The chance to hear the haunting song of humpback whales or to watch one breach draws two million visitors to Alaska each summer, more than half of whom visit on a cruise. But beyond its wildlife and scenery, there’s also a wealth of culture to be found in the USA’s most-northern state. To fully appreciate Alaska, it’s important to meet native Alaskans, who’ve inhabited this corner of North America for more than 10,000 years – long before Russia colonised much of its coast in the 1700s. But despite the Russians introducing disease and forcing Alaska’s original inhabitants into slavery – before selling the region to the USA in 1867 – native culture survived.
“The people coming to the city of Sitka had no idea there are native Alaskan people living here,” says Chuck Miller, who created the Sitka-based dance troupe Naa Kahídi Dancers in what was once the capital of Russian America. “The only thing they hear on the cruise ships is, ‘the Russians this, the Russians that…’ I wanted to educate visitors.”
Today, around 15% of Alaska’s 731,500 residents belong to native groups, roughly associated with the state’s five regions. The Arctic north is home to Iñupiaq and St Lawrence Island Yup’ik; the interior and south-central regions are the Athabascans’ homeland; the south west belongs to Yup’ik, Cup’ik, Unangax and Sugpiaq while Tlingit, Haida, Eyak and Tsimshian inhabit the south-east’s Inside Passage.
The regions’ natural resources led to distinctive cultural differences between the tribes. Coastal communities such as the Iñupiaq and St Lawrence Island Yup’ik hunted whales, seals and walrus, while the Athabascans in the interior migrated depending on the season and availability of food, camping along rivers to fish in summer. Trade between communities was common, so they built canoes and dog sleds to transport goods.
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