transport and travel. The Haida and the Tlingit have a long tradition of carving totems and ceremonial objects, commonly placed outside the household to show who lived there and to offer a brief explanation of their family history. It is an artform they still practise today.

New Challenges to Their Way of Life

With record-high temperatures over the past few summers leading to flooding due to rapid ice and snowmelt, climate change poses a real threat to Alaska Native communities. Along with heavy fishing along the Alaskan coast, the challenge to maintain their traditional way of life gets tougher with each decade their food supply dwindles.

The advances of modern society have also inevitably influenced the lives of these native people, often enticing their youth to big cities and bright lights. Still, those that remain honour their traditions and culture, sharing them with the next generation, and with all visitors who take an interest.

You’ll be able to learn more about these historic nations and their culture, and to meet native communities like the Aleut, Haida and Tlingit, on an expedition cruise with us to Alaska. We work closely with these communities to make sure our visits are dignified and respectful, mindful of local customs and traditions, and to the mutual benefit of all.