This is the first of several articles and a series of maps about Alaska and the
northwest. Their purpose is to introduce you to past and present cultures of the peoples of
Arctic Alaska, their home territories, and their oral traditions.
Many old books and journals written during the 17th to 19th Centuries were not
widely circulated and are extremely rare today. Most of the authors wrote about a specific
region and just one culture group. And some of the authors' opinions were tainted by religious
bias, yet they provide insight into the methods used for religious persecution and how the people
of the cultures were affected. Writings by missionaries, when viewed today, inadvertently
condemn themselves for their persecution of the native cultures.
The recorded history of Alaska began during the Russian occupation of Kodiak
Island and the Tongass region during the early 18th Century. The Russians recorded little
about the native cultures. The Russian Orthodox church condemned the Alutiiq and Aleut cultures
as being shamanism and dubbed all of their spiritual leaders as shamans. This was purely and
simply a lie perpetrated against them for religious reasons in order to justify the Orthodoxy's
goals of subverting the natives to the Orthodox religion and to accommodate Russian goals of
using the men for slave labor and the women as concubines. No wonder
then that the Orthodox Church was not very detailed in their accounts of the Alaska natives.
When viewed in this light nothing written by the Russians can be treated as authentic.
James A. Michener, in his 1988 novel
captured the Russian influence well. But that was about Pacific Alaska. Arctic Alaska did not
experience the Russian influence, but as we shall see, Arctic Alaska did suffer from
Beginning in 1846, the Hudson's Bay Company explored the Yukon Territory and
then the interior of Alaska along the Porcupine and Yukon Rivers. The HBC journals were the first
to tell about the Athabascan cultures of the Northwest. Then beginning in the early 1860s,
British missionaries began to appear. A series of gold rushes in the late 19th Century and
early 20th Century brought tens of thousands of people into the furthest reaches of the Yukon
and Alaska. Writers during these periods provided their limited views of some cultures.
Almost all of these writings came after the onslaught of smallpox along the
lower Yukon in interior Alaska in 1839. Within a year all of the tribes of the lower Yukon were
undergoing continuous and repeated epidemics which devastated their population. The most
populous region was the upper Yukon and Porcupine River valleys. Then in 1851 the entire
population of the large village at Fort Yukon (Gwichyaa Zhee) died of smallpox in just one
month. Hudson's Bay Company employees there had reported the resident population to be 900. With such
continual spread, smallpox also destroyed the cultural organization and left the few survivors
without chiefs, councils, and spiritual leaders. Other killing contagious disease epidemics
followed: red measles, diphtheria, and the scourge of tuberculosis.
Almost all perceptions about the cultures of the inland Athabascans of Alaska
were written after the population had been devastated by these epidemics, the cultures broken
down, and the few survivors reduced to roving bands. While there had been well organized
societies only a few decades before, they had been utterly decimated.
Since none of the native Alaskan cultures had a written language, there is no
written record of their history except in rare and brief accounts by the few whites who
learned one of the native languages and interviewed the storytellers who had survived.
Historians are faced with a dilemma about Alaskan History. The science
requires documented records before a previous situation becomes authentic history and there is
none. Therefore all that can be done is to mix the sparse documented reports from about 1800
to 1900 with studies by anthropologists to record Alaska History earlier than the mid 18th
Today's written history of the Northwest is almost entirely about post-1850
English-speaking people's records of their experiences. We read the histories of such places
as Fort Yukon being established in 1847, Arctic Village in 1909 and
Fairbanks in 1902-1903. These
places had been in existence for hundreds or thousands of years before. Fort Yukon was an
ancient Gwich'in village (Gwichyaa Zhee) when Hudson's Bay Company established a trading post
there in 1847 and named their part of the place Fort Yukon. Arctic Village had been a Gwich'in
village (Vashraii Khoo) for hundreds or thousands of years, but its history begins when it was
re-named. Fairbanks is also an ancient village, yet its history begins in 1902 during the gold
rush period. Fairbanks was settled on the edge of Tanan, an ancient large village of the Tanana
Culture. Many other examples of historical inaccuracies could be cited. So, history's need for
meticulous documentation actually causes errors in history rather than accuracy.
The author lived in Fairbanks from 1950 through 1965 and visited with some
of the Gwich'in, Tanana, and Koyukon story tellers who related the traditions and legends of
their cultures. This was an opportune time to record the native cultures because the natives
themselves had experienced about two generations of education in the English language. Other
research has continued from that time. These articles and maps then are the work of fifty
years of research and they will now be shared. Unfortunately the author's constructed models
cannot be documented, for reasons previously explained, but there is a plethora of logic,
epidemiological, and anthropology to support the models.
Map of The Alaskan Arctic
More Features & Maps by Bill Jones