Dene, Natural World, and Traditional Lifeways 

“The Earth is for all of us. Everything on the earth has a reason for being, all the animals, birds, plants, insects, even rocks have a reason to be. Humans were placed here as caretakers. It is our job to take care of our little brothers and sisters. Wherever we traveled, we left the area better than we found it…. The men hunted sheep and caribou… they used the whole animal; nothing went to waste. If people are respectful to other people, animals, the land, even, there will be less problems.”

-Katherine Wickersham Wade

Ahtna Dene (Athabascan) lifeways honor a reciprocal, symbiotic relationship with animals, plants, and all of the earth’s natural abundance. Stewardship of the land has been essential to ensuring survival and begins in early childhood. When harvesting foods and having a successful hunt, prayer and thanks are given to the essence of that which is harvested, and all usable parts of the harvest are used. Waste is unthinkable or engii (taboo). Sharing the harvest is important because there is a belief that sharing ensures future good luck, conversely, not sharing is considered greedy which will curse you with future unsuccessful harvests and hunts.

The Matanuska Watershed region is incredibly scenic with thickly vegetated, boreal forest valleys and rocky mountain peaks in view from almost every direction. Ahtna and Dena’ina Dene depend upon the landscape in this area, and over time developed unique and creative cultural lifeways to survive and thrive in this harsh environment. 

A variety of animals including moose, caribou, bears, foxes, wolves, beaver, porcupine, five species of salmon, several species of white fish, and migratory birds have been harvested for food, hides, and bone tools. Dene traditionally adhere to a seasonal cycle of activities for which they travel to various locations for harvesting, trade, and potlatch celebrations. Dene groups often return to fishing sites and hunting areas annually, and it is a cultural responsibility to leave the land better than it is found, so that the environment can provide for others in the future. This commitment to the environment is demonstrated through taking only what is needed, never over-harvesting (always leaving some of the berries in a berry patch), cleaning up trails from tree deadfall, managing standing dead trees, allowing animals and fish to reproduce in sustainable numbers, following harvesting schedules, and maintaining a culture of sharing, prayer, and gratitude for all that is given by Nek’eltaeni (the Creator). 

While modernity has negatively impacted these cultural lifeways by increasing the accessibility of non-traditional and often unhealthy foods, the privatization of land, the restricting and limiting of traditional hunting and foraging areas, and over-regulating and mismanagement of hunting and harvesting resources, Dene still rely heavily on hunting and harvesting, persisting with their cultural lifeways.

  • Corntassel, Jeff and Cheryl Bryce. “Practicing Sustainable Self-Determination: Indigenous Approaches to Cultural Restoration and Revitalization.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs (2012): 151-162. Print
  • Simeone, William E. Ahtna The People and Their Land. Glennallen: Ahtna Incorporated, 2018.
  • Wade, K. Wickersham., Davis, N. Yaw. Chickaloon Spirit: The Life & Times of Katherine Wickersham Wade. Chickaloon: Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, 2002.