Athabascan territory ranges from the Brooks Range in northern Interior Alaska to Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska, and from Norton Sound in the west to the Canadian border in the east and beyond. There are 11 distinct languages among the varying groups of Athabascans. The Athabascans were migratory, following the fish and game, and created communities near some of Alaska's larger rivers, including the Yukon, Tanana, Susitna, Kuskokwim, and Copper Rivers. Many of our familiar locations named in Interior and Southcentral — like Denali (the Great One) — are traditional Athabascan names.
The Athabascans built winter villages and summer fish camps and lived and traveled in small groups of between 20 and 40 people. In their matrilineal system, Elders made the important decisions for the group, and the core unit was often a woman and her brother with both of their families. The mother's brother still frequently takes charge of educating her children in Athabascan history and traditions.
Because resources were seasonal, Athabascan men engaged heavily in trade with other communities. They used canoes made of birch bark and moose hide, as well as sleds and dogs to transport goods. Clothing was also resource-based; moose and caribou hides were used for tunics, moccasins, and other articles.
Today, the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Interior Alaska is the nonprofit Alaska Native association that provides many services for its tribal members. The Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks partners with the Tanana Chiefs Conference to provide classes and Athabascan cultural programs, many of which are taught by rural Alaska Native residents, as a way of sharing traditions and skills with Alaska visitors and residents alike. You can find authentic Alaska Native artwork, Athabascan beadwork, ivory, baleen, and other handmade gifts from around Alaska in their Alaska Native Gift Shop.
Then and today, the Athabascan people hold potlatches. These are held for a variety of reasons from celebration to mourning. Food is made and shared with the community, and one popular dish is moose head stew. In Athabascan culture, wealth was shown by giving it away and it was during potlatch that this was demonstrated.
Athabascan people are well known for their elaborate beadwork and moose hide leather which is used in art and regalia like tunics, vests, dresses, and gloves. In Nenana, the Alfred Starr Nenana Cultural Center focuses on the culture and lifestyle of the Athabascans along with local history of Nenana. Exhibits cover Alaska Native beadwork, Yukon 800 riverboat racing, dog mushing, and the Nenana Ice Classic. A gift shop is stocked with local Alaska Native crafts. The Ahtna Cultural Center, located next to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Visitor Center in Copper Center, has exhibits, a traditional fishwheel, and information on the Ahtna Athabascan people who live in this region.
Cultural Regions Map
Athabascan Traditions & History
From the Alaska CulturalHost Program
House Types & Settlements
Athabascans traditionally lived in small groups of 20 to 40 people that moved systematically through the resource territories. Annual summer fish camps for the entire family and winter villages served as base camps. Depending on the season and regional resources, several traditional house types were used.
Tools & Technology
Traditional tools and technology reflect the resources of the regions. Traditional tools were made of stone, antlers, wood, and bone. Such tools were used to build houses, boats, snowshoes, clothing, and cooking utensils. Birch trees were used wherever they were found.
Athabascans have a matrilineal system in which children belong to the mother’s clan, rather than to the father’s clan, with the exception of the Holikachuk (ho-li-ka-chuk) and the Deg Hit’an. Clan Elders made decisions concerning marriage, leadership, and trading customs. Often the core of the traditional group was a woman and her brother, and their two families. In such a combination, the brother and his sister’s husband often became hunting partners for life. Sometimes these hunting partnerships started when a couple married.
Traditional Athabascan husbands were expected to live with the wife’s family during the first year, when the new husband would work for the family and go hunting with his brothers-in-law. A central feature of traditional Athabascan life was (and still is for some) a system whereby the mother’s brother takes social responsibility for training and socializing his sister’s children so that the children grow up knowing their clan history and customs.
Clothing & Regalia
Traditional clothing reflects the resources. For the most part, clothing was made of caribou and moose hide tunics and dresses in the summer and fall. In the winter, fur from caribou, beaver, muskrat, and ground squirrel were added to make their clothing.
Moose and caribou hide moccasins and boots were important parts of the wardrobe. Styles of moccasins vary depending on conditions. Both men and women are adept at sewing, although women traditionally did most of the skin sewing.
Traditional regalia vary from region to region. However, in all Athabascan cultures, the ultimate sign of status and wealth was dentalium shells, which were traded up the Northwest coast of Alaska and were typically only worn by wealthy individuals like a traditional leader and his family. Before European contact, the main form of decoration on Athabascan clothing were porcupine quills, which were flattened and dyed to create complex geometric patterns, and red ochre, which was used to paint parts of their clothing. After European contact, glass seed beads largely replaced porcupine quills and beautiful floral patterns were adopted from missionaries in Eastern Canada.
Canoes were made of birch or willow and the covering of birch bark was attached with spruce roots and sealed with spruce pitch; larger boats were also made of birch or willow for the frames and covered with moose or bear hide. All Athabascans used sleds; however, they were generally not pulled by dogs until after European contact. Of vital importance during the winter were snowshoes, which were created for a variety of weather and snow conditions; dogs were primarily used as pack animals and were also valuable for hunting and protection from big game.
Trade was the principal activity of Athabascan men, who formed trading partnerships with men in other communities and cultures such as the Tlingit, Yup’ik, Sugpiaq, and Iñupiaq as part of an international system of diplomacy and exchange. Traditionally, partners from other tribes were also, at times, enemies, and traveling through enemy territory was dangerous.
New! Alaska Native Culture Guide
Immerse yourself in Alaska Native heritage and learn how to experience the living culture of the state's Indigenous peoples.