Alaska Glossary Header

Alaska Travel Glossary

Reading about Alaska and come across a term you don’t recognize? I built this Alaska travel glossary to help Alaska travelers better understand the terms, geography, cultures, and history of The Last Frontier. You can use the letters at the top to jump to a corresponding section to look up words.

The ALCAN (short for Alaska-Canada Highway) is a 2,232-mile highway was constructed during World War II and connects Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska. Also called the Alaska Highway.
Alaska Marine Highway
The Alaska Marine Highway is a ferry service that connects communities in the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska, coastal communities of South Central Alaska, and communities on Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands. Also called the Alaska State Ferry or shortened to AMHS (Alaska Marine Highway System).
Alaska Railroad
The Alaska Railroad is a commercial railroad that was established in 1903 – and lead to the founding of Anchorage. It connects Seward to Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks over 400 miles of track and offers daily passenger service between these destinations and others along the route.
Aleutian Islands
The Aleutian Islands is an archipelago of 14 large volcanic islands and 55 smaller islands that stretches west from Alaska toward Russia. They comprise the majority of Southwestern Alaska, along with the Alaska Peninsula. The largest community on the Aleutian Islands is Unalaska, and the whole region still has a strong heritage of Alaskan Native groups and Russian settlers who began exploring the region in 1743.
Alpenglow is a natural phenomenon when mountain slopes are illuminated by the sun as it rises or sets. The slopes take on a rosy, reddish, or orange hue depending on the angle of the sun and atmospheric conditions. Learn more →
Alutiiq/ Sugpiaq
The Alutiiq/Sugpiaq are one of the eight Alaska Native peoples. They inhabited and still reside in coastal communities of Southcentral Alaska, including Prince William Sound, the outer Kenai Peninsula, the Kodiak Archipelago, and the Alaska Peninsula.
Alyeska is an archaic spelling of “Alaska” from the Aleut language. Alyeska generally translates as “mainland,” “great country,” or “great land.” Today, the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood uses the word for its property. Learn more →
Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska, home to 40% of the state’s population. It is located on Cook Inlet in Southcentral, Alaska, and is the primary travel point for visitors traveling to/from Alaska on land-based tours. Some top experiences in Anchorage include the Anchorage Market Festival, the Anchorage Museum, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Learn more →
The Arctic is one of five regions in Alaska, and encompasses most of the state above the Arctic Circle, as well as the Seward Peninsula and St. Lawrence Island. Most of the Arctic is inaccessible by road but Bush planes regularly service the communities here, most and the largest of which are along the coast. Learn more →
Arctic Circle
The Arctic Circle is one of two polar circles on earth. It is located at approximately 66°30′ N, and passes through the Arctic Ocean, the Scandinavian Peninsula, North Asia, Northern America (including Alaska), and Greenland. The Arctic Circle roughly maps with the Auroral Oval, which is where the greatest aurora activity is visible in the northern hemisphere.
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)
ANWR is a federally protected wildlife refuge in northeastern Alaska near the Canadian border. It comprises over 19 million acres of land and is the largest national wildlife refuge in the country. ANWR regularly makes headlines due to an ongoing debate about drilling for oil in the region.
Athabascan is a group of languages Indigenous to North America. Most Athabascan speakers are classified into two language groups, Northern and Pacific Coastal, but there is a third Southern group, located in the Southwestern U.S. There are 12 Athabascan languages spoken in Alaska.
Aurora Borealis
The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, are an atmospheric phenomenon caused by solar particles striking the earth’s atmosphere and causing atoms to emit light. It is visible throughout Alaska depending on conditions, and the most common place to see the northen lights in Alaska is Fairbanks under the Auroral Oval near the Arctic Circle.
Baleen is a filter-feeding system used by some whales to feed on small animals like krill. To feed, the whale opens their mouth to bring in water, then closes their mouth and expels the water out through the baleen. The krill remains stuck inside the mouth to be eaten. You can find baleen available as a (large) art souvenir in Alaska; be sure to check if it is sustainably harvested.
Beluga is a species of small white whale indigenous to the Arctic and sub-Arctic ocean. You can see Belugas traveling in pods in waterways throughout Alaska, especially Turnagain Arm. Belugas are related to the Narwhal!
A Billiken is a mythical creature or figure who brings good luck and represents “things as they ought to be.” In Alaskan tradition, catching and rubbing a Billiken’s can bring you good luck or grant wishes. Learn more →
Boroughs are the Alaskan equivalent to counties. The state is divided up into 19 organized boroughs (including city-boroughs) and 1 unorganized borough. Though Anchorage is officially called the “Municipality of Anchorage,” it is recognized as a city-borough. Other commonly visited boroughs include the Mat-Su, the Kenai Peninsula, and the Denali boroughs.
What most other people call “Spring,” Alaskans call “breakup.” As the name suggests, it’s the season between winter and summer when the snow and ice “break up.” It’s generally marked by large piles of muddy brown slush melting everywhere. Note that breakup (typically late March to April) is usually over before spring shoulder-season (late April to late May) travelers arrive.
Bunny Boots
Used by the Armed Forces as “Extreme Cold Vapor Barrier Boots,” Bunny Boots are common footwear for Alaskans (and visitors) during the winter. These waterproof rubber boots are specially designed to keep your feet warm even in the Arctic – or Arctic weather conditions.
In Alaska, a cache is a food storage building raised up stilts or tree trunks to prevent animals – especially bears – from reaching the food inside. Historically, caches were much more common than they are today, but you can still spot them while traveling throughout the state.
Caribou is a species of deer indigenous to the Arctic, sub-Arctic, tundra, boreal, and mountainous regions of the northern hemisphere. In Alaska, caribou live in the Interior and Arctic regions of Alaska and can be spotted in places like Denali National Park and ANWR. Caribou are considered to be one of Denali’s Big 5 animals.
Cheechako is a term used to refer to someone who has recently moved to Alaska. Historically, it referred to someone who was newly arrived in the mining districts of Alaska, and used as the opposite of the term Sourdough. There is variance in how long you need to live in Alaska to transition from Cheechako to Sourdough, but most agree it’s more about one’s ability to handle the hardships of Alaskan winters and wilderness than the number of years you call Alaska home. Learn more →
Chinook is a species of salmon commonly found in Alaska. It is also called King Salmon and is the largest species of Pacific salmon. They can often grow up to 3 feet in length and weigh over 30lbs.
Chinook Winds
Chinook winds, also called Chinooks, are a meteorological phenomenon. They are föhn winds – that is dry, warm, down-slope winds – that typically occur once or twice each winter. They are mistakenly believed to be from Hawaii, but occur due to the mountain ranges and winds in different regions of Alaska.
Chugach is a word you’ll encounter frequently in Southcentral Alaska. Its origin comes from the Chugach Sugpiaq or Chugachigmiut, a group of Alaska Native people from the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. When visiting Alaska, you may want to visit and go hiking in Chugach National Forest, a nearly 7 million-acre forest which covers much of Southcentral Alaska.
Chugiak is a Dena’ina Athabascan word which generally translates as “place of many places.” It is also the name of an unincorporated community north of Anchorage, with a population of roughly 9,000. Valerie went to Chugiak High School!
Combat Fishing
During the peak salmon runs each year, fishers participate in Combat Fishing. They stand shoulder to shoulder along the riverbanks – usually both sides – casting to try and capture some of the salmon that swarm the water. Proper etiquette recommends leaving space between you and neighboring fishers, reeling in when someone hooks a fish, and being courteous in your casting pattern to coordinate with others around you.
Cook Inlet
Cook Inlet is an inland waterway that stretches 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska into Southcentral Alaska. It is named for Captain James Cook who navigated the waterway in 1778. Both Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm branch off from Cook Inlet near Anchorage.
Dall’s Sheep
Dall’s sheep, Ovis dalli dalli, is often stylized as “Dall’s Sheep,” is the northern subspecies of thinhorn sheep. These sheep are native to Alaska, Yukon, and north-western British Columbia. They have lived in the area through several ice ages. Denali National Park is one of the best places to try and spot Dall sheep, as well as Turnagain Arm along the Seward Highway.
The Denaʼina, formerly called the Tanaina by Russian explorers, is a group of Alaska Native Athabaskan people who live in Southcentral Alaska. They first arrived in the region around 1,000-1,500 years ago, and roughly 1,000 members of the group remain. Their 41,000-square mile lands include the area that eventually became Anchorage
Denali is a modern spelling of the Koyukon Athabaskan word “Deenaalee” and usually translates as “The Great One”. James Kari, a linguist at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says that a better translation might be “The High One” or the “Tall One.” Learn more →
Denali National Park
Denali National Park is Alaska’s first national park and was established in 1917. It encompasses 6.1 million acres. The crown jewel of the park is Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, which stands at 20,310 feet in elevation. Learn more →
Dipnetting is a style of fishing common in Alaska. When dipnetting, a fisherman can use a large net to catch fish; it gives them a chance to catch a large supply of fish in a short time. As such, this style of fishing is only available to Alaska residents with appropriate fishing licenses.
Dog Mushing
Dog Mushing is a popular Alaskan pastime. It has been both a transport method and a sport, and today both purposes are immortalized in the annual Iditarod sled dog race. In it, a musher stands on the back of a wooden sled which is pulled by a team of sled dogs connected with a series of harnesses and ropes. Visitors to Alaska can book tours to try a hand at mushing; in the summer, teams pull wheeled sleds or ATVs.
Eagle River
A small community within the Municipality of Anchorage, Eagle River has a population of roughly 30,000. While it would be considered a suburb in other places, just 10 miles from downtown Anchorage, it’s really its own community. Eagle River is where Valerie grew up!
Eklutna is a term used to refer to several things: a small community, a glacier, and its glacial lake. All of these are located roughly 35 minutes’ drive north of Anchorage. Eklutna Lake is a popular recreation area for hiking, cycling, and paddling.
Eskimo is a broad term used to refer to Indigenous groups that live in the circumpolar region including Alaska, Siberia, Northern Canada, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut, and Greenland. In Alaska, there are two Native groups that fall into this classification: the Iñupiat (Inuit) and the Yupik.
Fairbanks is the third-largest city in Alaska, home to roughly 30,000 people. It is the furthest-north large community, located in Interior Alaska. Due to its geographic location, it’s a great place to try and spot the northern lights during the winter. Learn more →
Fireweed is a popular flower that grows across Alaska, and can often be spotted along roadsides throughout the state. It begins blooming from the bottom and local folklore says that when the top blooms, winter is six weeks away. Learn more →
Flattop is a popular hiking trail in Anchorage. It is a 3.3-mile loop that ascends to a vista point with panoramic views of Anchorage & Cook Inlet. It’s a great option for visitors who want to be active and enjoy the view during their trip.
Fly Fishing
Fly fishing is another common way of fishing in Alaska. There are a number of great fly fishing destinations across the state; one popular place is Hope, Alaska where you can fish for pink/humpy salmon there when they run
Forget-Me-Nots are a small blue flower that grows in Alaska (as well as many other places around the world). It is the Alaska state flower.
Fur Rondy
Fur Rendezvous – or Fur Rondy – is a winter celebration that takes place in Anchorage each February. It began in 1935 for the return of miners and trappers coming into town to sell mid-winter goods and resupply. Today, it hosts a series of events including fur auctions, outhouse races, and the Running of the Reindeer.
A glacier is a slow-moving mass of densely packed ice that has formed over centuries. Glaciers form when snowfall exceeds melt and the snow compacts into ice. There are over 100,000 glaciers in Alaska, 616 of which are formally named. Due to climate change, many glaciers are receding (shrinking) at a rate faster than can be reformed through precipitation each year.
Glennallen is a small community of roughly 500 people located at the junction of Alaska Highway 1 (the Glenn Highway) and Alaska Highway 4 (the Richardson Highway). While there are not many attractions or amenities in the community, it is a common base or pass-through for visiting Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Grizzly Bear
Also called a brown bear, grizzly bears are an indigenous species of bear in Alaska. They grow up to 1,300 pounds, can run up to 35 miles per hour, and hibernate in the winter. The Kodiak brown bear is also a grizzly, but is a unique subspecies that lives only on the Kodiak archipelago.
The Haida are an Indigenous group who traditionally lived in the Haida Gwaii archipelago; their history in the area dates back over 12,500 years. Today, Haida people live throughout Southeast Alaska, including in Ketchikan, Kake, and elsewhere. Within the U.S., the Haida people are part of the Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
Homer is a small city on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. It is located in the southwest part of the peninsula, on Kachemak Bay. Homer is home to roughly 6,100 people, and the primary attraction is the Homer Spit. This long strip of land stretching into Kachemak Bay has shops, art galleries, seafood restaurants, and beaches.
Hooligan (Thaleichthys pacificus) is a small species of fish that runs in Alaskan rivers during the spring. Hooligan are an important part of subsistence fishing in Alaska, as the first run of the new season. You can spot subsistence fishers dipnetting for hooligan during the summer months.
Ice Cleats
Ice cleats are removable metal or plastic attachments added to shoes or boots to improve traction on ice and snow. They are also sometimes called crampons, and are great for glacier hiking, such as at Matanuska Glacier.
Ice Worm
An ice worm is a tiny species of worm that commonly lives in gravel river beds. They are also often found in glacial ice; they can survive in the frozen temperatures that help form glaciers and actually die when they warm up to around 40°F.
The Iditarod is an annual sled dog race that holds a ceremonial start in Anchorage, Alaska; the race actually begins in Willow and continues 1,000 miles to Nome. The race was inspired by a Diptheria serum run in 1925, when mushers delivered a life-saving medical treatment to the isolated community. The modern Iditarod race began in 1973 to test the best sled dog mushers and teams but evolved into today’s highly competitive race that draws tens of thousands of attendees. Learn more →
Inside Passage
The inland waterway that runs through Southeast Alaska. This is the primary route for most Alaska cruises, and includes access to communities including Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, and Sitka (which is on the Pacific coast of the Inside Passage).
Interior Alaska is the central region in The Last Frontier. It is a diverse destination with Alaska Native and Western cultural and industrial influencers. Today, visitors come to the region to explore Denali National Park and chase the aurora borealis near Fairbanks. Learn more →
The Iñupiaq is a group of Alaska Natives who inhabit the northern part of Arctic Alaska from the Bering Sea in the west to the Canadian border in the east. Their current population comprises roughly 21,000 people who live in 34 villages across the region. Their languages are generally called Inuit, which also refers to the larger group of Indigenous peoples who speak this language in other Arctic regions of North AMerica.
Juneau is the capital of Alaska. It is located in Southeast Alaska, and is the only state capital in the United States which does not connect by road to the rest of the state. (You have to fly in!) Juneau is home to roughly 32,000 people, making it the second-largest city in Alaska. Learn more →
Ketchikan is a town on Alaska’s Inside Passage. It is located on Revillagigedo Island (try saying that three times fast!). It is the largest southernmost community in Alaska, and neighbors Nearby Misty Fiords National Monument. Ketchikan is home to roughly 8,200 people. Learn more →
Kodiak is both the name of a community and island in Southwest Alaska, off the southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula. The town of Kodiak is home to roughly 6,000 residents and was heavily impacted by tsunamis in the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. The island of Kodiak is home to a unique species of brown bear, separate from other grizzlies in Alaska for over 12,000 years.
A kuspuk is a traditional Native Alaskan garment, also called qaspeq in Central Yupik and atikłuk in Inupiaq. It is a hooded overshirt with a large front pocket that falls between the hips and calves. While they are an originally Yup’ik garment, many Native groups now wear them, as well as non-natives. Many Alaska legislators and their staff members wear kuspuks on Fridays.
Layering is the secret to staying warm in Alaska. Rather than purchasing a single big down coat, the secret to layering is all about selecting a series of clothing layers to help keep yourself cozy even when the temperature is well below zero.
Lower 48
“Lower 48” is an expression used by Alaskans to refer to the contiguous 48 states of the U.S.
Short for the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, the Mat-Su is a large area north of Anchorage. In addition to the towns of Wasilla and Palmer, there are a number of smaller communities as well as glaciers like the Matanuska and Knik Glaciers.
Mega Ship
Mega ships are the largest category of non-private cruise ships that visit Alaskan waters. Typically mega-ship cruises carry around 1,000 passengers (compared to around 100 passengers on small cruise ships). In Alaska, there are a number of cruise companies including Disney, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, and Royal Caribbean.
Moose is the largest member of the North American deer family, and is indigenous to Alaska. Adult moose can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, stand up to 7 feet tall, and run up to 35 miles per hour. They are among the largest and most dangerous animals in Alaska, and your best bet when encountering a moose is to back slowly away and put a tree between you and the moose if they “charge” at you.
Moose Nuggets
Moose nuggets is the colloquial name for moose poop. They form in little drops or turds (much like other members of the deer subfamily). Moose Nuggets are a funny element occasionally used in joke souvenirs from Alaska.
Mudflats are a unique geographic formation caused when fine silt (also called glacier flour) retains a certain water saturation that makes them look solid but have incredibly strong suction. In particular, mudflats along Cook Inlet in Southcentral Alaska are revealed during low tides and appear to be solid enough to walk on – but are easy to get stuck in and therefore dangerous.
A musher is a human in charge of a sled dog team using a sled to travel or race such as the Iditarod.
Muskeg is a type of bogland common to the Arctic and boreal areas in Alaska. It is comprised of a mixture of water and partly dead vegetation, creating an acidic environment that limits other vegetative growth.
Nanook is an Inuktitut word that translates literally as polar bear. In the Inuit religion, Nanook is the master of bears who decided if hunters should be successful or not. If a hunter killed a polar bear, it was because the bear had allowed it and its remains were treated with great respect and reverence.
Native Alaskan
Alaska Natives are the indigenous people of Alaska including the Iñupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and a number of Northern Athabaskan cultures. It is an official term and most members are enrolled in federally recognized Alaska Native tribal entities. Today, Alaska Natives constitute over 15% of Alaska’s population.
Outside is a term used by Alaskan locals to refer to any non-Alaska location, including the Lower 48 and Hawaii. You may hear locals using it when discussing vacation plans or where all the tourists come from.
The PDF – Permanent Fund Dividend – is a unique Alaskan institution through which residents receive an annual payment that comes as a percentage of proceeds on the fund. The PDF comes from the Alaska Permanent Fund, which was set up as an investment account funded at least 25% by state oil revenues. It typically works out to roughly $1600 per year per resident.
Permafrost is a geologic phenomenon that occurs when the ground remains continuously below freezing for two or more years. Based on the water concentration in the ground, it can cause “permafrost heaves” where the land swells up and creates small hills – and roads with many dips and bumps.
A potlatch is a feast celebrated by Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and Alaska – including the Tlingit, Haida, and Athabaskan peoples. . In Alaska, potlatches were often of social, religious, and political importance; they still occur today to mark events including memorials, naming ceremonies, weddings, and the erections of totem poles.
Potter Marsh
Potter Marsh is a bird sanctuary located on the southern border of Anchorage. It encompasses 564 acres of natural wetland and woods, and is home to birds, moose, and other wildlife. There is a 0.5-mile boardwalk that allows you to learn about the area and try to spot animals while visiting.
Qiviut is the soft, warm inner layer of muskox wool. Indigenous peoples of northern North America have long used qiviut to make warm fabric and clothing. Learn more →
In Alaska, a run refers to the annual event where salmon return to their birthing grounds to spawn in the same rivers where they were born. Salmon runs occur throughout the summer months.
Salmon is one of the most common fish in Alaska, especially for commercial and private fishing. There are five species of Alaskan salmon: Chinook/King, Coho/Silver, Sockeye/Red, Chum/Dog, and Humpback/Pink. Salmon typically run in Alaska waterways starting in June through late August and September. Learn more →
Seward is a waterfront community in Kenai Fjords National Park in Southcentral Alaska. It is one of two terminus points for Alaskan cruises that cross the Gulf of Alaska (the other being Whittier) and also a common destination for whale watching and glacier day cruises in the National Park. Seward is also a fishing community and is home to roughly 2,800 people. Learn more →
Sitka is a waterfront community in Southeast Alaska on Baranof Island. The name originally comes from the Tlingit word “Sheetʼká” and it was the capital of Russian America in the early 19th century. Today Sitka has a number of historical sites, serves as a common cruise port, and is home to roughly 8,600 people.
Skagway is a small waterfront community in Southeast Alaska. It was the primary origination point for mining prospectors trying to reach the Klondike Gold Fields in the 1896-1899 gold rush. Today Skagway is a common port for Alaska cruises and is home to roughly 1,000 year-round residents. Learn more →
Sleeping Lady
Sleeping Lady is the unofficial name of Mount Susitna, a relatively low 4,396-foot mountain across Cook Inlet from Anchorage. From the perspective of Anchorage, the mountain profile looks like a woman laying on her back asleep, hence the name.
Small Ship
The smallest category of non-private cruise ships that visit Alaskan waters. Typically small ship cruises carry around 100 passengers (compared to the 1,000 plus passengers on mega cruise ships) but some are as small as 35 passenger ships. In Alaska, two of the most popular small ship cruise companies are Uncruise and Alaskan Dream Cruises.
A snowbird is someone who travels from the colder northern parts of North America (like Alaska) to warmer southern locales (like Florida and Arizona) during the winter. Snowbirds used to primarily be retired or older, but are increasingly of all ages.
The Solstice occurs twice annually when the sun reaches its maximum or minimum in the sky, based on the earth’s orbit and axial tilt. In Alaska, the summer solstice occurs on June 21st, and marks the longest day of the year; the winter solstice is on December 21st and is the shortest day of the year.
Sourdough is an Alaskan term that refers to someone who has lived in Alaska for several winters. The term likely originated in the Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th Century. Today, it means basically the same: Sourdoughs are those who’ve lived in Alaska for a while – though the duration that earns you the status varies. Learn more →
Southcentral Alaska is the most populated region in Alaska, and one of the most visited too. It sits in the southern part of the main Alaskan landmass and is a diverse area with mountains, volcanoes, glaciers, waterways, and tons of wildlife – both animal and human. It’s a common base for exploring the rest of the state. Learn more →
Southeast Alaska is the smallest yet most visited region in Alaska. Millions of visitors explore the region annually, primarily by cruise ship. In the region, strong Alaska Native cultural influence is still present alongside modern tourism infrastructure. Learn more →
Southwest Alaska is a wild and beautiful region of Alaska that includes the Alaska Peninsula and the Kodiak and Aleutian Island archipelagos. It has been home to Alaska Native groups for millennia; today it serves as an important region for the fishing industry. Learn more →
Spawning is the name of the process where Alaskan salmon return to the waterways of their birth to reproduce. Salmon flock back up the rivers and streams in large numbers to lay eggs and fertilize them; this is called a salmon run. This is when most fishermen come out to try and catch them.
Subsistence living is an official policy that allows Alaska Native communities to gather food and resources for their economies and livelihoods. It varies whether traditional or modern means can be used in subsistence activities, but it forms a critical part of life for many Alaska Native communities today.
Taiga, also called the boreal forest or snow forest, is an ecological biome comprised of coniferous forests. Common species in the taiga include pines, spruces, and larches, as well as smaller members like fireweed. The taiga or boreal forest is often called the world’s largest land biome.
Termination Dust
Termination Dust is a colloquial term used in Alaska to denote the first dusting of snow that settles on the higher altitudes of mountains for the first time at the end of the summer season. Historically, the first spotting of termination dust indicated time to prepare for winter. Learn more →
The Bush
The Bush refers to any part of Alaska that is not connected to the rest of the state by road or ferry. Many Alaska Native people live in communities in the Bush, and with the limited infrastructure, they often rely on subsistence hunting, fishing, and gathering.
The Tlingit are an Alaska Native people of the Pacific Northwest coast in Southeast Alaska. Tlingit, like Haida, is one of the most visually-recognizable Alaska Native cultures with bold colors and designs – as well as totem poles. Their language is the Tlingit language, in which the name means “People of the Tides.”
Totem Pole
A totem pole is a series of carvings on a pole or pillar of wood; the carvings are symbols are figures that often represent a story or community. This is a type of Indigenous art that is traditional to the northwest coast of North America. One of the best places to see totem poles is in Ketchikan.
The Tsimshian are an Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast, including far Southeast Alaska. The primary way to encounter Tsimshian culture is through a trip to this region or possibly on Alaska cruises through the Inside Passage.
The tundra is a vast, flat, treeless Arctic region of Europe, Asia, and North America. On the tundra, the subsoil is permanently frozen, sometimes also called permafrost. In Alaska, tundra can first be spotted as far south as Interior Alaska and in Denali National Park.
Turnagain Arm
Turnagain Arm is a waterway near Anchorage Alaska that helps form the shore boundaries of the Kenai Peninsula. It is so named because of the Cook expedition that first brought European explorers to Southcentral Alaska in 1778; they tried to sail up the waterway but found the shallow, silty bottom impassable and had to “turn again.”
An ulu is a traditional Alaskan knife. Uluit (plural) are a curved single blade with a handle of wood, bone, or antler. Traditionally, women in certain Alaska Native groups use them to complete a number of important tasks including meal preparation. Learn more →
Unangan/ Aleut
Unangan is the name of the Alaska Native group that inhabits Southwest Alaska, including the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak Islands. It the Aleut people call themselves. Aleut was the name given to this group of Alaskan Native peoples by Russian explorers when they reached Southwest Alaska during the 18th century.
Whittier is a small town in Southcentral Alaska at the edge of the Kenai Peninsula. It is home to roughly 320 people according to the last census, and is one of two ports in the region that receives major cruise ships (the other being Seward).
Yukon refers to a number of different things in Alaska and this part of the world. It primarily refers to the Yukon Territory in northwest Canada; it also can refer to the river that cuts across 1,982 miles of the Yukon and Alaska. (It also refers to the SUV models, which you may well see driving around in Alaska!)
Yukon River
The Yukon River is the third-longest river in North America, running 1,982 miles across the northwestern part of the continent. It begins in Canada’s Yukon Territory and runs across Alaska to reach the Pacific Ocean near Norton Sound on the state’s west coast. It passes through Interior Alaska and major tributaries include the Tanana River and Koyukuk River.
Yup’ik & Cup’ik
The Yup’ik and Cup’ik are two groups of Alaska Natives that live in Southwest Alaska; they are named for the dialects they speak. These two groups rely on subsistence for their livelihoods, including hunting, fishing, and gathering local foods. To learn more about these cultures, visit the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center in Bethel, Alaska.

Have another Alaska term you’re curious about?
Comment with it below and I’ll add it to the glossary!


  • Shaun

    A word heard on a tv show set in Alaska, one of the native Alaskan’s said something like ‘choqwah’ and gave the meaning as the river settles. A phrase meant to be when life gets complicated you follow the river until the confusion settles. Is this a real thing? I can’t find any mention of it online.
    Many thanks. Shaun.

    • Valerie

      Not that I’m aware, but I am definitely not a native language expert. I recommend reaching out to some of the Alaska Native corporations to check with them.

  • marcia amos

    While visiting Skagway < the tour guides kept using a term referring to the incoming miners and gold seekers, I had never heard the term before and i didnt take a booklet from the train, I dont think it was Stampeders, but thats close, do you know what it is?

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