It is theorized the Athabascan were the last Native American group to cross Beringia 10,000 years ago. Their territory (after crossing Beringia) would have started in the subarctic terrain from the Yukon or interior of Alaska, to northwestern Canada. These sturdy peoples of the North not only survived the tundra and nomadic lifestyle of Athabascan antiquity, following the caribou and other game, but expanded and became many nations. The three main subfamilies are the Northern Athabascan, Pacific Athabascan, and Apachean.
The name Athabascan evolved from the Cree word Athapuscow, meaning “There are reeds one after another” or “a place where there is grass everywhere,” and originated from the Peace-Athabasca Delta in Canada. Athabascan has several other spellings; Athapaskan, Athapascan, and Athabaskan. These people have descended from the Na-Dene, the largest phylum of North America, from which the Tlingit and Eyak are also distantly related. Dene is an Athabascan word for “the people,” and the Chipewyan and Navajo groups also call themselves the “Dene.”
Glass beads received in trade in exchange for fur pelts became much treasured by the Athabascan People, who expressed great artistry and ingenuity in dramatically transforming the appearance of their clothing and accessories with beautiful floral and totemic patterns. Products made with beads became instantly popular trade and tourist items.
When traveling, the Athabascan constructed temporary conical dwellings; they covered the structure of leaning poles with bark, brush, or hides. Their permanent habitation consisted of semi-subterranean dwellings. Birch bark served as a durable and ever-available raw material to form and create essential baskets for carrying and cooking (for example, boiling meat in water with hot stones) and especially for crafting canoes. There were two sizes of sleds used by the northern Athabascan people, the larger to transport heavy loads and the smaller for personal use. Clothing and accessories (including knives and arrow sheaths) were adorned with porcupine quillwork, especially the men’s clothing. Quillwork was a time-consuming project, requiring hunting of the animal, careful removal and preparation of the quills, and the difficult sewing required to stitch through the thick moose hides, transforming them into works of art with elaborate and intricate floral and woodland motifs.
The potlatch was actively practiced and was a central societal theme for the Athabascan People. Surplus foods were stored in family caches and birch bark boxes for the various winter feasts, taking place from late fall to early spring. This was the season to put love into action, as William E. Simeone was told concerning the northern Athabascan potlatches. For instance, to give a blanket was to “wrap them in love.” The Athabascan did not hold competitive potlatches to the extent practiced by some of the coastal tribes, such as the Haida and Kwakiutls. As with other northwest coastal tribes, it was important for a chief to know his connections to all of the attendants of the potlatch, to what capacity they would participate, and how they would be either assisted or honored. Potlatches were also times for unmarried clan members to meet other available persons. Since the Athabascan are a matriarchal people, who follow their mother’s moiety, it was important for all Athabascan to know the other clan members’ moiety, and how they were derived. The Upper Tanana, for instance, have two moieties. The first are the Crow People, or Star People, or the Ones Who Came from the Sky. The second moiety is the Seagull People. It was strictly forbidden for the Upper Tanana to marry within the same moiety.
From the very antiquity of Athabascan people, feasts were held after a successful hunt, especially with bear or caribou. Spiritual observances within a moral universe belief are demonstrated by showing respect for all things, for each other, for all animals, and for all plants, truly a kinship with all life. There were strict ceremonial practices followed for disposing of animal remains, for example, among the Koyukon Athabascan People in Alaska, who lived in close proximity to the Inupiat, their dwellings and lifestyles were very similar; yet archeologists could decipher which cultural group resided there based on the contents of the excavated kitchen midden. If there were remains of an animal the Koyukon held sacred either within or near the dwelling then it was an Inupiat lodge. The Koyukon would return the bones of water creatures to the water, in contrast, to indiscriminately dispose of the fauna. In the videos of Make Prayers to the Raven, an elder wonders if the “bad luck” they were experiencing that day was due to going away from the rules (respect for all that is) from “a distant time.”
Strict etiquette was observed for bear meat. The women were not allowed to eat certain parts of bear meat until after entering menopause; it was also stated in Make Prayers to the Raven that the Koyukon women had not seen certain parts of that video (the women do not attend the “Bear Feast” in the woods). Other restrictions observed were that only men could cook it, certain parts could not be eaten or even given to dogs, and the “best parts” were to be saved and served as an integral part of the spiritual aspects of the potlatch.
As the Athabascan integrated into other surrounding Native groups, there would be a blending of cultures and even mythology. The Athabascan situated close to the Tlingits have nearly identical stories yet different hero names; for example, the Tlingits have “Raven,” and the Athabascan have “Crow.” These similarities are very evident in the stories of Raven/Crow and Whale and Raven/Crow and Brown Bear. There are also parallels between the two cultural groups in the stories of Land Otter Men, or Kush-da-ka, as the Tlingits call them. These creatures transform themselves from land otters into men to trick humans to come to live with them and are still believed to exist by the traditional Tlingits.
The Northern Athabascan in the Alaskan/Canadian regions was to be divided into approximately 27 language groups. However, due to the intricacy and multifaceted nature of the Athabascan language, it is still being subdivided. It was thought the Eyak also separated from the Athabascan, but through linguistic research, it has been fairly well established that they separated prior to the proto-Athabascan.
- Alaska: Koyukon, Tanana, Ahtena, Tanaina, Upper Kuskokwim, Holikachuk, Ingalik, and Tanacross
- Northeastern Alaska and Northwestern Canada: Han (Moosehide), and Gwich’in
- Canada: Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Tagish, Tahltan, Kaska, Mountain, Bear Lake, Dogrib, Yellowknife, Sekani, Carrier, Chilcotin, Nicola, Sarsi, Slave Lake, Beaver, and Kawchottine (Hare)
Around 1,600 years ago, a portion of the Athabascan people migrated from the north to colonize the Pacific Northwest and northern California regions and became the Pacific Athabascan.
- Oregon: Coquille
- Oregon and California: Upper Umpqua, Tututni-Shasta Costa, Galice-Applegate and Cheto-Tolowa
- California: Hupa, Mattole, Sinkyone-Wailaki, and Cah
Six to seven hundred years ago, the Pre-Apachean group journeyed to Southwest America, to the regions of New Mexico and Arizona, where their culture and technical survival skills morphed and integrated with the local residents, to become the Apaches and Navajo (Dineh). This division of the Athabascan kept a “core trait” of the conical dwellings and created several styles of the hogan.
- Puebloan: Apache (Western), Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Mescalero, and Navajo (Dineh)
- Plains: Apache (Kiowa) and Lipan
Prior to European contact, the Athabascan had settled into a seminomadic lifestyle. They were already traders by occupation and were ready for fur trade with the Europeans. Bead-work taught to the eastern Athabascan spread quickly to the west and south, as each band created their own significant style. Although quillwork was still crafted, the beads were easy to obtain in any array of sizes and colors, which made them an instant favorite with Athabascan artisans. The legacy of Athabascan beadwork can be found in many major museums around the world.
Much work is being done to save the Athabascan language; for example, every spring, an Athabascan Conference is held in a different Athabascan area, where linguists and other educators meet with the Athabascan communities to discuss ways to preserve their valuable language. Many curriculums have been developed to instruct school students and adults how to carry on their traditional Athabascan cultural heritage. Athabascan authors are also making themselves known in the literary world, for example, Velma Wallis, author of Two Old Women (1993), and Jan Harper-Haines, author of Cold River Spirits (2000).
Today’s Athabascan have integrated modern technology and traditional subsistence; the Coquille People are raising and marketing organic cranberries, and Alaskan Athabascan are participating in the Alaskan fishing industry. Also, building on gambling “games,” casinos have also become a way for some Athabascan groups to become self-sufficient. The Athabascan may be a diverse group, but there is a bond that goes very deep, as historically, they have assisted each other in various territorial disputes with other encroaching Native groups, for example. Today, they continue to assist each other to preserve their language and culture, by keeping it viable and relevant for the present and future use for not only their families, but for the family of man as a whole.
- Clark, A. M. (1996). Who lived in this house? A study ofKoyukuk River semi subterranean houses. Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization.
- Ives, John W. (1990). A theory of Northern Athapaskan prehistory. Boulder, CO: Westview Press; Calgary: University of Calgary Press.
- Nelson, R., & Badger, M. O. (1987). Make prayers to the raven. [Video recording]. Fairbanks: KUAC. (Produced in collaboration with the people of the Koyukuk River, KUAC-TV, University of Alaska)
- Simeone, W. E. (1995). Rifles, blankets, and beads: Identity, history, and the Northern Athapaskan potlatch. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.