10 Things You Should Know About Alaska Natives

Richard Walker
11/20/14

More than 140,000 people have a unique relationship with the land known as the Last Frontier.

They are Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples, their ties to this place dating back to when Raven made the world and Crow brought daylight to the land.

The Alaska Native story is one of endurance – developing ways to survive and thrive in a challenging environment; overcoming enslavement and disease during the Russian and U.S. trade era; adapting to statehood; and fighting to restore rights and reestablish sovereignty.

“By 1800, the population of the Aleutian region and Kodiak had been reduced by about 80 percent due to Russian atrocities, war, disease, starvation and enslavement,” writes William L. Iġġiaġruk Hensley, former Alaska state legislator, longtime educator and advocate for Alaska Native rights, and author of “Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People” (2009).

Today, Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples comprise roughly 24 percent of the state’s population. Many live in one of 229 federally recognized Alaska Native villages.

What do we know about Alaska Natives? To answer that question, we consulted Hensley; and Mike Williams Sr., chief of the Yupiit Nation, member of the Akiak Tribal Council, and board member of First Stewards, which is addressing climate change and sustainability issues.

Indigenous Alaska is comprised of many distinct cultures. Hensley reports: “At the time of contact in 1741, the various indigenous nations of Alaska controlled all of Alaska's 586,400 square miles – the Inupiat in the Northeast and the Arctic, the Dene (Athapascan) in the vast Interior, the Yu’pik in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Unangan (Aleut) in the Aleutian Islands, the Sugpiaq in Kodiak and the Gulf of Alaska, the Tlingit and Haida in Southeast Alaska.”

Inupiat and Yu’pik mean “The Real People”: According to Lawrence Kaplan of the Alaska Native Language Center at University of Alaska Fairbanks, “Although the name ‘Eskimo’ is commonly used in Alaska to refer to all Inuit and Yupik people of the world, this name is considered derogatory in many other places because it was given by non-Inuit people and was said to mean ‘eater of raw meat.’” While there is disagreement on the meaning of the word – some linguists now believe "Eskimo" is derived from an Ojibwa word meaning "to net snowshoes" – many Inuit and Yupik people preferred to not be defined by outsiders.

“’Eskimo’ is not our term, but we still use it here, [but] not so in Canada,” Hensley said. “Inuit is the general term for Eskimos but our preferred term is Inupiat (The Real People); our language is Inupiaq. Our cousins to the south call themselves Yupiit – Yupik for singular, but their language is Yupik as well.”

It’s not subsistence, it’s a way of life. “Alaska Natives continue to hunt and fish among our 200 villages,” Hensley reports. With hard-fought-for federal statutory and regulatory provisions, “whales, seals, walrus, belugas, polar bears and sea otters are harvested, and artwork is permitted with ivory, fur, bone, claws and feathers.”

Williams adds, “Subsistence is a different term that we use [that] non-Natives understand. I prefer ‘customary and traditional use.’ We’ve always lived on the fish and wildlife around us. But it’s not only for our physical needs – it’s spiritual and sacred to us. ‘Subsistence’ has a different meaning than cultural and traditional use.”

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