A History of Alaska’s Indigenous People

Known as America’s last frontier, Alaska finally became the 49th US state in 1959. However, native people had been living in Alaska for thousands of years. Who are they?

Oct 11, 2023By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

alaska indigenous people history


Purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, Alaska was quickly discovered to be a tremendous bounty of natural resources. However, the migration of Americans from the contiguous United States eventually put white settlers into conflict with Alaska natives. Similar to the era of westward expansion after the US Civil War (1861-65), the later settlement of Alaska resulted in tensions with tribes that already lived on the land. Today, between fifteen and twenty percent of Alaskan residents are Alaska Native, consisting of almost a score of distinct cultures. As the 49th US state, Alaska’s rich history and massive size make it an important place for all Americans to learn about.


Native Settlement of Alaska

settlement alaska 14000 bce
A map revealing different routes of native migration into and through present-day Alaska, via the National Park Service (NPS)


Scientists estimate that, between 24,000 and 15,000 years ago, sea levels were lower than today, and a land bridge existed between northeastern Asia and northwestern North America across what is today known as the Bering Strait. Peoples from northeastern Asia crossed this land bridge during this era, becoming the first settlers of North America. The oldest definitive evidence of this migration is from 14,000 years ago, though migration may have occurred earlier. It is believed that many groups migrated south into continental North America along the Alaska coast.


Interestingly, it is believed that some of these groups later engaged in “back-migration,” returning to central and eastern Alaska via overland migration. Between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago, it is thought that more migration from continental North America into Alaska occurred, bringing other cultural and tool-making innovations into the region. However, lack of preserved human remains makes it impossible to conduct DNA tests to confirm genetic matches between these migrants and other native peoples. Additionally, harsh weather conditions and rising sea levels since the Bering land bridge era make it difficult to find preserved artifacts.


First European Explorations

russian map alaska 1775
A map showing Russian knowledge of North American geography, published in English in 1775, via the University of Washington, Seattle


Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

A Danish-born Russian explorer, Vitus Jonassen Bering, passed through the strait between Asia and North America for the first time in 1728, giving name to the famous Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska. Thirteen years later, Bering landed on the North American side of the strait for the first time, becoming the first European to explore Alaska. Some surviving explorers brought pelts back to Russia, setting off a desire for fur trade profits. Within a few years, Russian traders were trading with the Aleut natives. Early Russian traders did not treat the Aleuts well, resulting in hostilities between the two groups by the 1760s.


Other Europeans began to reach Alaska by the late 1770s, with British explorer Captain James Cook sailing north along the Pacific Coast of North America in 1778 and discovering the Bering Strait (after discovering Hawaii earlier that year). The next year, the Spanish arrived as well, sailing north from California and quickly returning there. A French voyage also occurred but resulted in no territorial ambitions. Britain, Spain, and France were all embroiled in the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) and so were unable to capitalize on their exploration of Alaska to settle that territory. Russia, therefore, emerged as the colonizing power, especially due to its geographic closeness.


Russian Alaska (1741-1867)

russian bishop house sitka national park
The Russian Bishop’s House, completed in 1842, was built in the Russian colonial capital city of Sitka, via the National Park Service


The name “Alaska” comes from the native Aleuts, with Russians adopting the name for the land beginning in 1759. In 1772, Russians established their first settlement in Alaska at Unalaska, with the first permanent settlement being founded in 1784 at Three Saints Bay to trade with the native Tlingit people. Similar to European settlement of the rest of North America, the Russian settlers brought diseases against which the native Unangan people had no immunity. Russians also used modern weapons to fight any resistance to their expanding fur trade.


The Russian-American Company was founded in 1799 to consolidate the fur trade. Russians began interacting more frequently with Alaska Natives, with the cultures intermingling. The two sides clashed, sometimes violently, such as in intense battles in 1802 and 1804.  American traders took advantage of the hostilities between the Russians and the Tlingit to trade with the Tlingit themselves, and the Russians chose to remain largely in their fortified settlements. By the 1840s, Russian traders had begun to withdraw from Alaska due to repeated clashes with natives and the rising costs of maintaining settlements so far from Russia. In 1842, the Russian-American Company sold Fort Ross, its southernmost post, to an American.


1867: “Seward’s Folly” and Purchase of Alaska

william henry seward 1860s
William Henry Seward (front right), pictured here at the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, was a staunch abolitionist who later became the US Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase of Alaska, via the American Battlefield Trust


Increasing diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States helped lead to the famous sale of Alaska in March 1867. Secretary of State William Seward, a staunch abolitionist ahead of the US Civil War (1861-65), secured the deal for $7.2 million despite some congressional resistance. Many criticized the deal as a waste of money, leading to the derogatory term “Seward’s Folly.” The US government wanted Alaska to gain a better foothold in the Pacific region, increase trade with Asia, and access Alaska’s bountiful natural resources. Unfortunately, as in most similar land transactions during the 19th century between nations, native peoples were not consulted in the sale of Alaska to the United States.


Russia had agreed to the sale in order to both improve its financial situation after the Crimean War and to free up resources from having to govern a large area and large native population. The first US Census in Alaska in 1880 counted fewer than 500 non-indigenous residents of the territory. It is believed that the census significantly undercounted the native population, especially in northern Alaska. Initially, relations were not improved between white settlers and the Tlingit, who did not favor the new Americans over the previous Russians. US military forces in Alaska dealt with any misunderstandings or disagreements with the Tlingits with violence, threatening to destroy villages if any resident committed a hostile act toward an American soldier or property.


White Settlers Encounter Alaska Natives

alaska natives circa 1900
A photograph of an Alaska Native family, circa 1900, via the Alaska Historical Society


The first mass of white settlers to Alaska occurred during the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s to about 1907. Prior to this, most white citizens in Alaska were affiliated with the US military. Thanks to the discovery of gold in Alaska, some fifty settlements were founded during the gold rush, with many remaining even after the bust. Only the discovery of gold prompted full exploration of the vast territory, with most of Alaska having been unexplored by Americans after its purchase from Russia some thirty years earlier.


Alaska Natives were involved in the gold prospecting, though white prospectors often tried to claim finds for themselves and cut out non-whites who assisted. Those who were not involved in the prospecting or trading with the new towns that rapidly sprang up would be affected by deforestation, with lots of timber used to make buildings, boats, and mining infrastructure. The rapid loss of forest during the Klondike Gold Rush depleted game for hunting and made it harder to find timber to build houses and other structures.


Alaska Native Tribes

alaska native tribal region map
A map of Alaska showing different indigenous language regions of Alaska Natives, via the University of Alaska Fairbanks


Alaska maintains the highest ratio of indigenous people as part of total state population, at between 15 and 20 percent. This is almost certainly influenced by the relatively low rate of immigration into Alaska by white settlers. There are five main groups of Alaska Native tribes: the Northwest Coast Indians, the Inupiaqs, the Yupiks, the Aleuts, and the Athabascans. Aside from the Athabascans, who lived in the vast interior of Alaska, most Alaska Natives lived near the coast and relied heavily on fishing. Due to their more hunting-dominant lifestyle, the Athabascans are more culturally similar to continental Native American tribes like the Navajo and Apache. Today, there are 228 federally-recognized Alaska Native tribes.


Most tribes have adopted a significant degree of modern technology, though traditional hunting may supply up to half of some tribes’ diets today. While many Alaskans use snowmobiles, some Alaska Natives still use dogsleds to travel across the unique, snowy terrain. Often, modern technology and tradition are blended, such as using a snowmobile to pull a handmade sled. Because there are so many Alaska Natives relative to the total population, as well as the vastness of the state, the reservation system for Native Americans in the “lower 48” does not exist. Rather, tribes have village corporations and regional corporations that work directly with the US federal government to manage resource extraction and ensure that tribes benefit economically from Alaska’s natural resources.


Economic Role of Alaska Natives

college graduate alaska native
An Alaska Native student graduating from a University of Alaska institution, via the University of Alaska System


Alaska Natives are employed in all of the state’s major industries, especially tourism. In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) created the twelve regional corporations and gave Alaska Native tribes ownership of some 44 million acres of land. This was intended to economically benefit the tribes and includes a revenue-sharing provision that requires 70 percent of all revenues received by each regional corporation to be divided among all twelve regional corporations in proportion to their Alaska Native population. The goal is to provide roughly equitable economic benefit for each Alaska Native. As of 2018, more than $10.5 billion in revenue was raised by the Alaska Native corporations.


As “America’s last frontier,” Alaska is a popular tourist destination for its amazing scenery. Many tourists take stops to observe Alaska Native culture, including the Alaska Native Heritage Center Museum in Anchorage, whaling festivals, touring remote villages, exploring large totem poles, and purchasing unique arts and crafts like ivory and bone carvings, furs, and woven baskets. Expanding tourism has even led some Alaska Native regional corporations to pursue the construction of new airports to directly fly in tourists from the lower 48 states, as well as additional cruise ship docks.


Alaska Natives & Political Representation

mary peltola first alaska native congress
Mary Peltola, who won election to Alaska’s at-large seat in the US House of Representatives in 2022, is the first Alaska Native in Congress, via National Public Radio (NPR)


As with Native Americans in the lower 48 states, Alaska Natives were largely excluded from political decisions in their state until relatively recently. The first territorial legislature decreed in 1915 that Alaska Natives could only vote if they gave up their local traditions and customs, though this was overturned in 1924 when Congress granted US citizenship to all Native Americans. In 1925, the territorial legislature passed a literacy test requirement for voter registration, similar to states in the South that used literacy tests to prevent African Americans from registering to vote.


In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act tried to clear up much political confusion over land ownership by creating regional corporations. However, political power soon shifted to Anchorage, which had proportionally more white residents, due to judicial rulings that political representation allotment had to be based on population. This resulted in a loss of political power for Alaska Natives, who predominantly lived in smaller towns and villages.


In 2022, Mary Petolta, a member of the Yup’ik tribe, became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress. She will finish out the term of US Representative Don Young (R-AK), who was Alaska’s sole member of the House of Representatives for the previous 49 years.


Natural Resources & Alaska Natives

A map of the National Petroleum Reserve and Alaska Native lands, via the Bureau of Land Management


Competition over resources has been a major part of Alaska’s modern history. Although gold originally attracted settlers from the lower 48 states, oil quickly became the “new gold” of Alaska, with the first oil well constructed in 1902. In addition to gold, companies also quickly began mining copper. In 1957, a major oil deposit was discovered on the Kenai Peninsula, which significantly influenced Congress to make Alaska a full-fledged state. The rapid growth of the oil industry in Alaska since then, especially with the discovery of oil on the North Slope in 1968, had led to tensions between the oil industry and many Alaska Natives.


The growth of the petroleum and mining industries in Alaska is accused of damaging the ecosystem and reducing the supply of natural resources used by Alaska Natives. Even among Alaska Natives, there are deep divides over the merits of industrial expansion: many support the increased revenue that mining and oil bring to their communities, while many fear the loss of their traditional culture and way of life. In addition to fears about the loss of local wildlife, some are worried about the health effects of nearby oil drilling and refining. The Willow project in Alaska – the largest proposed drilling on American public land – has received White House approval and divided many Alaskans over the costs and benefits of the massive industrialization to come.


Alaska Natives Today

climate change alaska
A map showing challenges affecting Alaska due to climate change, via Audubon Alaska


The 2010 US Census recorded almost 140,000 Alaska Natives, comprising at least twenty different language groups and making up 40 percent of the United States’ total indigenous population. As with other indigenous peoples, Alaska Natives face ongoing tensions between adopting Western lifestyles and maintaining cultural traditions and lifestyles. Like Native Americans in the lower 48, Alaska Natives are more likely to live in poverty than non-native demographic groups, with over one-quarter having incomes below the poverty line as of 2016.  However, Native Alaskans do benefit from a unique institution: The Alaska Permanent Fund, which distributes dividends from corporate revenue to all permanent residents of the state.


alaska native bureau indian affairs
A photograph of Alaska natives, via the United States Department of the Interior


Due to their geographic location in the Arctic, Alaska Natives face additional challenges to maintaining their culture and traditions as a result of rapid climate change. Local communities face problems from rapidly melting sea ice, an increase in wildfires, and more severe storms. Many native communities in Alaska are working on adapting to the changing environment and/or seeking to relocate to more stable areas, such as away from eroded coastlines. One technological adaptation is shifting to increased use of motorboats to access fishing and hunting areas instead of traditional snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) as shorelines and solid ice have decreased and been replaced by open water.

Author Image

By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.