The Athabascan Indians of Canada have a legend that tells how, in the misty past, one of their ancestors helped a giant in Siberia slay a rival. The defeated giant fell into the sea, forming a bridge to North America. The forefathers of the Athabascans then crossed this bridge, bringing the caribou with them. Eventually the giant’s body decomposed, but parts of his skeleton were left sticking above the ocean to form the Aleutian Islands.
In scientific terms, what probably happened was that low ocean levels—up to 450 feet below those at present—offered the nomadic peoples of northeastern Asia a 50-mile-long, 600-mile-wide land “bridge” over the Bering Sea. There is considerable controversy over exactly when humans crossed this isthmus, but it was certainly used at least 12,000 years ago, and perhaps considerably earlier.
One of the earliest records of humans in the Americas is a caribou bone with a serrated edge found at Old Crow in northern Yukon. Almost certainly used as a tool, the bone has been placed at 27,000 years old by carbon dating. The interior lowlands of Alaska and the Yukon Valley, which were never glaciated, provided an ice-free migration route. As the climate warmed and the great ice sheets receded toward the Rocky Mountains and the Canadian Shield, a corridor opened down the middle of the Great Plains, allowing movement farther south. (Recent scientific evidence suggests that ancient peoples also sailed or paddled along the coast from Asia to North America.)
The Athabascans and other Paleo-Indians were the first people to cross the Bering land bridge. Their language is spoken today from Interior Alaska to the American Southwest (among Navajos and Apaches). Way back when (anywhere from 12,000 to 40,000 years ago), these people of the Interior followed the mastodon, mammoth, and caribou herds that supplied them with most of their necessities. Agriculture was unknown to them, but they did fashion basic implements from the raw copper found in the region.
Eventually, certain groups found their way to the coast. The Athabascan-related Tlingits, for example, migrated down the Nass River near Prince Rupert and then spread north through Southeast Alaska. The rich environment provided them with abundant fish and shellfish, as well as with the great cedar logs from which they fashioned community houses, totem poles, and long dugout canoes.
Eskimo or Inuit arrived from Asia some 4,500 years ago, migrating by boat along the coast of Alaska. Within 500 years their culture had spread across Arctic Canada and all the way to Greenland. Their language, which in Alaska is divided into the Inupiak dialect in the North and the Yup’ik and Alutiiq dialects in the south, is unrelated to any other in North America except that of the Aleuts.
Like the Tlingits, the Eskimo lived near the coast, along the migratory routes of the marine mammals they hunted in kayaks and umiaks. They also relied on caribou, birds, and fish. Their homes were partly underground and constructed of driftwood, antlers, whale bones, and sod. (The well-known snow-and-ice igloo was exclusive to indigenous people in Canada.) In the summer, skin tents were used at fish camps. The Eskimo did not use dogsleds until the coming of the Europeans.
Marine mammals and fish provided the Eskimo-related Aleuts with food, clothing, and household materials. The Aleut were famous for their tightly woven baskets. Before the 1740s arrival of the Russians, 25,000 Aleuts inhabited almost all of the Aleutian Islands, but by 1800 only about 2,000 survived. The ruthless Russian fur traders murdered and kidnapped the men, enslaved or abandoned the women, and passed on their genes and diseases so successfully that today only 1,000 full-blooded Aleuts remain. The rest intermarried with the Russians, and scattered groups of their descendants are now found in the eastern Aleutians and the Pribilofs to the North.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition