Language, one of the largest families of American Indian languages; also the collective tribal name of the Athabaskan-speaking people of Alaska and Canada. Athabaskan speakers can be divided into three main branches: the northern, in Alaska and Canada; the Pacific, in Washington, Oregon, and California; and the southern, in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Mexico. Among the Athabaskan-speaking peoples are the Apache, Navajo, Tlingit, and Chippewa. The Alaskan Athabaskan number 14,500 (2000).
Alaskan Athabaskan The Alaskan Athabaskan were nomadic hunter-gatherers whose pattern of life followed the seasonal appearance of food sources, including salmon and other fish, sea mammals, caribou, moose, wild roots, and berries. Semi-permanent camps were established in the winter months, although more sedentary groups remained in their camps for most of the year. Winter houses were generally semi-subterranean framed structures covered with bark, moss, and earth, with further insulation being provided by snowfall. Some variations occurred within the subgroups; for example, the Tanaina built large communal semi-subterranean houses, with plank walls and thatched roofs, and Ingalik dwellings showed Inuit influence, including the custom of building a separate communal men's house. Clothing was made from moose and caribou skins, and richly ornamented with quills, fur, embroidery, and beadwork.
There are eleven Alaskan Athabaskan language subgroups, each containing local dialects that once corresponded with a particular regional band. Members of a regional band would join together in the fishing and caribou-hunting seasons, when resources were abundant, or for ceremonial occasions, but dispersed into smaller groups of family households for the winter camps. Traditional Athabaskan society was also grouped into three major sibs (clans) with matrilineal membership (passing through the mother's line). Marriage within the sib was not allowed. Their spiritual life was based on animism, the belief that animals and some inanimate things had spirits that could be offended if certain rules and ceremonies were not followed. Gathering-up festivals, similar to the Northwest Indian potlatches, were held in the winter. Neighbouring groups were invited and the feasting, singing, and dancing could last for up to two weeks, enhancing the social prestige of the hosts. Deceased sib members were commemorated and presents given in their honour, and marriage and trading agreements were made.
Although some Alaskan Athabaskans live in the state's urban centres, many still live in isolated areas and cultural identity and practices remain strong. Tourism has become an important part of their economy.