stone boiling

Han (North American people)

The Han (also Hankutchin or Hän) are a Northern Athabascan that speak (or spoke) the Han language. Their traditional land centered around a heavily forested area around the Yukon River straddling what is now the Alaska-Yukon Territory border. In later times, the Han population became centered around Dawson City, Yukon and Eagle, Alaska.


The name Han is a shortening of Hankutchin, which is the Gwich’in word hangʷič̕in for the Han literally meaning "people of the river". This word has been spelled variously as Han-Kootchin, Hun-koo-chin, Hong-Kutchin, An Kutchin, Han Kutchin, Han-Kutchín, Hăn-Kŭtchin´, and Hungwitchin. The French traders called the Han Gens du fou, Gens de Fou, Gens de Foux, Gens des Foux, or Gens-de-fine. The name Gens de Foux (and variants) has also been used to refer to the Northern Tutchone, in which case the name Gens de Bois or Gens des Bois referred to the Han.


The Han were one of the last North Athabascan groups to have contact with European peoples. In 1851 the first white man (from the Hudson's Bay Company) entered Han territory. However, it wasn't until 1873 and 1874 (after the US purchase of Alaska) when two trading posts were set up. Contact with whites led to a shift from fishing-hunting economy to a fur trapping economy with increasing reliance on European goods (e.g., guns, clothing, canvas).

Traditional religion started being supplanted by Christianity.

Several epidemic diseases affected the population.



Historically, fish, especially salmon, was the main part of the Han diet. King salmon was caught along the Yukon River in June and chum salmon in August. Fishing tools included weirs, traps, gill nets, dip nets, spears, and harpoons. Salmon was dried and stored for winter consumption.

Between the salmon runs from June-September, the river camps were abandoned and other fish, moose, caribou, birds, bears, and other small game were sought after. Men hunted game (once after the salmon run and later for caribou in February and March) while women fished (for non-salmon fish).

Stone boiling in woven spruce-root baskets was a common cooking method.


A square semisubterranean house was made of wooden poles and moss insulation (called a moss house) and served as the main type of housing.

A temporary domed house made of skin was used when traveling.


The Han language is most similar to Gwich’in (Kutchin) and more distantly related to Upper Tanana and Northern Tutchone. The language was used as a lingua franca by Gwich’in, Tutchone, Tagish, and Upper Tanana peoples toward the end of the 19th century during the gold rush. The language is now the most endangered language of Alaska with only a few speakers (none of which are children).

See also


  • Crow, John R.; & Obley, Philip R. (1981). Han. In J. Helm (Ed.), Handbook of North American Indians: Subarctic (Vol. 6, pp. 506-513). Washington: Smithsonian Institute.
  • McPhee, John. (1977). Coming into the country. New York: Farrat, Strauss, and Giroux.
  • Osgood, Cornelius. (1971). The Han Indian: A compilation of ethnographic and historical data on the Alaska-Yukon boundary area. Yale University publications in anthropology (No. 74). New Haven, CT.

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