Alaska's Many Cultures

Alaskans are the children of many nations. The legacy of Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos, Aleuts, and Athabascan, Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian Indians. The descendants of Russians, and rugged prospectors.

The rich tapestry of modern Alaska is woven with threads of proud Native cultures, hardy Russian explorers, and adventurous gold seekers.

Alaska's Native Cultures

There are seven distinct Native cultures in Alaska, and dozens of sub-cultures. The primary Native cultures are the Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos of the Far North, the Aleuts of the Southwest, the Athabascan Indians of the Interior, and the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian Indians of the Inside Passage.

These groups have distinct cultural traditions, art forms, and languages. Many Native people are bilingual in English and their own dialect.

Native Alaskans are the descendants of nomadic explorers who crossed a prehistoric land bridge that linked Siberia and North America. Those early travelers became the ancestors of Alaska Natives and other American Indian nations in the Lower 48.

Living a nomadic lifestyle, early Alaskans adapted well to a unique, often harsh environment and developed a spiritual world rich in tradition. Today, Native Alaskans play a vital role in the state's economy and society, while preserving their traditional cultures.

When Alaska Was Russian

The lives of early Alaskans remained basically unchanged for thousands of years, until Russian sailors, led by Danish explorer Vitus Bering, sighted Alaska's mainland in 1741.

The Russians were soon followed by British, Spanish, and American adventurers. But it was the Russians who stayed to trade for the pelts of sea otters and other fur-bearing animals, interjecting their own culture and staking a strong claim on Alaska. Once the fur trade declined, however, the Russians lost interest in this beautiful though largely unexplored land.

In 1867, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward offered Russia $7.2 million for Alaska, or approximately 2 cents per acre. At the time, some Americans scoffed at the purchase, calling Alaska "Seward's Folly" or "Seward's Icebox." The official transfer of Alaska to the United States occurred on October 18, 1867, in ceremonies at the Russian capital of Sitka.

The Great Gold Rush Era

Gold was discovered in Alaska as early as 1880. But the big gold rush came in 1897, when the cry of "Gold!" screamed across newspaper headlines worldwide, and more than 100,000 fortune hunters swarmed to the Klondike gold fields in Canada's Yukon. Wild with "gold fever," prospectors braved raging winter storms as they struggled to cross the Chilkoot Pass - the best known route from the Inside Passage to the river systems and gold fields of Canada and Alaska.

As gold was discovered in Nome, Fairbanks, and other locations, tales of rowdy frontier mining towns spread. While exaggerated, the stories helped Alaskans bring law and order to the wild territory - the first step in a long journey that ultimately led to statehood.

World War II brought roads, airports, and harbors to Alaska, providing easy access to once-remote outposts. In the next 50 years, fledgling timber, fishing, and mining industries began to flourish.

In 1958, the Alaska Statehood measure was finally passed by Congress, granting Alaska official status as the 49th state on January 3, 1959.

The Alaska Legislature has designated 1994 - 2004 as the Gold Rush Centennial Decade. Towns and cities throughout the state will hold a variety of special events in remembrance of the gold rush era.