Athapascan Family

The most widely distributed of all the Indian linguistic families of North America, formerly extending over parts of the continent from the Arctic coast far into north Mexico, from the Pacific to Hudson bay at the north, and from the Rio Colorado to the mouth of the Rio Grande at the south a territory extending for more than 40° of latitude and 75° of longitude.

The languages which compose the Athapascan family are plainly related to each other and, because of certain peculiarities, stand out from the other American languages with considerable distinctness. Phonetically they are rendered harsh and difficult for European ears because of series of guttural sounds, many continuants, and frequent checks and aspirations. Morphologically they are marked by a sentence verb of considerable complexity, due largely to many decayed prefixes and to various changes of the root to indicate the number and character of the subject and object. Between the various languages much regular phonetic change, especially of vowels, appears, and while certain words are found to be common, each language, independently of the others, has formed many nouns by coin-position and transformed the structure of its verbs. The wide differences in physical type and culture and the differences in language point to a long separation of the family, certainly covering many centuries. Geographically it consists of three divisions: Northern, Pacific, and Southern.

The Northern division, known as the Tinneh, or Déné, the name they apply to themselves, consists of three groups: The eastern, the northwestern, the southwestern. The eastern group occupies a vast extent of continuous territory, bounded on the east by the Rocky Mountains and lower Mackenzie river, on the south by the watershed between the Athabasca and lower Peace rivers, Athabasca lake, and Churchill river. To the east and north a narrow but continuous strip of Eskimo territory bars them from Hudson bay and the Arctic ocean. Their neighbors on the south are members of the Algonquian family. This group seems to constitute a culture area of its own, rather uniform and somewhat limited on its material side. Very little is known of the folklore and religion of the people of this region. The principal tribes are the Tatsanottine or Yellowknives, east of Yellowknife river, the Thlingchadinne or Dogribs, between Great Slave and Great Bear lakes; on Mackenzie river, beginning at the north, the Kawchodinneh or Hares, and the Etchaottine or Slaveys; the Chipewyan on Slave river, the Tsattine or Beavers on Peace river; and some 500 miles to the south beyond the area outlined, the Sarsi, a small tribe allied with their Algonquian neighbors, the Siksika. The northwestern group occupies the interior of Alaska and adjacent portions of British territory as far as the Rocky Mountains. The shore lands to the north and west are held by the Eskimo, except at Cook inlet and Copper river. The people seem to have been much occupied with the severe struggle with the elements for a bare existence to have developed much material culture. They are usually distinguished into three principal divisions: The Kutchin of Porcupine and Tanana rivers., the middle course of the Yukon, and the lower Mackenzie (where they are often spoken of as Louchoux); the Ahtena of Copper river; and the Khotana of the lower Yukon, Koyukuk river, and Cook inlet. The south-western group occupies the mountainous interior of British America from the upper Yukon to lat. 51° 30′, with the Rocky Mountains for their east barrier, and with the Skittagetan, Koluschan, Chimmesyan, and Wakashan families between them and the Pacific. Theirs neighbors are the Salish. They are said to show considerable variety of physical appearance, culture, and language. The tribes composing this group are, according to Morice, beginning at the north, the Nahane; the Sekani; the Babine (Nataotin), on the shores of a lake bearing that name; the Carriers (Takulli), who occupy the territory from Stuart lake southward to Alexandria on Fraser river, and the Chilcotin (Tsilkotin), who live in the valley of the river to which they have given their name.

The Pacific division consisted formerly of a small band in Washington and of many villages in a strip of nearly continuous territory about 400 in. in length, beginning at the valley of Umpqua river in Oregon and extending toward the south along the coast and Coast Range Mountains to the headwaters of Eel river in California. Their territory was cut through at one point by the Yurok on Klamath river. These villages were in many cases separated by low but rugged mountains, and were surrounded by, and here and there surrounded, the small stocks characteristic of the region. The culture throughout this territory was by no means uniform, partly on account of the great differences between the conditions of life on ‘the sea-coast and those of inland mountain valleys, and partly because there was little intercourse between the river valleys of the region. For the greater part, in language there was a gradual transition through intermediate dialects from one end of the region to the other. There were probably 5 of these dialects which were mutually unintelligible. There were no tribes in this region, but groups of villages which sometimes joined in a raid against a common enemy and where the same dialect was spoken. The following dialectic groups made up this division: The Kwalhioqua in Washington; the Umpqua and Coquille (Mishikhwutmetunne), formerly on rivers of these names; the Taltushtuntude, Chastacosta, and Tututunne on Rogue river and its tributaries, and the Chetco on Chetco river in Oregon; the Tolowa on Smith river and about Crescent City; the Hupa and Tlelding on the lower portion of Trinity river; the Hoilkut on Redwood creek; the Mattole on the river of that name; the Sinkyone, Lassik, and Kuneste in the valley of Eel river, in California. But few of the members of this division now remain. The Oregon portion has been on the Siletz and Grande Ronde Reservation for many years; those of California still reside near their ancient homes.

The Southern division held sway over a vast area in the south west, including most of Arizona and New Mexico, the south portion of Utah and Colorado, the west borders of Kansas and Texas, and the north part of Mexico to lat. 25°. Their principal neighbors were the members of the Shoshonean family and the various Pueblo tribes in the region. So far as is known the language and culture of this division are quite uniform. The peoples composing it are the Navaho south of San Juan river in north east Arizona and north west, New Mexico, the Apache (really a group of tribes) on all sides of the Navaho except the north, and the Lipan formerly in west Texas but now living with the Mescaleros in New Mexico.

Not included in the three divisions described above are the Kiowa Apache, a small band which has maintained its own language while living on intimate terms with the Kiowa. They seem never to have been connected with the Southern division, but appear to have come from the north many years ago.

The tendency of the members of this family to adopt the culture of neighboring peoples is so marked that it is difficult to determine and describe any distinctive Athapascan culture or, indeed, to say whether such a culture ever existed. Thus, the tribes of the extreme north, especially in Alaska, had assimilated many of the customs and arts of the Eskimo, the Takulli had adopted the social organization and much of the mythology of the Tsimshian, the western Nahane had adopted the culture of the Tlingit, the Tsilkotin that of the Salish, while the Sarsi and Beavers possessed much in common with their Algonquian neighbors to the south and east. Passing to the Pacific group, practically no difference is found between the culture which they presented and that of the surrounding tribes of other stocks, and it is evident that the social organization and many of the rites and ceremonies of the Navaho, and even of the Apache, were due to Pueblo influences. Although in this respect the Athapascan resembles the Salishan and Shoshonean families, its pliability and adaptability appear to have been much greater, a fact noted by missionaries among the northern Athapascans up to the present day.

If a true Athapascan culture may be said to have existed anywhere, it was among the eastern tribes of the Northern group, such as the Chipewyan, Kawchodinne, Stuichamukh, Tatsanottine, and Thlingchadinne, although differing comparatively little from that of the northernmost Algonquian tribes and the neighboring Eskimo. Although recognizing a certain individuality, these tribes had little coherence, and, were subdivided into family groups or loose bands, without clans or gentes, which recognized a kind of patriarchal government and descent. Perhaps the strongest authority was that exercised by the leader of a hunting party, the difference between success and failure on such a quest being frequently the difference between the existence or extinction of a band.

Clothing was made of deerskins in the hair, and the lodges of deer or caribou skins, sometimes replaced by bark farther’s. Their food consisted of caribou, deer, moose, musk-ox, and buffalo, together with smaller animals, such as the beaver and hare, various kinds of birds, and several varieties of fish found in the numerous lakes and rivers. They killed deer by driving them into an angle formed by two converging rows of stakes, where they were shot by hunters lying in wait. The man was complete master in his own lodge, his wife being entirely subservient and assuming the most laborious duties. Infanticide, especially of female children, was common,, but had its excuse in the hard life these people were obliged to undergo. In summer transportation was effected in birch-bark canoes; in winter the dogs carried most of the household goods, except in so far as they were assisted by the women, and on the barren grounds they were provided with sledges. The bodies of the dead were placed on the ground, covered with bark and surrounded by palings, except in the case of noted men, whose bodies were placed in boxes on the branches of trees. Shamans existed, and their sayings were of much influence with some of the people, but religion does not seem to have exerted as strong an influence as in most other parts of America. At the same time they had absolute faith in the necessity and efficacy of certain charms which they tied to their fishing hooks and nets. Nearly all have now been Christianized by Roman Catholic missionaries and seem to be devout converts. For an account of the culture of the remaining Athapascan tribes, see the special articles under the tribal names and articles dealing with other tribes in the same localities.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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