Guest Blog: Indigenous Commerce Networks

(Once again I’m lucky to have a smart and creative Ph.D. student working in the lab as an Intern this summer, Ms. Yoko Kugo. Thanks to the National Park Service for partial support of her internship. Her final project was an exhibit that illustrates the diverse trade networks used by Alaska’s Indigenous peoples in earlier times. Visit the 4th floor of the UAF Elmer E. Rasmuson Library to see the exhibit in person. Contact me if you want more information!)

Indigenous Commerce Network across Bering Strait and Alaska

Indigenous peoples of Alaska traded goods with other regional groups beyond their territories and across the ocean since time immemorial. Besides some regions having hostile relationships with their neighbors, many people cooperated to establish peaceful trading partnerships. In the Bering Strait, traders waved strangers empty hands or showed them furs and other trade items. They often brought women in the visiting party. In the interior to southeast Alaska, Athabascan women married Tlingit men and helped their husbands to estimate and judge the price of trading items. This illustrates that women played an important role for each society to maintain resources and wealth in peace.

Burch 1988 235 Chukchi trade

“Tuski and Mahlemuts Trading for Oil” by Henry W. Elliot, from Dall’s Alaska and Its Resources (1870)

This drawing shows Tuski (Chukchi) brought a woman and child to maintain peace when trading goods with Iñupiat. Notice the seal skin filled with seal oil. (Burch 1988, 235)

Language is an important tool for communicating with other cultural groups and maintaining local peace and exchange. Not surprisingly, Indigenous “businessmen” were fluent in multiple languages. The Bering Strait Iñupiat were familiar with the Chukchi language, while the Tlingit people in southeast Alaska communicated with other tribes along the Pacific Northwest Coast using the Chinook Jargon.

As seen on the map of Indigenous Commerce Network (Burch 1988, 236-237), Indigenous people traded with their neighboring groups for land mammal pelts, maritime products (seal oil, skins, ivory, shells), copper, jade, and wood. Some of these same materials are still valuable for Indigenous cultures to make handcrafts and regalia today.

Burch 1988 236-237-cropped JPEG

A Map of Indigenous Commerce Network (Burch 1988, 236-237)

Some raw materials used in the trading system are …


In the Indigenous commerce systems, Tlingit people obtained dentalia from the west coast of Vancouver Island. Since the interior Athabascan people valued dentalia used for personal ornament more than the coastal people, the dentalia became valuable for the Tlingit. The Tlingit people often called dentalia “the shell money.” The dentalium chief’s neccklaces were important status in the Athabascan culture.



Ch’etth’ena’ Necklace
Dentalium Necklace
Denalium shells, glass beads, moosehide, buttons, waxed thread
Unknown maker
(Tanana Athabascan) Minto  
Guilbert Thompson Collection
0737-0001 (UAMN)



Mr. Newton Collection
UA99-006-0005AB (UAMN)

Animal Furs and Skins

In the upriver region, the Yupiit traded goods with neighbor groups of Athabascans, obtaining birch bark to make canoes and baskets. Athabascans traded wooden utensils and land mammal furs (beaver, otter, marten, wolf, wolverine, fox, etc.) with coastal Yupiit to obtain sea mammal fats, skin boats (both umiaks and kayaks), dressed sea mammal skins, Siberian reindeer hide thongs and sinew, tobacco, and European copper and iron products.


Piluguut (Boots)
Bearded seal, wolverine and otter fur beaver fur calf skin, red cotton and yarn, dental floss
Unknown maker
Central Yup’ik (Nunapitchuk)
Wendell Oswalt Collection
UA70-053-0137AB (UAMN)

Russian-American Influence

In 1741, after Vitus Bering’s arrival in Alaska, the Russian government claimed the territory for themselves. The Russians’ first permanent trading station was built at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island in 1784 and it established the monopoly of the Russian-American Company in 1799. Russian Orthodox missionaries traveled along with fur traders and introduced Alaska Natives to Christianity. After several epidemics decimated Alaska Native populations in the mid-19th century and Russian men intermarried with Native women, many Alaska Natives accepted Christianity.

Commonly known as “Russian” trade beads. Beads were widely and used among the Alaska Native peoples.

“Beads were valued at so much according to color: Yellow 30 cents; Red 40 cents; Blue 50 cents. Chilkat.”

(Emmons 1991,56)


Trade Beads
Mrs. Bateman Collection
UA75-062-0002 (UAMN)

Alaska Natives’ traditional trading systems shifted from items-for-items to items-for-cash after the arrival of American whalers in the Bering Strait in the 1850s and the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. In order to obtain cash, many men and women used new items, such as commercial dye, cotton, and modern metals, applying their traditional skills to make objects for sale. Their traditional home-made tools were replaced by silverware, coffee cans, firearms, and other items. Those new handmade objects became authentic “Native Art.” Nevertheless, still today, many Alaska Natives recognize their traditional designs in their regions and perceive specific objects as a symbol of wealth. Their tool-making techniques, objects, and regalia show their identities, “who they are.”


Xaat Kákw
Spruce Root Basket, Cup and Saucer
Spruce root, maidenhair fern
Unknown maker
Henry Wolking Collection
0236-3993AB (UAMN)


Tobacco Pouch
Seal gut, cotton cloth, thread
Unknown maker
Unangax (Belkofski)
Dr. Harold McCracken Collection
UA74-067-0005 (UAMN)


Exhibit at the UAF Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, 4th floor


Yoko Kugo (L) and Angela Linn installing objects for the exhibition at the Rasmuson Library.

Selected Bibliography:

Black, Lydia T.

2004  Russians in Alaska 1732-1867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.

Burch, Ernest S. Jr.

1988  War and Trade. In Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska. W. Fitzhugh and A.Crowell, eds. Pp. 227-240. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Duncan, Kate C.

1989  Northern Athapaskan Art: A Beadwork Tradition. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Emmons, George Thornton

1991  The Tlingit Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann

2007  Yuungnaqpiallerput: The Way We Genuinely Live. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Gibbs, George

1970  Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, or Trade Language of Oregon. New York: AMS Press.

Laughlin, William S.

1980  Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Oswalt, Wendell H.

1990  Bashful No Longer: An Alaskan Eskimo Ethnohistory, 1778-1988. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Zagoskin, Lavrentiy A.

1967  Lieutenant Zagoskin’s Travels in Russian America, 1842-1844: The First Ethnographic and Geographic Investigation in the Yukon and Kuskokwim Valleys of Alaska. Henry N. Michael, ed. Penelope Rainey, transl. Arctic Institute of North America, Anthropology of the North: Translations from Russian Sources, 7. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.



Too much of a good thing?

I’ve decided that one of the problems with being an “object-person” and having a blog where I share my thoughts about some of my favorite pieces in our Museum collection is that it’s hard to know where to start! Sixteen-thousand objects is sort of a daunting number when you’re creating your first post… start with my favorite piece? Start with the newest piece? Start with the oldest piece? Hmmmm. All good options… or maybe something we know all about? Or perhaps something we know nothing about… there are certainly plenty of both in the ethnology & history collection at UAMN.

I guess I’ll go with a piece I first saw in the collection around 1997, while I was working on my M.A. in Cultural Anthropology at UAF, which resulted in the exhibit and publication,  Not Just a Pretty Face: Dolls and Human Figurines in Alaska Native Cultures.

Athabascan Doll, UAMN

The mysterious Athabascan doll. Photo by Barry McWayne. Copyright UAMN.

This doll and the associated pieces (catalog number UA78-15-1AF) came into the museum collection in 1978, purchased from a man in Delta Junction, Alaska, who found it in an old trunk that he had purchased in a warehouse sale. It is Athabascan in origin, probably made in the early 20th century. It is so intriguing, for a number of reasons. My predecessor, Ms. Dinah Larsen, who ran the Ethnology department for over 30 years, made some initial contacts to help her decode the assorted pieces and parts of this doll.

First, Dinah wrote to the Numismatic Division at the Public Archives of Canada, to see what they could tell her about the coin that was found tucked into the black silk ribbon that is wrapped around the doll’s body. The response came from the National Currency Collection of the Bank of Canada – the coin is a Canadian 25-cent piece struck during the reign of Queen Victoria, produced by Heaton Mint, Birmingham, England, some time between 1871 and 1890.

The next person Dinah contacted was Dr. Robert A. McKennan, a well-known anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in Interior Alaska and wrote a number of monographs on the Athabascan people of Alaska. Dinah included a photo of the doll, mentioning her thoughts regarding the original purpose of the doll, which was not as a child’s plaything but rather something more in the ceremonial realm. Dr. McKennan agreed. “I agree with you that it must have been more than an ordinary doll, and as you know, when faced with an insoluble question like this, anthropologists generally take refuge in the catch-all phrase of ‘ceremonial object.’ Certainly the care with which it was made, plus the profusion of ornaments, suggests such a use as a possibility, and to carry such a thought further, such a ceremonial use could have been continued over a period of time from the early contact era to the modern, which in turn might account for the increasing modernity of the decorative objects. However, I know of no such use of ceremonial dolls.”

This kind of dead-end happens frequently when you conduct research on museum objects that have no documentation when they’re acquired. However, to solve the mysteries, we have to go on and use our intuition and break apart the components of the objects, to see what we can decipher in bits.

Again, from McKennan’s letter of 1979:

The hair: Human hair, done in a style that appears Tanana, Gwich’in or Upper Yukon Athabascan. Also “suggests a male, but this is counterbalanced by the straight rather than pointed hemline on the coat. The nose ornament of course could fit either sex.”

The moccasins/boots: Similar groups.

The brass clock-parts: Often used in the early days for personal ornamentation.

Gloves: Mittens were, of course, the original form of hand-wear and gloves only came in after white contact. The dangling bits on the ends of the gloves’ fingers point to a ceremonial rather than functional use.


During my coursework for my MA, I showed this doll to a number of Athabascan elders, all of whom seemed a bit uncomfortable in its presence. Little was said of it… which could either indicate that they didn’t know anything and were unwilling to conjecture, or that they did not want to talk about it.

I continue to be intrigued by this small, complicated little object. It lives in a cabinet in our doll collection, with other Athabascan figures made for sale or use. I will keep asking questions about it, and maybe one day we’ll learn its true origins. Or maybe not… and that’s okay because it’s the discussions and the ongoing use of the piece that will keep it alive.

These mysteries that present themselves to me nearly every day that I work with this collection is one of the reasons why I am so in love with being a Museum Collections Professional.