Alaskan Natives & Settlers
The large land mass home to native tribes, Russian settlers, fisherman, hunters, and craftspeople .
Alaska, known for its breathtaking views of the northern lights and its sprawling landscape, is more than just a hot spot for ocean cruises, and the home-state of the annual Iditarod. Alaska is a vast land with a history that started long before becoming the 49th state of the United States in 1959. Because of its large land mass, Alaska was originally home to various communities of native people who thrived off an acute understanding of the land and how to properly mine its resources. Anthropologist Steve Langdon wrote about how Alaskan Natives were broken down into five major groups in his book The Native People of Alaska (1978): Aleuts, Northern Eskimos (Inupiat), Southern Eskimos (Yuit), Interior Indians (Athabascans) and Southeast Coastal Indians (Tlingit and Haida).
Before being “discovered” by European settlers, these groups were extremely skilled in harvesting the resources of their land, despite the often harsh conditions of their environments. They were fishermen, hunters, and craftspeople. Their livelihood depended on a thorough understanding of Alaska’s terrain, and passing that knowledge from generation to generation. The first European settlers of Alaska came from Russia, in 1741. Initially, the native tribes and settlers traded with one another, with Russia providing fur, and the Aleut people providing sea otters. The Aleuts were the first of Alaska’s native tribes to succumb to diseases brought by the foreigners, with over 80% of their population dying due to sickness and the increasing scarcity of the resources on which they built their livelihood. In 1784, Grigory Shelikhov established the first permanent Russian colony in Alaska on Kodiak Island, and the Russian occupation of North America continued to expand until the mid-19th century (History.com, 2010).
In the 1860s, a “nearly bankrupt” Russia offered Alaska for sale to the United States, which had earlier expressed interest in its acquisition (History.com, 2010). Alaska was purchased for $7.2 million, roughly two cents per acre. While Alaska was initially viewed as bringing little to the economy of the United States, the discovery of gold soon cemented Alaska’s spot as a state rich in multiple natural resources that would come to be extremely valued.
As of 2019, Alaska has an estimated population of 731,545. 66.7% percent of the population is white, while Alaskan Native’s make up only 14.8%. While their population has decreased over the years from being the primary occupants of Alaska, Alaskan natives still maintain their strong history and community practices (Walker, 2017). For more information on Alaska’s history of native peoples, please visit: https://www.alaskanative.net/
History.com. “Alaska Admitted into the Union.” A&E Television Networks, 9 Feb. 2010, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/alaska-admitted-into-union.
Langdon, Steve. The Native People of Alaska. Greatland Graphics, 1978.
Walker, Richard. “10 Things You Should Know About Alaska Natives.” IndianCountryToday.com, Indian Country Today, 7 Sept. 2017, indiancountrytoday.com/archive/10-things-you-should-know-about-alaska-natives-I2JrTDNWiUyeX8r4QRiKlg.