Snow in Science, Culture, and Climate

Snow and Alaska Native Peoples

People have lived in Alaska for at least 14,000 thousand years. The term Alaska Native refers collectively to eight cultural groups of indigenous peoples in Alaska. The plural form of the Native name by which each people refers to themselves is listed first followed by the more well-known English term in parentheses.

● The Iñupiat of northern and northwestern Alaska

● The Yupiit of western Alaska

● The Unangax̂ (Aleut) of the Aleutian Islands

● The Sugpiat/Alutiit of Kodiak Island and the southwestern Alaska mainland

● The Dene (Athabascan) people of Interior Alaska and the south-central coast

● The Tlingit of northern Southeast Alaska

● The Haida of southern Southeast Alaska

● The Tsimshian people of southern Southeast Alaska

Within each of the above designations, there are several sub-groups of people, each with its own distrinct traditions and languages but sharing cultural similarities within the same larger cultural grouping.

Map showing boundaries of Alaska Native cultures and peoples traditional range

Krauss, Michael. 1974 Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska. (Revised 1982). Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center (CC-BY-NC-ND-3.0-US)

Each peoples’ traditional homeland encompasses an area within which landscape and climate characteristics, including type, amount, and duration of snow, are fairly similar, but those landscape and climate characteristics may be very different from those characteristic of the homelands of other indigenous Alaskans. The southeast panhandle of Alaska receives lots of rain and little snow, south central Alaska often receives a lot of wet, heavy snow, interior Alaska tends to receive dry, fluffy snow, and northern Alaska receives a small amount of dry snow that is strongly influenced by wind. Over time, people have developed a deep understanding of snow and its interactions with people and other living things in the environments that they inhabit.

Today, many Alaska Native (and non-Native) people, especially in remote, rural areas, practice a subsistence way of life, continuing to hunt, fish, and gather food and natural materials as their ancestors did. The term subsistence encompasses cultural and spiritual elements as well as nutritional elements of living with and from the land. Some Alaska Natives, especially in urban areas, do not practice subsistence. Often, subsistence practices are combined with a cash economy-based lifestyle typical of most residents of North America. Still, cultural identity, including relationships with the natural environment, is important to most Alaska Native peoples, whether they live in an urban center, a remote village, or outside of Alaska altogether. Traditional knowledge, Native language, and material culture such as tools are just a few components of indigenous cultures that connect the past and present.

Traditional Snow Tools & Technologies

Dene (Athabascan) man and boy outside of cabin with wooden sled and snowshoes

Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska and Polar Regions Collections 2010-25-110

Indigenous Knowledge about Snow

Man on a snowmobile towing a sled on the snow-covered ice

Photo by Ansgar Walk on Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.5)