Oral history on the upper Tanana Dene released

The Upper Tanana Dene, People of this Land  (University of Alaska Press), offers a portrait of an Alaska Native people both before and during the transformative changes of the 20th century. It centers around oral accounts from Dene elders born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Additional historical and anthropological information provides context. 

The upper Tanana region of eastern Alaska is bordered on the south by the Wrangell Mountains and on the north by the rolling Yukon-Tanana uplands. It’s a boreal forest landscape with broad river valleys, expansive wetlands, and abundant fish and wildlife that includes migrating herds of caribou. 

“It is a landscape lived in and lived with,” writes author and anthropologist William E. Simeone, who has lived there for 50 years.

While parts of Alaska felt Russian, missionary, and other influences earlier, the upper Tanana remained largely isolated until World War II, when the Alaska Highway was built. The book’s first eight chapters focus on life before then, when people in semi-permanent villages shared a matrilineal culture tied to the land.

The remaining three chapters portray a people struggling to maintain their culture in the face of missionaries, commercial trapping, statehood, and other colonial influences. The struggle continues as people, especially youth, migrate from the region. 

“They knew what they wanted to say to their children, grandchildren, and future generations,” says Simeone of the elders who provided interviews. The book includes essays, letters, photographs, and text in both English and Dene.


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