Alaska Native culture

Northern Koyukon circa 1820-1900

Adeline Peter Raboff (Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan) submitted the following writing of research of the Northern Koyukon peoples. If you recall, she shared about an amazing map she helped to develop ( Please reach out to the Athabascan Woman blog if you would like to connect with her about her extensive research.

The story of the Northern Koyukon circa 1820-1900: A Very Concise Summary 

By Adeline Peter Raboff, 2021

There were two known groups of Northern Koyukon along the upper Noatak and Kobuk,Rivers; the Nendaaghe Hut’aane and the Saakił Hut’aane Koyukon. These groups no longer exist as communities.

The Northern Koyukon or some other early group went seasonally, through archeological evidence, to the upper Noatak River as early as 6,000 years ago, after the beginning of deglaciation in the area about 10,000 before present. Some of these early archaeological sites are associated with Iñupiat communities some with Athabascan communities. However permanent residence did not occur until somewhere in the 12th or 13th centuries. 

The story of the Northern Koyukon circa 1820-1900 by Adeline Peter Raboff

From all that I can gather most of the communities in the 1800s were multilingual, they spoke their own languages and dialect variations, plus neighboring language communities. At least enough to have trade relationships. There is no reason not to expect a few people to know upwards of four languages. Neighboring communities, whether Iñupiat or Athabascan were genetically related, both in the past and in the present.

The introduction of European trade goods as early as the mid-1600s in the region and especially after 1800 led to internal warfare and feuding. As a result, many people died, and others became refugees. This caused major shifts within each community, and region. Fur trade, in particular, brought on major shifts in diet. For instance, people ate more beaver and muskrat meat than they ordinarily would have, and their diet was not as varied during certain months.

Extraordinary volcanic activity in the South Pacific rim during the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s led to a period of cooler weather particularly in the Upper Noatak and surrounding coastal plains. The eruption of Tomboro, a volcano, in Indonesia in 1815 led to a worldwide mini-ice age. The effects of Tomboro lingered worldwide for a period of three years. Then closer to home, Mt. Wrangell erupted circa 1819. This stressed not only the people, but the animals and led to scarcity especially in the upper Noatak River valley. Later the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 further influenced movements in the region and a major caribou herd crash.

Since the Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon of the upper Noatak were surrounded north and west by Iñupiat communities, and interrupted a direct line of trade to the Iñupiat communities to the north and east, they were already in a vulnerable, coveted position. Hence the cooler conditions that led to scarcity and want in the region erupted into an orchestrated plan of removal and ousting of the Koyukon. Ernest S. Burch, Jr., estimates through genealogies, that this could have started as early as the 1790s, but no later than 1820. Using similar information and taking into account the volcanic eruption of Tomboro and Mt. Wrangell, I would concur.

Nendaaghe communities on the open tundra along the foothills of the Brooks Range were the most vulnerable. Consequences of the eruption of Tamboro, in April 1815, caused winter to come in the middle of summer. Surviving people and whole families fled both south and eastward across the high coastal plains. Keeping in mind that the Nendaaghe were exclusively and expertly caribou hunters of the Brooks Range, people who were related through marriage and trade partnerships went eastward into Di’hąįį, Neets’ąįį, Vuntut, and Dagoo Gwich’in territories. They were comfortable in the high treeless tundra. 

Immediately the three small Iñupiat groups along the Kuukpik (Colville) moved further up the tributaries they generally occupied at lower open tundra regions. In other words, moving southward into the Brooks Range.

The Nendaaghe who occupied the upper Noatak proper stayed on for a while longer, but eventually they moved in with their upper Kobuk relatives, the Saakił Hut’aane Koyukon. Then began the raids of attrition. People walked remarkable distances to conduct these raids. Through the Iñupiat stories of the region, at least one raid took place just south of Tigara (Pt. Hope) a minimally 500-mile round trip on foot.

After many years of hosting their warring relatives, the Saakił Hut’aane finally began to see the futility of these raids. Furthermore, all these raids and counter raids prevented good relationships with their Iñupiat neighbors and the free movement to hunt on the open tundra.

Finally, after the smallpox epidemic of 1838, which caused widespread death and destruction of whole communities along the lower Yukon and to a limited extent, the upper Kobuk, the Saakił Hut’aane had had enough. The devastation of this illness spread fear and uncertainty, and coupled with the exhaustion of chronic warfare, the Saakił Hut’aane decided to eject the Nendaaghe from their midst.

During this internal conflict, the Nendaaghe had the upper hand and would have defeated the Saakił, if it had not been for the last-minute appeal to their down river Akunigmiut Iñupiat relatives. They came up the river, and the Nendaaghe were defeated and forced to flee. They fled eastward into Too Loghe Hut’aane country which includes the present day Anaktuvuk Pass and further into Di’hąįį Gwich’in territory (Upper Koyukuk River).

The price for this assistance was that the Saakił Hut’aane had two choices, they could either become Iñupiat by the adoption of language and customs or they could leave the upper Kobuk for good. One can only guess at how these decisions were reached, but a large number with mostly Iñupiat relatives stayed in the upper Kobuk and became known as the Kuuvaum Kaŋiaġmuit Iñupiat and the Itqiliagruitch (presently Tinaaq)

The Nendaaghe followed their relatives across the Brooks Range, moving eastward. The refugee Saakił moved in two stages southward, the first group went to the north side of the Yukon River between the Koyukuk River and the Tozitna. The last group moved first into the region of the Melozitna River, and then in the late 1860s to the Dall River and the area of Stevens Village.

The Saakił Hut’aane found the Yukon River largely deserted, however they were not the only Koyukon group fleeing south and east due to Iñupiat incursion, there were also the Nozaat No’ Hut’aane of the upper Selawik River. The remaining Koyukon groups near the mouth of the Koyukon and lower down the Yukon, did not look kindly on these moves. This led to conflict in the region. Hopefully this will become someone else’s story of the region.

Gradually Saakił Hut’aane intermarried, and territories and dialects got adapted in the region, except for the Stevens Village dialect which remains closest to the original Saakił Hut’aane dialect of the upper Kobuk, since the Taghe Chox Xu’taana territory they entered was totally deserted. This group was the last to leave the Kobuk, making genealogy tracing more transparent between upper Kobuk and Stevens Village communities.

This left one larger group of Northern Koyukon in the Too Loghe territory, made up of surviving Nendaaghe with their Saakił relatives, and the Too Loghe Hut’aane. All three groups were related by marriage. By the mid-1840s they were struggling to survive, and the Iñupiat came upon a poorly fed group in the vicinity of present-day Chandler Lake.

Meanwhile the Kaniŋiq, Killiq, and Qaŋmaliq Iñupiat of the upper Kuukpik (Colville) pushed south in stages. By 1846 the remnants of the Nendaaghe and Too Loghe Hu’taane are found starving by Iñupiat men who tell them to move out of the area. Finally in circa 1846 the Kaniŋiq, Killiq, and Qaŋmaliq attack in force at Anaktuvuk Pass and chase out the survivors. This group later became known as the Nunamiut.

The late Simon Panniaq Panniak was the main source for this information.

Too Loghe and Nendaaghe flee south into the upper Koyukuk River along the South Fork right into the arms of Ditsiigiitł’uu Drit Khehkwaii the last Di’hąįį Gwich’in leader. Drit, incidentally, was no by-stander, he had been involved with these conflicts from the beginning, both as a mercenary and as one who initiated aggression. He took in all the Nendaaghe Hut’aane refugees, who adopted the Di’hąįį Gwich’in language and cultural ways. The Too Loghe traveled some ways down the Koyukuk, but stayed in the region, retaining their Koyukon language and identity. The Nendaaghe and Saakił Hut’aane Koyukon slide into historical obscurity.

Conflicts continued not only on the Koyukuk, but along the Yukon River in the vicinity of Ch’ataanjik (present-day Ray River). Ditsiigiitł’uu wanted a toe-hold along the Yukon River, but that never happened in his lifetime. His son or younger brother Gook’ahtii was at the Ray River until he was killed just before 1850. In 1851, Ditsiigiitł’uu Drit Khehkwaii was probably the Gwich’in leader who attacked Dobenhdaatltonh Denh a community northeast of present-day Allakaket. He brought back a number of women and child captives, whom he married off and raised within the Gwich’in territory.

All the Nendaaghe, Saakił, and Too Loghe descendants who became Gwich’in over the years no longer identified as Koyukon, but as Di’hąįį, Neets’ąįį, Draanjik, Vuntut, and Dagoo Gwich’in. By the first and second generation most never knew their forefathers were ever Koyukon.

By this time, 1847, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur traders were established in Fort Yukon. Shahnyaati’ Khehkwaii, a Tanacross refugee who came into the Yukon Flats sometime in the late 1830s, was firmly established as a Deenduu Gwich’in Khehkwaii and as middleman to every community in every direction of the fort.

There was very little movement in or out of the Yukon Flats that Shahnyaati’ did not condone.

After the death of Distiigiitł’uu Khehkwaii in 1855, the Di’hąįį Gwich’in gradually moved onto the Neets’ąįį and Draanjik Gwich’in estates through intermarriage. The Neets’ąįį Gwich’in estate was so large that earlier refugees were living in the Khiinjik (Sheenjik) valley to the Colleen River. The last groups moved to the headwaters and mouth of Teedriinjik along the Yukon River.

The Too Loghe Hut’aane Koyukon took over the former Di’hąįį Gwich’in lands in the Koyukuk River Valley, but retained their Koyukon identity. Later in the early 20th century they moved to Allakaket and further down the Koyukuk River.

It was during this time period that the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in established a powerful center for learning, not in the ABC sense, but in terms of cultural knowledge and the oral transmittal thereof to the younger generation. It became established because it was in a remote location, it was not along the main Yukon River thoroughfare, and the community although self-identified as Gwich’in people, were, although intermarried into the Gwich’in community, mostly Northern Koyukon in heritage.

This isolation contributed to their ability to survive various rounds of epidemic diseases which decimated other regions. Of course, epidemics did reach them, but not with the same impact.

Their knowledge of caribou, their habits, and how to harvest them served them well, it guaranteed their ability to remain independent of the severe harassment, and gross belittlement that other groups experienced more frequently. Their services were valued and needed.

Along with the traders came organized European religion. Enter Robert McDonald of the Anglican Church. Both the HBC traders and the clergy made efforts to learn local languages. It was the mission of McDonald to translate the Christian bible, the common prayer book, and hymns into Gwich’in. It was a monumental task which took him most of his life. He married a Gwich’in woman.

Starting in 1863, McDonald lived first in Fort Yukon, then after 1867 and the purchase of Alaska, in Old and New Rampart along the Porcupine River, and finally at Fort McPherson, NWT, Canada. This is very important, because the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in leaders wanted the young men to study this new religion, and not only that, but to learn to read and write. Wherever Robert McDonald went there was at least one Neets’ąįį Gwich’in man learning from him at his feet. By the turn of the century Gwich’in men were communicating with each other through the written word.

Then 1865 brought the scarlet fever which traversed the whole of the HBC trade route and died near the lower Ramparts of the Yukon River. All the indigenous porters died, all the young men for miles were gone. The HBC was desperate for porters since they had to get their furs to markets in the east coast. Shahnyaati’ suggested that the Neets’ąįį, Di’hąįį and Draanjik Gwich’in would make great porters, and recruited all the strong young men available. These 1st generation Gwich’in men portaged for the HBC for a period of ten years, at least until 1876. They travelled the length of the trade route, from Yellow Knife to the head waters of the Laird River, Peace, and Athabasca rivers which end in the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia.

It was during this period that 1st generation Gwich’in men (the Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon) literally repopulated may communities along the HBC trade route. In 1874, an HBC trader even reported on how the people from the West were repopulating the MacKenzie River Delta. Between my cousins and I, we have numerous 4th and 5th cousins in locations all over Canada and as far south as a family in Missouri, who trace their Native American ancestry to a Blackfoot woman.

In the 1880s the area wide crash of caribou herds in the Western Brooks Range also effected the Porcupine Caribou herd in the Eastern Brooks Range. Once again there were a series of volcanic eruptions, including Krakatoa (1883), in Russia, Iceland, Java, and Alaska which caused weather changes. It was a period of scarcity in which everyone was vulnerable.

A large number of Iñupiat families from Northwest Alaska moved eastward to the MacKenzie River Delta and southward. It is no wonder that my cousins and I, are related in the 4th and 5th generations to people in the upper Kobuk and to the people on the MacKenzie Delta, and the lower Yukon River.

Northern Gwich’in families migrated to the Yukon and MacKenzie rivers at least on a seasonal basis and also within Gwich’in regional territories. They were undernourished and in desperate straits. It was during this period that many people became Christianized. Food, medication, and more lucrative trade was offered to people who professed to be Christians, it became a matter of economic advantage.

Meanwhile the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in struggled to maintain their school of learning, until finally in 1898, famine struck most of Northern Alaska, there was no choice, but to leave. Many family members died. Change in the weather followed the eruption of Mt. Mayon in the Philippines, in 1897.

The community leaders with operational caribou corrals were the last to leave.

All the former HBC porters who were able to speak some English and were familiar with the ways of the influx of explorers, miners, trappers, traders, and had some knowledge of pioneer life in general moved to the Yukon River to make a living. They made sleds, warm clothing, snowshoes, and they chopped wood, ran errands between mining sites and local towns, they hauled goods and groceries, and even delivered gold dust. In short anything to feed themselves and their surviving family members.

At this time the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in were not used to being among so many Euro-Americans, especially men who treated them without regard to their true value as expert woodsmen and expert guides of the region. Instead, the Gwich’in experienced their first taste of virulent biological hatred.

Those tribal members who did not speak English found it harder to survive along the Yukon River, and they could not tolerate the behavior of the newcomers. They went back north, and also eastward into Canada.

All the knowledge of the cultural school was dispersed, south and east. Fragments of information remained for years here and there, with certain families and small groups.

The story of the Northern Koyukon did not die. It has survived through oral tradition and the will of a constantly adapting community. It has survived through genealogies and a cosmology based in knowledge of navigation through the stars.

However, if you live among a community of professional and amateur linguists, historians, and anthropologists, you soon realize that it’s one thing to tell a phenomenal story and quite another to prove it.


Enaa baasee’, Adeline, for sharing your research on the Northern Koyukon and peoples in northern Alaska. Sometimes people reach out to me to tell me we are 3rd, 4th or 5th cousins, and Adeline’s research helps me to see where those genealogical connections may come from. Please reach out to the Athabascan Woman Blog if you would like to be connected with Adeline and to learn more about her extensive research.