Terminology for indigenous Alaskans
First of all, there’s the cover term “Alaska Native”. This term refers to any person who is a member of one of the indigenous peoples of Alaska. There are a number of legal definitions, for example that defined in ANCSA. The US Census defines it as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples [of Alaska] and who mantains tribal affiliation or community attachment”. Legally, people who are Alaska Native either have one-quarter or more Alaska Native blood, or are enrolled in a federally recognized tribe in Alaska, with the latter taking precedence. The term is sometimes shortened to “Native”, which also shows up in phrases like “Native rights”, “Native sovereignty”, “Native lands”, “Native conveyance”, etc. Note that capitalization is important. The reversed “Native Alaskans” is dispreferred, particularly because it has no legal meaning. The term “Alaskan Native” is sometimes seen, probably because of nasal assimilation in speech, but again this lacks a legal definition. Google unhelpfully merges searches for “Alaskan Native” with “Alaska Native”, but the latter makes up 4.5 million of the 6 million results for the former.
The next highest level of division among Alaska Natives is not legally defined as far as I am aware, but is instead conventional. This is the distinction between “Indian” and “Eskimo”. The term “Indian” includes all Athabaskan groups in addition to the rainforest peoples east of Copper River: Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. The term Eskimo is somewhat more imprecise, because it has both linguistic and cultural definitions which are not identical. Peoples who are definitely included in the Eskimo category are the Iñupiat, Yupʼik, Siberian Yupik (Yuit), Nunivak Cupʼig, and Chevak Cupʼik. The Sugpiaq (Chugachmiut, Prince William Sound & Kenai Peninsula) and Alutiiq (Koniagmiut, Kodiak Archipelago & Alaska Peninsula) of coastal Southcentral Alaska are sometimes included among the Eskimo because their language is closely related to Central Alaskan Yupʼik, however culturally they are more distinct because of their rainforest environment. (The Sugpiaq/Alutiiq are sometimes described with a cover term “Pacific Yupik”, but neither group seems to prefer this label.) The division between Indian and Eskimo leaves out one group, the Aleut, who fit into neither category. To be inclusive, one might say “Eskimo, Aleut, and Indian”.
It must be clarified that in Alaska the term “Eskimo” is not derogatory. This is in contrast to the usual sense in Canada, where Inuit people are often offended by the term. The Canadian attitude has begun to take hold in the more educated populace of the United States, who also refer to Alaskan Eskimo people as “Inuit”. This is a mistake however, because the term “Inuit” in fact includes only the Iñupiat in Alaska, and excludes the Yupʼik and their bretheren. Using the term “Inuit” is thus irritating, and sometimes even offensive, to non-Iñupiat Eskimos in Alaska. Indeed, even the Iñupiat may be irritated by the term “Inuit” because their geographic, cultural, and political distance from the Canadian peoples is great enough that many would rather not be lumped together with them. Thus in Alaska “Eskimo” is a neutral term, and one which is well accepted by the people it describes. In contrast, “Inuit” is misplaced and should generally be avoided.
Below the level of Indian/Eskimo/Aleut, there is another level of cover terms before specific tribes are named. This level is not consistent between the various groups. The Aleut for example consitute one monolithic people, although subdivisions can be found according to region, village, and to include those resident in Russia (the Commander Islands Aleut). Probably the two most common divisions in popular use are the Athabaskan and Yupik, the latter of which is somewhat controversial.
Athabaskans in Alaska constitute a small portion of the Northern Athabaskan peoples whose traditional territories extend as far west as Manitoba and the Northwest Territories where the Chipewyan (Dëne Sųłiné) still dwell, and as far south as the Fraser and Thompson Rivers in British Columbia where the Chilcotin (Tŝilhqotʼin) live and the Nicola once dwelled. In Alaska the term Athabaskan refers to thirteen different tribes who live in the Interior, and all of whom have close linguistic and cultural connections. This term is spelled in a number of different ways, an issue that I wrote about previously.
The Athabaskan group is rather easy, but the Yupik group is harder to define. In one sense the term covers a linguistic group, anyone who speaks a Yupik language. This is at odds with both cultural and geographic definitions, however. Usually the term applies to the Central Alaskan Yupʼik, as well as to the Cupʼig, Cupʼik, and sometimes the Siberian Yupik. Linguistically the Sugpiaq/Alutiiq are included, but culturally and geographically they are very distinct. Also, some Cupʼik and Cupʼig people are vocal about their desire to be distinct from the Yupʼik, and extend this to the term Yupik as well. In general the term is usually taken to mean something like “Eskimo who aren’t Iñupiaq”, always excluding the Aleut and sometimes excluding the Sugpiaq/Alutiiq.
There is no simple term in use that refers to the Indians of Southeast Alaska, which comprises the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian. A clumsy phrase “Southeast Alaska Natives” is sometimes used, as are “Southeast People” and rarely “Southeast Indians”. None of these are in widespread use, perhaps because the Tlingit are the dominant population and reference is often made directly to them. The term “Southeasterner” applies to non-Natives as well, and so is not a Native-specific term. One often hears “T&H” used in reference to the governmental entity officially called the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, or CCTHITA. The Tsimshian are not part of this tribal merger because they have the distinction of possessing the sole reservation in Alaska that encompasses Annette Island. Although culturally close to the Tlingit, the Eyak are often excluded from “Southeast Alaska Natives”. Their position at the mouth of the Copper River puts them within the ANCSA region controlled by Chugach Alaska Corp., and so today they are somewhat unfairly lumped together with their historic enemies, the Chugachmiut (Sugpiaq).
Other terminology, mostly pertaining to specific tribes and groups, is fairly well documented. I’m not going to go into those details here, especially since I’d be in unfamiliar territory when it comes to Eskimo subsubgroups. My knowledge of Eskimo culture is largely due to random conversations with people at ANMC, and so doesn’t go very deep. (My Eskimo friends are mostly city folk or townies...)