One of Alaska’s only Indian reservations is at Metlakatla, near Ketchikan. A group of nearly 1,000 Tsimshian people relocated here in 1887 from their traditional homeland, slightly south near Prince Rupert, as a result of disagreements between William Duncan, the tribe’s missionary, and his church superiors. These indigenous people are thus the only ones not included in the ANCSA. Similarly, about 800 Haida people live on southern Prince of Wales Island at the southeastern tip of Alaska, the northern extent of the Haida homeland.
The Tlingit (KLINK-it) Indians are the traditional dwellers of Southeast Alaska, related to the Interior Athabascans. Blessed with an incredible abundance of food, fuel, furs, and tools, the Tlingits evolved a sophisticated and complex society, religion, and artistry. The primary social unit was the community house, which typically sheltered 50–100 people. Huge trunks of cedar and spruce provided the house posts, often carved and painted with the clan’s totemic symbols; slaves were put in the post holes to cushion the connection between totem and earth. One had to stoop to pass through the single door; no windows punctuated the long structure. Ten or so of these clan houses made up a village, and a number of neighboring villages made up a tribe. But these distinctions held little importance to the Tlingits, who felt connected genetically only to members of the same clan.
All marriages occurred between clans; marrying within the clan was considered incestuous. Descent was matrilineal: Children belonged to the mother’s clan, and a man’s heirs were his sisters’ children. Therefore the pivotal male relationship was between uncle and nephews. At the age of 10, boys went to live with an uncle, who taught them the ways of the world. The uncle arranged the boy’s marriage to a girl of another clan, who remained with her mother until the wedding. The dowry price was usually a number of blankets; the Tlingits were famous for their weaving and embroidery. Feasts known as “potlatch” honored the dead while feting the living. The Tlingits knew how to party. Often the potlatch continued for days or even weeks, during which the host fed, clothed, and entertained a neighboring, usually wealthier, clan, then “gave away” the clan’s most valuable possessions to them. It was understood that the hosted clan would reciprocate eventually, with an even greater degree of festivity and generosity.
The Tlingits had an intensely animistic belief system in which everything, from glaciers to fish hooks, had a spirit. Tlingit shamans were virtually omnipotent, alternately controlling and beseeching yek, or karma, on behalf of the tribe. They also professed a complete understanding of the afterlife, “on authority of men who died and came back.” Tlingit arts were expressed by men who carved totems for house posts, through the potlatch and other important events, and by women who wove exquisite blankets. Unlike the Aleut, the Tlingits were fierce warriors who were never completely conquered by the invading Russians, going head-to-head and hand-to-hand every inch of the way until they settled into an uneasy coexistence.
Nomadic hunters and migrants, the Athabascans are related to the Tlingit of Southeast Alaska and the Navajo and Apache of the American Southwest. They subsisted on salmon and the Interior’s mammals, mostly caribou and moose. They passed the cruel winters in tiny villages of no more than six houses, with a kashim, or community center, as the focal point. They ice-fished and trapped in the dark, using dogsleds as transportation. Their arts were expressed primarily in beautifully embroidered clothing and beadwork. The men remained constantly occupied with survival tasks—finding food, building houses, maintaining gear. When the first white explorers and traders arrived in the early 19th century, the Athabascans immediately began to trade with them, learning the new cultures and in turn educating the newcomers in local customs and skills, not the least of which was dogsledding.
A tiny separate group of indigenous people, the Eyaks are found on the coast of Alaska between Cordova and Yakutat and have distinct links to both the Athabascans to the north and Tlingits to the east.
As the Athabascans were almost entirely land-based people, the Aleuts were almost entirely dependent on the sea. Clinging to the edge of tiny, treeless, windswept Aleutian Islands, they lived in small dwellings made of sealskin-covered frames, with fireplaces in the middle and steam baths attached on the sides. They made sea otter skins into clothing and processed walrus and seal intestines into parkas. Their kayaks (called bidarka) were made of marine mammal skins stretched over a wooden or whalebone frame. Basketry was their highest artistic achievement, and their dances were distinctly martial, with masks, rattles, and knives.
When the Russians invaded the Aleutians in the mid-1700s like furies from hell, around 25,000 Aleuts inhabited almost all the Aleutian Islands and the southern portion of the Alaska Peninsula. Within 50 years, over half had died through violence, starvation, or disease. Most of the rest became slaves and were dispersed around the New World to hunt the sea otter and fight for the Russians. In fact, Aleuts traveled as far south as Catalina Island off the Southern California coast, wiping out the Gabrieliño Indians there, along with the entire otter population, in 1810. Many of the women served as concubines to the Russian overlords, further diluting the Aleut lineage. Today, most Aleuts carry only half or a quarter Aleut blood; only 1,000 are considered full-blooded.
The term Eskimo comes from the French Canadian Esquimau, which in turn is derived from the Algonquin askimowew, which means “eaters of raw fish.” Although the term is not at all derogatory, the Native Alaskans of these regions often prefer to use more specific titles: the Yup’ik peoples of Southwest Alaska, the Inupiat peoples of the Arctic and circumpolar region, and the Alutiiq peoples of Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula, and parts of the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. In addition, remote St. Lawrence Island contains Siberian Yup’ik peoples. All four groups speak distinct dialects of the same basic language.
In traditional Eskimo culture there was a strong sense of community; their society was mostly leaderless, with every able member responsible for contributing to the struggle for survival. The line between personal and communal property was fuzzy at best, and theft did not exist. Everything was shared, including (claim some anthropologists) wives. All justice was determined by what was deemed best for the community. Marriages too were so determined.
A boy entered adulthood after his first kill, and the event was celebrated by a large feast. A girl was considered grown as soon as she began menstruating, which was accompanied by a two-week ritual. The man-child selected a bride, paid a minimal price, and unceremoniously set up house in a hut similar to the Aleuts’—a bone-and-brush framework covered with moss and grass. Igloos made of snow and ice were used only as temporary shelters on the trail (and mostly by central Canadian indigenous people). Fuel was derived from whale oil and driftwood. They ate meat almost exclusively: fish, whale, walrus, caribou, and birds. Also like their relatives the Aleut, they used skin and hides for clothing and boating. Masks are the most visible form of Eskimo art, but their aesthetic touch marks almost everything they make.
The Russians had little impact on the remote Eskimo, but their introduction to Western ways by the Boston whalers around the 1850s was swift and brutal. Many Eskimo quickly succumbed to whiskey, and Native Alaskan men were shanghaied while unconscious to labor on the white whalers’ ships. They learned about prostitution (renting the women) and slavery (selling them). They learned how to use firearms and casually kill each other, usually in a drunken fit. They acquired syphilis, white sugar, canned food, and money.
An encounter between the Eskimo of St. Lawrence Island and a single whaling vessel in 1880, described by Colby in his classic Guide to Alaska (1939), sums up the scene:
The master sent members of his crew ashore with bottles of grain alcohol, [for which] the Native Alaskans traded ivory, whalebone, and furs. The officers and crew selected a harem from the young women of the village, and paid them in alcohol. When the whaling vessel left, the entire village of 450 Native Alaskans was dead-drunk and beggared, for they had even cut up their skin boats to trade for liquor. Around them were plenty of hair seal and walrus, but by the time the village had sobered and collected weapons the game was gone. Only about twenty-five villagers survived.
The whaling years ended just before the gold rush began, but the ruin of the Eskimo culture was almost total. Gradually, with the help of missionaries and legislators, the Eskimo in the late 19th century turned to reindeer herding, which began to provide income, food, and skins. Today, an estimated 34,000 Eskimo live in Alaska, having doubled their number over the past 50 years. The Eskimo people live in an arc stretching from Siberia to Greenland.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition