Alaska Native Values

The Onion Portage excavation site in 1967. Shows heavily stratified layers of different times of human habitation. Photo Credit: National Park System

The Onion Portage excavation site in 1967. Heavily stratified layers showing thousands of years of human habitation. (Click on photo to enlarge) Photo Credit: National Park System


Within Kobuk Valley National Park is an ancient archeological site known as Onion Portage. The Inupiaq called the area “Paatitaaq” meaning “wild onion” to describe a place carpeted by the wild onions and chives growing there.


Connected Lives Embedded in the Land

Dr. Lewis Giddings standing in front of the nine “stratified occupational layers” at the Onion Portage, excavation in 1961. Photo Credit: Doug Anderson

Dr. Lewis Giddings standing in front of the nine “stratified occupational layers” at the Onion Portage excavation in 1961. (Click on photo to enlarge)  Photo Credit: Doug Anderson

For thousands of years Alaska natives lived in Onion Portage because it was located on a major migratory path for caribou. Within this most inhospitable and environmentally challenging land, Onion Portage was a place that was rich in food and game.

Archeologist Lewis Giddings, who explored the area between 1940 and 1967 discovered nine different stratified layers showing evidence of human occupation dating from approximately 8000 – 6500BC to AD1700.

It’s stunning to think that people lived on that site from roughly the end of the Ice Age to the birth of Benjamin Franklin.  Though many thousands of years apart, the nine stratified layers found at the Onion Portage excavation represent people living in different times who shared cultural traits.  They also most probably shared core traditional values passed down from one generation to the next.

Alaska is made up of 11 distinct Native cultures, that also share core traditional values and ideals, like the people who lived in Onion Portage. Yup’ik remain the single largest Alaska Native group in the state, followed by Inupiat and Athabascans.


 Traditional lands of the 11 Alaska native cultures. Photo Credit: One of Many Feathers

Traditional Lands of the 11 Alaska Native Cultures. Photo Credit: One of Many Feathers

Traditional Values Shared by All of Alaska’s Native Cultures

                                 List Compiled by the Alaska Native Knowledge Network ANKN. Accompanying Quotes Provided by the Author.


Show Respect to Others  –  Each Person Has a Special Gift

“Tlingit people believe all life is of equal value; plants, trees, birds, fish, animals, and human beings are all equally respected.” Diane E. Benson



“If you’re going to break the (tree) branches off , talk to it.  They’re your friends.”  Grandma told them what to do.  Exactly what to do and how to do it.  “Don’t rush.  That’s your friend,” she said.  If you’re gonna break it off or chop on it, you talk to it before you hurt it.  They used to be people long, long time ago.  And they became a tree.  Good people.  That’s why they live today.  Still here.  Altona Brown, Athabaskan Elder from Native Wisdom for White Minds

Share what you have  –  Giving Makes You Richer

Know Who You Are  –  You Are a Reflection on Your Family

Accept What Life Brings  –  You Cannot Control Many Things

Qadanalscen’s Song

Another dark night has come over me.

We may never be able to return home.

But do your best in life.

That is what I do.”

Written by Dena’ina Elder Peter Kalifornsky’s great-great grandfather between 1811 and 1821. While his great-great grandfather was in California, Peter Kalifornsky said of him: “when Qadanalscen sang this song, he would take some soil from his home in Alaska that he kept with him and rubbed the soil on the soles of his feet.  This was a customary Dena’ina practice to ease the pain of homesickness.” From A Dena’ina Legacy.



Have Patience  –  Some Things Cannot Be Rushed

Live Carefully  –  What You Do Will Come Back to You



Photo Credit: The Telegraph

Photo Credit: Max Waugh, The Telegraph


The Story of Otter and Wolf

Otter and Wolf met each other on the tundra.  And the Wolf told the Otter,”How come your legs are so short?”  And the Otter says, “Well, that’s the way I am.  Wolf said, “I’m going to race you.  I’ll run to the end of the lake down there by that hole and see how long it takes you.”  So he ran down there, and the Otter came.  And Wolf said, “I beat you friend.”  Otter said “Okay.” And, “I’ll see you again sometime.”

So a year later or so, the Otter met the Wolf, and the Wolf was really skinny.  Otter said, “Gosh friend, what happened?”  He said, “Well I couldn’t kill anything anymore.  I couldn’t kill nothing.”  Otter said, “Well why don’t you come with me to my home and I’ll feed you.”  And he brought him and he had all kids of fish, piles of fish.  He started feeding this Wolf and making him fat again.  And he got fat and strong again.

Then Otter told Wolf, “You know why you got like that?”  And he said, “No.”  Otter said, “Because of me.”  You were making fun of me telling me how slow I am.  I can’t go very fast.”  But he said, “Now you see how it is to make fun of somebody.  And you don’t make fun of anybody and tell them how they are and what they look like or they’re helpless.”  Otter said, “It always comes back.”  So the Wolf thanked him and left.

That’s why you don’t in our language, or in our history — we don’t make fun of anybody or any animals or any birds or anything like that.  You don’t take little animals and take them and try to have them for pets, because there’s a reason for them to be here.  We all — they all have spirits.  Everything has spirits, no matter what it is: brushes, the trees, bugs, everything.  Of course we have to kill mosquitoes because they eat us.  But you know, I always feel bad for doing that too.  But you can’t help it.

But never make fun of anything.  That’s what my grandma told me.  So that Wolf learned from that experience.

Listen to this story told by Elder Gladys Evanoff in Dena’ina and in English

“The orator is compared in Tlingit to someone who brings a very long pole into a house. In handling words, as in handling a pole, a speaker must be careful not to strike or hit anyone’s face, or to break anything by accident. From Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory


Take Care of Others  –  You Cannot Live without Them

“People should live by choosing one another as friends to be happy, to joke with one another, and to love one another.”  Dena’ina Elder Peter Kalifornsky

 Honor Your Elders  –  They Show You the Way in Life

“Our elders used to say to us, ‘If you love people, you will talk to them of their future.'” from Wise Words of the Yup’ik People: We Talk to You Because We Love You

Pray for Guidance  –  Many Things Are Not Known

Whatever is on this earth is a person (has a spirit), they used to say. And they said they prayed to everything. That is the way we lived.” The Old Dena’ina Beliefs

“As an example of ritual, in some areas salmon would be harvested only after the first salmon went upstream and were properly honored through dance and ceremony. It was told that this was done so that the spirit of the salmon would return to its brothers and sisters and report that these were good people and that the salmon should give themselves to these people.” From Teaching Stewardship Through Native Legend


 See Connections  –  All Things Are Related

“At the core of Yup’ik views of non-Natives is their belief that all persons – including animals and ‘ircenrrat’ (extraordinary persons who can appear in either animal or human form) – are essentially related. Among the most profound expressions of this view is the well-known adage, ‘Ella-egguq allamek yuituq’, translated as “Humankind populates the world, and all people are one” and, more literally, “The world contains no others, only persons.”  from Wise Words of the Yup’ik People: We Talk to You Because We Love You

This Container of Wisdom Left in Our Hands


Panel from a Tlingit bentwood box (circa 1800's). The box is thought to have held a clan’s sacred objects or possibly the paraphernalia of a shaman. Credit: (Kathy Dye/Sealaska Heritage Institute)

Panel from a Tlingit bentwood box (circa 1800’s). The box is thought to have held a clan’s sacred objects or grave items from a shaman. (Click on photo to enlarge) Credit: (Kathy Dye/Sealaska Heritage Institute

 “We have only uncovered a tiny portion of the way our ancient people used to do things. How our grandfathers used to handle things is what we had given up, what you told us to look at. That is why we untied it. We had tried it, you see, our mothers’ grandfathers, our mothers’ maternal uncles, their culture, their language. We had given them up for ourselves.

You have untied it for us. That is why we will open it again, this container of wisdom left in our hands.” (George Davis, Tlingit Elder, 1980)

© Carol Horos, May 13, 2015