Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Tanaina have traditionally been hunters, gatherers, and fishermen. Fish, particularly salmon, has been the basis of the subsistence economy both prehistorically and today. The abundance of salmon during the summer runs and fish preservation techniques made possible permanent winter villages in most areas. Freshwater fish were also exploited. Seal hunting was conducted both at Iliamna Lake and in Cook Inlet. Moose, caribou, bear, and mountain sheep were important resources, but small mammals such as porcupine, squirrel, and hares were also significant. Wild berries were abundant in summer; other wild plants were gathered where available. Fur-bearing animals were trapped for personal use and trade. These Subsistence activities persist today, particularly in more remote villages, and many villagers maintain small vegetable gardens.
Fish canneries opened after 1880 and monopolized the best salmon-fishing streams. Tanaina began to work for salmon canneries after 1915 and became directly involved in commercial fishing in Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet after 1940; today many obtain a major part of their income from this activity. Game and fur-bearing animals became more scarce from overhunting, but fur trapping still provides supplemental income for some, although its importance has declined. A few own small planes and make commercial flights locally; others guide vacationing hunters and fishers, work for Government installations, or take wage employment in larger towns and cities.
The only domestic animal is the dog. It was used for packing and hunting in prehistoric times. Teams of sled dogs were maintained until the mid-twentieth century, and some people still use them.
Trade. Tanaina, like other southern Alaskan societies, maintained extensive intra- and intertribal trade and trade fairs in precontact times. Trade items included furs, caribou skins, native copper, porcupine quills, sea mammal products, dentalium shells, and slaves. After contact, the Russians also supplied dentalium shells from southeastern Alaska as well as glass beads, and metal products, especially iron. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Tanaina began to trade some of their furs to Russians, and trade, especially between the Kenai Tanaina and the Russian-American Company, increased. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, the assets of the Russian-American Company were assumed by the Alaska Commercial Company. The price of furs dropped considerably at the end of the nineteenth Century. In 1911, the Alaska Commercial Company sold its interests in the area to private traders. Since that time, the fur trade has become almost moribund.
Industrial Arts. Aboriginally, stone flaking and grinding were the techniques for manufacturing cutting and piercing weapons. Hammered copper was also used for arrowheads and knives. Bone and antler were used for tools as well. The, sinew-backed bow and arrows and the spear and spear thrower were the primary weapons. Skins were worked into clothes and foot gear. Basketry, birchbark, wood, and hide provided containers. Birchbark canoes, moose-skin boats, and sealskin open and decked-over boats similar to the Eskimo umiak and kayak were used for water transportation. For winter use, snowshoes were made of birch wood, with bear- or moose-skin webbing ( babiche ). Sleds were manufactured from wood and rawhide. Today, most goods are Commercially made, but some people continue to make skin boots, sleds, and snowshoes. Locally made wood skiffs have replaced earlier watercraft.
Division of Labor. In prehistoric and historic times, men hunted large game, trapped and fished, and manufactured weapons and tools. Women snared small animals, split and dried fish, prepared other game, collected berries and plants, prepared skins, manufactured clothing, embroidered with porcupine quills, and made some containers. Today men are most active in commercial fishing from boats, and women usually tend commercial set nets and work in canneries. At home, men and sometimes women hunt and trap. Women set and tend subsistence fish nets, as well as split, dry, and smoke salmon. Both sexes are involved in freshwater fishing. Men continue to manufacture sleds, boats, and snowshoes and are most active in trapping, although women assist in the last. Men are usually the pilots and sport hunting/fishing guides. Women sew, prepare and preserve food, and continue to act both as midwives and village first aid practitioners.
Land Tenure. Aboriginally, land use was based on clanlineage affiliation. In some areas, lineages had fishing rights at specific locales along a stream. Trap lines have never been registered; a person has the right to trap or hunt in an area he or his family has consistently used. Except for Tyonek, on Cook Inlet, no Tanaina land has been a reservation. People could, however, register a house or homesite but few did so. After the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, village sites were established and individuals allowed to claim specific tracts of land if they could establish that they are at least one-quarter Alaskan native.