Alaska Native languages

Alaska Natives are a group of indigenous people that live inside the state of Alaska and trace their heritage back to the last two great migration that occurred a thousand years ago. The Native community can be separated into six large tribes and a number of smaller tribes, including the Iñupiat, Yup'ik, Aleut, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and others. Even with just a small amount of communities that make up the entire population, there were more than 300 different languages that the Natives used to communicate with each other. [1]

However, by the time that Alaska was included into the union in 1959, the number dwindled down to only 20 spoken within the boundaries of the state.[2][3]These twenty can be divided into four separate families; the Eskimo–Aleut languages, Athabaskan, Haida, and Tsimshian. They all share similar characteristics, but have distinctive processes. Through the years after the colonization by the Russians, the importance of native languages subsided until the age of reformation occurred.

As stated by Michael E. Krauss, from the years 1960-1970, “Alaska Native Languages” went through “a transitional period of rebirth of interest in Alaska Native languages and a shift of developments in their favor”. [4] This resurrection has since taken off and there has been legislation that relates to the preservation and promotion of the native language.

Impacts of colonization

Prior to colonization by Russia, most Alaskan Native groups had their own unique languages, which were used for everyday communications. It was common for many individuals to be bilingual in order to facilitate business and rapports among different native groups. Upon contact with non-Native languages, the usage of native languages and the languages themselves have changed. Through the introduction of foreign diseases that devastated the population and the enslavement of the natives, the native language changed greatly. As Russia was the first country to colonize Alaska, Russian words for goods or objects that were new to Native Alaskans were adopted into their native languages. For example, kofe (coffee) and chay (tea) are Russian words that have been added to the vocabularies of the Unangan (Aleut), Alutiiq (Sugpiaq), and Yup'ik. Intermarriages between Russians and Native Alaskans were frequent and gave rise to a new mixed population, increasing the number of Native Alaskans being able to speak both their native languages and Russian. Still, Native Alaskan languages remained the dominant languages spoken in Alaska.

It was only after American colonization when missionary, and later General Agent of Education of the Territory of Alaska, Sheldon Jackson, arrived in Alaska in 1877, did the use of native Alaska languages start to plummet. Jackson implemented an "English Only" policy within the school, legal, and political systems, and any violation of the rule was met with physical and mental punishments and abuse, this policy wasn't retracted until 2002 [5]. In 1924, the Alaska Voter's Literacy Act was passed, which demanded native Alaskan citizens to pass an English literacy test before earning the right to vote. This act further decreased the use of Native Alaska languages. Today, many of the Native Alaskan languages are either on the brink of extinction or already extinct.[6]

Language preservation

Alaska Native languages are being recorded and transcribed today in the hopes of having them revitalized through the use of these published dictionaries and grammar books.[7] The languages are being recorded in their native tongue as speakers tell stories that are then written in both English and that language's alphabet. These alphabets are relatively new to the languages since they did not typically have a written version of the language before the influence of non-Native Alaskans.

About 20 native languages are being worked with by the Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC). In current time, the languages are being re-taught to the villagers through classes that are of help in the villages around Alaska and Canada. At the same time, people who are interested in Alaska Native languages can also learn through university campus classes at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.[8] These languages are not limited solely to Alaska since their speakers were among northern North America before state and country borders were established. One of these Athabaskan languages is documented to be found in Southeast Alaska, along the interior and eastern border of Alaska, into Northern Canada, and then on into western Greenland.[9]

In 2014, legislation passed in the state of Alaska to revise the official state language that formerly only included English. This law, effective as of 2015, recognizes Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik, Central Alaskan Yup'ik, Alutiiq, Unangax, Dena'ina, Deg Xinag, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Gwich'in, Tanana, Upper Tanana, Tanacross, Hän, Ahtna, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian as official state languages.[10] However, this does not require the government to print documents or record other government actions in these languages. Additional legislation in related to the preservation of Alaska native languages is the House Concurrent Resolution 19 that recognizes the current status of native languages as a "linguistic emergency."[11] While controversy over the use of "emergency" arose, the bill was eventually passed.

Intersection of language and culture

Many Alaska Native languages are characterized within high context cultures. This means that the deliverance of messages is as much through nonverbal cues such as body language, silence, and eye contact. As a result, communication within Alaskan Native languages is not parallel to communication in the majority spoken English. This miscommunication lies in the use of context, as English within the Euro-American culture is considered to be low context, thus dependent on explicit deliverance of a message rather than contextually. A study on bilingual speakers in college settings notes the complications of Alaska Native speakers in predominantly English taught settings as a lack of understanding this cultural context.[12] For instance, many Alaska Native languages determine silence to be a sign of respect and a demonstration that one is listening. However, in the Euro-American context, silence may be seen as a lack of understanding or lack of engagement.

Practice of Alaska Native languages often follows a didactic pattern, using stories and anecdotes to teach morals and lessons. For example, Tlingit culture follows this anecdotal pattern which emphasizes the role of the speaker and the listener.[12] This is indicative of the importance of oral tradition in Tlingit culture, where information is passed down from elders to young learners.

List of Alaska Native languages


Language Population Speakers Percent Speakers
Ahtna 500 80 16.00%
Aleut 2,200 300 13.64%
Alutiiq/Sugpiaq 3,000 400 13.33%
Denaʼina x x x
Deg Xinag 275 40 14.55%
Eyak 50 0 0.00%
Gwichʼin 1,100 300 27.27%
Haida 600 50 8.33%
Hän 50 12 24.00%
Holikachuk 200 12 6.00%
Inupiat 13,500 3,000 22.22%
Koyukon 2,300 300 13.04%
Tanana 380 30 7.89%
Tanacross 220 65 29.55%
Tlingit 10,000 500 5.00%
Tsimshian 1,300 70 5.38%
Upper Kuskokwim 160 40 25.00%
Upper Tanana x x x
Yup'ik, Central Alaskan 21,000 10,000 47.62%
Yupik, Siberian 1,100 1,050 95.45%
  • Information in this table was retrieved from the Alaska Native Languages Center.[13]


  1. ^ Indigenous Education: Language, Culture, and Identity, edited by W. James Jacob, et al., Springer, 2015. ProQuest Ebook Central,
  2. ^ Krauss, Michael, Gary Holton, Jim Kerr, and Colin T. West. 2011. Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska. Fairbanks and Anchorage: Alaska Native Language Center and UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research.
  3. ^ Smith, Matthew. "20 Alaska Native Languages Now Official State Languages". Alaska Public Media. Retrieved March 5, 2019.
  4. ^ Krauss, Michael E. 1980. Alaska Native Languages: Past, Present, and Future. (Alaska Native Language Center Research Paper 4). Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.
  5. ^ "In Victory for Alaska Natives and Other Non-English Speakers, Court Declares English-Only Law Unconstitutional". American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved February 21, 2019.
  6. ^ "Alaska Native Languages Introduction and History | Alaska History and Cultural Studies". Retrieved July 10, 2017.
  7. ^ Ruth, Ridley. Eagle han huch'inn hÒdÖk. Fairbanks, AK: Alaska Native Language Center,1983. Print
  8. ^ "Mission | Alaska Native Language Center". Retrieved March 18, 2019.
  9. ^ Leon Unruh, Editor for the Alaska native language center
  10. ^ "The Alaska State Legislature".
  11. ^ "Alaska State Legislature".
  12. ^ a b Martindale, V. F. (2002). MOVING MOUNTAINS IN THE INTERCULTURAL CLASSROOM. Ethnic Studies Review, 25(1), 56. Retrieved from
  13. ^ Alaska Native Languages Center

External links

Alaska Native Language Archive

The Alaska Native Language Archive (ANLA) in Fairbanks, Alaska, known officially as the Michael E. Krauss Alaska Native Language Archive, is an extensive repository for manuscripts and recordings documenting the Native Languages of Alaska. The Archive was created as part of the Alaska Native Language Center by state legislation in 1972. In 2009 the Archive was administratively separated and now exists as a sister organization to the Alaska Native Language Center, collaborating on numerous language efforts in Alaska.ANLA is part of the Alaska & Polar Regions Special Collections and Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Rasmuson Library. It was officially renamed in honor of Michael Krauss at a dedication ceremony on February 22, 2013. ANLA is a member of the Open Language Archives Community and the Digital Endangered Languages and Musics Archiving Network.

Dr. Siri Tuttle was appointed Director of ANLA in 2016.

Alaska Native Language Center

The Alaska Native Language Center, established in 1972 in Fairbanks, Alaska, is a research center focusing on the research and documentation of the Native languages of Alaska. It publishes grammars, dictionaries, folklore collections and research materials, as well as hosting an extensive archive of written materials relating to Eskimo, North Athabaskan and related languages. The Center provides training, materials and consultation for educators, researchers and others working with Alaska Native languages. The closely affiliated Alaska Native Language Program offers degrees in Central Yup'ik and Inupiaq at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and works toward the documentation and preservation of these languages.

Alaska Natives

Alaska Natives are indigenous peoples of Alaska, United States and include: Iñupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and a number of Northern Athabaskan cultures. They are often defined by their language groups. Many Alaska Natives are enrolled in federally recognized Alaska Native tribal entities, who in turn belong to 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations, who administer land and financial claims.

Ancestors of Alaska Natives migrated into the area thousands of years ago, in at least two different waves. Some are descendants of a third wave of migration in which people settled across the northern part of North America. They never migrated to southern areas. For this reason, genetic studies show they are not closely related to Native Americans in South America.

Throughout the Arctic and the circumpolar north, the ancestors of Alaska Natives established varying indigenous, complex cultures that have succeeded each other over time. They developed sophisticated ways to deal with the challenging climate and environment, and cultures rooted in the place. Historic groups have been defined by their languages, which belong to several major language families. Today, Alaska Natives comprise over 15% of the population of Alaska.

Aleut language

Aleut (; Unangam Tunuu) is the language spoken by the Aleut people (Unangax̂) living in the Aleutian Islands, Pribilof Islands, Commander Islands, and the Alaskan Peninsula (in Aleut Alaxsxa, the origin of the state name Alaska). Aleut is the sole language in the Aleut branch of the Eskimo–Aleut language family. The Aleut language consists of three dialects, including Eastern, Atkan, and Attuan (now extinct).Various sources estimate there are fewer than 100 to 150 remaining active Aleut speakers. Eastern and Atkan Aleut are classified as "critically and severely endangered" and have an EGIDS rating of 7. The task of revitalizing Aleut has largely been left to local government and community organizations. The overwhelming majority of schools in the historically Aleut-speaking regions lack any language/culture courses in their curriculum, and those that do fail to produce fluent or even proficient speakers.


The Alutiiq people (pronounced in English; from Promyshlenniki Russian Алеутъ, "Aleut"; plural often "Alutiit"), also called by their ancestral name Sugpiaq ( or ; plural often "Sugpiat"), as well as Pacific Eskimo or Pacific Yupik, are a southern coastal people of Alaska Natives. They are not to be confused with the Aleuts, who live further to the southwest, including along the Aleutian Islands.

Their traditional homelands include Prince William Sound and outer Kenai Peninsula (Chugach Sugpiaq), the Kodiak Archipelago and the Alaska Peninsula (Koniag Alutiiq). In the early 1800s there were more than 60 Alutiiq villages in the Kodiak archipelago, with an estimated population of 13,000 people. Today more than 4,000 Alutiiq people live in Alaska.

Alutiiq language

The Alutiiq language (also called Sugpiak, Sugpiaq, Sugcestun, Suk, Supik, Pacific Gulf Yupik, Gulf Yupik, Koniag-Chugach) is a close relative to the Central Alaskan Yup'ik language spoken in the western and southwestern Alaska, but is considered a distinct language. It has two major dialects:

Koniag Alutiiq: spoken on the upper part of the Alaska Peninsula and on Kodiak Island; it was also spoken on Afognak Island before that was deserted by the people in the wake of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.

Chugach Alutiiq: spoken on the Kenai Peninsula and in Prince William Sound.The ethnonyms of the Sugpiaq-Alutiiq are a predicament. "Aleut," "Alutiiq," "Sugpiaq," "Russian," "Pacific Eskimo," "Unegkuhmiut," and "Chugach Eskimo" are among the terms that have been used to identify this group of Native people living on the Lower Kenai Peninsula of Alaska.

About 400 of the Alutiiq population of 3,000 still speak the Alutiiq language. Alutiiq communities are currently in the process of revitalizing their language. In 2010 the high school in Kodiak responded to requests from students and agreed to teach the Alutiiq language. The Kodiak dialect of the language was spoken by only about 50 persons, all of them elderly, and the dialect was in danger of being lost entirely. As of 2014, Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage is offering classes using the "Where Are Your Keys?" technique.

Deg Xitʼan

Deg Hitʼan (also Deg Xitʼan, Deg Hitan, Degexitʼan, Kaiyuhkhotana) is a group of Yupikized Athabaskan peoples in Alaska. Their native language is called Deg Xinag. They reside in Alaska along the Anvik River in Anvik, along the Innoko River in Shageluk, and at Holy Cross along the lower Yukon River.

The Deg Hitʼan are members of the federally recognized Alaska Native tribes of Anvik Village, Shageluk Native Village, and Holy Cross Village. The Iditarod Trail's antecedents were the native trails of the Dena'ina and Deg Hitʼan Athabaskan Indians and the Inupiaq Eskimos.Their neighbors are other Athabaskan-speaking and Yupik Eskimo peoples: Yup'ik (west and south), Holikachuk (north), Upper Kuskokwim (north and east), and Dena'ina (south).


The Denaʼina ( ; own name: in the Inland dialect [dənʌʔɪnʌ], in the Upper Inlet dialect [dənʌ͡ɪnʌ]) or formerly Tanaina are an Alaska Native Athabaskan people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group. They are the original inhabitants of the south central Alaska region ranging from Seldovia in the south to Chickaloon in the northeast, Talkeetna in the north, Lime Village in the Northwest and Pedro Bay in the Southwest. The Denaʼina homeland (Denaʼina Ełnena) is more than 41,000 square miles in area. They arrived in the Southcentral Alaska sometime between 1,000 and 1,500 years ago. They were the only Alaskan Athabaskan group to live on the coast. Denaʼina culture is a hunter-gatherer culture and have a matrilineal system. The Iditarod Trail's antecedents were the native trails of the Denaʼina and Deg Hitʼan Athabaskan Indians and the Inupiaq Eskimos.Their neighbors are other Athabaskan-speaking and Yupik Eskimo peoples: Deg Hitʼan (northwest), Upper Kuskokwim (central north), Koyukon (northeast), Lower Tanana (a little part of northeast), Ahtna (east), Chugach Sugpiaq (south-southeast), Koniag Alutiiq (south), and Yupʼik (west and southwest).


Holikachuk (also Innoko, Organized Village of Grayling, Innoka-khotana, Tlëgon-khotana) are a Yupikized Alaska Native Athabaskan people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group to western Alaska. Their native territory includes the area surrounding the middle and upper Innoko River. Later in 1963 they moved to Grayling on the Yukon River.

The Holikachuk call themselves Doogh Hit’an (IPA: [toʁhətʼan]). The name Holikachuk is derived from the name (in the Holikachuk language) of a village in native Holikachuk territory.

The Holikachuk have been neglected by anthropologists, resulting in little documentation (both published and unpublished). In the past they have erroneously (or out of convenience) been grouped with the Koyukon.

The peoples neighboring the Holikachuk are in the north the Yupik (Eskimo) and Koyukon, in the east the Koyukon, in the south the Upper Kuskokwim people, and in the west the Deg Hit'an.

Holikachuk culture is a distant relative to the Deg Hit'an culture.

Holikachuk language

Holikachuk (own name: Doogh Qinag) was an Athabaskan language formerly spoken at the village of Holikachuk (Hiyeghelinhdi) on the Innoko River in central Alaska. In 1962, residents of Holikachuk relocated to Grayling on the lower Yukon River. Holikachuk is intermediate between the Deg Xinag and Koyukon languages, linguistically closer to Koyukon but socially much closer to Deg Xinag. Though it was recognized by scholars as a distinct language as early as the 1840s, it was only definitively identified in the 1970s. Of about 180 Holikachuk people, only about 5 spoke the language in 2007. In March 2012, the last living fluent speaker of Holikachuk "died" in Alaska.James Kari compiled a short dictionary of Holikachuk in 1978, but Holikachuk remains one of the least documented Alaska Native languages.


The Hän, Han or Hwëch'in / Han Hwech’in (meaning "People of the River, i.e. Yukon River", in English also Hankutchin) are a First Nations people of Canada and an Alaska Native Athabaskan people of the United States; they are part of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group. Their traditional lands centered on a heavily forested area around the Upper Yukon River (Chu Kon'Dëk), Klondike River (Tr'on'Dëk), Bonanza Creek (Gàh Dëk) and Sixtymile River (Khel Dëk) and straddling what is now the Alaska-Yukon Territory border. In later times, the Han population became centered in Dawson City, Yukon and Eagle, Alaska.

Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins

Jonathan S. Kreiss-Tomkins (born February 7, 1989) is a member of the Alaska House of Representatives. A Democrat, he represents the state's 35th district, which encompasses many Southeast island communities including Hoonah, Sitka, Kake, Klawock, Craig, Angoon, and Petersburg.


The Koyukon are an Alaska Native Athabaskan people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group. Their traditional territory is along the Koyukuk and Yukon rivers where they subsisted by hunting and trapping for thousands of years. Many Koyukon live in a similar manner today.

The Koyukon language belongs to a large family called Na-Dené or Athabaskan, traditionally spoken by numerous groups of native people throughout northwestern North America. In addition, due to ancient migrations of related peoples, other Na-Dené languages, such as Navajo and Apachean varieties, are spoken in the American Southwest and in Mexico.


A kuspuk () (from Yup'ik qaspeq; Iñupiaq: atikłuk) is a hooded overshirt with a large front pocket commonly worn among Alaska Natives. Kuspuks are tunic-length, falling anywhere from below the hips to below the knees. The bottom portion of kuspuks worn by women may be gathered and akin to a skirt. Kuspuks tend to be pullover garments, though some have zippers.Though kuspuks are traditionally a Yupik garment, they are now worn by both men and women of many Native groups, as well as by non-Natives. The garment was originally made of animal skin or gut and was worn over a fur parka to keep the parka clean. As stores became more common in Bush villages, kuspuks began to be made of calico grain sacks. Kuspuks are now generally made from brightly printed cotton calico, velvet, or corduroy trimmed with rickrack. Today, kuspuks are often worn as a blouse with pants.Many Alaska legislators and their staff members wear kuspuks on Fridays. The tradition was started by Representative Mary Kapsner (now Mary Sattler) of Bethel around 2000. The legislative dress code, however, requires that kuspuks be worn with dark pants. Legislators' enthusiasm for kuspuks has contributed to their rising popularity in the state.Travelers wearing kuspuks have faced scrutiny from the federal Transportation Security Administration because of the garment's looseness. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich have criticized this practice as culturally insensitive.Pope John Paul II was presented a kuspuk as a gift when he visited Alaska in 1981.

Michael E. Krauss

Michael E. Krauss (born August 15, 1934) is an American linguist, professor emeritus, founder and long-time head of the Alaska Native Language Center. As of February 2013, the Alaska Native Language Archive is named after him.

Krauss is known first and foremost as an Eyak language specialist, a language that became extinct in January 2008. However, he has worked on all of the 20 Native languages of Alaska, 18 of which belong to the Na-Dené and Eskimo–Aleut language families.

With his 1991 address to the Linguistic Society of America, Krauss focused awareness of the global problem of endangered languages. He has since worked to encourage the documentation and re-vitalization of endangered languages across the world.

Krauss joined the faculty of the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1960 and served as director of the Alaska Native Language Center from its inception in 1972 until his retirement in June 2000. He remains active in efforts to document Alaska's Native languages and encouraged awareness of the global problem of endangered languages.

National Bilingual Materials Development Center

The National Bilingual Materials Development Center was a division of the Rural Education department of the University of Alaska Anchorage which compiled educational materials for Alaska Native languages in the 1970s. It was directed by Dr. Tupou Pulu. The Center collaborated closely with the Alaska Native Language Center in Fairbanks.

The materials produced by NBMDC were primarily of two types: (i) elementary readers with accompanying line drawings; and (ii) "junior" dictionaries with entries in English and translations into Native language. Many of the materials made use of common templates so that text could be easily adapted from one language to another.

With the closing of the Center the rights to publication were passed to the Alaska Native Language Center, which still distributes and reprints many NBMDC publications. Archival copies can also be found at the Alaska Native Language Archive.

Ninilchik, Alaska

Ninilchik (Russian: Нинильчик) is a census-designated place (CDP) in Kenai Peninsula Borough, Alaska, United States. At the 2010 census the population was 883, up from 772 in 2000.

It is considered an Alaska Native village under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In the 1970s, villagers formed the Ninilchik Native Association Incorporated. Later the Ninilchik Traditional Council (NTC) was established as the government of Alaska Natives in this area.

The Alaska Native people of Ninilchik have ancestors of Aleut and Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) descent, as well as some Dena'ina. Many also include Russian ancestors, from a couple of men who settled here with their Alutiiq wives and children in 1847, and later migrants. Russian was widely spoken in the village for years. Due to the community's isolation, this Russian dialect continued much in its mid-19th century form. With some surviving speakers, it has been studied in the 21st century.

Tebay River

Tebay River (Alaska Native languages name meaning "a variety of sheep") is a waterway in the U.S. state of Alaska. It is located 36 miles (58 km) southwest of McCarthy, in the Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

Upper Kuskokwim people

The Upper Kuskokwim people or Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskans, Upper Kuskokwim Athabascans (own native name Dichinanek' Hwt'ana), and historically Kolchan, Goltsan, Tundra Kolosh, and McGrath Ingalik are an Alaskan Athabaskan people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group. First delineation of this ethnolinguistic group was described by anthropologist Edward Howard Hosley (who has specialized in the study of Alaskan Athabaskan cultures) in 1968, as Kolchan. According to Hosley, Nevertheless, as a group possessing a history and a culture differing from those of its neighbours, the Kolchan deserve to be recognized as an independent group of Alaskan Athapaskans. They are the original inhabitants of the Upper Kuskokwim River villages of Nikolai, Telida, and McGrath, Alaska. About 25 of a total of 100 Upper Kuskokwim people still speak the language. They speak a distinct Athabaskan language (as Upper Kuskokwim language or Dinak'i) more closely related to Lower Tanana language than to Deg Xinag language (formerly Ingalik), spoken on the middle Kuskokwim. The term used by the Kolchan themselves is Dina'ena (lit. «the people» as Tenaynah by Hosley), but this is too similar to the adjacent Tanana and Tanaina (today Dena'ina) for introduction into the literature. Nowadays, the term used by the Kolchan themselves is Dichinanek' Hwt'ana (lit. «Timber River people»). Their neighbors also knew them by this name. In Tanaina they were Kenaniq' ht'an while the Koyukon people to the north referred to them as Dikinanek Hut'ana. The Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan culture is an hunter-gatherer culture and have a matrilineal system. They are were semi-nomadic and as living in semi-permanent settlements.

Their neighbors are other Athabaskan-speaking peoples: Koyukon (north and northeast), Holikachuk (northwest), Deg Hit'an (south and southwest), and Dena'ina (south and southeast).

Languages of Alaska
Sign languages
Oral Indigenous
Manual Indigenous
Oral settler
Manual settler
Immigrant languages
(number of speakers
in 2010 in millions)

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