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History of Alaska/Aboriginal ''Alaxsxaq'' (to 1800)

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Indigenous Origin Theories[edit | edit source]

The Bering Land Bridge Theory[edit | edit source]

Depiction of migration on the Bering Lang Bridge.

The Bering Land Bridge Theory is one of the most widely supported theories explaining how Paleoindians came to inhabit North America. The theory hypothesizes that when glaciers blocking the Bering Strait began to melt approximately 12,000 years ago, they broke into sheets that carved out a path of land approximately 1,000 kilometres long. This temporary path could have been crossed by Paleoindians from Siberia into Alaska, explaining how North America became inhabited by humans as well as many species of plants and animals. Recent grass and sage fossils found in eastern Beringia suggest that the area was a part of the mammoth steppe, a system of dry grassland climate stretched from Europe, through Eurasia and eastwards onto Canada and played the role of a ‘safe haven’ for many species escaping the ice age.

Most historians and other scholars believe that people from Asia were able to cross the Beringia during the Ice Age, specifically the Pleistocene epoch, between 12,000 and 60,000 years ago. These people became the first natives of Alaska, most likely belonging to either the Nenana or Denali complexes that eventually settled in central Alaska. It is believed that all of the natives in Alaska descended from these original groups as they share many similar characteristics. Their physical similarities, for example, dark hair, and eyes, set them apart from the European settlers. Over time, the hunter-gatherer communities continued to migrate from Asia to North America in search of fertile land. It was only until after the glaciers south of the mammoth steppe begin to melt did the Paleo-Indians continue their migration southward, making way for the possibility of the Denali and Nenana people are the first ancestors of all human life in the western world. However, scientists and historians continue to dispute on the timeline, as well as whether or not the materials excavated in the south match the original tools from the Alaskan complexes.

In the mid-1700’s when the Russians first made contact with the people spread out across North America and particularly Alaska, it was theorized that these people had originally came from northeast Asia across the Bering land bridge. Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer in the service of Russia found this strait during his voyages in the years of 1728, and 1733-1741. Bering’s discovery of this strait was Russia’s “formal claim to what is now Alaska,” according to Karam. As the Russians had claimed this first, they saw it as theirs instead of being part of early America. For over a century Russians dominated and controlled Alaska and the natives that were living there. The Bering land bridge made travel easier between Asia and North America. It was also seen as an advantageous area for military attacks and trading ports.

Controversy[edit | edit source]

Although the Bering land bridge theory is widely supported in the scientific community it is also frequently critiqued, especially among First Nations, for its use in discrediting Aboriginal claims to land and justifying their physical and cultural displacement by European powers. Some historians argue that there is no evidence to support the theory that people could have survived the trek to Alaska through such a harsh environment. Many would have died from diseases, famine, and cold climate conditions. There is minimal archaeological evidence from this time to support this theory. Although there were Indigenous populations there when the Russians arrived, there was no telling of how exactly they got there. Later Europeans dubbed them “Indians” who had settled in North and South America. The Bering Land Bridge Theory is also criticized for its lack of evidence in the oral histories of Indigenous people.

The time frame in which the Bering Strait would have been accessible to humans has also been disputed. Tools manufactured by humans discovered at an excavation in Clovis, New Mexico has been dated back to 11,000 years ago, supporting the theory. In 1978, however, an archaeological expedition in Monte Verde led to the discovery of relics including the remains of hunted animals and spearheads dating 13,000 years ago, putting the Bering Land Bridge Theory in contention.

Other Theories[edit | edit source]

Some theories propose that two migrations across the Bering Land Bridge occurred throughout history. This theory supports the original Bering Land Bridge Theory but adds that the second migration of people occurred approximately 5000 years ago, populating Alaska. This theory is supported by similarities in skull measurements collected from human remains. The same criticism that surrounds the Bering Land Bridge Theory also applies to this theory, but it is also disputed by researchers who deny that there is any link between the size of a skull and genetic history.

Another theory suggests that a group of people sailed along the Bering Strait to reach North America. The Bering Land Bridge Theory, which suggests that a group of people walked across the Bering Strait during a specific period of time when the glaciers were melting, is constrained by the specific circumstances that it suggests. If a group of people instead sailed along the Bering Strait, it would leave the period of human migration open to a much larger period of time and explain any artifacts that predate the Bering Land Bridge Theory.

Other theories contend that the Indigenous people of North America are descended from a different species of human distinct from those who populate Europe. This theory potentially has some overlap with the Bering Land Bridge theory, suggesting that some First Nations, including many residing in Alaska, are descended from people who migrated across the Bering Strait, while others are descended from a distinct species of human.

Native Ethnology[edit | edit source]

Although the terms 'Eskimo' or 'Esquimaux' have been used to refer to the inhabitants of Alaska, they are broad terms applied by Europeans to the numerous and culturally distinct tribes of Indigenous people that live in Alaska. These terms generally refer to the Inupiat and Yup’ik peoples of Alaska collectively. Upon the discovery of Alaska by Russian explorers in 1741, the land was made up of several distinct cultures, including the Inuit, Athabascan, Aleut, Inupiat, Yup’ik, and several other southern coastal nations.

Inuit[edit | edit source]

Inuit mother and her child

The Inuit were located along the coast of Alaska, from the Alaskan Peninsula to the Arctic region. Many of cultures that made up the population originated from the Inuit, such as the Inupiat. They were known for their peaceful nature and for their poetry and music. They were primarily meat eaters since they hunted caribou in the summer months and lived off of salmon and other sea mammals in the winter. In the summer, they built tents from the skins and furs of animals they hunted, whereas, in the winter, they constructed snow houses for residence.

Athabascan[edit | edit source]

The Athabascans were located in the interior of Alaska. Eleven different languages were spoken throughout Athabascan society, with dialects dividing each family of languages even further. The Athabascans took residence over a large area of land, migrating to different parts of the region depending on the season. They were also known as hunters and trappers.

Aleut[edit | edit source]

An illustration of a man and woman from the Aleutian Islands (ca. 1820).

The Aleuts were located on the Aleutian Islands. Their culture was unique from other Alaskan cultures due to the isolated nature of their islands. They were named Aleuts by Russian explorers but traditionally referred to themselves as Unangax or Unangan. Following the Russian discovery of Alaska in 1741, Russian explorers and hunters heavily depended on the Aleuts, who were adept hunters. Russian fur hunters known as the promyshlenniki forced the Aleuts to hunt pelts for them since they themselves were unfamiliar with hunting sea mammals in this territory.

Inupiat[edit | edit source]

The Inupiat were located within the northern region. They are divided into groups, each being unique by dialect and environmental differences. The Bering Straits, North Alaska Coast, and Interior North Alaska Coast Inupiat make up three distinct groups separated by geographical location. The Kotzebue-sound and Norton-sound Inupiat have been grouped by dialect.

Yup’ik[edit | edit source]

A Cup'ig man in 1929.

Having been isolated by mountain ranges and distances from other Indigenous peoples, the migrants from Asia created a culture and language to define them. As Alaskan natives, they formed many different groups fanning out across the expanse, with continued differences including language or dialect. Some peoples focused on the sea as a source of food while others pursued the caribou. The Yup’ik was one distinct group that settled in the western part of Alaska. Yup’ik natives were called Eskimo-Yup’ik to distinguish them from other Eskimo communities.

The Yup’ik community was located in southwestern Alaska near the shores of what we now call Koyuk, closest to Asia and Russia. Their territory did not expand too far inland. They were individual tribes that all made up one location, however, the boundaries were unclear. They mostly lived in coastal areas and traded with inland villages as they had access to trade routes and the sea. The Yup'ik have historically been separated into two divisions of distinct culture: the Siberian Yup’ik and the Central Yup’ik. The Siberian Yup’ik resided on St. Lawrence Island, whereas the Central Yup’ik were located in the southwestern area of mainland Alaska. Each division of the Yup’ik held their own individual social and cultural practices. There were many tribal wars between the Yup’ik and the Athabascan over territorial disputes. The Yup’ik were settling along the lower regions of the Yukon River once they came to Alaska.

A mask crafted by the Yup'ik people.

The Yup’ik were an Indigenous tribe that was known for their fishing and hunting skills. As they were a very mobile group, the clothes that they wore reflected their lifestyle of being outdoors. They would wear animal furs that were waterproof and warm to protect themselves during the cold winters. They would travel often in search of food and would follow whatever big game was in the area. They heavily depended on migratory salmon and hunting sea animals along the Bering Sea coast. They traded fur and pelts with the Europeans for other food sources and materials. In 1799 the Russians formed an agreement with the Americans to have an outpost in this area and took over the fur trade and exploited the Yup’ik in order to gain control of the valuable resources of Alaska.

A ‘qasgiq’ was known as a community center where members of the tribe would gather for social interactions. Often at these meetings, there would be eating, dancing and singing, and celebrations taking place. It would be considered the equivalent of a church. It was highly respected and was a place where religious festivities took place. There are certain types of music that were played in order to represent where the tribe came from and how the natives used what they had to make sounds. The drum is the center of music while dancing was happening. The drum represents new life returning after death, a renewal of sorts that allows the Yup’ik to survive.

The Yup’ik had certain religious beliefs including believing in good and evil shamans. The good shamans performed magical acts and would help people, whereas the evil shamans would cast spells and create bad omens. They were a very superstitious group who believed in a balanced life. ‘Ellam Yua’ is the belief that every living thing is tied to a spirit. The Yup’ik believed strongly in this idea. This meant that they had to treat living things with respect even though they had to kill animals for food. Something that is still practiced in the Yup’ik society today are the rules for how each animal is killed, there are different instructions to follow so that the order of life remains intact. There are connections between the human and animal world. The Yup’ik live in peace with the animals on their land and always give back to the earth in some way to repay it for everything it has given them.

The 20th century brought change to the land distributions for the Yup’ik as they started expanding and moving into the Arctic Wrangell Island and the shores of the Gulf of Anadyr, up to the mouth of the Anadyr River. This tribe still continues its traditions today as part of the history of the people who migrated to Alaska.

Southern Coastal Nations[edit | edit source]

Chief Anotklosh in 1913. A leader of the Taku people, part of the broader Tlingit people.

The Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit cultures resided on the southeastern coast of Alaska. The Tlingit were well-known fishers, carvers, which included the making of canoes, and weavers. They were notably aggressive towards Russian settlers, instigating a war against those who encroached upon their land. The Kaigani, a subgroup of the Haida, drove the Tlingit out of Prince Wales Island and settled there. They were known for their carvings and paintings. The Tsimshian were located on Anette Island, although they were a very small nation.