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Athapaskans - nomadic


Haida portrait mask Alaska
Haida portrait mask Alaska

Unlike the coastal Natives with their plentiful resources, the speakers of the Athapaskan languages lived in the demanding arctic and subarctic lands at the northern edge of the continent. This huge area was not rich in resources, and people had to search diligently for them. Long, cold winters and short, warm summers characterized the region. The wildlife included moose, caribou, black and grizzly bears, sheep, and various small game and fish.

The Athapaskans were nomadic or seminomadic hunters and gatherers, relying on fish and caribou as staples. They fished for salmon with dip nets and basket-shaped traps. They also caught trout, whitefish, and pike, using various fishing methods. They hunted some mammals with bows and arrows and snares. Bears, wolverines, and smaller fur-bearing animals were caught in deadfalls, shot with bows and arrows, or captured in rawhide nets. Snares were used for hares and ptarmigans. Spruce hens, ducks, geese, and roots and berries supplemented their diets, but periods of starvation were not unusual.

The type of shelter varied by climate and time of year. All Athapaskans built log or pole houses of various sizes covered with animal hides. The more mobile groups lived in simple dwellings. The more sedentary groups, such as the Ingalik in the Yukon and Kuskokwim basins, occupied permanent winter villages and summer fishing camps. They built winter houses that resembled the semisubterranean, earth-covered Eskimo houses.

The Athapaskans had a simple society. They spent most of the year in small bands of a few nuclear families. Kinship was matrilineal, and kin groups were held together by reciprocal social obligations.

A member generally had to find a spouse outside the kin group. If resources allowed, small groups came together and combined into a regional band, to hunt caribou, for example. Although men made decisions together, leaders often emerged who attained prestige through their superior abilities, particularly as hunters. The Athapaskans engaged in both offensive and defensive warfare, and often produced a war leader who demonstrated great physical strength. Generally, leadership was not hereditary but acquired; once a leader lost his special abilities he no longer exerted any influence. The Athapaskans had ceremonial feasts where the host gave goods to the guests. Such a feast was given after someone died.

After the Athapaskans began to acquire wealth through trade with the whites, ceremonial feasts were given more often and modeled after the potlatches of the Northwest Coast. Feasts were given to mark the killing of the first game of each kind by a child; to mark a deed or an unusual accomplishment; to celebrate the return, recovery, or rescue of a relative or friend; and to pay for an offense or transgression. A man was expected to potlatch at least once and preferably three times before he married. The potlatch giver had to give away all the property he owned and could not accept aid from anyone else for a year after the ceremony. The Athapaskans lived in a world of many spirits, which they believed influenced every aspect of their lives. They believed that human souls were reincarnated in animal form and that they had to placate animal spirits to use the natural environment. Shamans were the only religious practitioners and possessed the greatest personal power in the culture. They used magical-religious rites to control the spirit world, prevent and cure disease, bring game to hunters, predict the weather, and foretell the future. "USA" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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