Trade in precontact Alaska

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.

Mussels
Closeup of blue mussels">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
Caribou
Courtesy of North Slope Borough">Caribou

Caribou

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

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
Baleen, plates inside a whale's mouth that filter food, has been used by indigenous and immigrant people alike for thousands of years.">Baleen

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.