True Path

True PathListening to Our Elders

According to Tribal Elders, Ut'axhwdilt'aey (God) is part of our live. In today's environment, our connection to Ut'axhwdilt'aey and our sacred ways tend to be forgotten. When we choose our true path, as Ut'axhwdilt'aey desires, Tribal relations remain strong and we celebrate life in a sacred manner.

Our Elders are the keys to our past and with their guidance and knowledge we can preserve our language, stories, songs, and dances. With their help we can renew our deep connection to the land, revive traditional ways to teach our grandchildren, and restore respect for Ut'axhwdilt'aey.

Roasted Salmon Place

According to the late Fred John, long ago the Ahtna People fought many foes to establish the village of Batzulnetas, the "Roasted Salmon Place." Batzulnetas, on Tanada Creek at the confluence with the Copper River, is a very important place with plentiful salmon. Generations of Ahtna people, ancestors and Elders of our present-day Clans, lived and thrived on the bounty of this special place.

Today the once-abandoned village breathes new life. Elders who once worked and played along the banks of Tanada Creek return to Batzulnetas for our summer culture camp where they pass on traditional life skills and values to their children and grandchildren.


Reclaiming Batzulnetas

The fish wheel did not always turn freely on the Copper River. In 1960, the State of Alaska closed all of the traditional fishing camps of the Upper Ahtna People. In 1984, Katie John returned to reclaim the fish camp at Batzulnetas. But when she tried to fish there, the Federal Government stopped her. Katie took the government to court and after a 16-year legal battle regained subsistence rights at Batzulnetas. Katie's battle has ensured that Batzulnetas will be a place where her many grandchildren can fish and learn the old ways.

Culture Camp

During the summer culture camp at Batzulnetas, children and Elders participate in activities focused on traditional life skills. The children learn by watching, then trying to master the different tasks. They learn how to cut moose, catch fish using a fishwheel, cut and dry fish, build and use a steambath, collect plants and roots, sew birch bark baskets, set animal snares, and to do intricate beadwork.

Culture camp allows us to return to our land and traditions. It is a time for Elders to speak to our children, to tell stories, teach our language, and help children rediscover traditional life and our unwritten Tribal laws.

SalmonPutting Up Salmon

Salmon are central to our way of life. Summer fish camp has always been--and remains--a critical event in the lives of our people. Fish camps are located along the river where each year the salmon return to spawn. In earlier times we used wooden fish traps and weirs built with poles and brush across the river. This brought in the big harvest of salmon needed to carry us through the long winter. We also used dip nets made of spruce wood and roots to scoop the salmon from the water. We still use dip nets today.

Gathering and Using Plants

Our land supplies many plants used for food and medicine. It also provides the wood we use to make our homes, fish wheels, and sleds and the bark and roots, to make baskets, baby carriers, and many useful items. Gathering and using plants is an important part of the heritage of this land.

Dall SheepHunting

Traditionally, fall was the time to pack up the fish camp and move to our high-country sheep hunting camps. Sheep are still an important source of meat. Sheep horn was used to make spoons and other utensils and the furs used to make warm clothing. Caribou are also hunted for meat. In the past, caribou hides were used for shelters and bedding. Today we use the fur to make warm linings inside boots. Dogs were always an important part of the hunt. Even before we used dog sleds we used our dogs to help pack out meat from the hunt.



Since moose arrived in greater numbers they have become a mainstay of our diet and subsistence lifestyle. Hunting and eating moose is an important way that we maintain our traditions. Moose meat is delicious and contains essential fatty acids, iron, and protein important for our health.

When we take a moose nothing is wasted. Everything is eaten or used--including the head, the hooves, and the stomach. Moose bones make nutritious soup and the hides are used to make many types of clothing.

BlueberriesGathering Berries

Many kinds of berries, rich in vitamins, are gathered in the fall. We enjoy eating fresh berries and we also preserve them for use during the long winter. We make jams, jellies, and pies or pack the berries in layers with sugar and store them in a cool place. In earlier times it was common to mix the berries with animal fat and store this mixture in birch bark baskets.




Today potlatches are held throughout the year, but fall--a time of bounty-- was the traditional time for memorial potlatches to celebrate Tribal unity and honor special people. A potlatch can be held to commemorate important events such as the naming of a child, a child's first moose kill, the adoption of someone into a clan or a funeral. It is a time of greeting and visiting with friends and relatives, and speechmaking by potlatch hosts, honored guests, and Elders. Traditional foods including moose meat, fry bread, fish, berries, and moose head soup are enjoyed throughout the event. Singing, drumming, and dancing are an important part of the many-day event. Potlatch gifts may include rifles, blankets, and fancy beaded clothing.

True PathLong Winters

In the past, we hunted every day during the winter but we survived mostly on caches of dried fish, meat, and berries. If the summer salmon runs were small, or if the sheep and moose were scarce during the fall hunting season, the winter months could be hungry months.

Stories to Live By

Storytelling and riddles enliven the cold, dark days of winter. Riddles and stories are part of our traditional education and help to develop mental patience, observation, and cleverness. Stories tell about the triumph of good over evil, life lessons, and our traditional values. They are an important way that we teach our language to our children.

Some stories teach ways to treat the land: Take only what is needed. Do not waste. Treat animals and the land with respect. These traditions help us to know the proper way to behave and to maintain harmony with our surroundings.


The steambath is the traditional method to refresh body and spirit and has always been important to maintain health and cure illness. The steambath was especially valued in winter when water was harder to get. Steam helps clean pores and heat-induced sweating rids the body of toxins, soothes sore muscles, and eases colds.

Beyond getting clean and refreshed, steambaths are used to support traditional learning. When you're old enough to join your aunt or uncle in the steambath, you're old enough for life's lessons. The steambath can also be used as a social event often enjoyed after a hunt, or to welcome visitors to the village.

Fur Trapping

Winter is the time to harvest fur-bearing animals. Pelts of wolverine, lynx, wolf, snowshoe hare, otter, marten, and beaver are highly prized for use in making clothing as well as for trade. We also eat the meat of some fur-bearing animals, such as beaver. Traditionally, furbearers were caught with snares and deadfall traps. We traveled great distances on snowshoes or by dog sled to check our traps. Today, we continue our tradition of trapping and the sale of pelts to provide supplemental income.

Spring Renewal

Spring is a time of renewal and preparation. In the past it was the time to clean out caches and prepare to move to summer fish camps. We had no problem with trash because everything was used. Today, our reliance on store-bought goods and food leaves large accumulations of bottles, cans, and plastic trash. In response to this problem, spring cleanups are organized and involve everyone in the community.

Broken appliances, machine parts, and abandoned cars are also a problem. A massive cleanup program organized people and special equipment to crush and remove over 300 junk cars that were slowly leaking poisons into our environment. Everyone, from children to Elders, helped.

Muskrat GraphicMuskrat Trapping

The return of springtime light and warmth is a welcome relief for our people. Spring was the time for muskrat trapping, duck hunting, and fresh meat. Muskrat trapping was a happy time with lots of visiting, catching up on news from other villages, and seeing relatives. Muskrat trapping continued well into the 1970's but today muskras are rarely found. When we are lucky enough to catch one we still enjoy eating roasted muskrat meat.

Healthy Children and Strong Communities

Our traditional lifestyle ensured good health for our people. A diet of high protein, fish oils, moose fat, calcium, berries, and plants rich in vitamins--and the vigorous exercise of the traditional lifestyle --kept us healthy and fit. Our deep connection to the land provided spiritual and mental well being.

Today, declining health is a growing concern. There is a major shift away from our traditional diet. The switch to store-bought foods, and a diet made up of simple carbohydrates contributes to diseases such as diabetes, and obesity in our villages. The loss of our lands, language, values, self-esteem, and meaningful work has led to depression, alcohol, and drug abuse. Health Programs in Chistochina and Mentasta provide health care services and education about diet and preventative medicine.

Mount Sanford Tribal Consortium provides health education in an annual health fair that brings the community together. School children and Elders talk about traditional approaches to health and diet such as the use of plants, steambath, and traditional foods. The students have created exhibits to share their new knowledge.


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