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.



Those Invaluable Students!

During my fifteen years at the UAMN, I’ve been lucky enough to be on both sides of the “student assistant” job title. Starting in 1996 as a fresh MA student at UAF, I managed to get hired for student wages in the Ethnology & History department at UAMN. My curator and MA committee chair, Dr. Molly Lee, saw my enthusiasm and educational background combined with a strong baseline of collections work experience and gave me a chance to contribute to our mission.

Ethnology staff using a new "hands-on" collection piece, 1996. Copyright UAMN.

During the three years of grad school, my responsibilities in the collections lab went from being a “curatorial assistant’s assistant” to being the primary collections representative under our curator. After I graduated, I was lucky enough to get hired on as permanent staff, a position I am lucky enough to still hold today, despite budget cuts and economic downturns.

As a student employee, I had the opportunity to learn from senior staff in MANY different museum departments who were generous enough to act as mentor to me. As those long-term staff retired, I have suddenly found myself in the position of being one of those holding the institutional memory and mentoring all new students who are navigating their way through the uncertain days of their undergraduate and graduate careers.

Micole (Van Walbeek) Ogletree, 2008, installs objects for a special exhibit. Copyright UAMN.

Each school year (depending on the economy), I am able to hire at least one student to work in my lab to undertake basic collections management work. In addition, each summer I take on a student intern for an intense 6-week period of collections management and exhibition development.

John Smelter, 2009, works on preparing objects for his exhibit. Copyright UAMN.

Since Molly retired in 2008, I’ve found that I have less and less time to do the work I truly love, the hands-on lab work, cataloging, making boxes, and fine-tuning of collections organization. More often than not, I have to delegate this good stuff to my students.

Jen Crane and Pascale Jackson, 2004, packing history objects for our move. Copyright UAMN.

It takes time to train new students every year and to continue to provide them with support during the day for answering questions and keeping them moving in the right direction. But what a fulfilling way to add to the academic training of our students! Talk about a win-win scenario! We are achieving our mission of education and preservation all in one activity!

Museums with connections to universities are positioned to provide such a unique on-the-job training opportunity for students, I am thankful every day of my career. Had I not been exposed to this kind of work while studying at the University of Iowa, I never would have known about the options available to me at UAF. Each year I have new personalities to learn about and new generations to “understand.”

Leah Bright, 2011, removes old numbers from new accessions. Copyright UAMN.

These young people help keep me connected to our popular culture when it’s so easy to become disassociated while working in the basement all day… the new music and celebrity icons are just the start!

Pascale Jackson, 2003, packing collections during our museum expansion. Copyright UAMN.

Young people are our new audience for the public side of our museums and it’s critical that we in the collections world stay connected to what is happening out there in our cultures… changes are occurring every day and those changes have a major influence on how our exhibits and public programs are received. I guess this is one of the small ways I have found to stay connected, while getting work done at the same time.

To all of the students who I’ve been so lucky to work with over the past 15 years, I tell you again, thank you for a job well done!

Hiroko Ikuta, 2004, removes a drawer for cleaning. Copyright UAMN.

It’s been a pleasure to laugh and share hot-glue-gun burns with you. Some of you have gone on to work in museums while others have taken a different path. What is really important is the enrichment of one’s academic life that we can help provide, in addition to that paycheck (however meager!).

Briana Brenner, Emily Chagluak and Charles Hilton, summer 2011. Copyright UAMN.

Lyazzat Khamzina and Emily Moore, 2006, examine Tlingit beadwork. Copyright UAMN.

Conservator Monica Shah shows students Pascale Jackson and Candice (Smith) Krupa some basic cleaning techniques, 2005. Copyright UAMN.

Alysa (Klistoff) Loring, 2007, and her exhibit at the UAF Rasmuson library. Copyright UAMN.

Katrin Simon-Sakurai, 2005, works on rehousing bentwood bowls. Copyright UAMN.