Legtaq tamlertuq. - The cave is dark.
Caves are natural shelters that attract both people and animals. Archaeological data from Prince William Sound illustrate that the prehistoric Alutiiq people camped in caves. Although similar settlements are poorly known from the Kodiak region, oral histories and historical accounts indicate that caves were religious sites: whaling shrines. In these secret places, the spiritually potent men who killed giant sea mammals secluded themselves from daily life to prepare for the hunt.
Like the position of whaler, caves were inherited, passed down through elite families. Each successive owner added to his cave’s contents. Particularly prized were mummified corpses. Whalers stole the physical remains of powerful people, which they mummified and stored in their caves with other talismans: eagle feathers, bear’s hair, green stones, and berries. They also kept hunting gear, whaling poisons, and special clothing in these private locations.
French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart, who visited Kodiak in 1872, provides an account of contents of a whaler’s cave. This cave had mummies seated behind curtains of sea lion skin. Each mummy, male and female, was positioned as if it were producing tools: grinding slate spears, carving arrow shafts, or sewing gut. With these mummies, the whaler symbolically enlisted the help of powerful ancestor to produce his tools. In return, he fed them pieces of sea-mammal meat. The center of the cave featured a small pond with a model boat. In the boat sat a replica of a man holding a whaling spear aimed at a model whale. With these miniatures, the whaler enacted the hunt. Other activities that took place in and around whaling caves included processing human corpses to make mummies and producing whaling poison from human fat and the roots of the monkshood plant.
All of these activities perpetuated life by providing food. Alutiiqs believe that animals choose to give themselves to people. A well-prepared whaler who demonstrates reverence for an animal’s spirit will be successful. In preparation, whalers called upon the power of previous generations. Mummies represented people who had succeeded in life, who had maintained a proper spiritual balance. The use of their corporeal remains in whaling poisons imbued the hunter with their power. Life, therefore, depended on careful action, proper spiritual alignment, and a reverence for the past. These same elements are evident in Alutiiq winter festivals, the major annual religious ceremonies.
Photo: Afognak Island Cave, Short Family Collection.
Cirnimen aglita. - Let’s go to Chignik.
The salmon-rich Chignik region of the southern Alaska Peninsula is home to three Alutiiq communities, each named for the body of water it overlooks: Chignik Bay, Chignik Lagoon, and Chignik Lake. Foot trails link these small villages, winding through a lush, rolling, treeless landscape that has been home to Alutiiqs for millennia.
Although archaeological sites dot the shores of the region’s waterways, and travelers have long followed the Chignik River into the interior of the Alaska Peninsula, Chignik’s contemporary communities are relatively recent. Chignik Bay and Chignik Lagoon were established in the late 1800s as fishing communities, attracting Alutiiqs from other villages as well as people of Russian, Scandinavian, and Aleut descent. Chignik Lake grew into a community in the 1950s as families moved to the area to hunt, fish, and trap.
Today, the Chignik area is home to about three hundred people, with roughly one hundred permanent residents in each community. The region’s population doubles in the summer, as people return from Kodiak, Anchorage, and even Seattle. People make their living on fishing boats or by working in the two plants that process salmon, cod, pollock, and crab throughout the year. Subsistence activities are also important. In addition to salmon, residents harvest marine fish, crab, clams, caribou, and moose to feed their families.
Photo: Chignik community 1990. Photo by Rick Knecht.
Cingiyaq yaqsigtuq Sun’amek kaarakun. – Chiniak is far from Kodiak by car.
Follow the highway forty-five miles southeast of the city of Kodiak and you will arrive in Chiniak, a small, unincorporated community with a population of about fifty. Although people have lived in the Chiniak area for millennia, the current town developed after the Second World War.
The Army Corps of Engineers built the road to Chiniak in 1942, and the Navy and Air Force both built intelligence-gathering stations here into the 1950s. Starting in the early 1970s, services developed to support the increasing number of residents: a gas station, a school, a library, a post office, and eventually in 1982 the Road’s End restaurant.
Despite the recent origin of today’s community, Chiniak has strong connections to the Alutiiq past. The word Chiniak comes from the Alutiiq word cing’iyaq, which means cape, and it refers to the rocky promontories that define this easternmost point of Kodiak Island. Many localities bear the name Chiniak.
Archaeological data confirm the presence of Alutiiq people in the Chiniak region. At the Rice Ridge site, a settlement repeatedly occupied between 7,100 and 4,000 years ago, residents harvested cod and sea otter from the waters off Cape Chiniak.
Historic sources indicate that Russian administrators granted a family of Alutiiq and Russian descent permission to settle the area in 1846. This small settlement is listed in the 1880 census. However, it should not be confused with the larger village of Chiniak. This community was located on Woody Island and was occupied from prehistoric times well into the twentieth century. It is also known as Tangirnaq.
Photo: A sunny day in Chiniak Bay, view southeast.
Ukamuk yaqsigtuq. - Chirikof Island is far away.
Chirikof is an isolated, windy island at the far southern end of the Kodiak Archipelago. This eleven-mile-long, pear-shaped piece of land lies about one hundred miles southwest of Kodiak Island. Archaeological data indicate that the island has long been a crossroads, a place that both Alutiiq and Aleut people occupied for over four thousand years. An Alutiiq legend indicates that the chief of Aiaktalik village once owned the island and that he became wealthy trading resources harvested here.
Westerners sighted the island in 1741. A Russian naval expedition led by Vitus Bering and Alexi Chirikov sailed by, naming it Tumannoi: Foggy Island. Nearly sixty years later, Captain Vancouver renamed the island Chirikof, in honor of Alexi Chirkiov. Chrikof has a rolling, treeless terrain. Although the region provides prime habitat for seabirds and marine mammals, the island has two small streams and one terrestrial mammal, the ground squirrel. Archaeologists believe that people introduced these animals in the prehistoric era. Without predators, other than eagles, the squirrel population thrived.
In the historic era, Alutiiq and Tlingit people worked on Chirikof under Russian supervision. They initially came as seasonal parties, and later lived in the established Ukamuk village. Men hunted sea lions, sea birds, and squirrels. Women fashioned squirrel and bird skins into parkas, which the Russians traded to other Alutiiqs for sea otter pelts. Blue foxes and cattle were introduced later, during the American period.
Agayutaartukut agayuwigmi. - We always pray at the church.
The introduction of Christian religious practices to Kodiak by eighteenth-century Russian Orthodox priests and missionaries led to the development of churches and chapels in Alutiiq communities. Scholars believe that the first village chapels in the Kodiak parish were constructed in the 1830s and ’40s. Following a major smallpox epidemic, the Russian American Company built chapels in each of the major community where they resettled Alutiiq people.
Early chapels included one dedicated to the Dormition of the All Holy Theotokos at Little Afognak built by the Seleznev family in 1832, and two built by the Russian American company in 1843: the Chapel of the Ascension of Our Lord in Karluk and the Chapel of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Afognak village. When Afogank and Kodiak were divided into two separate parishes just before the turn of the twentieth century, the Afognak chapel was reconsecrated as a church.
Historic records indicate that it was difficult to build places of worship in remote Alaska communities, far from supplies and knowledgeable builders. In 1822, when Kodiak’s original Church of the Resurrection was rebuilt, it took two years to stockpile the necessary supplies, and the Russian American Company sent carpenters from Siberia to assist. It took an additional three years to build the church, and within a decade the building had rotted so badly that plans for a new church were underway.
Villagers also had to rebuild their chapels. The present chapel in Karluk was designed and built in 1888 by Charles Hupp Smith with assistance from the Alaska Packers Company, a cannery in the community. Villagers paid for the structure, and the cannery transported the building materials to Karluk.
Today, each Alutiiq community has a chapel that is actively used by the Orthodox faithful. Full time clergy do not staff most of these chapels. Typically, priests periodically from Kodiak, and in their absence, a member of the community acts as a church reader, caring for the facilities and performing some liturgical duties. Many of these chapels are recognized as important historic sites and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Photo: Russian Orthodox Church at Afognak Village. Chadwick collection.
Amlesqat Nuniarmiut Iragmek taimaut. - There are a lot of Old Harbor people that come from Eagle Harbor.
Today the grass-covered depressions of sod houses and the memories shared by Elders are all that remain of Eagle Harbor, a once sizeable Alutiiq village. This community rested on the southern shore of Ugak Bay, facing Saltery Cove and the rocky capes of Pasagshak. Historic source indicate the community may have been present as early as 1805. About 1830, the Russian artel Igak moved across Ugak Bay to Orlovsk, or Eagle Harbor, from its location in present day Saltery Cove. In 1837, Eagle Harbor became a relocation village for Native survivors of a smallpox epidemic. More than 730 Native people died during the epidemic, decimating many small communities. Russian colonists reorganized the Native population into communities, often near workstations. In Ugak Bay, Native laborers lived in Orlovsk while Russian American Company staff members lived in the adjacent community of Minokova.
Despite its grim start, Eagle Harbor flourished. It was well located for harvesting sea lions that were plentiful on Ugak Island at the mouth of the bay. Residents also took large quantities of salmon from streams beside the village. Some families also kept cattle, while others worked as sea otter hunters and trappers. The community had a Russian Orthodox Church and a store. In 1879 Eagle Harbor was home to about 265 people. In summertime, people moved across the bay to work temporarily at the salmon saltery at Saltery Cove. By 1920, families were moving out of Eagle Harbor. Trapping produced little income, the store closed, and people needed jobs. Village families gradually moved to Kodiak, Woody Island, and Old Harbor.
Photo: Aerial View of the Eagle Harbor area.
Kina nanwalegmek? - Who is from English Bay?
The Alutiiq village of Nanwalek lies on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, just ten miles southwest of Seldovia. Although Alutiiq people have lived in this region for thousands of years, the community of Nanwalek began as a Russian trading post, built by fur traders in 1785. It was first named Alexandrovsk after the Russian tsar Alexander I. Alutiiq families settled in Alexandrovsk because it was a center of commerce, a place where they could trade furs for Western goods. After the transfer of Alaska to American control, the village name changed to English Bay.
In 1991, villagers changed the community’s name again, selecting Nanwalek. This traditional Alutiiq name means “place by lagoon.” Today, about 220 people live in Nanwalek, most of them Alaska Natives. Many continue to speak Alutiiq and to participate in traditional subsistence activities. Community residents also work at the Nanwalek School, fish commercially, and take seasonal jobs at the nearby Port Graham cannery. You can reach Nanwalek by boat or airplane, but like many Alutiiq villages, it is not accessible by road.
Map: The Alutiiq world, with English Bay at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
Quangkuta qik’rtarmiu’at. - We are island people.
The Alutiiq word qik’rtaq, meaning island, is the likely source of the name Kodiak. Stephen Glotov, a Russian explorer who wintered near Cape Alitak in 1763, recorded the Native term for the island as Kikhtak. Later colonists altered the word to “Kadiak,” which was the archipelago’s official name until the turn of the twentieth century. In 1901, Kadiak became Kodiak to reflect the more common local pronunciation. Add the suffix -miut, meaning “people of,” to qik’rtaq and you get Qik’rtarmiut: “people of the island.” This is the term the Alaska Peninsula Alutiiq people once used in referring to Kodiak Islanders.
The mountainous, fjorded islands of the Kodiak Archipelago have been home to Native peoples for more than 7,500 years. Although Kodiak may feel like a remote, isolated island today, it was a cultural crossroads in ancient times. A seafaring people, Alutiiqs traveled long distances to trade and socialize with their mainland neighbors, and Tlingit and Aleut people ventured to Kodiak. In oral tradition, the formidable Shelikof Strait is referred to as a river, and paddlers in skin boats crossed it regularly.
Image: Map of the Kodiak Archipelago