Trade in precontact Alaska

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