The Athapaskans are the Native North American populations who belong to the Athapaskan linguistic family. This group occupies a vast territory that extends from the northwestern tip of the American continent (Alaska) to west of Hudson Bay, and, on a north-south axis, from the Arctic Circle to the north of the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. For the purposes of this article, only the northern Athapaskan populations will be discussed, that is, those located slightly below and slightly north of the 60th parallel. However, it is worth noting that populations of the Athapaskan linguistic family can also be found in the southwest United States. Keren Rice (1998) has made a list of the various Athapaskan languages and divided them into three major groups:

1. Languages of the West Coast: Kwalhioqua-tlatskanai (dialects of Willapa, Kwalhioqua, Tlatskani), Upper Umpqua, Athapaskan of the Rogue river (dialects of Upper Coquille, Sixes, Euchre Creek, Tututni, Chasta costa, Chetco-tolowa, Galice-Applegate), northwest California (Hupa, Chilula/Whilkut, Mattole, Bear River, Eel River, Sinkyone, Nongatl, Wailaki, Lassik, Kato).

2. Languages of the North: Ingalik (Deg xit'an), Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim (Kolchan), Tanana (Minto-nenana, Chena, Salcha-goodpaster), Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Tutchone, Han, Gwich'in (Kutchin), Ahtna, Dena'ina (Tanaina), Babine-Witsuwit'en, Carrier, Tsilhqot'in (Chilcotin), Tagish-tahltan-kaska, Sekani-castor, Slave (South, mountain, Bear Lake, Hares), Dogrib, Tchippewayan, Sarci.

3. Apachean: Navajo, Western Apache, Chiracahua-Mescalero, Jicarilla Apache, Lipan Apache, Great Plains Apache (Kiowa).

For an in-depth study of the northern Athapaskan languages, the reader can refer to the work of linguists such as Keren Rice, Leslie Saxon, and Gillian Story, as well as to the dictionaries of missionary Emile Petitot or his monograph on the Dene-Dindjie written in 1876, works that count among the first on the Athapaskan languages of the north.

Aboriginal population (Athapaskan and other groups) in these regions is not a majority, as the Inuit are in Nunavut; however, they form a significant proportion of the population. In 2001, there were 5600 Indians in Yukon for a total of 28,520 inhabitants in the territory (20%). In the Northwest Territories in 2000, there were 10,615 Indians for a total of 37,100 inhabitants in the territory (29%). In Alaska in 2000, there were 15.6% American Indian and Alaska Native persons for a total of 634,892 habitants in the state (US census bureau).

The overall territory inhabited by northern Athapaskans covers several ecological zones, from tundra to boreal forest, mountainous (Subarctic mountain range), and the plateaus of Alaska. The northern Athapaskans are generally divided into eastern and western groups (anthropologists who have worked on the northern Athapaskans do not all register the same number of populations, and spellings of names vary according to authors). These are principally: in the west—the Ingalik (western Alaska), the Koyukon (western Alaska), the Kolchan (western Alaska), the Tanaina (southwest Alaska), the Tanana (central western Alaska), the Ahtna (southwest Alaska—Copper

River basin and Wrangler mountains), and the Nabena (Yukon-Alaska); and in the east—the Witsuwit'in (northern British Columbia), the Gwich'in (Yukon-Alaska), the Han (central Alaska), the northern and southern Tutchone, the Hares (Yukon), the Montagnards (Mackenzie), the Kaska, the Tlingit of the interior, the Tagish, the Tsetsaut, the Tahltan (northwestern British Columbia), the Yellowknife (Northwest Territories), the Dogrib (Northwest Territories), the Dene Tha (Slavey) (northwestern Alberta—southern Northwest Territories), the Chipewyan (Northwest Territories), and the Dune Za (Beaver) (Alberta and British Columbia—Peace River basin). This division between East and West is made according to social organization and lifestyles, although within each group there is great cultural diversity. The boundary between the two groups is the Mackenzie River. The Athapaskans of Canada are designated by the ethnonym Dene or, more commonly, Dene.

Traditionally, northern Athapaskans living in the eastern part of the region considered here were semi-nomadic populations whose staple diet was caribou. They show great similarities with general eastern Subarctic populations such as Allgonquin. They followed a seasonal cycle of movement on their home territory in accordance with the migrations of the caribou. Hence, winters were spent in the woodlands and summers in the tundra. In summer, different bands regrouped and caribou were hunted in extended family groups. The animal was either driven into enclosures or killed from a canoe with a spear as it crossed a river. In the West and in the forests, moose and deer were hunted in preference to caribou, and salmon represented a substantial source of food. The large summer catches coincided with a period of settlement and intense social activity.

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