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About Arctic Alaska:

The Terrains and Climate
Present and Ancient Cultures
Arctic History

by Bill Jones

    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 Alaska 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 Russian-induced epidemics.

    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 Century.

    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