The Athabascan Peoples of North America

Who are the Athabascan peoples of North America?The Athabascan (variously spelled Athabaskan, Athapascan, and Athapaskan) peoples are spread over a large area in North America, spreading from the Lower Yukon in Alaska all the way to the Hudson Bay in Canada. Although this is where the people are concentrated, there are also those in the Lower 48, mainly in the states of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona such as the Navajos and Apaches. Some are also scattered along the Pacific Coast in Washington, Oregon, and California. Indeed, in terms of territory covered, the Athabascans are second only to the Algonquian peoples.

“Athabasca” is a Cree Indian word that means “grass here and there”. It was the name given by the Cree to the lake straddling the northern border between Alberta and Saskatchewan owing to the abundance of grass around it. The Cree Indians lived in the area east of the lake, while another group speaking a different language and having a different culture occupied the western shore. Over time, the Cree began referring to the western group by the same name as the lake. The Athabascan people, however, refer to themselves as “Dena” or “Dene”, both of which mean “the people”.

Most Athabascans now live in urban centers, enjoying modern-day amenities, but some still live in rural areas, living a life not very different from their ancestors who lived in the taiga –a subarctic forests south of the tundra that is covered with fir, spruce, and birch trees.

Living by hunting, fishing, and gathering, the people were nomadic, traveling from one place to another in search of sustenance. Travel was mostly done on foot, and indeed, they were, and still are, known to be able to walk extremely long distances. Owing to this, they tended not to accumulate many properties, as these would only hamper their movements.

Generally, fishing for salmon, whitefish, and grayling was done in summer and fall. It is also during fall that the Athabascan hunt for caribou and moose. In spring, water mammals are trapped. Except during winter, they gather roots and berries year round.

It is from the skin of hunted caribou and moose that the people make their clothing. These are tanned and decorated with beads, quills, and pieces of furs. Often, these are quite elaborate making them true works of art.

Efforts are being made to preserve Athabascan culture while at the same time providing the people with the benefits of modern medicine and health care, acts which often require a delicate balancing act.