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Tanana Athabaskans

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Tanana Athabaskans
AK map Tanana river.svg
Tanana River - Chena Indian Village.jpg
Tanana River and Lower Tanana Athabaskan fish camp in the Chena, Alaska, June 1997.
Total population
  • 900[1]
  • Lower & Middle Tanana: 400
  • Tanacross: 200
  • Upper Tanana: 300
Regions with significant populations
United States (Alaska) (majority);
Canada (Yukon) (minority)
Upper Tanana language, Lower Tanana language, American English (Alaskan variant), Russian
Shamanism (largely ex), Christianity
Postcard with Tanana family
Postcard with Tanana family

The Tanana Athabaskans, Tanana Athabascans or Tanana Athapaskans are an Alaskan Athabaskan peoples of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group. They are the original inhabitants of the Tanana River (in Tanana languages Tth'itu' , literally "straight water", in Koyukon language Tene No' , literally "trail water") drainage basin in east-central Alaska Interior, United States and a little part (White River First Nation) lived in Yukon, Canada. Tanana River Athabaskan peoples are called in Lower Tanana and Koyukon language Ten Hʉt'ænæ (literally "trail people"), in Gwich'in language Tanan Gwich'in (literally "people of Tanana River").[2] In Alaska, where they are the oldest, there are three[3] or four[4][5] groups identified by the languages they speak. These are the Tanana proper or Lower Tanana (Kokht'ana) and/or Middle Tanana, Tanacross or Tanana Crossing (Koxt'een), and Upper Tanana (Kohtʼiin). The Tanana Athabaskan culture is a hunter-gatherer culture and have a matrilineal system. Tanana Athabaskans were semi-nomadic and as living in semi-permanent settlements in the Tanana Valley lowlands. Traditional Athabaskan land use includes fall hunting of moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and small terrestrial animals, and also trapping. The Athabaskans did not have any formal tribal organization. Tanana Athabaskans were strictly territorial and used hunting and gathering practices in their semi-nomadic way of life and dispersed habitation patterns. Each small band of 20–40 people normally had a central winter camp with several seasonal hunting and fishing camps, and they moved cyclically, depending on the season and availability of resources.[6][7][8][9][10]

Tanana man in canoe (1914)
Tanana man in canoe (1914)

Their neighbors are other Athabaskan-speaking peoples: in Alaska Koyukon (north and northwest), Gwich'in (north and northeast), Hän (northeast), Dena'ina (a little part of southwest), and Ahtna (south); in Canada Hän (northeast) and Northern and Southern Tutchone (east).[3] The language of the Upper Kuskokwim people more closely related to Lower Tanana language, but not neighbor.


Fish wheel into the Tanana River (Tthʼituʼ) and Lower Tanana fish camp, 1997
Fish wheel into the Tanana River (Tthʼituʼ) and Lower Tanana fish camp, 1997

The homeland of the Tanana Athabaskan people can be generally divided into four distinct sections. 1) the Yukon Tanana upland draining to the Tanana River, 2) the Northway-Tanacross Lowlands, 3) the Eastern Alaskan range draining into the Tanana river, and 4) the Northern foothills.[11]

The Goodpaster River (is a 91 miles (146 km) tributary of the Tanana River) to be a natural break in the Tanana Athabaskan language area, separating upriver speakers of the Tanacross and Upper Tanana languages from the Lower (and Middle) Tanana speakers living farther downriver.[6][12]

The Tanana Athabaskans have a system of matrilineal kinship.[7] The Athabaskans loosely recognized membership in a larger bilateral group called regional band (or dialect group), but the more important social unit was the local band (or family group or family/hunting units). In the winter, the regional band might split up into smaller units, called local bands, each one made up of perhaps four nuclear families. The regional band might meet again at a predetermined place and time in mid-winter for a gathering ceremony called a potlatch, and then split up again for beaver and muskrat trapping.[10]

At the end of the 19th century there were twelve regional bands living in the Tanana Athabaskan homeland: 6 downriver bands (4 Lower Tanana and 2 Middle Tanana) and 6 upriver bands (2 Tanacross and 4 Upper Tanana).

Lower Tanana

The Lower Tanana regional bands: (language: proper dialect of Lower Tanana)

  • Minto band or Minto Flats band – inhabiting the Minto Flats and Old Minto (Menhti Xwghottthit) area. Neighbors: Gwich'in people (north), Koyukon people (west), Nenana-Toklat band (southwest), Wood River band (southeast), Chena band (east).
  • Nenana-Toklat band – inhabiting the Nenana River (Nina No' ), Nenana Valley and Toklat River (Tootl'o Huno' ) area. Neighbors: Koyukon people (west), Dena'ina people (south), Minto band (north), Wood River band (east).
  • Wood River band – inhabiting the Wood River area. Neighbors: Dena'ina people (south), Nenana-Toklat band (west), Minto and Chena bands (north), Salcha band (east).
  • Chena band — inhabiting the Chena River and Chena Village (Chʼenoʼ) area (also formerly Fairbanks area). Neighbors: Gwich'in people (north), Minto band (west), Salcha band (east).

Middle Tanana

The Middle Tanana regional bands: (language: extinct (1993) separate dialect of Lower Tanana. Some authors consider the Salcha-Goodpaster dialect of Lower Tanana to be a distinct language, known as Middle Tanana. Linguist James Kari has been a strong advocate for Middle Tanana, referring to the former language of the Salcha-Goodpaster bands along the middle Tanana River[13])


The Tanacross (Tanana Crossing; first documented by Ferdinand von Wrangel in 1839[14] as Copper River Kolchan) regional bands: (language: Tanacross)

  • Healy River-Joseph band – inhabiting the formerly Joseph Village (Tehłuug Ninhdeex Ndiig), Healy Lake (Mendees Cheeg), Lake George (Nxaal Měnn' ), Sam Lake (Official USGS name is Sand Lake - Ch'inchedl Měnn' ) area. Neighbors: Delta-Goodpaster band (west), Hän people (north), Ahtna people (south), Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band (west), Healy River-Joseph band (east).
  • Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band — inhabiting nowadays Tanacross (Taats'altęy) and Dot Lake (Kelt'aaddh Menn' ), formerly Ketchumsuk (Saagéscheeg), Mosquito Fork, Lake Mansfield (Dihthâad Měnn' ), Mansfield Hill (Mesiin Tsiitsʼiig), Old Mansfield Village (Ch'enaa Ndêdh), Mansfield Village (Dihthâad), Robertson River (Nįhtsiił Ndiig), Tok River (Tth'iitiy Nda' ), Tok area. Neighbors: Healy River-Joseph band (west), Hän people (north), Ahtna people (south), Tetlin-Last Tetlin band (east).
    • Dihthâad Xtʼeen Iin (″Mansfield area people″)
    • Yaadóg Xtʼeen Iin (″Ketchumstuck people″, lit. ″inland area people″).

Upper Tanana

The Upper Tanana regional bands: (language: Upper Tanana)

  • Tetlin-Last Tetlin band – formerly inhabiting the Tetlin (Teetłaiy), Last Tetlin (Nah K'and) and Tetlin Lake area (nowadays Tetlin). Neighbors: Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band (west), Hän people (north), Ahtna people (south), Lower Nabesna band (east).
  • Lower Nabesna band — formerly inhabiting the Northway, Jol, Nabesna Village, Gardiner Creek (Cheejil Niign), Nabesna River (lower), Chisana River (lower) area (nowadays Northway). Neighbors: Tetlin-Last Tetlin band (west), Hän people (north), Ahtna people (south), Scottie Creek band (east).
  • Scottie Creek band — formerly inhabiting the Scottie Creek area (nowadays in Alaska Northway; in Canada Whitehorse, Yukon and Beaver Creek, Yukon, called as White River First Nation). Neighbors: Lower Nabesna band (west), Hän people (north), Ahtna people (south), Northern Tutchone people of Canada (east).
  • Upper Nabesna-Upper Chisana / Upper Chisana-Upper Nabesna band (own name Ddhał Tot iin "among the mountain people"[15]) – formerly inhabiting the Nabesna, Nabesna River (upper), Chisana River (upper), Cross Creek (Nach'etay Cheeg), Chisana area (nowadays Northway, Mentasta, Chistochina). Neighbors: Ahtna people (west), other Upper Tanana bands (north), Southern Tutchone people of Canada (east).


Archaeological sites in Alaska (East Beringia) are where some of the earliest evidence has been found of Paleo-Indians.[16] Alaska Interior or Interior Alaska has been continuously inhabited for the last 14,000[17] ~ 12,000[18] years, and evidence of this continuum of human (ancestors of the Athabaskans) activity is preserved within and around Fort Wainwright's training lands. Interior Alaska's icefree status during the last glacial period provided a corridor connecting the Bering Land Bridge and northeastern Asia (West Beringia/Siberia) to North America. The earliest cultural remains in interior Alaska, as on the coast, are chipped stone blade complexes about 10,000 years old, with close relationships to Siberian materials.[18] In February 2008 a proposal connecting Asiatic Yeniseian languages of central Siberia to American Na-Dené languages (Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit) into a Dené–Yeniseian family was published and well received by a number of linguists.[19] The homeland of the Athabaskan languages is northwestern Canada and southern/eastern Alaska.[20][21]

After initial colonization, archaeologists generally divide Interior Alaska's prehistory into three broad archaeological themes:[22]

Paleo-Arctic Tradition

The Paleo-Arctic Tradition (12,000–6,000 years ago) is a term is now generally used by archaeologists to refer to the earliest settled people known from all over Alaska. In Interior Alaska, Paleoarctic Tradition historically included two cultural divisions called the Nenana and Denali complexes.

Nenana Complex

The Nenana Complex was defined by W. R. Powers and John F. Hoffecker.[17][23] The Nenana complex began approximately 11,000 years ago and this complex is widely regarded as part of the Palaeoindian tradition and a likely Beringian progenitor of the Clovis Complex.[24][25] Many Nenana Complex archaeological sites are located in the Tanana Valley: Broken Mammoth, Chugwater, Donnelly Ridge, Healy Lake, Mead, and Swan Point.[17]

Denali Complex

The Denali Complex, dated roughly to 10,500 to 8,000 years ago, was originally defined by F. H West.[26][27][28] Some Denali Complex archaeological sites: Mt. Hayes, Swan Point, and Gerstle River. Both Nenana and Denali technology persist in central Alaska throughout the Holocene. The relationship between the proposed Nenana and Denali complexes is as of yet unresolved.[17] The boreal forest in Interior Alaska (Interior Alaska-Yukon lowland taiga of Tanana region and Copper Plateau taiga of Ahtna region) was established 8,000 years ago.[29]

Two ice-age infants discovered at an ancient residential campsite (Upward Sun River site was first discovered in 2006) in Interior Alaska near the Tanana River east of Fairbanks are the oldest human remains ever found in the North American Arctic and Subarctic, and among the oldest discovered on the entire continent, according to researchers with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Discovered in 2013, the remains of the two infants date from 11,500 years ago, near the end of the last ice age.[30]

Northern Archaic Tradition

The Northern Archaic Tradition flourished 6,000–1,000 years ago. Site density increased again after about 6,000 years ago in Interior Alaska. This population increase coincides roughly with the Northern Archaic Tradition and the appearance of side-notched projectile points. Douglas D. Anderson[31][32] originally defined the Northern Archaic Tradition to specifically address notched point bearing stratigraphic horizons that did not contain microblades at the Onion Portage site (Onion Portage Archeological District of Kobuk Malimiut tribes of Inupiat people region)[33] in northern Alaska. Notched point assemblages occur in many sites in Interior Alaska, including over one dozen on Army's Fort Wainwright lands. Several sites, including the excavated Banjo Lake site in Donnelly Training Area, have also produced middle Holocene dates from hearth charcoal. The 6,300- to 6,700-year-old dates from Banjo Lake were also associated with a microblade component.[17]

Athabaskan Tradition

The Athabaskan Tradition flourished 1,300–800 years ago. Linguistic evidence suggests that the Athabaskan culture may have appeared in the Tanana Valley as early as 2,500 years ago. Through ethnography, oral history, and a broad array of cultural items, much has been learned about Athabaskan culture and history in the region. Artifacts associated the Athabaskan culture are exceptionally diverse and include bone and antler projectile points, fishhooks, beads, buttons, birch bark trays, and bone gaming pieces. In the Upper Tanana region, native copper (from trading with Ahtna people or "Copper Indians") was available and used in addition to the traditional material types to manufacture tools such as knives, projectile points, awls, ornaments, and axes.[17][34] A late prehistoric Athabaskan occupation is recognized at several sites in and around U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Wainwright's training lands.[35] The Athabaskan Tradition includes late prehistoric and proto-historic cultures generally believed to be the ancestors of Athabascan tribes who currently inhabit Interior Alaska. Excavated Athabaskan sites are rare, but the limited body of evidence allows for several generalizations. Athabascan settlement patterns depended greatly on the availability of subsistence resources, and Interior bands lived a nomadic lifestyle.[17]

Tanana chief in 1916


Ernest S. Burch (1980) defined a four-period scheme reflecting the major historical events and their impact on the Alaska Natives (Alaskan Eskimos and Athabaskan peoples):[36]

  1. the Early Historic period (1816–1838) is earliest contact with natives can be reckoned from the explorative coastal expedition of James Cook in 1778.
  2. the Fragmentation period (1838–1897) is saw far-reaching disruption and change of traditional native subsistence and settlement patterns.
  3. the Colonial period (1898–1960) is marked by the abrupt influx of large numbers of non-native peoples during the gold rush era.
  4. the Native Claims period (1960–1977) is pre and post Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

Russian fur traders (and promyshlenniki [According to American historian and ethnologist Hubert Howe Bancroft, the Cossacks themselves were a light troop, but they were preceded by a still lighter, a flying advance guard, called the promyshleniki, a kind of Russian coureurs des bois.[37]] for North American fur trade and maritime fur trade) of the period of the Russian America (1733–1867) began settling Interior Alaska starting in the 1810s, establishing a trading post at Nulato on the Yukon River (of Koyukon homeland) and one (in the 1819 Copper Fort) at Taral (Russian Тарал, native Ahtna name Taghaelden) on the Copper River (of Ahtna homeland).[17][38] British traders established Fort Yukon (of Gwich'in homeland) in 1847. Trade goods from these posts may have passed to Lower and Upper Tanana Athabaskans through intra-Native trade networks. Direct contact between Tanana Athabaskans and white traders increased after the 1860s. With the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867, control of trading stations and the fur trade passed to Americans. Through the 1880s, American traders established several additional posts on the Yukon and Tanana rivers, including locations at Nuklukayet (modern-day Tanana of Koyukon people homeland), Belle Isle (modern-day Eagle of Hän people homeland), and Fort Yukon.[17] The Tanana River area has a documented Euroamerican history of less than 130 years, and like the Tanana Athabaskan history.

The Nucha'la'woy'ya (or anglicized Nuchalawoya lit. "where the two rivers meet"[39]) or Noochuloghoyet (lit «the point of the big river peninsula»[40] and historically: Nukluroyit, Nuclavyette, Nukluklayet, Nukiukahyet, Nuklukait,, Nuklaciyat, Nuklukyat, Noukelakayet, Tuklukyet (modern-day Tanana) was a traditional trading settlement for Koyukon and Tanana Athabaskans long before European contact.[41]

With the beginning of Euro-American contact in Interior Alaska in the early 19th century, trade influences and influxes of new populations began to change life in the region. Land use patterns shifted from traditional indigenous uses to activities based on Euro-American economic and political systems. As Euro-American traders (merchants), miners, missionaries and explorers moved into the Tanana Valley, the traditional life ways of local Athabaskan groups were disrupted. Access to trade goods and the development of the fur trade not only affected traditional material culture, but also began to dramatically affect subsistence activities and settlement patterns. Similarly, the arrival of missionaries in the Alaskan Interior profoundly influenced traditional social organization. The introduction of mission schools for Native children and the doctrine of new religious beliefs contributed to an erosion of traditional ecological knowledge and other traditional practices.[17][42] After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, most of the Koyukon were converted by either Catholic or Protestant denominations, and by 1900 virtually all Alaskan Athabaskans were Christians at least by name if not entirely by practice.[43] An influenza epidemic in 1920 claimed one-fourth of the Lower Tanana Athabaskan population of Nenana (Toghotili).[7]


The homeland of Tanana Athabaskans is the Dfc climate type subarctic boreal forest of Nearctic realm, called Interior Alaska-Yukon lowland taiga. Their lands are located in different two ecoregions:[44]

  1. The south of Tanana River, called Tanana-Kuskokwim Lowlands and this ecoregion forms an arch north of the Alaska Range and Lime Hills. Native people of the lowlands are mainly Koyukon, Tanana, and Kuskokwim Athabaskans. Main communities are Fairbanks, North Pole, Tok, and Delta Junction.
  2. The north of Tanana River, called Yukon-Tanana Uplands and this ecoregion forms are rounded mountains and hills located between the Yukon and Tanana Rivers and spanning the Alaska-Yukon Territory border. Native people of the uplands are Tanacross, Tanana, and Hän Athabaskans. Main communities are Fox, Ester, and Eagle.

Tanana Athabaskans were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who moved seasonally throughout the year within a reasonably well-defined territory to harvest fish, bird, mammal, berry and other renewable resources.[6][7] The Tanana territories generally is a mosaic of open and closed spruce forests covering the low gradient outwash slope between the Alaska Range and the flats and ridges north of the Tanana River.[7]

The economy of Tanana Athabaskans is a mixed cash-subsistence system, like other modern foraging economies in Alaska. The subsistence economy is main non-monetary economy system. Cash is often a rare commodity in foraging economies, because of lack of employment opportunities or perceived conflicts in the demands of wage employment and subsistence harvesting activities.[7] The primary use of wild resources is domestic. Wild resource use in many Athabaskan villages is overwhelmingly for domestic consumption, since commercial fishing in Alaska is absent.[7] Commercial fishing and trapping patterns are controlled primarily by external factors. The state's limited entry system, operational by 1974 (after ANCSA), limits the number of available fishing permits for commercial salmon (esp. the Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus species for salmon cannery) fishing. In Nenana, about one-third of households have a permit. Most (70%) sample households with a permit used. Those with a permit that did not fish commercially, did fish for subsistence.[7]

Upper Nabesna–Chisana annual hunting-gathering cycle (< Guédon 1974)[45]
Resource Oct Nov Dec Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep
Porcupine caribou hunting
Alaska moose hunting
Dall sheep hunting
Snowshoe rabbit hunting
Beaver & Muskrat trapping
Ptarmigan & Grouse hunting
Whitefish catching
Berry gathering
Fur trapping

Hunting was associated with seasonal movements along trails and frozen rivers, particularly as bands moved between rivers and uplands. The primarily hunting animals for Tanana Athabaskans are big animals (caribou, moose, and wild sheep). Most valuable hunting animal is the caribou (subspecies Rangifer tarandus granti, Lower Tanana bedzeyh Tanacross wudzih Upper Tanana udzih). The caribou was the most important food animal in the Upper Tanana before the coming of the non-natives and resultant disintegration of the original nomadic patterns.[46] The economic life of the Upper Tanana centers around the caribou. Not only does the animal constitute the source of food for the natives and their dogs, but also it supplies the material for their clothing, shelters, and boats as well as netting for their snowshoes and babiche and sinew for their snares, cords, and lashings.[15][47] The caribou hunt occurred in the early summer and mid-summer. Caribou hunting during the fall migration involved the use of fence, corral, and snare complexes and was a seasonal activity critical to the survival of the Tanana people.[6] Today, most caribou meat is typically used fresh, or is frozen for later use.[15] The moose (subspecies Alces alces gigas, Lower Tanana denigi Tanacross dendîig Upper Tanana diniign) was other most important food animal for Tanana Athabaskans. Moose hunting is the most common resource harvesting activity among Lower Tanana Athabaskan bands.[7] Moose hunting is always a popular activity in modern Athabaskan communities because of the meat's economic value and a food preference for large game.[7] Moose hunting in the fall was either an individual pursuit or group activity. Moose meat was eaten fresh or preserved.[6] The Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band of Tanacross employed several methods to hunt Dall sheep (in Alaskan English simply sheep, Lower Tanana deba Tanacross demee Upper Tanana dibee) in late summer and early fall in local mountainous areas or as far south as the Mentasta Mountains. Dall sheep were a desired source of food and material for clothing and tools.[6]

Migratory waterfowl (ducks, geese, and swans) and upland game birds (ptarmigans and grouse) were a valued source of fresh meat. Grouse (spruce grouse, sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse Lower Tanana deyh Tanacross deyh, ch'ehtêeg, tsą́ą' ts'uug Upper Tanana daih, ch'ahtagn, tsąą'ts'uu) and ptarmigan (willow ptarmigan and rock ptarmigan Lower Tanana k'orrh'eba, ddhełk'ola Tanacross k'étmah, ddheł k'aal Upper Tanana k'atbah) were taken opportunistically throughout the year with bow and arrows or with snares and fence-snare arrangements. Ducks and geese were easily captured when molting. Men in birchbark canoes quietly approached waterfowl in bays and coves and shot them with bow and arrows. Women and children then caught the birds and collected eggs from their nests.[6]

Fishing (creek and river) was done near the village sites, and the fish were stored in large subsurface caches and is domestic and most common. The main economical fish (Tanacross łuug Upper Tanana łuugn, łuuk) species are mostly whitefish (humpback whitefish, round whitefish Tanacross xełtįį' ) and Pacific salmon (king (chinook) Upper Tanana gath Tanacross łuug chox, red (sockeye) Upper Tanana łuugn delt'al Tanacross łuug delt'el). Other fish species are pike (Upper Tanana ch'ulju̱u̱dn Tanacross uljaaddh), grayling (Lower Tanana srajela Upper Tanana seejiil Tanacross seejel), lingcod (Upper Tanana and Tanacross ts'aan) and sucker (Upper Tanana taats'adn Tanacross tats'aht'ôl). Fishing at Mansfield Lake and Fish Creek for whitefish, pike, and grayling began in the late spring and continued until mid-July and was a major harvest activity; whitifish was an especially important and perennially reliable food source. All band members except the very young children assisted in harvesting and processing the catch. The spring fish harvest provided a welcome dietary change after a long winter of eating mostly dried fish and meat. Fish not eaten fresh were processed and dried on drying racks for later consumption. Both fresh and dried fish were cooked in boiling water, produced by placing heated stones into a birch bark basket.[6]

The white spruce (Picea glauca) and black spruce (Picea mariana) are the dominant tree, with its maximum tree line being held at around 4,000 feet. Above this limit only stunted willows and alders are found. In the lowlands, several ferns such as the ostrich, wood, beech and oak fern are found.[11] Beginning in late spring and continuing throughout the summer and early fall months, both adults and children gathered a variety of plants and vegetative materials. Fruit and berries (Lower Tanana jega, deneyh, nekotl Tanacross jêg, ntl'ét, nit-sįį', ... Upper Tanana jjign, nt'lat, niitsil, ...), edible roots (esp. Indian potato or wild carrot Hedysarum alpinum Lower Tanana troth[48]), and assorted plants (esp. wild rhubarb Polygonum alaskanum) were eaten fresh, preserved for later consumption, or used for medicinal purposes. Birch bark of paper birch (Lower Tanana k'iyh Tanacross and Upper Tanana k'įį) and spruce roots (Tanacross xeyh) were needed to make baskets, cooking vessels, tools, cradleboards, and canoes.[6] The Upper Tanana use Vaccinium vitis-idaea as a food source. They boil the berries with sugar and flour to thicken, eat the raw berries, either plain or mixing them with sugar, grease or the combination of the two, fry them in grease with sugar or dried fish eggs, and make them into pies, jam, and jelly. They also preseve the berries alone or in grease and stored them in a birchbark basket in an underground cache, or freeze them.[49] They also use it in their traditional medicine, eating the berries or using the juice of the berries for colds, coughs, and sore throats.[49]


The Tanana kinship is based on what is formally known as an Iroquois kinship and reflects the matrilineal clan system and the importance of cross cousin marriage. Individuals in the Tanana society are born into their mother's clan. Their society was and still is composed of eight or nine matrilineal clans that are arranged in exogamous moieties named Raven (or Crow) and Sea Gull (or Wolf). Marriage was supposed to take place between a man and woman who are from opposite clan.[6]



Animism and shamanism

Historically and traditionally, Tanana and other all Alaskan Athabaskans are practice animism and shamanism. The animistic belief system common to all Alaskan Athabaskan groups might be briefly characterized as follows: All creatures, and some inanimate objects, had spirits which were active and powerful components of those creatures. The spirits enabled an animal to know more than was immediately apparent to him. Thus, if human beings did something which displeased the animal's spirit, the animal itself would remain aloof from the people, and the people might starve. There were very definite rules which people had to follow in dealing with animals based on this belief in animal spirits.[9]

Aboriginally and in early historic times the shaman, called as medicine man or medicine woman[50] (Tanacross deshen Upper Tanana dishin) was the central figure of Athabaskan religious life. The shaman within this culture was the middle man/woman between spirits and the native peoples. Magicoreligious practices included omens, charms, amulets, songs, taboos, and beliefs about the supernatural. Beliefs and practices were associated with certain animals, and many centered on hunting. Animal spirits appear to have predominated in Tanana spiritual life, although an evil spirit was manifested in a half-man, half-animal being. Spirits were influential in the activities of the living and in guiding the dead to their final resting place. Athabaskan shamans guarded people against the effects of bad spirits. The shaman also diagnosed various illnesses and restored the health of those harmed by bad spirits. The shaman could also provide the valuable service of scapulimancy, which predicted the location of game when hunting was scarce.[11][51] According to cultural anthropologist Richard K. Nelson (who lived for extended periods in Alaskan Athabaskan villages), Athabaskan traditions teach that everything in nature is fundamentally spiritual and must be treated with respect. This includes not only avoiding waste, but also following an elaborate code of morality toward plants, animals, and the earth itself. For example, if an Upper Tanana man kills a wolf, he should never touch it until he formally apologizes and explains that his family needs it.[52]

The taboos (Tanacross injih, Upper Tanana įhjih) are animistic forbidden. In addition to adhering to a code of behavior, people observed a variety of taboos designed to prevent misfortune or bad luck. Many of these taboos were associated with hunting or some other aspect of the food gathering process, thus underscoring the importance of these activities for survival of the group.[6] Ravens, cranes, wolverines, foxes, otters, and dogs must never be eaten. The heads of caribou, moose, and Dall sheep may not be fed to the dogs; to do so would bring the hunter poor luck. Neither the bones nor the carcasses of fur-bearing animals may be fed to dogs, but must be cached in a safe place. Should the dogs get them the hunter will take no more fur.[6][46][47] Women of child-bearing age did not eat bear (Grizzly or Alaskan brown bear and black bear).[7] Young boys could not eat fat from around an animal's eye until adulthood.[53] No animals except dogs could be brought up as pets.[45]


The Interior Athabaskans for the most part were contacted and missionized by Roman Catholic (for Koyukon Athabaskans), Russian Orthodox (for Dena'ina, Ahtna, Deg Hit'an, Holikachuk, Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskans), and Anglican missionaries (for Gwich'in, Hän, Tanana Athabaskans).[54] Christian missionaries of the Episcopal Church established churches and missions in the area of Tanana Athabaskan beginning in the early 1900s.[11] In 1905 the Episcopal Church, which had missionaries in Alaska, built the St. Mark's Episcopal mission and Tortella (Toghotili nowadays Nenana) School a short distance upriver. The boarding school taught about 28 children of various ages at a time.[55] Hudson Stuck, the Archdeacon of the Yukon, regularly visited the settlement, part of the 250,000 square-acre territory of the Interior he administered. Native Athabaskan children from other communities, such as Minto, also attended school in Nenana.[55]


The Athabaskan potlatch ( (Tanacross xtíitl Upper Tanana -hotįįł[56]) or the gathering-up ceremony is a mid-winter ceremonial activities of traditional potlatch among Athabaskan peoples. This was one event at which people from different local and even regional bands met. The several regional bands attending a potlatch might have spoken slightly different dialects which were none-theless close enough to each other to be mutually intelligible. The importance of potlatches in establishing friendly ties with outside groups has already been discussed: marriages and trade partnership often grew out of association at a potlatch.[9] The potlatch usually lasted for a week. The most elaborate of Athabaskan potlatches was the funeral potlatch (or memorial potlatch, mortuary potlatch). The funeral potlatch marks the separation of the deceased from and is the last public expression of grief.[57][58] Memorial potlatches are held by family members of a deceased person one year after the death. It is a mourning opportunity as well as one to honor the deceased. Other potlatches were held to demonstrate the wealth, prosperity or luck of a person: the more potlatches, the greater the wealth. The fresh moose meat is essential to the Athabaskan funeral potlatch. Today most well known potlatch is Nuchalawoyya Potlatch of the Native Village of Tanana.[59]


The Upper Tanana area has a rich storytelling tradition. Old-time stories are known in many Northern Athabaskan languages under several different labels. They are set in mythical times, when animals and humans could still communicate. Traditionally, stories were told in the evenings in winter in a group setting and are told to educate the young.[60]


The arts of the Tanana Athabaskans are classified in the Alaska Native art. Birch bark baskests are the most common type of basketry made by Athabaskan women. Today birch bark is used primarily for baskets made for sale and for bark baby carriers.[61]


The Alaskan Athabaskan Indian ice-cream (Lower Tanana nonathdlodi Tanacross nanehdlaad) is dessert-like dry meat mixed with moose fat and different from the Canadian Indian ice cream of First Nations in British Columbia. One recipe for Indian ice cream consisted of dried and pulverized tenderloin that was blended with moose grease in a birch bark container until the mixture was light and fluffy.[6] In addition, however, Alaskan Athabaskan communities also create songs for performance at potlatches: dance songs, potlatch songs and mourning songs. Within stories and embedded in fragments of folklore, old shamanic songs are also partially remembered; they are called "ice‐cream songs" because they used to be sung during the preparation of nonathdlodi, or "Indian ice cream."[62]


Historically and traditionally, the transportation of Alaskan Athabaskans is pedestrian transportation and they are traveling on foot (in winter also birchbark snowshoes). Caribou were also pursued individually on snowshoes during winter by hunters using bow and arrow.[47] Athabascan women regularly carry their children with the help of a baby belt.[18] Dog (Lower Tanana łiga Tanacross łii) use in many Athabaskan villages is overwhelmingly for hunting and as pack animals. Dog sleds (Lower Tanana xwtl Tanacross xědl) are an ancient and widespread means of transportation for Eskimo peoples (western central Alaskan Yup'ik people and northern and northwestern Alaskan Inupiat people), but when non-Native fur traders and explorers first traveled the Yukon River and other interior regions in the mid-19th century they observed that only a few Athabascan groups, including the Koyukon, Deg Hit'an and Holikachuk, used dogs in this way. Both of these peoples had probably learned the technique from their Iñupiat or Yup'ik Eskimo neighbors. The Gwich'in, Tanana, Ahtna and others pulled their sleds and toboggans by hand, using dogs solely for hunting and as pack animals.[63] Dogs sometimes were used to drive the moose into the fence and snares.[6]

Modern tribal unions

Historically, the Tanana Athabaskan people did not think of themselves as living in "tribes," a relatively recent term connected with political recognition by the U.S. government.[6]

Tribal entities

Alaska Native tribal entities for Tanana Athabaskans are recognized by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs:

Tribal entities Location (native name) Ethnolinguistic group
Native Village of Minto Minto (Menh Ti) Lower Tanana
Nenana Native Association Nenana (Toghotthele) Lower Tanana
Village of Dot Lake Dot Lake (Kelt'aaddh Menn' - ″Waterlily Lake″) Tanacross
Healy Lake Village Healy Lake (Mendees Cheeg - ″shallows mouth lake″) Tanacross
Native Village of Tanacross Tanacross (Taats'altęy) Tanacross
Northway Village Northway (K'ehtthiign) Upper Tanana
Native Village of Tetlin Tetlin (Teełąy) Upper Tanana


The Alaska Native Regional Corporations of Tanana Athabaskans were established in 1971 when the United States Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

Native Village Corporation Community Alaska Native Reg. Corp. Ethnolinguistic group
Seth-do-ya-ah Corporation Minto Doyon, Limited Lower Tanana
Toghotthele Corporation Nenana Doyon, Limited Lower Tanana
Dot Lake Native Corporation Dot Lake Doyon, Limited Tanacross
Mendas Cha-ag Native Corporation Healy Lake Doyon, Limited Tanacross
Tanacross Inc. Tanacross Doyon, Limited Tanacross
Northway Natives Inc. Northway Doyon, Limited Upper Tanana
Tetlin Indian Reservation Tetlin Doyon, Limited Upper Tanana

Tanana Chiefs Conference

The Tanana Chiefs Conference is a traditional tribal consortium of the all Central Alaskan Athabaskans (or Interior Athabaskans[50]), with the exception of the Southern Alaskan Athabaskans (or Southern Athabaskans:[50] Dena'ina and Ahtna). On the broad cultural profile factors of regional environment, land use and occupancy, and social organization, Southern Athabaskans (Dena'ina and Ahtna) life more closely resembled the other southern Native societies. In the North, the life of the Interior Athabaskans more closely resembled other northern Native societies.[50]

  • Yukon-Tanana Subregion
    • Minto Traditional Council, Minto, members are Minto band of Lower Tanana
    • Nenana Traditional Council, Nenana, members are Nenana-Toklat band of Lower Tanana
  • Upper Tanana Subregion
    • Dot Lake Village Council, Dot Lake, members are Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band of Tanacross
    • Healy Lake Traditional Council, Healy Lake, members are Healy River-Joseph band of Tanacross
    • Tanacross IRA Council, Tanacross, members are Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band of Tanacross
    • Tok Native Association, Tok, members are Mansfeld-Kechumstuk band of Tanacross
    • Northway Traditional Council, Northway, members are Lower Nabesna band of Upper Tanana
    • Tetlin IRA Council, Tetlin, members are Tetlin-Last Tetlin band of Upper Tanana

Sources of language materials in Tanana languages

Lower Tanana language:

  • Kari, James 1991. Lower Tanana Athabaskan listening and writing exercises. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center

Tanacross language:

  • Arnold, I. S., G. Holton, and R. Thoman 2009.Tanacross Learnersʼ Dictionary.

Upper Tanana language:

  • Milanowski, Paul G. & John, Alfred. 1979. Nee'aaneegn' / Upper Tanana (Tetlin) Junior Dictionary. Anchorage: National Bilingual Materials Development Center.

Further reading

  • Terry L. Haynes and William E. Simeone (2007). Upper Tanana ethnographic overview and assessment, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Technical Paper Number 325. [This overview of Alaska Native history and culture in the upper Tanana region in eastern interior Alaska focuses on the predominantly Northern Athabascan Indian villages of Dot Lake, Healy Lake, Northway, Tanacross, and Tetlin.]. Only included Upriver Tanana (Tanacross and Upper Tanana) bands, excluded Downriver Tanana (Lower and Middle Tanana) bands.


  1. ^ "Alaska Native Language Center : Alaska Native Languages / Population and Speaker Statistics".
  2. ^ James Kari (1996). Names as Signs: 'Stream' and 'Mountain' in Alaska Athabaskan Languages. In Athabaskan Papers in Honor of Robert W. Young, edited by L. Jelinek, K. Rice, and L. Saxon. Pp 443–476. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  3. ^ a b The Map of Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska
  4. ^ Holton, Gary. 2010. Behind the Map: The reification of indigenous language boundaries in Alaska. Working Papers in Athabaskan Languages, ed. by S. Tuttle & J. Spence, 75–87. (Alaska Native Language Center Working Papers 8). Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Fairbanks.
  5. ^ "Arctic Studies".
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Terry L. Haynes and William E. Simeone (2007). Upper Tanana ethnographic overview and assessment, Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Technical Paper Number 325. [This overview of Alaska Native history and culture in the upper Tanana region in eastern interior Alaska focuses on the predominantly Northern Athabascan Indian villages of Dot Lake, Healy Lake, Northway, Tanacross, and Tetlin.]
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Anne Shinkwin and Martha Case (1984). Modern Foragers: Wild resource use in Nenana village, Alaska. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Technical Paper Number 91.
  8. ^ Libby Halpin (1987). Living off the land: contemporary subsistence in Tetlin, Alaska. Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence. Technical Paper Number 149.
  9. ^ a b c Alaska Native Knowledge Network: Athabascans of Interior Alaska: 4th Grade Social Studies Unit: Appendix A. Written by Patricia H. Partnow
  10. ^ a b "athabascan indians".
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  12. ^ McKennan, Robert A. 1969. Athabascan grouping and social organization in Central Alaska. In Contributions to Anthropology: Band Societies. David Damas, ed. pp 93–114. National Museum of Canada bulletin 228. National Museum of Canada, Ottawa.
  13. ^ Alaska Native Language Center: Mapping Alaska's Native languages by Gary Holton
  14. ^ "Ferdinand von Wrangel's 1839 Comparative Word-List of Alaskan languages" (PDF).
  15. ^ a b c James J. Simon and Caroline L. Brown (2010). Customary and traditional use worksheet: Chisana Caribou Herd, GMU 12, Upper Tanana–White River Area
  16. ^ Bruce Elliott Johansen; Barry Pritzker (2008). Encyclopedia of American Indian history. ABC-CLIO. pp. 451–. ISBN 978-1-85109-817-0. Retrieved November 29, 2011.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i j U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Wainwright. Integrated Cultural Resources Management Plan, April 2013
  18. ^ a b c "Anchorage Museum: Athabascan Indian history and culture".
  19. ^ Dene–Yeniseic Symposium, University of Alaska Fairbanks, February 2008, accessed March 30, 2010
  20. ^ Gary Holton. Alaska Native Language Relationships and Family Trees
  21. ^ Classified List of British Columbia Native Languages
  22. ^ Potter, B. A. 2008. "Radiocarbon chronology of Central Alaska: technological continuity and economic change." Radiocarbon 50(2): 181–204.
  23. ^ Powers, W. R., and John F. Hoffecker 1989. "Late Pleistocene Settlement in the Nenana Valley, Central Alaska." American Antiquity 54(2): 263–287.
  24. ^ Hoffecker, John F., W. R. Powers, and T. Goebel 1993. The colonization of Beringia and the peopling of the New World. Science 259: 46–53.
  25. ^ Guy E. Gibbon (general editor) with Kenneth M. Ames et al. 1998. History Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America: An Encyclopedia
  26. ^ West, F.H. 1967. "The Donnelly Ridge Site and the Definition of an Early Core and Blade Complex in Central Alaska." American Antiquity 32(2): 360–382.
  27. ^ West, F.H. 1975. "Dating the Denali Complex." Arctic Anthropology 12: 76–81.
  28. ^ West, F.H. 1981. The Archaeology of Beringia. New York: Columbia Press.
  29. ^ Bigelow, N.H., and W.R. Powers. 2001. "Climate, Vegetation, and Archaeology 14,000-9000 Cal Yr B.P. In Central Alaska." Arctic Anthropology 38(2): 171–195.
  30. ^ Laurel Andrews, Remains of ice-age infants unearthed in Interior Alaska among oldest in North America. Alaska Dispatch News. November 10, 2014.
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  34. ^ Clark, D.W. 1981. "Prehistory of the Western Subarctic." In The Handbook of North American Indians: Subarctic, Volume 6, by J. Helm, p. 120. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
  35. ^ Andrews, E.F. 1975. Salcha: an Athabaskan Band of the Tanana River and its Culture. M.A. Thesis, Fairbanks: Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska.
  36. ^ Jean S. Aigner and Brian L. Gannon (1980) Delta North to Prudhoe Bay: background report for the archaeological survey along the proposed natural gas pipeline from Delta Junction to Prudhoe Bay
  37. ^ The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume XXXIII: History of Alaska 1730–1885. San Francisco, 1886
  38. ^ Park, Mailing Address: Wrangell-St Elias National; Center, Preserve PO Box 439 Mile 106 8 Richardson Highway Copper; Us, AK 99573 Phone:822-5234 Contact. "Human History - Wrangell - St Elias National Park & Preserve (U.S. National Park Service)".
  39. ^ "TCC » About Us".
  40. ^ Jones, E. 1986. Koyukon ethnography. Alaska Historical Commission studies in history, No. 17 1. Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska Native Language Center. 78 p.
  41. ^ "ExploreNorth".
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  43. ^ Shannon Michele McNeeley (2009), Seasons out of balance climate change impacts, vulnerability, and sustainable adaptation in Interior Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska, August 2009
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  45. ^ a b Guédon, Marie-Françoise 1974. People of Tetlin, why are you singing? No. 9, Mercury Series, National Museum of Man, Ethnology Division, National Museums of Canada, Ottawa.
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  49. ^ a b Kari, Priscilla Russe, 1985, Upper Tanana Ethnobotany, Anchorage. Alaska Historical Commission, page 9
  50. ^ a b c d Mike Gaffney 2011. Alaska Native in traditional times: a cultural profile project. Alaska Native Knowledge Network
  51. ^ Native People of Alaska. Greatland Graphics, 2002, p. 92
  52. ^ Nelson, Richard K. 1986. "Raven's People" in J. Aigner, Ed. Interior Alaska (Anchorage: Alaska Geographic Society, 1986)
  53. ^ Paul, David 1957. When Jesus Came to tanacross. Alaska Churchman 52 (2): 6–9
  54. ^ Arthur E. Hippler 1974. An Alaskan Athabascan technique for overcoming alcohol abuse
  55. ^ a b Guide to Collection: St. Mark's Mission, Nenana, Alaska; "Biographical/Historical Note" Archived January 29, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, 2010, State of Alaska Library, accessed September 22, 2013
  56. ^ Olga Lovick and Cora David 2009. Yamaagn Teeshyay naadodi xah nahogndak / Yamaagn Teeshay and the Ant People. This is a collection of narratives told by Tetlin Elder Cora David in her native language, Upper Tanana Athabascan. They have been transcribed and translated by Olga Lovick with the help of Cora David, Avis Sam, Roy Sam, and Rosa Brewer.
  57. ^ William Simeone, A History of Alaskan Athapaskans, 1982, Alaska Historical Commission
  58. ^ William Simeone,Rifles, Blankets, and Beads, 1995, University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 0-8061-2713-9
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  60. ^ Olga Lovick 2012, Walking like a porcupine, talking a raven: figurative language in Upper Tanana Athabascan
  61. ^ Susan W. Fair (2006), Alaska Native Art: Tradition, Innovation, Continuity, University of Alaska Press
  62. ^ Siri G. Tuttle, Language and music in the songs of Minto, Alaska
  63. ^ Alaska Native Collections : łeendenaalyoye “old-style dog harness”(Source: Clark 1974:141; Hadleigh West 1963:231; Hosley 1981:537; McKennan 1959:91, 1965:41; Mischler 1995:647; Nelson 1973:170–173; Osgood 1936:27,1940:353-358)
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