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Tanaina Indian Fact Sheet

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

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    Tanaina Tribe

How do you pronounce the word "Tanaina"? What does it mean?
Tanaina is pronounced "tuh-nye-nuh." This word comes from their name for themselves in their own language, Dena'ina, which means "the people."

Where do the Tanainas live?
The Tanaina Indians are Athabaskan people of southern Alaska. Here is a map showing the location of traditional Tanaina lands.

How is the Tanaina Indian nation organized? Do the Tanainas live on a reservation?
Tanainas in the United States do not have reservations. Like most Alaska Natives, they live in Native villages instead. The Tanaina Native villages are independent from one another, but they have joined two coalitions, CIRI and the Bristol Bay Native Association, to handle tribal government and land management on behalf of Tanaina villages.

In the past, each Tanaina 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, Tanaina villages are governed by tribal councils. Councilmembers are elected and can be either male or female.

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

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

What was Tanaina culture like in the past? What is it like now?
Here's a link to the Tanaina Native village of Tyonek. There you can find information about the Tanainas in the past and today.

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How do Tanaina 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 Tanaina 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. Tanaina mothers traditionally carried their babies on their backs, using a moosehide strap called a baby belt to hold them in place.

What were Tanaina homes like in the past?
The Tanainas lived in earth lodges. Athabaskan earth houses were 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 Tanaina houses were partially underground, they were usually larger than they appeared. The largest Tanaina houses were up to 100 feet long. Usually these houses had multiple rooms and each one housed several familes from the same clan. Here are some pictures of a lodge like the ones Tanaina Indians used. Athabaskan people do not live in old-fashioned earth houses anymore, any more than other Americans live in log cabins. Tanaina people today live in modern houses and apartment buildings, just like you.

What was Tanaina clothing like? Did they wear feather headdresses and face paint?
Tanaina men and women wore very similar clothing: a caribou-skin tunic and trousers with moccasins attached to the cuffs. In cold weather they added mittens, parkas, and fur caps. All of these clothing articles were frequently decorated with feathers and porcupine quills. Here is a website with images of Athabascan clothes, and some photos and links about Indian dress in general.

The Tanainas didn't wear long headdresses like the Sioux. For formal occasions they wore headbands or leather hoods with fancy quillwork designs. The Tanainas painted their faces with different colors and designs for different occasions, and women wore Indian tattoo designs on their hands and faces. Both men and women kept their hair long, sometimes in braids, and wore shell necklaces, earrings, and nose ornaments.

Today, some Tanaina people still wear shell jewelry or a parka, 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 Tanaina transportation like in the days before cars? Did they paddle canoes?
Yes, the Tanainas used moose-hide or birchbark canoes to navigate the rivers. Here is an article about Canadian canoes. Tanaina people who lived near the coast often used Eskimo-style kayaks instead. Overland, Tanaina people used tools like snowshoes and toboggans to travel across Alaska. Today, of course, Tanaina people also use cars... and non-native people also use canoes and snowshoes.

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

What were Tanaina weapons and tools like in the past?
Tanaina hunters used bows and arrows, spears, and snares. Fishermen used nets and basket traps. In war, Tanaina men fired their bows or fought with war clubs. Here are pictures and information about Native bows and other traditional weapons.

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

What other Native Americans did the Tanaina tribe interact with?
The Tanainas traded regularly with the other Athabaskan tribes of Alaska, and also with the Alutiiq. They sometimes fought battles against the Alutiiq and the Koyukon, but at other times these tribes were peaceful trading partners.

What kinds of stories do the Tanaina Indians tell?
There are lots of traditional Tanaina legends and fairy tales. Storytelling is very important to the Tanaina Indian culture. Here is one Tanaina legend about the First Salmon Ceremony. Here's a website where you can read more about Tanaina mythology.

What about Tanaina religion?
Spirituality and religion were important parts of Tanaina life, and some people continue to practice traditional beliefs today. It is respectful to avoid imitating religious rituals for school projects since some Tanaina 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 beliefs 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 Tanaina. For older readers, we recommend The Dena'ina Way of Living, a good book of Tanaina oral history, photographs, and essays. Younger kids might like The Girl Who Swam With The Fish, a picture book based on an Athabascan legend. You can also browse through our reading list of recommended Native American children's literature. 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 Tanaina Indian people and their language!

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Learn More About The Tanaina Tribe

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

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

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

Tanaina Indian Words
Tanaina Indian vocabulary lists.

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