Alaska is currently experiencing an extensive cultural and language revitalisation movement, which is evident in schools, government and in the media. Traditional place names are being recognised across the State, a prominent example being the official acknowledgement in August 2015 of Denali (Alaska and North America’s highest and best known mountain), which was previously known as Mt McKinley.
The historical experience of the colonisation process is markedly different in Alaska than elsewhere in the United States. The often violent conflict that characterises the colonisation process did not happen in Alaska. The remote and isolated nature of the inhabitation of the state probably accounts for this. The discovery of oil, gold and other natural resources happened throughout the 20th century and had a profound impact on the lives of the Indigenous peoples. This process changed Alaska dramatically and probably permanently with the discovery of North America's largest oil field at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Coast in 1967. The access the outside world demanded to these resources stripped the management rights of the Indigenous peoples to hunt and fish on their own tribal lands.
Alaska has been occupied by Indigenous peoples for over 10,000 years. It was colonised by Europeans in the 18th century and ultimately purchased by the United States from Russia in 1867, becoming the 49th state in the union in 1959. 15% of the population of approximately 700,000 are Indigenous (US census, 2010).
According to the Alaskan Native Language Centre, there are still 20 Indigenous languages being used in Alaska and approximately 5.2% of the population speak one of those languages. A Bill was signed in 2014 declaring these as official languages.
Four of the 20 Indigenous languages are spoken by the Eskimo. The term Eskimo is still used extensively in Alaska but in Canada it has been replaced by Inuit and is considered a derogatory term.
The indigenous peoples of Alaska include Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian and a number of Northern Athabaskan cultures. They are often defined by their language groups. The Indigenous people of Alaska are more closely related in culture and lifeways to the First Nations and Inuit peoples of Canada and the Indigenous people of Eastern Siberia than the Indigenous tribes of the contiguous United States. Alaskan Natives are enrolled in federally recognised Alaska Native tribal entities, who in turn belong to Alaska Native Regional Corporations, who administer land and financial claims.
The 1971 Native Claims Settlement Act overrides the sovereignty of the Indigenous Alaskans to their lands and extinguishes native land rights claims. This legislation created 12 Native regional economic development corporations. Critics argue that it hastened cultural genocide as Native stockholders sold land to outside corporations who have levelled forests and extracted minerals and oil. Conversely, supporters of the system argue that it has provided economic benefits for indigenous peoples that outweigh these consequences.
Alaska Natives have a lack of rights and independence compared to Native Americans and their lives and societies are impacted primarily by a range of federal laws. The various tribes effectively have no economic base and as a consequence are very dependent on welfare. Regrettably, the Indigenous population faces the same disparities across areas such as health, crime, education and social welfare that plague other Indigenous peoples in the western world.