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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Native Peoples

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

At the time of first contact with the Russians in 1741, the native peoples living in Alaska numbered in the tens of thousands. Although differing theories on their origins have been propounded, most scholars believe that these aboriginal groups came to North America across the Bering land bridge that at one time united Alaska and Northeast Asia. Representing a wide variety of cultures shaped over several millennia, Alaska natives shared a legacy of interaction and conflict amongst themselves long before the arrival of Europeans. Forced by circumstance, most of them also had to come to terms with the Russians after Bering's voyage in the mid-eighteenth century.

Eskimos, one of the more numerous populations, have long inhabited the area from the Arctic and Bering Sea coasts down to south-central Alaska, including Kodiak. Comprising more than twenty separate groupings, their communities can be linguistically differentiated into three major categories: Inupiaq in the northern regions of Alaska, Siberian and Central Yupik to the west, and Sugpiaq to the south. Most have lived by the coast and hunted sea mammals, but there were extensive inland groups as well whose activities revolved around the caribou. In all cases, both their culture and technology were highly adapted to a severe winter climate.

Living along the thousand-mile Aleutian Island chain, the Aleut had developed a seafaring culture acclimated as well to their harsh environment. Because of their proximity to Russia, they also endured the greatest impact from tsarist colonization. Profound changes came with the arrival of the promyshlenniki (frontiersmen), who began pressing Aleut hunters into service soon after the Second Kamchatka Expedition. Expert in hunting on baidarkas (skin-boats) at sea, the Aleuts found themselves coerced to hunt sea otter by Russian merchants who took native hostages as ransom for work quotas. Aleut population numbers probably declined to about two thousand in this initial period, but then stabilized through the adoption of regulations mandated by the government and the Russian-American Company. In time, the Aleut were acculturated by the Russians and formed the bulwark of the Orthodox mission.

In southeastern Alaska, the Tlingit are the largest native community. As the preeminent culture in the region, they traditionally controlled commerce between coastal areas and native villages of the nearby Canadian interior. Practicing totem carving and other intricate crafts, the Tlingit have an advanced culture with a highly developed clan structure and past skills in warfare that helped them to avoid some of the more pernicious aspects of Russian conquest that afflicted the Aleut. The Haida, who emigrated in recent centuries to the southern part of Prince of Wales Island, share many elements of culture with the Tlingit and other tribes of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The same can be said for the Tsimshians on Annette Island, who migrated there from British Columbia under the leadership of an Anglican priest, Father William Duncan, in 1887. The Athabaskans of interior Alaska, some of whom live nearer to the coast in the Cook Inlet region, are linguistically related to the southeastern Alaskan cultures as well as to more southern Native Americans such as the Navajo. The Athabaskans developed a far more nomadic lifestyle, however, as they adapted to the necessity of following migratory game.

The most recent category of native peoples are the Creoles of the Russian-American era, who had a mixed ancestry that was both Russian and native Alaskan. Having borrowed the term Creole from the colonial French experience, the Russians applied it to people who typically had a Russian father and a native mother. In this way, many native Alaskans in time had at least a modicum of Russian heritage. Owing to the chronic shortage of Russian laborers in Alaska, the importance of the Creoles to the tsarist colony proved immense. Indeed, the Russian-American Company increasingly turned to them as a means to fill staff positions. By the 1860s, the Creoles easily outnumbered the Russians and were a mainstay of the colonial economy.