puffin home

Harriman Expedition Retraced



The 1899 Expedition
The 1899


Original Participants

Brief Chronology

Science Aboard the Elder
Aboard the

History of Exploration
Exploration &

Development Along Alaska's Coast
Growth Along Alaska's Coast

Alaska Native Communities


Alaska Native Communities on Harriman's Route

Excerpted from The Native People of Alaska by Steve J. Langdon, published by Greatland Graphics, Anchorage, 1978. Used with permission

Alaska's indigenous people, who are jointly called Alaska Natives, can be divided into five major groupings: Aleuts, Northern Eskimos (Inupiat), Southern Eskimos (Yuit), Interior Indians (Athabascans) and Southeast Coastal Indians (Tlingit and Haida). These groupings are based on broad cultural and linguistic similarities of peoples living contiguously in different regions of Alaska. They do not represent political or tribal units nor are they the units Native people have traditionally used to define themselves.

Alaska Native Language map

Alaska Native Language map. Source: Alaska Geographic Alliance.
Click image for a larger view

At the time of contact with Russian explorers in the mid-18th century, Alaska was occupied by approximately 80,000 indigenous people. The phrase "time of contact" means the earliest time when a Native group had significant direct interaction with Europeans. This time varied for different parts of Alaska; therefore Alaskan Native groups have had somewhat different historical experiences through their contact with Europeans and Americans.


Time of Contact for Alaskan
Native Groups



Southern Eskimo


Northern Eskimo


Interior Indians


Coastal Indians


In 1899, the Harriman Expeditions met people from the Aleut, Southern Eskimo and Coastal Indian groups. George Bird Grinnell, writing about these encounters, described them as "hasty and superficial," not surprising given that the Elder rarely spent more than a day in any port. But the expedition created an overview record of Alaska Native life at the turn-of-the-century, one that includes not only writings about the Native communities on the coast, but also the first known recording of Tlingit song, and the evocative portraits made by photographer Edward Curtis.

The Aleuts

Stretching like a rocky necklace from Asian to North America, the Aleutian Islands and the nearby Alaska Peninsula are the home of the Aleuts. The term "Aleut" was introduced by Russians and comes originally from the Koryak or Chukchi languages of Siberia; it appears to have been quickly adopted by the Aleut people themselves.

Aleut bidarka

An Aleut two-hatch bidarka, used in seal hunting.
Click image for a larger view

The Aleuts are distinctive among the world's people for their remarkably successful maritime adaptation to this cold archipelago. Some archeologists suggest that contemporary Aleuts are the descendants of a population which first established itself at Anangula Island more than 7,000 years ago. At the time of European contact, the Aleut population inhabited all of the major Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula as far east as Port Moller, and the Shumagin Islands to the south of the Alaska Peninsula.

Although reconstruction of Aleut culture and history is difficult due to the devastating impact of Russian contact in the 18th century, it is believed that the Aleuts were divided into nine named subdivisions. The total Aleut population is estimated to have been between 15-18,000 at the time of contact. The nine subdivisions are usually joined into western, central and eastern groups based on language. Population concentration was greatest among the eastern groups who had access to salmon and caribou. The Aleuts were a relatively long-lived people with a considerable proportion of the population more than 60 years of age.

Traveling with the Harriman Expedition, Grinnell noticed the profound influence that the Russian Orthodox Church had had on Aleut communities at Unalaska and in the Pribilofs. He also noted how difficult it had become for the Aleuts to maintain their subsistence way of life "under the changed conditions which surround them, and the increasing scarcity of the wild creatures on which they used to depend for food."

The Southern Eskimos

The most diverse group of Alaskan Natives are the southern Eskimos or Yuit, speakers of the Yup'ik languages. At the time of contact, they were the most numerous of the Alaska Native groups. Communities stretched from Prince William Sound on the north Pacific Coast to St. Lawrence Island in the central Bering Sea. The Yuit settled this vast region from west to east reaching the Kodiak archipelago and Prince William Sound by about 2,000 years ago.

Eskimo summer house

An Eskimo summer house and fireplace, Plover Bay, Siberia.
Click image for a larger view

The Yuit are usually divided into Bering Sea groups and Pacific groups. This classification is based on technological, subsistence and language differences. In the Bering Sea group, the major language spoken is Central Yup'ik. St. Lawrence Island Yup'ik is a separate language. The Pacific Eskimos all speak dialects of Alutiiq, another Yup'ik language.

In general, between 100-300 people could be found living in sedentary villages in protected locations during the winter. In the spring, family or extended family groups dispersed to various camps to obtain migratory waterfowl, salmon, caribou and other resources. Substantial movements of people throughout the spring, summer and fall was necessary to insure that adequate resources would be acquired before the winter.

In 1899, the Harriman party encountered Eskimos in Bering Sea communities of both Alaska and Siberia. Grinnell's descriptions of these communities reveal how closely the Eskimo communities were bound to the sea in every aspect of their lives. Food, clothing, fuel, materials for their homes and boats were all derived from the creatures they hunted in the sea. They made their hunting weapons from whalebone and walrus ivory, and carried their entire stock of possessions from summer to winter villages in sealskin bags.

Grinnell predicted that the Eskimos' immediate future was "gloomy." He knew that, with fur seals in serious decline, with commercial whaling and gold mining on the rise, these Eskimo communities could not long maintain their traditional way of life.

The Tlingit/Haida

Occupying the islands and mainland of southeast Alaska are the northernmost groups of the Northwest Coast cultures; the Tlingit and Haida Indians. They are well-known for their distinctive art represented in totem poles and other elegantly carved objects.

The Tlingit and Haida are more similar to Indians along the coast of present day British Columbia than to other Alaskan groups. The Tlingit occupied the vast majority of the area from Yakutat Bay to Portland Canal while the Kaigani Haida, whose Haida relatives occupied the Queen Charlotte Island off the north coast of British Columbia, controlled the southern half of the Prince of Wales archipelago. The two groups share similar social and cultural patterns; however, their languages are unrelated and they have distinct ethnic identities.

The Tlingit were divided into 13 units, sometimes erroneously labelled "tribes" (they were not tribes because there was no political unity at this level) to which the suffix kwan was applied. This terminology defines a group of people who lived in a region, shared residence in several communities, intermarried, and were at peace. The total Tlingit population was about 15,000 at the time of contact. The most numerous groups were those living on the Stikine and Chilkat rivers. The Kaigani Haida population was about 1,800 people at the time of European contact.

The Tlingit and Haida had similar settlement patterns which included relatively permanent winter villages occupied from October or November to March. From these villages, small groups of people dispersed to seasonal camps during the spring, summer and early fall.

Grinnell described the Tlingits as "a hardy race. Living on the shore, bold mariners and sea hunters, they are also mountaineers, familiar with the towering peaks, the dreadful cliffs, and the mighty glaciers of the iron-bound coast. In their frail canoes they venture far to sea in pursuit of the fur-seal, the sea-otter, and the whale." Harriman himself must have recognized the value of such skill. At Yakutat, he invited a Tlingit named James to accompany them as a guide for the rest of the expedition.

Material from The Native People of Alaska, by Steve J. Langdon, c. Greatland Graphics, used with permission.



Sealer's Camp


Sealer's Camp

A sealer's camp in Glacier Bay, Alaska.
Click image for a larger view

Unlike the Indian tribes of our Western States, most of which have treaties which the government by which they are support with the government by which they are supported wholly or in part, these dwellers along Alaska coast depend for their subsistence wholly on their exertions and draw their food largely from the sea.

George Bird Grinnell, writing about Alaska Natives, 1899.


For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

Home | 2001 Expedition | 1899 Expedition | Maps | Log | Educators and Students | Film | Century of Change | After Expedition | About This Site