Una Ag’wanermiu’aq. - This one is an Afognak person.
Afognak Island lies at the northern end of the Kodiak Archipelago, just a few miles from the tip of Kodiak Island. It is the second-largest island in the region, covering more than 780 square miles. Like much of Kodiak, Afognak is mountainous with an intricate coastline. Islets dot a shoreline broken by long narrow fjords. The island is unique, however, in that it is heavily forested. Over the last 900 years, the forest of the Kenai Peninsula spread gradually south, blanketing Afognak Island with a lush cover of spruce trees and sphagnum moss.
One of Afognak’s best-known features is the Afognak River, a productive salmon stream that empties into Afognak Bay on the southern end of the Island. The banks of this river have been occupied for millennia. Archaeological data indicate that Alutiiq people harvested resources here repeatedly over the past seven thousand years. In the historic era, Russian-American Company laborers built a dam in the river, called a zapor, to trap spawning salmon. Alutiiq people harvested and dried these fish, which were used both to feed company workers and the Native community.
By the 1830s, numerous families lived in Afognak village, a community to the west of the river mouth. The village had two distinct parts. Aleut Town, at one end, was home to Alutiiq families. Russian Town, at the other end, housed retired Russian men, their Native wives, and their Creole children. The community had vegetable gardens, a fleet of wooden rowboats, and a Russian Orthodox Church.
Afognak remained a thriving community until 1964, when tsunamis following the Great Alaska Earthquake flooded the village. Seawater washed away many buildings, damaged others, and polluted wells, forcing residents to move. The International Lions club helped to build Port Lions, a new community on the shore of nearby Kizhuyak Bay. Although Afognak village is no longer inhabited, it is not abandoned. Families continue to feel strong ties to the area. They visit the community, share it with friends and family members, and hunt and fish in the surrounding area. Afognak village remains a beloved place to many Alutiiq families.
Photo: Aerial view of the Afognak Village area, 2012.
Angyaartalek sugyataallia cuumi. - There used to be a lot of people at Aiaktalik Island.
Aiaktalik Island, one of the Trinity Islands, lies at the southern end of the Kodiak Archipelago at the tip of the Aliulik Peninsula. Surrounded by the rough waters of Sitkinak Strait, this small, triangular land mass covers just seven square miles. The island is low and rolling, with grass-covered hills no more than two hundred feet high.
Aiaktalik Island was once home to the village of Aiaktalik. One of Kodiak’s largest Alutiiq communities, this village had about four hundred residents in the late eighteenth century. The village lay on the shore of Aiaktalik Cove on the island’s north side, facing Russian Harbor on adjacent Kodiak Island.
In the Russian and American eras, Aiaktalik was a base for sea otter hunting, and in the American era it also was a center of fox farming. By the late eighteenth century, the community had an Alaska Commercial Company store where furs were traded for food and supplies. There was also a Russian Orthodox chapel named the Apostle Andrew the First Called.
With the collapse of the fur trade, and a devastating flu epidemic, Aiaktalik families suffered many hardships in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many left the community to move to Akhiok, Kaguyak, and Old Harbor. Scholars Lydia Black and Don Clark report that by 1934, there were just twenty-nine residents of Aiaktalik. The village had no school, so some families moved to allow their children to attend classes. Others left to be close to canneries with seasonal employment. The last families left Aiaktalik during World War II, when the local storekeeper, a Japanese man, was sent to an internment camp and his store closed. In 1957, a group of former residents returned to Aiaktalik, dismantled the chapel, and moved the boards to Kaguyak.
Photo: Aiaktalik Island scenery, courtesy Sea Hawk Air.
Kasukuarmiu’ak taugkuk. - Those two are from Akhiok.
Surrounded by grassy hills and tundra flats, Akhiok is Kodiak’s southernmost Alutiiq village. The present location of this remote community, ninety miles from the City of Kodiak, was settled in 1881. Additional residents moved here from Kasukuak in nearby Humpy Cove. The original community was a sea otter hunting settlement established by Russian fur traders. As the sea otter industry waned, fishing gained economic importance
During World War II, the U.S. Postal Service briefly renamed the community Alitak, to avoid confusing it with Akiak, a Yup’ik village in Western Alaska. Akhiok has always been a small community. The village’s initial population was 114 people, which declined to a low of 72 in 1950. But by the 1980s, the population had climbed back to over 100 individuals. In part, this rise reflects immigration. The residents of Akhiok include the descendants of several families from Kaguyak, a village destroyed by the tsunamis that followed the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. Today, Akhiok has about 80 residents living in 25 homes.
Fishing is central to Akhiok’s economy. Strong salmon runs enter Alitak Bay, supporting both commercial harvesting and a subsistence lifestyle. Many families make a living in the fishing industry: working at the Alitak cannery five miles south of Akhiok or fishing commercially for salmon, halibut, and crab. Like all of Kodiak’s villages, Akhiok can only be reached by boat or airplane. Community facilities include a gravel airstrip, a public school, a cemetery, and the Protection of the Theotokos Chapel—a Russian Orthodox Church.
Photo: Akhiok in winter, view northwest
Guangkuta Alas’kaarmiu’at. - We are all Alaskans.
Unangan, the Native language of the Aleutian Island chain, is the source of the name Alaska. In Unangan, Alayeksa means “great land” or “mainland.” Before western conquest, Aleutian Islanders used this word to refer to the western end of the Alaska Peninsula. From their island perspective, the peninsula was an enormous land.
Early western explorers followed Unangan tradition, using the term Alaska for the Alaska Peninsula. Early cartographers recorded many versions of the word, including Alakshak, Alaksu, Alaxsa, and Aliaska. Alaska was not adopted as the name for what is now the forty-ninth state until 1867. Secretary of the Interior William H. Seward and his colleagues Charles Sumner and H. W. Hallek proposed the name when the region passed from Russian to American rule and became a territory of the United States.
The term Alaska is also distinctively Native in other ways. Alaska Native place names often start with the letters a, i, and k and refer to local features of the landscape. Alutiiq people, for example, might name a cove for a particular plant found along its shores, or a headland for its dominant wind. In contrast, European peoples tend to name large geographic features or to use place names to commemorate others: Chirikof Island, Mt. Glotov, and Shelikof Strait are some local examples
Map: Native peoples and languages of Alaska, courtsey the Alaska Native Language Center, UAF.
All’itami et’ukut. - We are at Alitak.
In the early nineteenth century, Russian traders established a community at the entrance to Olga Creek in southern Olga Bay, known as Alitak. Built on a terrace above the creek’s lagoon, the settlement was a fish processing station, where Alutiiqs worked to preserve salmon under Russian supervision. Historians believe that Alitak was economically attached to the community of Akhiok. Records indicate that operations focused on Olga Creek in the salmon season then moved to Akhiok for the remainder of the year. Following the smallpox epidemic of 1837, thirteen residents of Alitak relocated to the community of Aiaktalik on Aiaktalik Island to the southeast, and it appears that Alitak was never reoccupied.
Today Alitak is best known as the large bay at the southern end of Kodiak Island and the home of Alaska’s largest known assemblage of rock art. At Cape Alitak, Alutiiq ancestors pecked over a thousand images of people, animals, and geometric shapes into shoreline boulders and rock outcrops. These petroglyphs, and prehistoric settlements associated with them, indicate that Alutiiqs hunted and fished from this remote corner of the archipelago for over 3,000 years.
When were the petroglyphs carved and what do they mean? Archaeologists believe that the prehistoric images probably date to the last thousand years of Alutiiq history, based on stylistic similarities between the petroglyphs and other types of Alutiiq art. Their exact function is unknown, but they may have been territorial markers, a form of hunting magic, or a combination of both. Historic sources indicate that whalers made pictures in secluded areas in preparation for the hunt. A number of the petroglyphs show whales, and whalebone is common in some of the nearby settlements. This suggests a tie between the artwork and whale hunting at Cape Alitak.
Photo: Aerial view of Cape Alitak, looking south.
Kicarwigmen agkutartua ernerpak. - I am going to Anchorage today.
Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, lies 250 miles north of the Kodiak Archipelago, at the far northern end of Cook Inlet. In many ways, Anchorage is a gateway to the Alutiiq world. Airline flights to Homer, Cordova, Kodiak, and King Salmon, the major hubs in the Alutiiq homeland, originate in Anchorage. To enter or leave the Alutiiq world, one usually travels through Anchorage.
The word Kicarwik is a recently coined term that literally means “place to anchor.” For Alutiiqs, Anchorage is a fun place to visit and shop. People travel north to buy cars, purchase clothing, enjoy restaurants, and attend cultural events like the annual Alaska Federation of Native convention or the Native Youth Olympics. Others go to Anchorage for medical attention, seeking treatment at the Alaska Native Medical Center.
Although Kicarwik lies beyond the limit of the Alutiiq nation in Athabaskan Indian territory, it is home to many Alutiiq people, and you can get a taste of Alutiiq heritage there. The Afognak Native Corporation’s Anchorage offices feature a gallery with displays of Alutiiq art and artifacts. The Alaska Native Heritage center has a reproduction of an Alutiiq sod house as well as exhibits, presentations, and performances on Alutiiq culture. You can visit the Anchorage Museum at
Rasmuson Center to view Alutiiq artifacts and contemporary works of Alutiiq art, or you can purchase pieces of Alutiiq artwork at the Alaska Native Medical Center gift shop or the Alaska Native Arts Foundation gallery.
Photo: Waiting for the plane to Anchorage. Nekeferof Collection.
KaanaRiimi suullianga - I was born in a cannery.
In the late nineteenth century, Kodiak’s economy shifted from fur trading to fishing. With sea otter stocks declining, entrepreneurs turned their attention to salmon. Salteries, where people salted fish and packed them in barrels for shipment south, began appearing in the 1870s. The first commercial canneries followed in the 1880s. The Karluk Fishing and Packing Company established a cannery on Karluk spit in 1882. Over the next ten years, entrepreneurs established many similar operations from Afognak Island to Alitak. This booming new industry attracted immigrants from Scandinavia and Asia seeking jobs. Many were single men who married into Alutiiq families. Although Alutiiq people worked as laborers in the early salteries and canneries, it was not until the early twentieth century that they began selling their catches to processors.
Canneries drew the Alutiiq further into the western cash economy. As Native people began working for wages, or for credit at the company store, their dependence on western goods increased. It is during this time that people began to construct western-style houses, to wear more European clothing, and to purchase tools and household items. Many of these purchases were made on credit, which forced Native people to keep working for the cannery to pay their debts. Over the years, the variety of salted and canned foods increased, and Alutiiq people assisted in processing herring, crab, cod, clams, and other seafoods. Cannery work continues to be a source of income for some Alutiiq people, providing opportunities for seasonal employment.
Photo: Historic cannery in Uganik Bay. Courtesy the Myrick Family.
KaanaRiim laugkaa'a patumataartuq uksumi. - The cannery store is always closed in the winter time.
Alutiiq families living in rural communities supplement their catches of fish and game with groceries purchased from privately run community stores or shipped by air from big chain supermarkets in Kodiak. In the past, however, groceries were harder to obtain. Some supplies were shipped by boat, a process that could take weeks. Others could be purchased seasonally at rural canneries. During the summer, cannery stores offered food, fuel, and dry goods in areas where boat arrivals from town were infrequent and airplane service was even more rare. Elders remember their parents buying flour, sugar, tea, rice, lard, salt, cloth, and shotgun shells at cannery stores, supplies that often had to last until the store opened again the following summer.
In the early nineteenth century, some canneries created exchange systems. Alutiiq workers received credit at the store against their wages. While convenient, such arrangements were often unfair. Canneries enticed their workers to purchase goods at a premium price, ensuring a profit for themselves. In some cases, stores purposefully over-extended credit, creating debts that people had to pay off through future employment. This ensured the cannery a workforce in the coming season and often placed families in increasingly serious debt.
Photo: Sven Haakanson, Jr. purchases snacks at the Ocean Beauty Seafoods cannery store, Lazy Bay. Photo by Mark Rusk, Cape Alitak Collection.