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. I??ia?ruk 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.”
Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. – without asking Alaskans. Hensley reports: “Despite having fewer than 800 Russians in Alaska at any one time, Russia sold its interest in the Russian American Company to the United States in 1867 for $7.2 million. At that time, Alaska Natives numbered about 30,000.”
Alaska Natives were not citizens of the United States for 57 years. From 1867, when the U.S. claimed ownership of Alaska, to 1924, when the Indian Citizenship Act was enacted, Alaska Natives “could not own land in their own homeland, could not file for mining claims, could not protect their salmon streams from the canned salmon industry and could not vote – unless they were able to pass a vigorous literacy test and prove abandonment of Native lifestyle and religion,” Hensley reports.
The Alaska Native Brotherhood was formed in 1912 to fight for Native rights as citizens of the United States, Hensley reports. “The Indian Reorganization Act was amended to include Alaska in 1936 and as a consequence, Alaska today has 200 [plus] recognized Tribes.”
The U.S. paid in 1971 for land it claimed in 1867. Hensley reports: The passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in December 1971, signed by President Richard Nixon, was the largest indigenous land and monetary settlement ever passed by Congress, with Alaska Natives retaining 44 million acres and receiving $962.5 million in compensation for lands taken. The Act established Alaska Native regional and village corporations to manage the lands and funds for its shareholders.
The fight for rights continues today. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) left questions about the status of Alaska Native governments and the extent of jurisdiction they have, according to University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Land owned by Alaska Natives is not held in trust, like reservations in the lower 48, but is owned fee simple, Williams said. According to Hensley, undeveloped land is not taxed, but developed land is taxed.
According to the university, “There is little ‘Indian country’ in Alaska, the territorial jurisdiction needed to tax people and entities …, to set seasons and bag limits for fish and game, and other activities requiring territorial jurisdiction to enforce.” Williams added, “We have governance over our members, but we don’t have land to exercise our sovereignty on.”
Alaska Native Tribes have asserted their existence and jurisdiction by various governmental activities, including hearing a wide variety of cases in their own courts, according to the university. The State of Alaska has often challenged the powers of Alaska Native Tribal governments “and the activity of their courts.” Alaska Native Tribes have “challenged the State to accept their assertions and court decisions.”
Other conflicts: Authority under the Violence Against Women Act to prosecute those who commit acts of domestic violence against Alaska Native women was not extended to Alaska Native Tribal governments, Williams said. And Alaska’s Constitution does not recognize Alaska’s First Peoples’ rights to fish and hunt in their traditional areas, but states that all Alaskans have equal access to fish and game resources.
“We have always been a hunting, fishing and gathering society,” Williams said. “We were never a capitalist society” like that proposed by ANCSA. The regional corporation system “seemed to [create] an economic powerhouse, but our rural villages and communities are still in Third World conditions. It became worse because [the corporation system is] geared to urban economic development.”
A force for Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples: The Alaska Federation of Natives was organized in 1971 and is the largest statewide Native organization in Alaska. “Its membership includes 151 federally-recognized tribes, 134 village corporations, 12 regional corporations, and 12 regional nonprofit and tribal consortiums that contract and compact to run federal and state programs,” according to its website.
Hensley reports, “The annual October convention is one of the largest statewide conventions of indigenous people in the country with 2,000 participants and 3,000 visitors attending the arts and crafts expo, many Native-related conferences, business exhibits, and government and academic meetings.”
The Iditarod is more than a sled-dog race. The route of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is more than a race course for Alaska Native mushers like Williams; it’s part of their DNA. For thousands of years, mushers traveled by dog sled to fishing and hunting grounds that are now on the route. “When we get to Rohn and Rainy Pass [on the Iditarod course], that’s where my people used to hunt,” Williams said in an earlier interview.
Williams said he mushes today to keep alive an important part of Alaska Native culture; mushing is to Alaska Natives what the Canoe Journey is to Northwest Coast Native peoples.
“It’s more than competing; it’s our way of life,” he said. “We’ve always had dogs in our villages. We’ve hunted and camped with our dogs for thousands of years. They’ve helped us through those times and we want to continue to keep that culture alive.”
In addition to the Iditarod, other major sled-dog races include the Copper Basin 300 and the Kuskokwim 300 in January, the Yukon Quest in February, and the Kobuk 440 in April. Many villages also host sled-dog races.
At these Olympics, competitions are teachings. At the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in July, competitors display preparedness needed for survival, “[requiring] skill as well as strength, agility, and endurance,” according to the Olympics website. Competitors show the same stamina and endurance to pain that might be needed “to survive the harsh realities of the North.”
Competitions include the knuckle hop, four-man carry, ear weight, ear pull, high kick using one or both feet, one-hand reach, kneel jump, stick pull, arm pull, and blanket toss. Many of these events are competitions in the Arctic Winter Games in March and in the Native Youth Olympics in April.