The Indigenous People of Alaska

In 2012 Sue Savion was privileged to tour Alaska with a Unitarian Universalist group and she spoke on what she learned about the indigenous people of Alaska: their art, culture, dance and games.

Her group stayed in Unitarian Universalist members’ houses as they traveled to several Alaskan towns, sites and museums. The trip afforded her an opportunity to learn more about the tribes inhabiting Alaska and their way of life. Approximately 110,000 Native Americans currently live in Alaska. While there are many unique tribes, they are placed in 11 different groups based on language similarities. These have then been grouped into five cultural categories based on geographical proximity and cultural similarities. All are recognized by the US government and retain some of their sovereign rights. Sue showed a map of Alaska illustrating the location of different indigenous groups.

We were in for a treat, because Sue captured much of her trip in video and slides. Watching large portions of this video allowed us to see many of the demonstrations of native culture and traditions that Sue’s group saw as they traveled. We saw how the “fish wheel” works to catch salmon; how salmon is dried and smoked; clothing made of expertly sewn furs. We learned how different kinds of trees are used: spruce for cabins with sod roofs, naturally water repellent birch for canoes, baskets, baby carriers, and “punk” carriers that allow hunters to carry embers with them so they can easily restart a fire. We saw flora and fauna—flowers, caribou, moose, martens—and heard about the giant mosquitoes. We saw clips of traditional Native American games like scissors jump, seal hop, one arm reach, Alaskan high kick and swing kick. We saw a performance of traditional dancing with dancers clad in clothes decorated in sea shells and ermine trim. Sue recorded examples of art such as totem poles and masks; we could appreciate in some small way the beauty of the mountains and glaciers Sue captured on film. We were able to see some of the many attractions in Sitka, Alaska and go on a vicarious glass-bottomed boat ride and a glacier cruise. Alaska’s capital, Juneau, can only be reached by air or boat—and has a population much smaller than Syracuse!

The last portion of the presentation was informative and relaxed. Sue answered lively questions about Alaskan indigenous culture and her trip in general. Like Native American people in our local area, indigenous peoples of Alaska tend to have matrilineal societies, celebrate similar feasts and rituals, and place the highest value on sustainability. Several women shared their experiences with Native American cultures in Alaska and elsewhere.