Observations of the Ahtna Indians

excerts from

Trailing and Camping in Alaska



In his travels, Powell recorded many anecdotes and cultural information about the Ahtna Indians of the Upper Copper River area. We give a few examples.



In more ancient times, their marriage ceremonies were accompanied with a feast given by the bride's parents, when the bridegroom presented them with all he could afford, to show to them his appreciation of their daughter. When the custom is now observed, the groom sings a verse of a song after the feast, pleading with the girl to go with him, as he has stored ample provisions for the coming winter, and is strong and willing to hunt, and to care for her when she is old.

The girl then sings a song wherein she announces her parental love and her content with her existing conditions. Then he answers that his canoe is moored to the river bank, and if she had come with him their trip on the water would have represented their life together; but as she has refused, he will go down the river alone, and in his wickiup moan for the one he loves. He bids them good-bye and before he unties his canoe, he generally finds that she has followed him, and in the moonlight, their friends from the shore watch the two paddle down the river together. Ch. XXIII. p. 183.



When these Indians break up camp to go on a hunt, or to some trading-post, they indicate how many persons have departed and the course that they took by sticking a pole in the ground for each person, and leaning it in the direction he has gone.

To each pole is attached a remnant of some masculine or feminine wearing apparel to indicate the sex of the person it represents. Age is indicated by the length of the pole.

A cache post, or the surface of an old tree near by, may be found marked with charcoal, or a lead pencil, if they should be fortunate enough to have one, bearing such a diagram as the following:

This would mean that a man with a gun, a squaw, a little girl and a dog had left the bank of the river, when the moon was half full; that their first day's travel will terminate on the bank of a creek, where they will camp on the near shore; that their next day's travel will terminate on the bank of another creek where they will camp on the opposite shore; and that at noon of the next day, they will make their final camp at the foot of the mountain.

These leaning sticks are generally left at every camping place along their trail, for the edification of other Indians. This explains what puzzles many white men, and that is: how the Indians are so well-informed about the movements of parties of white men as well as of Indians. If an Indian were in your camp, and knew of your number, it is probable, if afterwards you secreted yourself near your old camp, that you would find the Indians place some mysterious stick in the ground near the camp or your trail. Ch. XXIII. pp. 184-185.



I found a cabin in which I was sheltered for two days, while the wind blew trees down near by. Old Doctor Bellum, an Indian doctor, came in and entertained me for hours, narrating interesting details about his people's traditions and superstitions. He told of the war with the Tananas; how one night the Tananas quietly came down the river, and at daylight disclosing themselves in battle array, began firing on the Ahtnas. They killed about forty of the Copper River Indians, but the remainder retreated to the wood, deployed in the mountain passes, and killed thirty of the Tananas on their return.

He said the breath of Mount Wrangell (Unaletta) was poison; that the smoke from its crater once descended and killed several Indians when they were sitting around their campfire, near the mouth of the Tulsona, and that the Indians had accused him of causing the catastrophe. He employed Unaletta's smoke, he said, as a threat to control bad characters; and he informed me that Chief Nicoli had once sent six Indians up to examine the crater. That had happened "eleven snows yesterday" (1891), and they had not yet returned, but "may-be-so some time come back." Four others had gone in search of the six, and two of them, while looking over into the crater, had fallen dead from the effects of the poison they had breathed. Then he talked of the superstition of the Indians, and said they believed that he could look right through them and discover their wickedness.

Chapter XXII, p. 178.


Doc Bellum's ferry across the Copper River. "A few Indians earned a livelihood by running ferries across the rivers, but white men secured licenses for that privilege and took the industry away from them." Powell, p. 181. Miles Brothers photograph. P1986. 117.54. Courtesy of the Valdez Museum and Historical Archives, Donor: First national Bank, Valdez Branch.