Tanaina entered their current location, presumably from the interior, in prehistoric times. Russians discovered Alaska in 1741, but the Tanaina's first European contact was with Capt. James Cook in 1778. They had, however, received a few European goods earlier through trade. In spite of opposition, the Russians were able to establish a post on Kodiak Island as the base of their operations in 1784 (after 1799, the Russian-American Company mercantile monopoly) and from that post managed to establish other trading posts. Some Tanaina intermarriage occurred with Russians, but most was with Koniag Eskimos (from Kodiak Island) and Aleuts who worked for the company. The resulting population of Creoles was most often used by the company to trade with other Tanaina groups. As a result, cultural contact was not purely Russian, but was mediated through Eskimo and Aleut cultural perspectives. Western contact was less severe than in other Alaskan groups, and Tanaina society tended to flourish within its own cultural milieu as a result of Russian trade integrated within the already existing trading complex. With the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Russian trade monopoly was replaced by independent competing traders, but there was little in the way of U.S. government control. Native populations were neglected until well into the twentieth century.
Local education is available today at least through the eighth grade, and children may complete high school at boarding schools or in cities such as Anchorage. A few take advantage of university or trade school training. Following the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, twelve Regional corporations were established to represent natives throughout the state. The Kenai and Susitna subdivisions joined the Cook Inlet Region, Inc.; those near Iliamna Lake affiliated with the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Ahtna territory abuts the Tanaina on the east and northeast. Culturally and linguistically similar, they share a hunting region west of Talkeetna along the Susitna River. Tanaina feel a close relation with Ahtna in part because they believe they share clan affiliations. To the north and northwest are the Kolchan and Ingalik. To the east and southeast are Pacific Eskimo groups. West of the Tanaina are the southwestern mainland Eskimos. Tanaina settlements near Eskimo and Athapaskan groups were active with them in trading and intermarriage as well as raiding.