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Alaska Natives – are they American Indians?

Did you know that Alaska is the state with the highest Native population in the USA?

According to the 2018 US Census, 15% of the general population in Alaska is Alaska Native, rising to almost 20% when American Indians are included in the count. Native peoples comprise 12% of the total population of Anchorage. There are also a significant number of Alaska Natives who live outside the state. This is a young population, with a median age of 27 years. But who are the Alaska Natives? And what is the difference between an American Indian and an Alaska Native?

Who Are the Alaska Natives?

Alaska Natives have been historically grouped according to their languages. They are comprised of diverse and distinct cultures or tribal groups.

There are five main groups of Alaska Natives, identified by region:

  • Aleut (Unangax) – (Aleutian Islands)
  • Inupiat and St Lawrence Island Yup’ik (Arctic)
  • Athabaskan (Interior and South-central Alaska)
  • Yup’ik and Cup’ik (Southwest Alaska)
  • Tlingit, Haida, Eyak, and Tsimshian (Inside Passage and Southeast Alaska)

Alaska Natives have lived in what is now the state of Alaska for thousands of years and traditionally thrived through hunting, fishing, and gathering food in what can be a harsh and unforgiving climate.

Alaska Natives – are they American Indians?

A Nunivak Cup’ig man with raven maskette


Anthropologists believe that Alaska Natives originated in Asia. Their ancestors migrated thousands of years ago, over two waves, crossing the Bering land bridge from Siberia and also over water along the coastlines. Some of these people remained in the region rather than migrating further south. Those who remained were the ancestors of modern-day Alaska Natives and they established complex cultures and sophisticated methods of surviving the challenging conditions of the region. Alaska Natives are not closely genetically related to Central and South American Indians.

Today, the majority of these native peoples live in small villages or remote regional areas. More are now living in urban areas. There is one Federally recognized Indian reservation in Alaska; it is the Metlakatla Indian Community of the Annette Island Reserve.

 Alaska Natives – are they American Indians?

Nowadluk - Inuit from Cape Prince of Wales - c. 1910 - Photo by Lomen Brothers

Alaska Natives and White Settlement

Historically, there were 80,000 Alaska Natives in the region at the time of the first contact with white settlers. Unlike the American Indians and Indigenous Peoples of Canada, the Alaska Natives first encountered not Europeans but Siberian Russians, who emigrated to the region, set up trading posts, and brought Orthodox missionaries from the mid-1700s. These settlers forced the Aleut (Uganax) Natives into slavery, particularly for operating the fur trade hunting otter. Russian Empress Catherine the Great urged the Russians to treat the Aleutians fairly, but a revolt by some of the native people resulted in devastation, which was also wrought by Eurasian infectious diseases to which the natives had no immunity.

These Siberian Russians were the first to translate Christian scriptures to native languages, and even today, the majority of Russian Orthodox Christians in Alaska are Alaska Natives.

In 1867, the USA bought Alaska from Russia, and white settlers henceforth claimed native lands as their own. Europeans only had sustained contact with Alaska Natives when the gold rush of the late 1800s/early 1900s occurred.

The Alaska Native Brotherhood was established in 1912, followed by the Alaska Native Sisterhood in 1915. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was finally passed in 1971, providing for the establishment of thirteen Alaska Native Regional Corporations, as well as separately defining the status of Alaska Natives as distinct peoples (as are Canadian Inuit, Canadian First Nations, and the American Indians of the USA).

Alaska Natives – are they American Indians?

Nunivak Cup’ig mother and child, by Edward Curtis, 1930 


Are Alaska Natives American Indians?

Alaska Natives are Native Americans. They are not, however, American Indians. American Indians are distinct as belonging to indigenous tribal nations of the continental USA and are identified separately from Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, Canada First Nations Peoples, American Samoans, Mexican Indians, Chamorros, and other native peoples who come from Central and South America.

The Terms “Inuit” and “Eskimo”

Alaska Natives have been traditionally referred to as “Eskimo” or “Inuit”. The term “Eskimo” is now widely considered by most Alaska Natives to be offensive, as it has negative connotations as a colonial name given to all Alaska Natives by non-native people. Its origin lies in the Montagnais (Innu) word for “netter of snowshoes”. Regardless of this, it remains commonly used in Alaska to refer to Inuit and Yupik people and a few native groups do refer to themselves with this term.

“Inuit” is the current overall term used across the Arctic and in Alaska to refer to these far northern native peoples of the Americas including in Greenland. It means “people”.

Most Alaska Natives (like other Native Americans) prefer to be known by their tribal names used in their languages, for example, “Yupik”, “Tlingit” or “Haida”.

 Alaska Natives – are they American Indians?

Chief Anotklosh of the Taku (Tlingit), c1913.

Indian Traders – Supporting American Indians of the Southwest

While many are genetically related, the Native Americans and American Indian tribal nations are incredibly diverse. Indian Traders is very proud to support and showcase the American Indian Nations of the US southwest. Specifically, we offer Native American bracelets, necklaces, and other jewelry handcrafted by Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni artisans. We also offer a vast array of Pendleton products including Native American blankets and throws, as well as other artwork of the southwest.