First there was the Dene

The Dene (Athabascan Peoples) are an ancient family group that spread out and diversified culturally across Alaska, western Canada, the Pacific coast and into the desert southwest of North America. In Alaska, the Dene include: the Koyukon, Gwich’in, Hän, Holikachuk, Deg Hit’an, Upper Kuskokwim, Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Dena’ina and Ahtna. These diverse cultural groups inhabit different areas of interior and southcentral Alaska with overlapping boundaries as a result of trade and intermarriages. While they maintain similar beliefs and an intimate knowledge of the land and animals, they differ in clan structures, and ceremonial, cultural, and sustaining lifeways. Although their languages share similarities in complex grammar patterns, they have each developed their own unique differences in Dene language usage. Still, many words and phrases are easily understood across the different Dene language groups due to trading and intermarriages.

Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska. Copyright © 2011, Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska Anchorage.

Netseh dae’ tkughit’ e’

(Before us, it was like this)

According to Ahtna oral history, the world was once covered in water and Saghani (Raven), created an island that ushered the beginning of all living things. Ahtna homelands cover approximately 40,000 square miles, including the Copper River Basin and northwestern Canada to the east and the highlands of the upper Susitna River to the west in southcentral and interior Alaska. The ancestral land area of Ahtna Dené includes five mountain ranges including the Talkeetna Mountains, Chugach Mountains, Alaska Range, Wrangell Mountains, and St. Elias Mountains. For more than 10,000 years Ahtna Dene have been present in this region. 

Ahtna and Dena’ina Dene occupy overlapping and adjacent territories near the upper Cook Inlet. The Matanuska and Susitna Watersheds are part of the overlapping ancestral territories, and consequently many geographical landmarks in the area have both Ahtna and Dena’ina names. Additionally, many Ahtna and Dena’ina Dene speak both languages and have familial connections with each other. 

Ahtna Language Place Names. Photo courtesy of the CVTC Permanent Collections.

For thousands of years, trading, hunting, and gathering by Ahtna Dene has been intentionally planned by a system of protocols and agreements between moieties, clans, and family groups. These are guiding values that ensure respect for the land, waters, and all life forms to ensure the survival of the Ahtna Dene. The Ahtna Dene move on the landscape with a seasonal rhythm: following herd migrations in the fall, running trap lines for furbearers in the winter, fishing in lakes in the spring, and fishing for salmon in creeks and rivers during the summer. Living spaces are established in multiple places with the Ahtna Dene moving from place to place depending on the season. More recently, some sites are used only for a few days or weeks, and many Dené peoples have settled into rural communities, villages, and some in urban settings.

Living in harsh and variable climates ranging from over 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer to 60 degrees below zero in the winter, the Ahtna Dene are highly adaptable and resourceful.

Historic and Intergenerational Trauma Origins and Implications

For Indigenous Peoples of Alaska, the arrival of Russian and European trade goods and subsequent arrival of whalers, traders, miners, and missionaries brought an influx of Western diseases and illnesses. Smallpox, diphtheria, cholera, syphilis, mumps, chickenpox, tuberculosis, measles and most notably, influenza, drastically reduced Alaska’s Indigenous populations. There were at least 18 separate waves of disease epidemics from the late 1700s to the early 1900s in Alaska. Having never been exposed to these diseases, Indigenous peoples lacked a natural immunity. The convergence of concurrent infectious diseases contributed to severe symptoms and high mortality rates throughout Alaska’s Indigenous populations. These illnesses created social disruptions that reduced the provisions for basic health including food, shelter, water, and safety, which likely contributed to further infection. Indigenous Medicine People were not equipped to handle the waves of illness that swept through their communities.  

Based on historical accounts, 50% to 60% of the Indigenous population in rural communities died.  This catastrophic period of loss is considered the root of historical trauma for Alaska’s Indigenous Peoples, and it is often referred to as the “Great Deaths.”  The Great Deaths gave birth to a new world that was turned upside down and filled with suffering, confusion, desperation, and heartbreak.  As one Elder described it, “the song went silent.”

Those that survived lost culture bearing Elders, grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, siblings, and children. This chain of events induced traumatic stress and survivor guilt that was unresolved and has left a wound that continues to be passed down from generation to generation into the present. Many children were placed with surviving adults that were not of their own clan or their own relatives; consequently, many traditional identities, cultural lifeways, roles, and responsibilities went dormant.   

This rapid and traumatic period of grief and loss left Indigenous Peoples vulnerable to cultural assimilation tactics of outsiders who forced Western social structures and religions onto these vulnerable Indigenous Peoples. The potlatch ceremony, a cornerstone of Ahtna Dene culture, healing, and spirituality, was also outlawed during this time; perhaps when it was most needed. 

During the late 1700’s, the Russian American Company and later the Hudson Bay Company, established fur trade posts in Alaska. The fur trade became a vector for disease transmission that simultaneously attacked Indigenous culture further by changing traditional relationships between Indigenous Peoples and the land and animals. For millennia, Indigenous Peoples have interacted with animals and the land with reciprocity, taking the minimum amount that was necessary to survive, and thereby ensuring the enduring healthy populations for future generations. Coupled with the loss of culture bearers and medicine people, the enticing demand for furs changed the rate at which fur bearing animals were harvested. Fur trade incited a change from an equitable relationship with all beings that focused on balance, appreciation, and conservationism to a new relationship, that for some, became over harvesting for profit.  

Explorers, traders, and prospectors often used alcohol as a tool in trade with Indigenous Peoples. Alcohol became weaponized in its use against Indigenous Peoples to obtain valuable furs and other items at a lesser value than they were worth. Subsequently, some Indigenous Peoples who were already weakened, from grief and loss, used alcohol to numb themselves from their trauma; however, the consequences of relying on alcohol only added to the cycle of intergenerational trauma within the family. 

These traumatic historical experiences, along with individual, institutional, and system racism, colonization, and oppression continue to have negative and devastating intergenerational impacts on the Tribal citizens of Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax (Chickaloon Native Village); however, Chickaloon Village Traditional Council (CVTC) has acknowledged this historical and intergenerational trauma, and is working with other Indigenous Peoples to dismantle systemic and institutionalized racism and oppression locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally. These efforts, along with a traditional cultural education through CVTC’s Ya Ne Dah Ah School, and the renewed resurgence of spirituality, cultural identity and lifeways are promoting healing and wellness within Nay’dini’aa Na’ Kayax. CVTC’s mission is to “help our citizens to thrive.”

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  • Wolfe, Robert J. “Alaska’s Great Sickness, 1900: An Epidemic of Measles and Influenza in a Virgin Soil Population.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1982): 91–121. Print.