Trade in precontact Alaska

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.