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Alaska's Indigenous Past Deeply Rooted in Alaska's Present

Published On: Jul 03 2013 12:35:00 PM AKDT

The history of Alaska's indigenous people can be traced back for centuries, depending on who you ask.

Loussac librarian Doug McAllister, who manages the library's Alaska Collection, says there are many theories about how the first Alaskans came to the region. Some believe they migrated, through generations, over a land bridge, before dispersing throughout the area.

"There's often much debate as to what area was occupied first and scientists will often look at materials to try and determine which groups occupied which areas," McAllister said.

Eleanor Hadden, curator at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and part of the Tlingit group of Southeast, has a different belief. She says her cultural group believes its ancestors came to the region by sea. Those beliefs and traditions were often carried through generations in stories, as with the four other cultural groups that exist in what's now known as the state of Alaska.

"Because we were an oral society, we didn't have a written word, our totem poles were as close to a written word, our regalia with designs on it were as close to a written history as we can have 752 so as an oral tradition, stories were very important," Hadden said.

Alaska now has five culture groups – Haida (and Tlingit), Aleut, Inupiaq, Yu'pik and Athabascan. Among those groups, 20 different languages are spoken. The five groups are represented at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, with the goal of giving visitors insight into life many generations ago, before the 1700's, when contact with the outside world began.

"At contact time, there were a lot of diseases. Overall, within Native American communities and contact time, we lost about 85 to 90 percent of our population due to diseases or starvation," Hadden said.

Before disease hit, mere survival was already a challenge, mainly due to the cold climate. The Aleut people adapted to life near the unpredictable ocean and its brutal weather. They lived along what is now known as Alaska's Aleutian chain. They were maritime-reliant and their excellent hunting skills also attracted Russian fur traders in the 18th century.

"The Russians, when they came over here, were very keen on the sea otter pelts because it's the most luxurious fur. So they basically took command of the Aleuts and enslaved them and had them hunting the sea otters almost to extinction," McAllister said.

Hadden said resourcefulness is a common trait among all Alaska Native cultures – something that is on display at the heritage center. The groups also share many of the same skills and talents, particularly in innovation. However, each group is also very unique. Their cultures and traditions are deeply rooted in Alaska's story.

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