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Chief Stickwan's two daughters holding buckets and carrying burdens on backs with trumplines, Klutina-Copper Center band of Lower Ahtna, 1903
Total population
Regions with significant populations
United States (Alaska)
Ahtna, English
Related ethnic groups
other Athabaskan peoples

The Ahtna (also Ahtena, Atna, Ahtna-kohtaene, or Copper River) are an Alaska Native Athabaskan people of the Athabaskan-speaking ethnolinguistic group. The people's homeland called Atna Nenn', is located in the Copper River area of southern Alaska, and the name Ahtna derives from the local name for the Copper River. The total population of Ahtna is estimated at around 1,427.[1]

Their neighbors are other Na-Dené-speaking and Yupik peoples: Dena'ina (west), Koyukon (a little part of northwest), Lower Tanana (north), Tanacross (north), Upper Tanana (northeast), Southern Tutchone (southeast, in Canada), Tlingit (southeast), Eyak (south), and Chugach Sugpiaq (south).[2]


The name Ahtena, also written as Ahtna and Atnatana, translates as "ice people." In some documentation the Ahtna have been called Copper Indians because of their ancestral homeland located in the basin of the Copper River and its tributaries in southeastern Alaska. The word for the Copper River in Ahtna is 'Atna' tuu" (tuu meaning water). Thus, "Ahtna" refers to the People of the 'Atna' River (i.e. The Copper River). The named Yellowknife has also been used in reference to the Ahtna's copper-colored knives; however, another tribe, the Yellowknives, are also referred to as Copper Indians.[3]


The Ahtna are an Athabaskan languages speaking tribe of the Subarctic cultural area, which classifies them as both Athabaskan and Subarctic Indians. Depending on the community's location along the Copper River, dialectal differences may occur. The Lower Ahtna (Ahtna'ht'aene) are near the river's mouth which opens into the Gulf of Alaska, the Middle Ahtna (Dan'ehwt'aene) are upriver a distance, and the Upper Ahtna (Tate'ahwt'aene) live on the upper parts of the river. The Tanaina people of the west are their closest linguistic relatives.[3] About 80 Ahtnas are believed to still speak the language.[1] In 1990 a dictionary was published by university linguist James Kari,[1] in order to preserve the language.[4] Several years later, the Ahtna People themselves published a noun dictionary of their language (The Ahtna Noun Dictionary of Pronunciation Guide: Ahtna Heritage Foundation/Ahtna, Inc., 1998, 2011 Revised).


Precontact distribution of Ahtna (in red) and neighboring peoples

Origins and early history[edit]

About 2,000 years ago the Ahtna people moved into the area of the Wrangell Mountains and the Chitina Valley.[5] Prior to that, their ancestors moved into the area of the Upper and Middle Susitna area about 7,000 years ago.[6]

European contact[edit]

In 1781 the Russians made it to the mouth of the Copper River. Over the course of years, Russians would try to go up the river only to be pushed back by the Ahtna. In 1819 the Russians built a post at the confluence of the Copper and Chitina Rivers, which was destroyed.[3]

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries[edit]

The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867. A US military expedition led by Henry Tureman Allen in 1885 explored the Copper River and surrounding area.[3]

Historical regional bands and dialects and present day Native Villages[edit]

There are four main dialect divisions and eight historic regional bands (tribal unions):[7] To take advantage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, the Ahtna formed Ahtna, Incorporated. The organization is a for-profit entity that oversees the land obtained under ANCSA (The Native Village of Chitina (Tsedi Ná) is organized by the Chitina Native Corporation). 714,240 acres were allocated, consisting of eight villages:[8]

  • Lower (Copper River) Ahtna or Atna Hwt'aene / Atnahwt'aene[9] (″People of the Copper River, i.e. 'Atna' River″)
    • Chitina (Tsedi Ná) / Taral (Taghaelden) Band - today: Native Village of Chitina (Tsedi Ná)[10] (Athna: ″Copper River″. Population (2010 Census): 126; Current Population: 93 (Population Year: 2018))[11]
    • Tonsina (Kentsii Cae'e or Kentsii Na‟) / Klutina (Tl‟atii Na‟) Band - today: Native Village of Kluti Kaah (Tl’aticae’e or Tl‟atii Na‟) (Athna: ″Mouth of Klutina River″ or ″Undercurrent River″, formerly the Native Village of Copper Center, the village Tl’aticae’e (Copper Center). Population (2010 Census): 328; Current Population: 317 (Population Year: 2018))[12]
  • Central Ahtna or Middle Ahtna or Dan'ehwt'aene
    • Gulkona (C‟ulc‟e Na‟) / Gakona (Ggax Kuna‟) Band - today:
  • Western Ahtna or Tsaay Hwt'aene / Dze Ta Hwt'aene (″People in the middle of the mountains, i.e. Nutzotin Mountains″, sometimes known as Hwtsaay Hwt'aene / Hwtsaay hwt'aene - ″Small Tree People, Small Timber People″)
    • Tyone (″chief″) / Mendeltna (Bendilna) Band - today: Native Village of Tazlina (Tezdlen Na') (Athna: ″swift water″, the village Tezdlen Na' (Tazlina). Population (2010 Census): 297; Current Population: 263 (Population Year: 2018))[14]
    • Cantwell (Yidateni Na‟) / Denali (Dghelaayce‟e) Band - today: Native Village of Cantwell (Yidateni Na') (Athna: ″Jaw Trail Creek″, English name: Jack River. Population (2010 Census): 222)[15]
  • Upper (Copper River) Ahtna or Tatl'a Hwt'aene / Taa’tl’aa Denaé (″Headwater People″)[16]
    • Sanford River (HwdinndiK‟ełt‟aeni) / Chistochina (Tsiistl‟edze‟ Na‟) Band[17] - today: Cheesh-Na Tribe (formerly the Native Village of Chistochina (Tsiis Tl’edze' Caegge); Cheesh-Na means ″blue ocher River″, the village Tsiis Tl’edze' Caegge (Chistochina). Population (2010 Census): 97; Current Population: 88 (Population Year: 2018))
    • Slana (Stl’aa Caegge) / Batzulnetas (Nataełde) Band - today: part of the Native Village of Mentasta (Mendaesde)
    • Mentasta (Mendaesde) Band - today: Native Village of Mentasta (Mendaesde) (Athna: ″shallow lake″, the village Mendaesde (Mentasta Lake). Population (2010 Census): 112; Current Population: 128 (Population Year: 2018))



Ahtna women near Copper Center, Alaska
Inherited titles[18]
Chief Name Translation + (Location)
Tats’abaelghi’aa Denen Person of Where Spruce Stands in Water (chief of village opposite Canyon Creek)
Taghael Denen Person of Barrier in Water (chief of Taral)
Ts’es K’e Denen Person of on the Rock (chief of site on W bank at Mile 127)
Hwt’aa Cae’e Denen Person of Beneath (the mountains) Stream Mouth (chief of Fox Creek village)
C’elax Denen Person of Fish Run Place (chief of Long Lake/Lakina village)
Bes Cene Ghaxen Person of Riverbank Flat (chief of Riverstag village)
Sdaghaay Denen Person of End of the Point (chief of village north of mouth of Chetaslina River)
Tsedi Kulaen Denen Person of Copper Exists Place (chief of Copper Village, five mi. below Dadina River on east bank)
Hwt’akughi’aa Denen Person of Area Extends below a Place (chief of site 1 mi. below Dadina R on W bank)
Nic’akuni’aa Denen Person of Where Land Extends Out (chief of Stickwan's village south of Wood Camp)
K’aay Denen Person of Ridge (chief of Kaina Ck site on Tazlina Lake)
Bendil Denen Person of Where Stream Flows into Lake (chief of Mendeltna Creek site on Tazlina Lake)
Sday’dinaesi Ghaxen Person of Long Point (chief of point site near Glennallen)
C’ecae’e Denen Person of the River Mouth (chief of site near Gulkana River mouth)
Sałtigi Ghaxen Person of Sałtigi (chief of Tyone Lake)
Stl’aa Caegge Ghaxen Person of Rear River Mouth (chief of Slana village
Mendaes Ghaxen Person of Shallows Lake (chief of Mentasta)


In the summertime the Ahtna used temporary rectangular dwellings made of spruce and cottonwood. These structures had bark-covered sides and skin-covered entrances to provide access. In the wintertime, families lived in large semi-underground homes. As large as 10 feet wide by 36 feet long, these dwellings were constructed from wood and covered with spruce bark. Sometimes a second room was attached to be used for sweating rituals.[3]

Ahtna family in 1898

Family life[edit]

When traveling by water, moose-hide boats were used. In the wintertime, snowshoes and load-bearing toboggans were used. When traveling by foot and carrying goods, people, usually women, would use a tumpline. The tumpline was made of animal skin or cloth and was slung across the forehead or chest to support a heavy load on the back.[3]


Traditionally the Ahtna hunted many different types of animals such as the moose, caribou, mountain sheep, and rabbits. Salmon was a staple, being caught with nets in rivers and streams. To support healthy prey populations, the Athna would monitor and reduce predator populations such as wolves, eagles and bears. For example, they would keep track of wolf dens in traditional hunting areas and by killing cubs. A central figure in their mythology, the Ahtna might prop up killed wolves and feed ceremonial meals to them. The Ahtna also gathered berries and roots.[3]


The Ahtna were historically part of a trade network with other Athabaskans, the Alutiiq, and the Tlingit. They would barter furs, hides and copper, and eventually manufactured European goods after encounters with the Europeans. Trade meetings would take place three times a year Nuchek on the Prince William Sound.[3]

The Ahata operate Ahtna, Inc., an Alaska Native corporation founded in 1971.[19][20] Ahata has provided services to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Port Isabel Detention Center since at least 2008.[19][21] The contract will earn Ahtna Technical Services (ATS) at least $800 million.[19][22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d "Ahtna". Languages. University of Alaska Fairbanks. Archived from the original on 13 January 2012. Retrieved 22 November 2011.
  2. ^ The Map of Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Carl Waldman (2006). Encyclopedia of Native American tribes. Infobase Publishing. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8160-6274-4.
  4. ^ Carl Waldman (2006). Encyclopedia of Native American tribes. Infobase Publishing. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-8160-6274-4.
  5. ^ Karen Jettmar (2008). The Alaska River Guide: Canoeing, Kayaking, and Rafting in the Last Frontier. Menasha Ridge Press. p. 376. ISBN 978-0-89732-957-6.
  6. ^ Smith, Gerad (2020). Ethnoarchaeology of the Middle Tanana Valley, Alaska.
  7. ^ "Native American Tribal Arts & Architecture, SUBARCTIC ARTS". Archived from the original on 29 September 2012. Retrieved 18 March 2011.
  8. ^ Ahtna, Inc. - Ahtna Villages
  9. ^ Ahtna Place Names Lists
  10. ^ Chitina Native Corporation
  11. ^ Copper River Native Association
  12. ^ Native Village of Kluti-Kaah
  13. ^ Native Village of Gakona
  14. ^ "Native Village of Tazlina (Tezlende)". Archived from the original on 1 March 2020. Retrieved 1 March 2020.
  15. ^ Kahtnuht'ana Qenaga: The Kenai Peoples Language - Dena'ina Territory and Place Names
  16. ^ Mt. Sanford Tribal Consortium (Kelt’aeni) - Tribal consortium of two federally recognized Tribes of Chistochina and Mentasta Lake
  17. ^ Ahtna language, Chistochina Dialect Archived 2012-11-11 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ James Kari: Copper River Native Places A report on culturally important places to Alaska Native tribes
  19. ^ a b c Rohrlich, Justin; Rawnsley, Adam (6 July 2018). "A Native American Tribe Has a $800 Million Contract to Run ICE Detention Centers". The Daily Beast.
  20. ^ "Welcome". AhtnaSTS. Archived from the original on 7 July 2018. Retrieved 7 July 2018. AhtnaSTS is a subsidiary of Ahtna Incorporated, one of the thirteen original Alaska Native Corporations (ANC) established by Congress in 1971 under the terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. We were organized as the natural business progression from the Simulations and Training Division of our sister company, Ahtna Development Corporation (ADC), who were themselves formed in 1975, and quickly began pursuit of government contracting opportunities.
  21. ^ "Contract - Ahtna Technical Services - HSCEDM-08-D-00002" (PDF). U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Archived from the original (PDF) on 18 June 2018. Services Provided: Operation of Detention Processing Facility at the Port Isabel Detention Center
  22. ^ "Banking on Detention: local lockup quotas & the immigrant dragnet" (PDF). Detention Watch Network. 2015. p. 9.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]