Trade in precontact Alaska

Overview and Activity Suggestions

Overview and Activity Suggestions

Adapted from

Students spend two days traveling throughout Alaska, trading as they go. They explore universal principles related to trade and commerce while learning about Alaska's geography and indigenous people. By the end of the lesson, students are poised to trade with others outside of Alaska. 

The Enduring Understandings students will come away with include:

  1. Trade in Alaska is an ancient practice.
  2. Trade requires people who are sometimes at war with each other to think of peaceful ways of interacting.
  3. Trade supplies people in one region with material that is only available in another region.

Grade levels


Time required

Two class periods

Resources (in addition to the visuals embedded in this Learning Center)

Art supplies to make banners and advertisements

Teaching Strategies


1.   Open the class by holding up an item of clothing, or some other belonging, that came from outside your state. Ask how it got here. Guide students to consider the following:

a. Why wasn't it made in your state?

b. Where was it made?

c. How did it get here?

d. Is it valuable or not?

e. How do people decide whether it is valuable or not?

2.   Tell the students that they will play the parts of pre-contact Alaska Natives for the next two days. Explain that "pre-contact" means in the days before Alaska Natives had any contact with Europeans or Euro-Americans - in other words, long before Vitus Bering of Russia sailed along Alaska's shoreline in 1741.

3.   As Alaska Natives, students will be trading with their neighbors, who are members of other Native groups who speak a language different from their own. Look at the Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska Map on the "Trade is Ancient" page. Divide the class into five groups and review the cultural groups they represent:

a.   Southeast Alaska (consisting of Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Eyak cultures, all classified as "Indians" rather than "Eskimos"); for this exercise, their trading partners will be Athabascan and Sugpiaq people.

b.   Interior Alaska (consisting of 11 different Athabascan Indian groups); for purposes of this exercise, their trading partners will be Tlingits and Inupiat.

c.    The Aleutians and Southcentral Alaska (consisting of the Unangan/Aleut people of the Aleutian Chain and the Sugpiaq/Alutiiq people of the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and Prince William Sound, classified as neither "Indians" nor "Eskimos"); for purposes of this exercise, their trading partners will be Tlingits and Yup’ik/Cup’ik people.

d.   Southwestern Alaska (consisting of the Yup'ik and closely related Cup'ik people, classified as "Eskimos"); for purposes of this exercise, their trading partners will be Sugpiaq and Inupiaq people.

e.   Northwestern Alaska and the North Slope (consisting of the Inupiat and Saint Lawrence Island Yupik people, classified as "Eskimos"); for purposes of this exercise, their trading partners will be Yup’ik/Cup’ik people and Athabascans.

4.   Assign locations and cultures to each of the student groups. Discuss which groups will likely trade with each other. Consider proximity, easy travel routes, and differences in geography that would make one group have available resources that another would not have.

5.   Have students read the "Trade is Ancient" section included in this Learning Center. The "Regional Resources Made Trade Possible" page contains segments about each of the five culture areas.  Assign to each group the article about its culture and resources. Students fill in the My Resources Worksheet (click on the caribou caption to access the worksheet).


6.   Students learn the cultures of their trading partners by reading the sections in “Regional Resources Made Trade Possible” that relate to their assigned trading partners. They fill in My Trading Partner's Resources Worksheet (click on the clam photograph caption to access the worksheet).

7.   Discuss with students what makes an item desirable to someone else. Examples might be:

a.   The item is rare

b.   The item is beautiful

c.    The item is useful

d.   The item can be traded with someone else for something valuable

8.   The students’ task is to advertise the goods they have to trade so they can convince their trading partners to trade with them.  They work within their cultural groups to:

a.   Make banners proclaiming who they are

b.   Draw pictures of the items they wish to trade with other Alaska groups

c.    Decide a strategy for "selling" their goods to their trading partners 


Activity Suggestions Day 2

Activity Suggestions Day 2


1.   Students work briefly in their culture groups to perfect their presentations. Remind students to compare their list of goods with those of their trading partners. Remember that if a trading partner already has plenty of seal oil, he or she might not want more - unless he could be convinced that his other trading partner wanted some. Each group then makes a "sales pitch," lasting no more than five minutes, to its prospective trading partner.

2.   After all presentations, lead the class in a discussion about which groups were effective and why. Which groups seemed to have the most to sell? Without money, how would people decide how much to trade for an item? Which groups had the easiest travel routes? How similar were the resources each group had available? How does this exercise relate to trade today?

3.   (Optional) You might design a paper-based evaluation of student achievement.  Possible items you might test for include:

a.   Knowledge of Alaska’s geography

b.   Knowledge of the trade goods available to various Alaska Native groups

c.    Understanding of some of the trade routes

d.   Understanding of the challenges in pre-contact trade in Alaska

e.   Understanding of trade and its relationship to supply and demand, shortage, voluntarism, and lack of currency

4.   Explain to students that, starting in the late 1700s, Alaska Natives expanded their trade routes to include Europeans and Americans, and through them, Hawaiians and Asians. 


Trade is Ancient

Trade is Ancient

Look at objects made hundreds of years ago by Alaska Native people, and you can imagine that many of them made long journeys over high mountains and along raging rivers.  Alaska Natives traded for goods that came thousands of miles to reach them, and they did this long before there were planes or cars.  In fact, they traded long before any outside explorers from Europe or the United States came to this land.

Throughout Alaska, each group had its own set of resources available for trade. The items included raw materials such as copper, processed foods such as euchalon or seal oil, and fine handicrafts such as decorated moccasins.

Animal hides that could be used in making clothing were very important trade items in Western Alaska. They were so sought-after that they became almost like money. The types of hides traded depended on the area. For instance, coastal peoples harvested seals, and traded the hides to Interior tribes, while interior people had caribou, moose, and lynx hides.

Anything that came from only a few places became a symbol of wealth. Copper from the Athabascans and Eyaks of the Copper River area was one of these items. It was used to create the "tinneh" that were symbols of wealth among the Tlingit. Dentalium shells, originally harvested by the Nootka off Vancouver Island, became a symbol of wealth among the Dene or Athabascans. Jade from Inupiat areas was valuable to Interior Athabascans who used it to make strong adzes and axes. Puffin bills from the Aleut and Alutiiq areas were made into rattles in Southeast Alaska by the Tlingits.

Trading Partners

People traded only with those they trusted and liked.  For this reason, a Tlingit man would form a partnership with a Dene (Athabascan) man, and stay his partner for many years.  Yup’ik traders became partners with Inupiaq traders.  And so on.  These men would visit with each other’s families and learn some of their language, getting to know each other very well over many years of trading.

Even so, trading relationships were hard to keep up. Villages were far apart, separated by rugged terrain that was passable only at certain times of year. Water travel, which was by far the easiest way to travel, was available in much of Alaska only during the summer.

In addition, weather was often severe. Language differences kept people from communicating fluidly. The values of the goods shifted. Warfare disrupted trade, and periodic food shortages sometimes meant there was no surplus to trade.

Another challenge was in deciding how much the goods were worth. Their values shifted. During warfare or famine, there might be no surplus at all to trade.


Chilkat Robes Made Possible Only by Trade

One item shows how important trade was in the old days.  Beautiful Chilkat robes from the Tlingit area were made of mountain goat wool, which could be found only in the mountains.  Women twisted the wool with cedar bark, which they got from the southern part of Alaska.  The yellow dye that was used to make part of the design came from a lichen that is now called “wolf moss” and that grew far away in Dene territory in Alaska’s Interior.  One robe required material from three places that were hundreds of miles from each other.



Tlingits as Middlemen

The Athabascans (or Dene; the red area in this map) and Tlingits (the green area in this map) met to exchange goods up to three times each year, with their biggest trade fair held in the spring. To get to the Interior, Tlingits had to travel up the Stikine, Alsek, and Taku rivers, and over the Chilkoot and Chilkat passes. They headed to meeting places or villages they had agreed on during their last trading trip.

The journey would take several weeks. The traders would paddle and pull canoes where possible over water, trek across a glacier, and pack 100 pounds of goods on their backs across steep mountain trails thousands of feet high to reach their destination.  Altogether they traveled hundreds of miles for each trading journey.  They sometimes went as far as the Yukon River.  After trading with Dene, the Tlingit traders carried home moose hides, decorated moccasins, caribou hides, birchwood bows with porcupine gut string, and wolf moss to use as dye for their Chilkat robes.

The Chilkat and Chilkoot Tlingits, who lived in what is now known as the Haines and Skagway areas, held an important role in trading. They got goods from other groups living in Southeast Alaska and further to the south in what is now British Columbia, Canada.  They traded these goods with people in the Interior, bringing back from the Interior goods for trade among the Southeast villages. They had exclusive trading rights – which meant that no one else dared to walk their trails or trade with their partners without permission. Marriage with Dene women helped strengthen their relationships with Interior tribes.

From British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, the Tlingits carried furs, dentalium shells (a mollusk whose beautiful shells were used for jewelry), abalone, cedar bark, eulachon oil (from a small, oily fish, a species of smelt) and iron that had originally come from Europe and had reached Alaska through other trade routes. For these goods, Interior people would exchange moose hides, decorated moccasins, caribou hides, birch wood bows with porcupine gut string and the wolf moss.


Regional Resources Made Trade Possible

Regional Resources Made Trade Possible

Southeast Alaska Trade Items

The Tlingit, Haida, Tsmishian and Eyak peoples of Southeast Alaska traded amongst themselves and with tribes to the south and north. 

Tlingits traded as far north as the Yukon River, climbing through the Chilkat and Chilkoot mountain passes and following river valleys to reach the Athabascans. They also traveled by sea in large dugout canoes made from giant cedar logs.  On these long voyages, they traded with the Sugpiaq people to the north and other groups to the south. The Tlingits traded goods they got from one group to another tribe. For instance, they got dentalium shells in what is now British Columbia, then carried them to the interior to Alaska and traded them to Athabascans.

Closeup of blue mussels">Mussels


Among the many resources that the people of Southeast Alaska traded were:

  • greenstone for tools
  • clams, mussels, and chitons
  • yew wood
  • red and yellow cedar
  • deer skins
  • dried halibut
  • dried salmon
  • seal oil
  • herring eggs
  • eulachon oil
  • seal meat
  • berries in oil
  • Dentalium (a long shell that became a status symbol throughout Alaska, particularly among the Dene)

Sugpiaq and Unangax Trade Items

The Sugpiaq people (who also call themselves "Alutiiq") of the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and Prince William Sound traveled along the coast of the Gulf of Alaska in delicate-looking but strong skin-covered kayaks to trade with Tlingit, Eyak, and Athabascan peoples. They crossed passes and low points along the Alaska Peninsula to trade with the Yup'ik people of the Bristol Bay area and Athabascan people who lived near Lake Iliamna. The Unangax people of the Aleutian Islands (who also call themselves Aleuts) traded with their Sugpiaq neighbors and among themselves from island to island.

These people harvested and traded:

  • seal oil and seal meat
  • dried salmon
  • bird skins for parkas
  • volcanic obsidian for tools
  • caribou meat and caribou hides (only on the Alaska Peninsula)
  • whale oil and whale meat
  • sealskin for boat covers
  • ivory
  • walrus meat
  • berries in oil
  • iron (picked up along the beach from Japanese or Chinese shipwrecks)
  • Clams, mussels, and sea urchins
  • Herring and herring eggs

Yup'ik and Cup'ik Trade Items

The Yup'ik and Cup'ik people of the coasts and rivers of southwestern Alaska traded amongst themselves and with other groups. The people who lived on the coast traded with those who lived upriver, and vice versa.  They also traded with Athabascans and Inupiaq people. During the summer, they traveled by skin kayak along rivers and the seashore. The Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers were their main highways, allowing the Yupiit to head upriver to meet Athabascans traveling downriver. In winter, they drove dog sleds along frozen ground and rivers.

Yup'ik and Cup'ik trade goods included:

  • seal meat and seal oil
  • dried salmon
  • clay pots
  • beluga whale oil and meat
  • ivory
  • walrus meat
  • herring and herring eggs
  • berries in oil
Courtesy of North Slope Borough">Caribou


  • Caribou meat and caribou hides
Taken by katie from her window,in Anch~Alaska ">Moose


Athabascan Trade Items

Dene or Athabascan people lived in Alaska's Interior.  They traded with many groups, and through their trade relationships, brought goods from distant tribes to one another. They traded with the Tlingits, as well as with the Yup'ik and the Inupiaq people, following large rivers such as the Copper, the Yukon, and the Kuskokwim in their birch bark canoes and on foot or snowshoe.






Athabascans traded:

  • deer meat
  • moose meat
  • lichen for dye
  • birch wood bows with porcupine but strings
  • antlers
  • moose hide, particularly useful in making shoes and protective war vests
Baleen, plates inside a whale's mouth that filter food, has been used by indigenous and immigrant people alike for thousands of years.">Baleen


Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik Trade Items

The Inupiaq people of Alaska's northern coast and the St. Lawrence Island Yupiget traded amongst themselves and with Native peoples on the Russian side of the Bering Strait. They also traded with Dene (Athabascan) people of the Interior. Depending on their destination, the Inupiat and St. Lawrence Island Yupiget used large skin boats called umiaks or angyapiks to cross the Bering and Chuckchi seas or to travel up the many rivers of the area, or, in the winter, they drove dog sleds across frozen tundra.

Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yupik trade goods included:

  • whale meat and whale blubber
  • walrus meat
  • seal meat
  • baleen for lashings and sled runners
  • blueberries, blackberries, and cranberries
  • sealskin for boots and boat covers
  • walrus skin for boat covers
  • polar bear skins.

Europeans and Trade

When Europeans came, they found European-made beads and iron in some areas, even though no white person had ever been seen there. It was through trade for these items that the Native peoples knew something of the strangers before they arrived.

New trade goods from European and American traders brought many changes to the Native people of Alaska. Not only were new items available, but an entirely new system of trade and new relationships among traders developed.




To assess achievement of the objectives, use the following types of information:

  • Participation in class discussions
  • Completion and quality of written work (including worksheets)
  • Contributions to small group efforts (e.g., banners, sales pitches, drawings)
  • Completion of trade activity
  • (Optional) Your own test of the information and concepts taught during the unit

Academic Standards

Academic Standards

National Standards

Language Arts/English Standard 1: Reading for perspective

Language Arts/English Standard 2: Understanding the Human Experience

Language Arts/English Standard 7: Evaluating data

Language Arts/English Standard 9: Multicultural understanding

Economic Standard 1: Productive resources are limited.  Therefore, people cannot have all the goods and services they want; as a result, they must choose some things and give up others.

Economic Standard 5: Voluntary trade occurs only when all participating parties expect to gain. This is true for trade among individuals or organizations in different nations.

Economic Standard 6: When individuals, regions, and nations specialize in what they can produce at the lowest cost and then trade with others, both production and consumption increase.

Geography Standard 1: The world in spatial terms

Geography Standard 2: Places and regions

Geography Standard 4: Human systems

Geography Standard 5: Environment and society


Alaska Standards

Geography Standard A: A student should be able to make and use maps, globes, and graphs to gather, analyze, and report spatial (geographic) information. A student who meets the content standard should:

1. Use maps and globes to locate places and regions

2. Evaluate the importance of the locations of human and physical features in interpreting geographic patterns


Geography Standard B: A student should be able to utilize, analyze, and explain information about the human and physical features of places and regions. A student who meets the content standard should:

1. Know that places have distinctive geographic characteristics


Geography Standard D: A student should understand and be able to interpret spatial (geographic) characteristics of human systems, including migration, movement, interactions of cultures, economic activities, settlement patterns, and political units in the state, nation, and world. A student who meets the content standard should:

1. Know that the need for people to exchange goods, services, and ideas creates population centers, cultural interaction, and transportation and communication links


Geography Standard E: A student should understand and be able to evaluate how humans and physical environments interact. A student who meets the content standard should:

1. Understand how resources have been developed and used

2. Recognize and assess local, regional, and global patterns of resource use


History Standard A: A student should understand that history is a record of human experiences that links the past to the present and the future. A student who meets the content standard should:

5. Understand that history is a narrative told in many voices and expresses various perspectives of historical experience

6. Know that cultural elements, including language, literature, the arts, customs, and belief systems, reflect the ideas and attitudes of a specific time and know how the cultural elements influence human interaction


History Standard B: A student should understand historical themes through factual knowledge of time, places, ideas, institutions, cultures, people, and events. A student who meets the content standard should:

1. Comprehend the forces of change and continuity that shape human history through the following persistent organizing themes;

b. Human communities and their relationships with climate, subsistence base, resources, geography, and technology


Cultural Standard A: Culturally knowledgeable students are well grounded in the cultural heritage and traditions of their community.