|Alaska Natives are the indigenous peoples of Alaska. They include: Aleut, Inuit, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Eyak, and a number of Northern Athabasca cultures. Alaskan natives in Alaska number about 119,241 (as of the 2000 census). There are 229 federally recognized Alaskan villages and five unrecognized Tlingit Alaskan Indian tribes. |
It is important to understand the diversity ofnative Alaskan tribes which speak 20 different languages, belong to five geographic areas, are organized under thirteen Alaska Native Regional Corporations and have eleven different cultures. Alaskan natives make up 20% of the population of the state of Alaska.
Alaska's indigenous people, who are jointly called Alaska Natives, can be divided into five major groupings: Aleuts, Northern Eskimos (Inupiat), Southern Eskimos (Yuit), Interior Indians (Athabascans) and Southeast Coastal Indians (Tlingit and Haida). These groupings are based on broad cultural and linguistic similarities of peoples living contiguously in different regions of Alaska. They do not represent political or tribal units nor are they the units Native people have traditionally used to define themselves.
At the time of contact with Russian explorers in the mid-18th century, Alaska was occupied by approximately 80,000 indigenous people. The phrase "time of contact" means the earliest time when a Native group had significant direct interaction with Europeans. This time varied for different parts of Alaska; therefore Alaskan Native groups have had somewhat different historical experiences through their contact with Europeans and Americans. In the early spring of 1942, when the Army Corps of Engineers arrived to begin building the Alaska Highway, Alaska's population was approximately 73,000. About half of those residents were Native Alaskans, members of indigenous groups who inhabited Alaska before it was colonized by Russia.
Alaska Natives have varied cultures and have adapted to harsh environments for thousands of years. They are as far north as Barrow and as far south as Ketchikan. Today, Alaska Natives account for just over 15 percent of the total Alaskan population of approximately 648,000 people. Since the 1960s and 1970s, aboriginal autonomy has rebounded in Alaska. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 officially ended native land ownership claims while creating regional corporations that administered approximately one-ninth of Alaskan territory; the shareholders of the corporations are the native peoples. The legal battles for rights to their ancestral land began a revitalization of native society that is evident today.
Stretching like a rocky necklace from Asian to North America, the Aleutian Islands and the nearby Alaska Peninsula are the home of the Aleuts. The term "Aleut" was introduced by Russians and comes originally from the Koryak or Chukchi languages of Siberia; it appears to have been quickly adopted by the Aleut people themselves.
The most diverse group of Alaskan Natives are the southern Eskimos or Yuit, speakers of the Yup'ik languages. At the time of contact, they were the most numerous of the Alaska Native groups. Communities stretched from Prince William Sound on the north Pacific Coast to St. Lawrence Island in the central Bering Sea. The Yuit settled this vast region from west to east reaching the Kodiak archipelago and Prince William Sound by about 2,000 years ago.
Occupying the islands and mainland of southeast Alaska are the northernmost groups of the Northwest Coast cultures; the Tlingit and Haida Indians. They are well-known for their distinctive art represented in totem poles and other elegantly carved objects.
The Tlingit and Haida are more similar to Indians along the coast of present day British Columbia than to other Alaskan groups. The Tlingit occupied the vast majority of the area from Yakutat Bay to Portland Canal while the Kaigani Haida, whose Haida relatives occupied the Queen Charlotte Island off the north coast of British Columbia, controlled the southern half of the Prince of Wales archipelago. The two groups share similar social and cultural patterns; however, their languages are unrelated and they have distinct ethnic identities.