ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Discover the Culture and Heritage of Athabascan Indians
in Fairbanks

A Guide to Fairbanks, Alaska

    Alaska Natives represent more than 16 percent of the state's population. This diverse group of people, whose ancestors were the first ones to call the Last Frontier their home, consists of Aleuts, Indians and Eskimos. Collectively they are known as Alaskan Natives; however, all three are part of different races, creeds and philosophies.

    One bond shared by all Alaskan Natives is a respect and reverence for the land, waters, and creatures of the state. Their ancestors all recognized (and many continue to recognize today) that if respected and properly conserved, the land would feed and sustain them in body and in spirit far into the distant future.

    The Indians who came to Alaska represent two general groupings: the Tlingit and Haida, who live in Southeast Alaska, and the Athabascans, who inhabit Interior Alaska. This region includes Fairbanks and surrounding communities and represents an area that is eight times as large as the southeastern portion of the state.

    The Athabascan people of yesteryear generally lived in the taiga, a land of spruce and birch growth. Their lands were drained by mighty rivers and characterized by climatic extremes ranging from 100 F to -60 F. They were a hunting and gathering people who depended substantially on fish, moose, caribou and berries. Because of the small concentration of fish and game in the Interior region, hard times and famines were frequent for the Athabascan people.

    These environmental circumstances forced the Athabascans to live a nomadic lifestyle, moving from place to place as food sources were depleted. Summertime would find the Athabascans living near rivers and fish camps, usually in tents. In the winter they tended to live in more permanent dwellings constructed from wood or sod.

    Clothing for the Athabascans was tailored of tanned caribou or moose hide and was decorated with quills, pieces of fur, or trade beads. Their clothes are more than just a covering to protect them from the elements -- they are also beautiful works of art. Their richly ornamented garments, as well as their beadwork and embroidery, are recognized as being among the finest made anywhere. Athabascan arts and crafts can be found at gift shops throughout Interior Alaska.

    Life for the Athabascan people has changed dramatically this century. While many Athabascans live in urban areas such as Fairbanks and Anchorage, some still live in rural areas, where even today they must cope with problems such as isolation and limited medical assistance. There are strong attempts in both urban and rural areas to retain the Athabascan cultures and various languages as a way for the people to maintain their identity and develop cultural pride.

    One way the Athabascan people have been able to maintain their identity and culture, as well as share it with the rest of the world, is by getting involved with the state tourism business. For example, the Athabascan village of Huslia offers a journey along the Koyukuk River into the raw wilderness of the Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge to an authentic summer fish camp. The trip offers visitors the opportunity to learn about traditional Athabascan culture through hands-on experience. Northern Alaska Tour Company out of Fairbanks offers excursions to both Athabascan and Eskimo villages. And Yukon River Tours, located in the Athabascan community of Stevens Village, offers the opportunity to explore the mighty, historic Yukon River at its best.

    For those visitors who prefer their adventure somewhat tamer and closer to Fairbanks, Athabascan culture can be sampled by attending the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics. These games feature acts of strength and endurance which were used by Indians and Eskimos to prepare themselves for hunting and the subsistence lifestyle. The 1999 Olympics will be held on July 14-17. For those who can't be here during July, the University of Alaska Museum offers Northern Inua, a live demonstration of Olympic events performed daily from May into September.

    A trip down the Chena and Tanana Rivers on the Riverboat Discovery is a popular excursion for visitors looking to experience Athabascan culture. This sternwheeler tour combines river history with authentic Native traditions, including a stop at Old Chena Indian Village. Alexander River Adventures, led by an Athabascan Native, offers a guided trip downriver to his family-run fish camp where visitors can see a fish wheel, nets and smokehouse at work.

    Whether you're planning to stay overnight or trek into the rural villages, Fairbanks is the place to learn about Athabascan culture. The culture is central to an understanding of many of the characteristics shared by the inhabitants of the Interior.

    For more information, visit the FCVB web site at www.explorefairbanks.com.

Copyright Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Used here with permission.