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Title: Ahtna  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Alaskan Athabaskans, List of traditional territories of the indigenous peoples of North America, Ahta, Indigenous peoples of Alaska, Dena'ina
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Pre-contact distribution of Ahtna (in red) and neighboring peoples.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
United States (Alaska)
Ahtna, English
Ahtna women near Copper Center, Alaska. Same source as photo 1966

The Ahtna (also Ahtena, Atna, Ahtna-kohtaene, or Copper River) are an Alaska Native Athabaskan people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group. The people's homeland called Atna Nenn', is located in the Copper River area of southern Alaska, and the name Ahtna derives from the local name for the Copper River. The total population of Ahtna is estimated at around 500.[1]

Their neighbors are other Na-Dené-speaking and Yupik Eskimo peoples: Dena'ina (west), Koyukon (a little part of northwest), Lower Tanana (north), Tanacross (north), Upper Tanana (northeast), Southern Tutchone (southeast, in Canada), Tlingit (southeast), Eyak (south), and Chugach Sugpiaq (south).[2]


  • Synonymy 1
  • Language 2
  • History 3
    • Origins and early history 3.1
    • European contact 3.2
    • 19th and 20th century 3.3
    • Present day 3.4
  • Culture 4
    • Governance 4.1
    • Architecture 4.2
    • Family life 4.3
    • Subsistence 4.4
    • Economy 4.5
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


The name Ahtena, also written as Ahtna and Atnatana, translates as "ice people." In some documentation the Ahtna have been called Copper Indians because of their ancestral homeland located in the basin of the Copper River and its tributaries in southeastern Alaska. The word for the Copper River in Ahtna is 'Atna' tuu" (tuu meaning water). Thus, "Ahtna" refers to the People of the 'Atna' River (i.e. The Copper River). The named Yellowknife has also been used in reference to the Ahtna's copper-colored knives; however, another tribe, the Yellowknives, are also referred to as Copper Indians.[3]


The Ahtna are an Athabaskan languages speaking tribe of the Subarctic Cultural Area, which classifies them as both Athabaskan and Subarctic Indians. Depending on the communities location along the Copper River, dialectal differences may occur. The Lower Ahtna (Ahtna'ht'aene) are near the river's mouth which opens into the Gulf of Alaska, the Middle Ahtna (Dan'ehwt'aene) are upriver a distance, and the Upper Ahtna (Tate'ahwt'aene) live on the upper parts of the river. The Tanaina people of the west are their closet linguistic relatives.[3] About 80 Ahtnas are believed to still speak the language.[1] In 1990 a dictionary was published by university linguist James Kari,[1] in order to preserve the language.[4] Several years later, the Ahtna People themselves published a noun dictionary of their language (The Ahtna Noun Dictionary of Pronunciation Guide: Ahtna Heritage Foundation/Ahtna, Inc., 1998, 2011 Revised).


Origins and early history

About 2,000 years ago the Ahtna people moved into the area of the Wrangell Mountains and the Chitina Valley.[5]

European contact

In 1781 the Russians made it to the mouth of the Copper River. Over the course of years, Russians would try to go up the river only to be pushed back by the Ahtna. In 1819 the Russians built a post at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers, which was destroyed.[3]

19th and 20th century

The United States would purchase Alaska from Russia in 1867. A U.S. military expedition led by Henry Tureman Allen in 1885 explored the Copper River and surrounding area.[3]

Present day

To take advantage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, the Ahtna formed Ahtna, Incorporated. The organization is a for-profit entity that oversees the land obtained under ANCSA. 714,240 acres were allocated, consisting of eight villages: Copper Center, Gakona, Gulkana, Mentasta, Tazlina, Chitina, Cantwell and Chistochina.



Traditionally, the Ahtna shared social structure traits similar to those Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Social stratification was represented in the governance of the community. Each village was ruled by a chief or tyone. Subchiefs, called skilles, served as council and helped to oversee the common people and servant class. Shamans also had political power and oversaw potlatch celebrations.[3]


In the summertime the Ahtna used temporary rectangular dwellings made of spruce and cottonwood. These structures had bark-covered sides and skin-covered entrances to provide access. In the wintertime, families lived in large semi-underground homes. As large as 10 feet wide by 36 feet long, these dwellings were constructed from wood and covered with spruce bark. Sometimes a second room was attached to be used for sweating rituals.[3]

Family life

When traveling by water, moose-hide boats were used. In the wintertime, snowshoes and load-bearing toboggans were used. When traveling by foot and carrying goods, people, usually women, would use a tumpline. The tumpline was made of animal skin or cloth and was slung across the forehead or chest to support a heavy load on the back.[3]


Traditionally the Ahtna hunted many different types of animals such as the moose, caribou, mountain sheep, and rabbits. Salmon was a staple, being caught with nets in rivers and streams. To support healthy prey populations, the Athna would monitor and reduce predator populations such as wolves, eagles and bears. For example, they would keep track of wolf dens in traditional hunting areas and by killing cubs. A central figure in their mythology, the Ahtna might prop up killed wolves and feed ceremonial meals to them. The Ahtna also gathered berries and roots.[3]


The Ahtna were historically part of a trade network with other Athapascans, the Inuit and the Tlingit. They would barter furs, hides and copper, and eventually manufactured European goods after encounters with the Europeans. Trade meetings would take place three times a year Nuchek on the Prince William Sound.[3]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "Ahtna". Languages.  
  2. ^ The Map of Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Carl Waldman (September 2006). Encyclopedia of Native American tribes. Infobase Publishing. p. 3.  
  4. ^ Carl Waldman (September 2006). Encyclopedia of Native American tribes. Infobase Publishing. p. 4.  
  5. ^ Karen Jettmar (28 June 2008). The Alaska River Guide: Canoeing, Kayaking, and Rafting in the Last Frontier. Menasha Ridge Press. pp. 376–.  

Further reading

  • Williams, Maria Sháa Tláa. The Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Durham: Duke University Press (2009). ISBN 0-8223-4480-7

External links

  • Official website for the Ahtna Heritage Foundation
  • Copper River Native Association
  • Wrangell's 1839 Comparative Word-List of Alaskan languages (includes Copper River Ahtna)
  • PARADISEC archive collection of Ahtna recordings
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