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Alutiit Cauyait - Alutiiq Music




Music is universal.  Every human society has a musical tradition.  Although musical styles vary greatly between cultures, with unique sounds, instruments, and ways of performing, all peoples express themselves through music.  Listen closely to a society’s songs and you will learn about their language, their values, and their history.Kodiak Alutiiq music is deeply rooted in the winter festivals of prehistoric times, but it has been influenced by Kodiak's Western settlers.  This exhibits looks at the music of ancient ceremonies, then consider Russian conquest and the introduction of Church music, the blending of European and Native culture in the American era, and musical celebrations of Alutiiq culture in the present.  Even today, when radio, television, and computers place a world of music are our fingertips, music remains central to the celebration of Alutiiq culture.




Festival Music

For thousands of years, Alutiiqs lived in large coastal villages, harvesting resources from the sea.  Oral histories and the accounts of explorers tell us that winter was a time of celebration.  As the land froze, the social scene thawed.  People gathered to eat, visit, and honor the spirit world.  Music was a central part of every festival.Festivals took place in special ceremonial houses know as qasgit.  People filled these community buildings to watch masked dancers, who performed with rattles and whistles to the beat of skin-covered drums.  Dancers told stories and recounted the deed of ancestors with specially written songs.  Their songs helped to move participants from the everyday world into a magical realm.  Singing invited spirits to the gathering and appealed to them for aid.  By honoring the spirits of animals with songs and dances, Alutiiqs insured future prosperity.  Women also performed at winter festivals, often dancing in a line and singing songs in memory of family members.  Music was story telling, celebration, and a form of prayer.

ImageAgu'lik's Song

I am looking now where on the tide flats.
I am looking now where in the smoke.
My helper spirit should I take you to the place of waiting?
Should I take you to the game that will be caught?
Should I take you to the ones that are dead? 

Agu'lik - Large Mask, Château-Musée, Pinart Collection 988-2-200




In the Alutiiq language, the word for drum and music are same – cauyaq, probably because drums were once the primary type of musical instrument. 

Alutiiq drums feature a wooden hoop made from a narrow, thinly carved piece of wood bent to shape with steam. To close the hoop, carvers drill holes in the ends of the wood strip and lash them together. Next, drum makers stretch dehaired seal hide, a seal bladder or even a halibut stomach over the hoop to form the cover of the drum.  They tie this cover to the drum and then attach a sturdy handle.


Seated along the wall of the ceremonial house, drummers created a rhythm for dances and songs.  Drummers beat their instruments with narrow, round ended sticks – kaugsuun, to create a deep resonant tone. Many drums had faces carved on their handles, perhaps to represent the spirit inside the instrument.

Drum Handle, ca. 1400-1750 AD, Koniag Inc. Collection, Karluk One


While drums beat, Alutiiq dancers performed with rattles made from the beaks of puffins – sea birds found in abundance around Kodiak.  Each rattle was about 12 inches wide and had as many as five concentric wooden hoops painted red and black and lashed to a cross-shaped handle.  Craftsmen drilled small holes in each ring to attach clusters of puffin beaks.

Puffin Beak Rattle, Courtesy Ethnos

“The hunters … ring out their rattles in harmony with the music, and all are singing happily with fair voice...”
G. Davydov, Russian naval officer, describing a dance on Kodiak Island, 1802

Shaman, ritual specialists who communicated with the spirit world to heal the sick and predict the future, also performed with rattles.  These were carved from wood, often in the shape of animals.


In classical Alutiiq society, whistling was a dangerous and tightly controlled practice connected with the spirit world.  Dancers at winter festivals called spirits from the sky and the beneath the sea by whistling, which was said to mimic spirit voices.  Some ceremonial masks had circular mouths to represent whistling. Alutiiqs also associate whistling with evil and sickness.  Shaman used whistles to conjure the spirit world when curing the ill or cursing rivals.  Many Elders learned that spirits spoke first with whistles and then with words.  Children were taught never to whistle for fear they would be harmed.

Whistling Mask, by Kevin Lukin, KANA Collection








Church Music

Russia's Legacy

Russian colonization of the Kodiak archipelago had a profound influence on the Alutiiq people.  Russian entrepreneurs enslaved Alutiiqs in the fur trade, introduced diseases that decimated the Native population, and brought new traditions and a new language.  It was a time of massive change for Alutiiqs.

In the clash of cultures that accompanied Russian conquest, Russian Orthodox missionaries defended the rights of Native people.  Representatives of the Church established schools, cared for the sick, and fought atrocities.  Their concern for the Native community helped to build Kodiak’s Russian Orthodox community - introducing a new religion and its music.  Many Alutiiqs remain devout followers of the Russian Orthodox faith, a spiritual path celebrated and reinforced with music.


The Orthodox faithful attend services every Sunday, where songs are an essential to worship.  Church music cleanses the soul and helps listeners think of eternal values.  It is a beautiful form of prayer.

Ascension of our Lord Chapel, Karluk


ImageChurch Bells

Today, the onion domes of Russian Orthodox chapels grace Kodiak’s skies.  Bells calls the faithful to worship, ring in celebration of special events, and toll in sorrow for those who have passed away.  The sounds of church bells fill the air in every Alutiiq community.

“Fishing season is what I liked most . . . we’d be sitting on the grass and mama would have little blankets on us and we’d watch.  The first thing they would do is blow the cannery whistle three times . . . The American flag would come up and the guns were shooting.  The church bell would ring on the side to wish the men a good season.”

Elder Lucille Davis, On her childhood in Karluk, From Looking Both Ways, Heritage & Idenitity of the Alutiiq People

Peter Squartsoff ringing the church bells for the funeral of Ernest Lashinsky, Ouzinkie, 1950s. Photo Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.


Russian Orthodoxy clergy helped Alutiiqs learn church music by translating hymnals into the Alutiiq language.   They wrote Alutiiq words phonetically, using Cyrillic characters. Many Alutiiqs also learned songs in Slavonic, the language of the church.  Hymns remain an important part of the Alutiiq musical tradition.

The Russian Orthodox Faithful sing in church. Rostad Collection.




Christmas in Alutiiq communities comes on January 7th, following the Julian calendar that marks the Russian Orthodox year.  In celebration, Alutiiqs participate in starring, a caroling procession that begins after evening Church services.  The faithful carol throughout their communities with a brightly decorated wooden star representing the star of Bethlehem.  At each home, the carolers sing in English, Slavonic, and sometimes Alutiiq, while a person spins the star.  Then the singers receive food and hot drinks from their hosts.  Each caroling session ends with a rendition of Many Years, the Orthodox hymn for blessings and long life.

Carolers visiting a home in Old Harbor

ImageSongs of Faith

In addition to singing traditional hymn translated into the Alutiiq language, Alutiiqs compose original songs inspired by their faith.  Irene Coyle wrote this spiritual tribute for voice and guitar.

Irene Coyle - on guitar - accompanies Elders Lucille Davis, Phyllis Peterson, and Mary Haakanson

He Had Mercy on Me / Nakllek’gkiinga
By Irene Coyle

He had mercy on me, my God. - Nakllek’gkiinga.  My God understood me. - Agautma kangircikiinga
He loved us, He loved us. - Qunuk’gkiikut, Qunuk’gkiikut. He had mercy on me, He loves me. - Nakllek’gkiinga Qunukaanga.

ImageOther Christian Faiths

Alutiiq people also learn liturgical music through their participation in other Christian faiths.  Missionaries brought protestant traditions and church music to Kodiak in the early nineteenth century.

Photo: Sunrise Easter service in Larsen Bay 1956. Photo Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith


Community Musicians


ImageMusic from Afar

In the twentieth century, as Alaska became industrialized and more closely connected to American society, music from around the world reached Kodiak and Alutiiq musicians through radio and recordings.  Like the winter festivals of old, live entertainment was very popular.  Alutiiqs taught themselves to play a variety of instruments and shared their talents with community members at local events and dances.  Marriage of Alutiiqs and Scandinavian immigrants also brought new music including polkas and schottisches from northern Europe.

Live entertainment faded after Word War II as television became widely available. Today, a few musicians continue to play accordions and guitars, performing at special events like weddings.

Photo: Karluk man relaxes by the radio, late 1950s.  Clyda Christiansen collection.

ImageCommunity Musicians

Alutiiq men taught themselves how to play the piano, mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar and harmonica.  They learned popular songs from records, the radio, and other musicians, playing everything from Hank Williams songs to square dances.

The most famous musicians were accordion players, who used either small round accordions or larger twelve key instruments.  Historic accounts suggest that accordion playing became popular in the 1890s, when the typical instrument cost about $3.50. 

Photo: Three musician, date unknown. Myrtle Olsen collection.

ImageDances and Dates

In the mid twentieth century, dances were popular events in Alutiiq communities.  Many villages held regular weekly dances.  Fridays were popular hop nights, as Saturday evenings were reserved for religious practices.  Music was central part of community dances.  Young men enjoyed playing their instruments for others.  Putting on a show was also a good way to meet young women!  Many young people met their future spouse at these events.

During the Second World War, Old Harbor organized dances when the service men stationed on Sitkalidak Island came to town for supplies.  Dancing was particularly popular with young people and some communities even operated dance halls from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Photo:  Afognak Village Wedding Dance, 1958. Courtesy Howard Valley.

ImageDance Halls

This Old Harbor building was a dance hall in 1950s, owned by the late Larry Matfay.  Similar dance halls were found in Ouzinkie.  Dances were usually held on Friday nights. 
“Tim [Panamarioff, Sr.] built this dance hall, and it was built on a swamp in the middle of the town, and our house was about 150 yards from the dance hall, but when he’d have a dance, between the noise and everything, it would make the whole area bounce . . . “
Reed Oswalt - on life in Ouzinkie, from Black Ducks and Salmon Bellies

Photo:  Old Harbor dance hall.



ImageMusic Today

Music remains part of the Alutiiq cultural landscape, illustrating the endurance of Alutiiq traditions, reinforcing cultural values, and building ties between the generations. 

Opportunities for musical exploration and expression abound.  Many communities have Alutiiq dance groups where youth learn songs and dances and share their talents through performances.  Students build drums at arts workshops and summer camps, learn Alutiiq songs as part of language lesson with Elders, sing Christmas carols during the starring celebrations held in Kodiak communities, enjoy modern music on iPods, and jam with drums and electric guitars!  In 2007, Alutiiqs of all ages produced of Generations, an Alutiiq music CD, to preserve and share their musical heritage.

ImageCourting Song

This traditional courting song has been sung in Alutiiq villages as long as anyone can remember.  It is still a favorite, performed regularly by Alutiiq dance groups.

Tonight / Unuku
Tonight, tonight, I will come.
Bring a little tea with me.
When dogs, dogs bark at me,
Don’t you think I’m a boogy man and harass me!

Unuku, Unuku taiciqua
Caayungcugmek taillunaga
Piugtet, piugtet aikut qilukatnga,
Aularauyukllua pin’illkicaa!