Three cultures, a shared way of life
Once separated by the dramatic terrain of the Bristol Bay region, the Aleut, Eskimo, and Indian people encountered each other thousands of years ago while venturing out in search of resources. Today, the distinct customs, languages and traditions of these ancient cultures still define our region.
For centuries, rugged mountains kept the Aleut/Alutiiq people on the ocean-facing side of the Alaska Peninsula, where they subsisted mainly on fish and sea mammals. Skilled kayakers, the Aleut/Alutiiq made two types of craft: the small, decked canoe known as the kayak or bidarka, and the large, open boat called the angyat or baidar. Seals, whale, salmon, halibut, shellfish, and other sea creatures formed this culture’s main food source—as well as supplying the materials needed for clothing, boats, and lamp oil. Caught in large nets, sea birds like cormorants, ducks, and sea parrots supplied materials for parkas; whales were hunted with poison arrows. Bow and arrow and spear were used to hunt land animals like caribou.
The Eskimos on the Bristol Bay side of the peninsula were hunters and fishers who lived on caribou, moose, bear, and other mammals. Waterfowl and ptarmigan also sustained the Eskimos, along with salmon harvested with gill nets made of spruce root. Fish traps, harpoons, and weirs were also used for fishing; whitefish and bottom fish were caught with bone hooks. The Eskimos prized caribou—which they hunted with snares and bows and arrows—not only for their meat, but also for their skins, which were incorporated into clothing and traded. Eskimos also hunted moose and brown bear, whose skins were treasured as bedding and entrance hangings.
Living for centuries near the shores of Iliamna Lake and Lake Clark, Dena’ina Athabascan Indians relied on moose, caribou, and abundant runs of red salmon for food. They also hunted bear, beaver, porcupine, and waterfowl, and caught freshwater fish using canoes made of birch bark, moose hide, and cottonwood. The mischief-loving raven is the creator of the Dena’ina’s ancient world; their oral history abounds with raven stories intended to teach and entertain.
All three Native cultures of Bristol Bay were plant gatherers, harvesting berries, greens, mushrooms, seaweed, and other plants both as food and for medicinal purposes. Today, many Alaska Natives still celebrate the Native way of life in the areas settled by their ancestors, upholding a rich cultural heritage that encompasses subsistence living and traditional food preparation as well as dance, music, stories, traditional crafts and visual art forms.