Athapaskan Hunter photo and mannequin
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Athapaskan Hunter.
The Athapaskans, nomadic hunters and fishermen, did not have an extensive inventory of material culture. Great artistic effort was invested, however, in clothing, jewelry, and weapons. This hunter's tunic and leggings are of caribou skin ornamented with fringes, beads and dentalium shells. Shell earrings, nose pin, and tattoos augment the majesty of his appearance.

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map of Athapaskan region in Alaska
The area occupied by northern Athapaskan Indians lies directly south of the true arctic regions in a belt of coniferous forests broken in places by high mountains and stretches of treeless tundra. Except in the far western portion where the Rocky Mountains occur, much of this area is of relatively slight elevation, and there are numerous low, rolling glaciated hills. The climate of the region is is characterized by long, cold winters and short, warm summers. Snowfall is heavier than along the arctic coast, and in general the climate is quite different from the desert-like coastal areas inhabited by Eskimos.

If one were to select the single most consistent feature of aboriginal Athapaskan magico-religious belief systems, it would be the significant reciprocal relationship between men and the animals on which they were dependent for their livelihood. Superior-subordinate aspects were largely absent from this relationship, possibly because of a widespread belief in reincarnation in animal form. This belief tended to blur the distinction between animals and men, and to emphasize the fact that the spirits of animals had to be placated if men were to continue their exploitative relationship to the environment.

An important feature of social organization among many Athapaskans was the potlatch, a ceremony in honor of the dead that is best known as it occurs among Indians of the Northwest Coast. Among Athapaskans, the potlatch was most fully developed among western tribes, a fact that has led to the general belief that the trait diffused from the Northwest Coast into the Athapaskan area. The potlatch was the chief means by which an individual achieved prestige in his own or neighboring bands. If a man aspired to be a leader, he had to give a potlatch whenever possible, and the death of even a distant relative provided an excuse to celebrate and distribute gifts.

- James W. VanStone
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