Covering an expansive 663,000 square miles of breathtaking wilderness, Alaska draws visitors throughout the year with its vast array of natural attractions, outdoor activities, and diverse wildlife. But a lesser-known facet of the spectacular state is its extensive human history. As the 49th state to enter the Union in 1959, one could mistakenly believe that Alaska has a relatively recent history. But in fact, it has a proud heritage that stretches back an astonishing 10,000 years, and a vibrant living culture that continues today.
Alaska is comprised of five distinct regions—the Arctic, Inside Passage, Interior, Southcentral and Southwest. In each, Alaska Native history, storytelling, ceremonies and customs have been upheld for centuries with many groups continuing to practice traditional subsistence lifestyles centered on hunting, fishing and foraging throughout the state. Beyond these practices, Alaska Natives share a set of values that have been painstakingly preserved, embodied and handed down—values like remaining thankful, having respect for oneself, others and the environment, and not taking more than one needs.
As a result of these deeply rooted values, beliefs and practices, Alaska Native culture is not only alive, but it’s also strongly influential on the present-day way of life across the state. Experiencing Alaska Native creativity and culture in person is a highlight of any visit to the region—and it’s simpler than one might think to find authentic experiences. Read on to learn more about Alaska Native peoples and boundless ways to connect with their traditional storytelling, cuisines, crafts and ways of being.
Immerse Yourself in Living Culture
Among the best ways to explore the living culture of Alaska Natives across the state is through immersion—connecting with not just textbook history, but with the present-day people who embody its culture, customs and values. Programs offered by Alaska Native-owned tours and businesses provide a rich and deeply personal vantage via a wide array of interactive experiences like Alaska Native-led educational talks and tours. They also, in turn, present a unique opportunity to participate in the indefinable human-exchange best experienced through sharing space, sampling foods prepared with care, or witnessing the results of dedicated practice through song, dance and master craftwork. And while each group of Alaska Native peoples has its own unique languages, traditions, cuisines and histories, many common values and ways of being are shared by all.
One central tradition among Alaska Native cultures is the significance of subsistence hunting and foraging—these practices are widely considered to be cultural cornerstones, both connecting and strengthening the ties between people and land. Luckily, there are many places across the state to experience Alaska Native culinary endeavors first-hand. In Juneau, Alaska Native-owned Barnacle Foods provides a bounty of flavors and sustainable goods that are available to sample in locations throughout Alaska, and depending on the region that you visit, there may be several traditional foods not-to-miss should you be invited to try them.
Along with authentic tastes and dishes, you’ll also have the chance to encounter masterful works of every conceivable variety including arts, crafts, jewelry and other wares—and, in the process, support Alaska Native artisans and small businesses. Many creations make use of animal byproducts—such as furs, tusks and skins—along with other found natural materials, like roots, bark and wood. With sustainable sourcing, and a strong respect for the natural world, almost nothing is wasted. Further ensuring ethical purchases, be sure to shop items marked with a Silver Hand sticker or tag; these products are designated as authentic Alaska Native-made.
Within the state, there are primarily five groups of Alaska Native peoples identified by region: the Iñupiat and St. Lawrence Island Yupik in the Arctic; the Athabascan in Southcentral and Interior Alaska; the Yup’ik and Cup’ik, and the Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) in Southwest Alaska; and the Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit in the Inside Passage. Read on to find out more about each group’s heritage and the best places to delve into the culture of each region.
In Alaska’s northern Arctic region, one of the state's most remote and diverse regions geographically, lies the homeland of the Iñupiat and the St. Lawrence Island Yupik. Here, the terrain ranges from jutting coastlines to rolling treeless tundra and landscapes teeming with a vast array of wildlife. The remoteness of the region lends itself to a culture of genuine cooperation, sharing, and a deep knowledge of survival techniques and the local wildlife.
The traditional way of life of Alaska Natives in the Arctic is centered around the land; not only does it provide sustenance by way of fish, wildlife and produce, it fulfills a spiritual connection. Today, Alaska Natives continue to hunt a sustainable number of whales, seals, walrus, and some species of birds and fish. Maktak, a staple dish consisting of whale skin and blubber, perfectly captures the intersection of an ancestral tradition and the contemporary people who tirelessly preserve their culture; each hunt that brings home a whale represents an impromptu holiday with the whole community joining in to celebrate and process the entire animal. Elders emphasize the significance of Iñupiaq, the language of the Iñupiat, as a way to understand the culture.
It’s interesting to note that the St. Lawrence Island Yupik speak Siberian Yupik—a different language entirely than what the similarly named Yup’ik and Cup’ik peoples in Southwest Alaska speak. Located just 35 miles east of Russia, Siberian Yupik is only spoken on St. Lawrence Island and mainland Siberia—a testament to the remoteness of the region. Here, over 95 percent of the island’s residents are Alaska Native, with around 1,400 residents between the villages of Gampbell and Savoonga. The geographical isolation has helped maintain the traditional culture of the island, with the local economy centered largely on subsistence harvests. In early June, the island plays host to more than 2.7 million seabirds during their nesting season; many visitors keen on experiencing the island’s culture and wildlife can visit as part of a guided tour based out of Gambell.
The Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiaġvik (previously known as Barrow) is among the best places to learn more about Iñupiat culture; here, visitors can see collections spanning ancient archaeology to modern Alaska Native art, along with artist workshops, cultural programs, historical presentations, and dance demonstrations in the warmer summer months. Those who time their trips to Utqiaġvik just right may be able to witness Nalukataq, a festival in May celebrating the end of the whaling season. To the south, the city of Kotzebue is situated 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle and is home to one of the largest populations of Alaska Native peoples—over 80 percent of its residents identify as Iñupiat. The Northwest Arctic Heritage Center (also the visitor center for Kobuk Valley National Park) is home to a collection of life-size dioramas and personal stories that depict life in the Arctic, both unforgiving yet unparalleled in beauty.
The ancestral homelands of the Athabascans span from the Brooks Range in the north, to Cook Inlet in the southcentral region, east to the Canadian border and west to Norton Sound. With such a vast territory, including rolling hills and a number of waterways, it’s not surprising that 11 distinct languages are spoken among the Athabascans. Communities follow a matrilineal system comprised of between 20 to 40 people. Given the seasonality of resources, the highly nomadic Athabascans were historically oriented to trade—traveling between winter villages and summer fish camps by way of traditional birch bark canoes, moose hide sleds, and dogs to transport goods. As such, their influences are felt far beyond the confines of their geographical territory.
Today, the cycle of the seasons still largely defines the rhythm of life for the Athabascans; the fall is focused on intense work, hunting moose or caribou, and the spring months are a time for hunting smaller game ahead of the long-daylight months of summer filled with fishing, foraging, and more. A central facet of the Athabascan worldview is the idea that the natural world and life itself are inextricably linked—potlatches, ceremonies marking significant moments like births, successful hunts, and deaths within the community, underscore Athabascan values of interconnectedness, respect and being a good person.
At the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center in Fairbanks, visitors can take in both permanent and rotating exhibitions, as well as a wide variety of activities and cultural programs throughout the year. There, the Tanana Chiefs Conference also converges each year to provide classes and cultural programs (many taught by Alaska Natives) that give insight to Athabascan daily life. Riverboat tours along the Chena River in Fairbanks include a stop for Athabascan cultural demonstrations. Flightseeing tours are available to intrepid travelers seeking a deeper look into the rich culture, taking visitors into the remote interior to engage with villages that are more off the grid.
The dramatic Southwest is home to the volcanic Katmai National Park and Preserve, along with the Aleutian Islands, a 1,200–mile crescent archipelago that stretches toward Asia. This region, a favorite among many visitors, is the ancestral homeland of Alaska Native peoples, including the Yup’ik and Cup’ik—or “Genuine People”, so named for their dialects. The Yup’ik and Cup’ik, like many Alaska Native peoples, observe a lifestyle of subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering year-round. Traditionally, they lived in semi-subterranean huts that afforded shelter from brutal winter conditions, as well as cool conditions for storing food and living comfortably during the warmer months. Villages were organized around extended family groups, with men and women living in separate but nearby villages. Rank was determined according to skill, with shamans playing a particularly prominent role given their abilities to guide the community in healing and prayer
At the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel, visitors can learn about Yup’ik and Cup’ik cultures through its library and museum. As the largest rural community in all of Alaska, Bethel was originally a Yup’ik settlement known as “Mumtrekhlogamute,” which translates to “smokehouse people.” Today, it is home to around 6,400 permanent residents, along with the Cultural Center (home to a wealth of cultural exhibits, artifacts and programs) and the exceptional Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
In March, visitors can enjoy the Cama-i Dance Festival, a three-day music and dancing celebration in Bethel that features arts, crafts and a selection of Alaska Native foods. The celebration is centered on the notion of togetherness, and it's apparent in the songs, dances and many rich traditions that fill the days and nights with laughter and music.
Also located in the breathtaking Southwest region of Alaska are the homelands of the Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq peoples (also known as Alutiiq). The Unangax̂ settlements are scattered throughout the Aleutian Islands as well as on the stunning Pribilof Islands, part of the 4.9-million-acre Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. And the Sugpiaq are associated with Kodiak Island and Prince William Sound, two other exquisite, protected areas along Alaska’s wild and windswept coastal region.
The Unangax̂ speak Unangam Tunuu, while the Sugpiaq speak Sugcestun; however, Russian influences during the 18th century forever transformed not only the languages and dialects here, but the population as well. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church and various other Russian influences still play an integral role in the communities, blending with deeper Alaska Native cultural histories and traditions. In fact, the Unangax̂ settled here around 3,000 years ago, migrating across the Aleutian archipelago; their footprint has expanded over generations since.
The Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq have historically subsisted primarily on the sea and rivers that surround them. Hunting is a master skill and trade, and its practitioners wear full regalia for the mission. As the military and many other trades have their flags, pins and stripes, each Alaska Native hunter’s status and skill level here is indicated by sea lion whiskers.
Experience the living cultures of the Unangax̂ and Sugpiaq people today by visiting the Aleutian Islands, nestled among active volcanoes and the rugged, windswept coast. Adventurous travelers can venture deeper to explore ancient Alaska Native village sites, as well as visit communities including Akutan, Cold Bay, False Pass, King Cove, Sand Point, and Unalaska. The Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska and the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak are particularly worthwhile stops in this spectacular region.
The Alaska Native peoples in this region share numerous cultural similarities with groups who have formed and lived along the Northwest coast of North America, spanning all the way down to Washington state. While each tribe has its distinct differences, talent as craftspeople is a common unifier. Some are adept at intricate weaving techniques that they use to create everything from functional to beautiful pieces—baskets, ceremonial robes, floor mats, clothing, hats, and more. Others have a penchant for carving, and their work can be seen on any number of totems, canoes, utensils and ceremonial objects throughout the Inside Passage, and beyond.
The Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit peoples, among others, have inhabited Southeast Alaska for more than 10,000 years, dating back to the earliest-known inhabitants of this rugged region. As a function of their long lineage, they are accomplished boaters and traders, capable of building beautiful, intricate and functional canoes for travel, and able to make or barter for just about anything they need, even today.
Over many millennia, the Eyak, Haida, Tsimshian and Tlingit have developed complex social systems, with each group organized into two equal halves, known as moieties, which then consist of several clans. The clans themselves are matrilineal, meaning that children inherit through their mothers, and many marriages are arranged by the moieties. Here, many traditionally lived in permanent winter settlements with up to 50 people per home; they also inhabited a collection of seasonal camps, as needed, for closer proximity to food and water resources during the harsh and less hospitable months of the year.
On a visit to the Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan, visitors can observe various carving techniques, including those used on hundred-year-old totems. In Sitka, the only Pacific-facing community in the Inside Passage, join in a traditional drumming celebration and hear Alaska Native stories shared by the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Dancers, part of the Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi Community House. Alaska’s largest Tlingit village, Hoonah, has rich cultural resources for storytelling, along with dance performances, cooking classes, wildlife viewing, and more. And in Juneau, visit the Sealaska Heritage Institute, a cultural center dedicated to honoring Alaska Native ancestors, and “paving the way for the future by making heritage a living thing.”
Experience Alaska Native Culture
Spanning all five regions of Alaska, from urban coastal communities to rural inland settlements, Alaska Native culture courses through this truly magnificent part of the country. From the hunting and foraging practices that have been honed over millennia, to the arts, crafts, trades, and cuisines that still draw sustainably from the natural land, there’s so much Alaska Native heritage and history to see and experience.