Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Adeline Peter Raboff – Author and Historian

Adeline Peter Raboff (Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan) reached out to me to share a new map she helped develop with the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve / National Park Service. It is a map of the estimated distribution of Inupiat, Koyukon, Gwich’in and Lower Tanana in 1800. 

Adeline has worked with the Park Service to get them out to schools. She says, “My main objective in getting this out to as many Alaska Native communities as possible is to make people aware that Alaska Natives have a history that didn’t just start with the first Russians, English, or Americans who came to Alaska. Present day Alaska history books begin with our ‘discovery,’ and Alaska Natives take up about 1/26th of the history of Alaska.”

Adeline is the author many books, including Inuksuk: Northern Koyukon, Gwich’in & Lower Tanana, 1800-1901, published in 2001. Her goal is to write a book about this history in this map.

I spoke with her about the map and our history. The map represents decade of research she’s completed by reading books and stories shared by her family and the peoples of the regions.

Here are some words she shared:

“To me, this map represents the beginning of writing the history of the northern Koyukon, which does not exist.”

“The assumption is that…people just lived in one community and they don’t go back in forth. The truth of the matter is that that all the Native Alaskans traveled great distances. … They went to local trading centers, they interacted. They were multilingual.”

I feel that history books have to start changing in Alaska. We have to say, ‘Well look, we had a history.’ And it should preface the event of exploration, the event of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the event of fur traders and gold miners. … We need more perspective from the Native Alaskan experience, because we were here.”

Athabascan and Inupiat Alaska, ca 1800 map. Courtesy of Adeline Peter Raboff

Description of the Athabascan and Inupiat Alaska, ca 1800 map:
The Athabascan and Inupiat peoples of northern Alaska two hundred years ago identified with one of four major groupings, each tied by a common culture and language. These included Inupiaq and three Athabascan languages, Koyukon, Gwich’in, and Lower Tanana. Within each language group, subgroups formed, whose members shared similar dialects and local customs. Land holdings for each were formally delineated, but conflicts, surrendering of land, moves in response to shifting caribou ranges and other natural resource fluctuations, and expansion or contraction of populations caused shifts in who lived where.

This map shows Athabascan and Inupiat lands reflecting geographic borders and cultural identities about 1800. Boundaries were generally agreed upon and were only crossed when there was a purpose. If there was unrest between groups, to avoid conflict, they were strictly adhered to. Still, there was considerable interaction across borders: some trading, some raiding, some friendly visits, some hostile. More permanent moves across lines involved cultural adaptations. New arrivals would often adopt the language of their new home, becoming multilingual. In the east, languages were predominantly Athabascan, in the west, Inupiaq.

How to get the map:
Since it was mapped out and printed by the National Park Service, they give them away for free in various locations in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Reach out to Jeff Rasic at: https://www.nps.gov/articles/jeffrasic.htm

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Growing up, I heard stories about how connected Koyukon Athabascan people are to the Inupiat toward the western coast. It was cool to hear this was in fact a truth she verified in her research. The other cool thing was to see the indigenous place names and peoples reflected on the map. I’m looking forward to reading the book, and I hope to see her dream come true of seeing this history reflected in history books. 

Enaa baasee’, Adeline, for sharing some information and stories of the importance of this research. 

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