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Ahtna Indian Fact Sheet (Atna)

Native American Facts For Kids was written for young people learning about the Ahtna tribe for school or home-schooling reports. We encourage students and teachers to visit our main Ahtna website for in-depth information about the tribe, but here are our answers to the questions we are most often asked by children, with Ahtna pictures and links we believe are suitable for all ages.

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    Ahtna Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Ahtna"? What does it mean?
Ahtna is pronounced "ott-nah." This is the native name for the Copper River, which runs through their traditional territory. Sometimes you will see their name spelled "Atna," "Ahtena," or "Atena" instead. Since the Ahtna language was traditionally unwritten, the spellings of Ahtna words in English are not always consistent.

Where do the Ahtnas live?
The Ahtna Indians are original people of southeastern Alaska. Here is a map showing the location of traditional Ahtna lands.

How is the Ahtna Indian nation organized? Do the Ahtnas live on a reservation?
Ahtnas in the United States do not have reservations. Like most Alaska Natives, they live in Native villages instead. The eight Ahtna Native villages are independent from one another, but they have formed a coalition called Ahtna Incorporated which handles land management and certain tribal government on behalf of all the Ahtna villages.

In the past, each Ahtna village was governed by a headman, or village chief. The headman was always male, and was chosen by clan leaders, usually on the basis of his leadership skills or medicine power and his family's prestige. Today, Ahtna villages are governed by tribal councils. Councilmembers are elected and can be either male or female.

What language do the Ahtna Indians speak?
Ahtna people speak English today, but some Ahtnas, especially elders, also speak their native Ahtna language. Ahtna is a complicated language with many sounds that don't exist in English. If you'd like to know an easy Ahtna word, "tsin'aen" (sounds similar to tsin-ann) means "thank you" in Ahtna. You can also read a Ahtna picture dictionary here.

Today Ahtna is an endangered language because most children aren't learning it anymore. However, some Ahtna people are working to keep their language alive.

What was Ahtna culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the Ahtna Heritage Foundation.
There you can find information about the Ahtnas in the past and today.

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How do Ahtna Indian children live, and what did they do in the past?
They do the same things any children do--play with each other, go to school and help around the house. Many Ahtna children like to go hunting and fishing with their fathers. In the past, Indian kids had more chores and less time to play, just like early colonial children. But they did have dolls, toys and games to play. Ahtna mothers traditionally carried their babies on their backs, using a moosehide strap called a baby belt to hold them in place.

What were Ahtna homes like in the past?
The Ahtnas lived in earth lodges. An Athabaskan earth lodge was made by digging an underground chamber, surrounding it with log walls and a thatched roof, and then packing the whole structure in layers of earth to insulate it. Since Ahtna houses were partially underground, they were larger than they appeared. Usually these houses had multiple rooms and each one housed several familes from the same clan. Here are some pictures of Native American earth houses like the ones Ahtna Indians used. Athabaskan people do not live in old-fashioned earth houses anymore, any more than other Americans live in log cabins. Ahtna people today live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Ahtna clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Ahtna men and women wore very similar clothing: a caribou-skin tunic, knee-length pants, and high moccasin boots. In cold weather they added mittens, long coats, and fur hoods. All of these clothing articles were frequently decorated with colorful beadwork in floral patterns. In winter, Ahtna people sometimes wore a one-piece combination of boots and trousers to keep out the snow. Here is a website with images of Athabascan clothes, and some photos and links about Native American clothing in general.

The Ahtnas didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. Normally they wore simple hoods or went bare-headed. For ceremonies, however, Ahtna people sometimes wore dance headdresses like this one, consisting of a beaded headband ringed with caribou fur. The Ahtnas painted their faces with different colors and designs for different occasions, and often wore tribal tattoo designs. Both men and women usually wore their hair long, sometimes pulled into a ponytail with a beaded hair ornament.

Today, some Ahtna people still wear traditional beadwork designs, but they wear modern clothes like jeans instead of hide trousers... and they only wear fancy regalia for special occasions like a dance.

What was Ahtna transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes, the Ahtnas used moose-hide or birchbark canoes to navigate the Copper River. Here is an article about Native boats. Overland, Ahtna people used tools like snowshoes, toboggans, and dog sleds to travel across Alaska. Today, of course, Ahtna people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes and snowshoes.

What was Ahtna food like in the days before supermarkets?
The Ahtna Indians were hunting people. Ahtna men hunted caribou, moose, and small game, and caught salmon and other fish in the rivers. Ahtna women gathered roots, berries, and other plants. Here is a website with more information about Native American food.

What were Ahtna weapons and tools like in the past?
Ahtna hunters used bows and arrows, spears, and snares. Fishermen used nets and basket traps. In war, Ahtna men fired their bows or fought with war clubs made from caribou antlers. Here is a website with pictures and information about Native American weapons.

What are Ahtna arts and crafts like?
Ahtna artists are known for their beading and basket making. Here is an online photo gallery of Ahtna, Tanaina, and other Alaskan Athabascan artwork.

What is Ahtna music like?
The most important Ahtna instrument is the drum. Northern Athabaskan people usually play small hand-held drums instead of large communal drums like Plains Indian people. Here is a video of Ahtna schoolkids singing and dancing a traditional song.

What other Native Americans did the Ahtna tribe interact with?
The Ahtnas traded frequently with neighboring tribes of Alaska, particularly the Tanaina. The Alutiiq were frequent enemies, who sometimes captured Ahtna people as slaves.

What kinds of stories do the Ahtna Indians tell?
There are lots of traditional Ahtna legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Ahtna Indian culture. Here is one Ahtna legend about a boy who turned into a salmon. Here's a website where you can read more about Ahtna mythology.

What about Ahtna religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Ahtna life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Ahtna people care about them deeply. You can read and learn about them, however. You can visit this site to learn more about Athabascan spiritual beliefs or this site about Native American religion in general.

Can you recommend a good book for me to read?
There are not many books for kids specifically about the Ahtna tribe. You may enjoy Children of the Midnight Sun, an excellent book about the lives of contemporary Alaska Native children. One of the eight children profiled is from the Tanana tribe, an Athabascan culture very similar to the Ahtna. Younger kids might like The Girl Who Swam With The Fish, a picture book based on an Athabascan legend. For older readers, we recommend Lone Wolf or The Trap, two adventure novels by an Ahtna author about modern Athabascan teenagers. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended American Indian books in general. Disclaimer: we are an Amazon affiliate and our website earns a commission if you buy a book through one of these links. Most of them can also be found in a public library, though!

How do I cite your website in my bibliography?
You will need to ask your teacher for the format he or she wants you to use. The authors' names are Laura Redish and Orrin Lewis and the title of our site is Native Languages of the Americas. We are a nonprofit educational organization working to preserve and protect Native American languages and culture. You can learn more about our organization here. Our website was first created in 1998 and last updated in 2020.

Thanks for your interest in the Ahtna Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Ahtna Tribe

Ahtna Indian Tribe
An overview of the Ahtna people, their language and history.

Ahtna Language Resources
Ahtna Indian language samples, articles, and indexed links.

Ahtna Culture and History Directory
Related links about the Ahtna Native Americans past and present.

Ahtna Indian Words
Ahtna Indian vocabulary lists.

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