Amat ineqsunartut. - Amber is pretty.
Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient trees, particularly pine trees. This hard, yellowish-brown substance forms when a tree’s gummy oils oxidize. Contact with air solidifies the resin, creating hard lumps. Across the globe, people prize amber for its warm lustrous color as well as the prehistoric plants and insects often trapped inside. Alutiiq people are no exception.
Historical accounts of Alutiiq society repeatedly mention amber as a highly valued material. Pieces of amber were more precious than even sea otter furs or the slender white dentalium shells used to decorate the garments of the wealthy. These precious stones were often incorporated into jewelry, including earrings, pendants, armbands, and necklaces. They were also strewn on graves or given to young men preparing for warfare. Amber is said to wash up on beaches, particularly on Chirikof Island, and to be particularly common after an earthquake.
Amber is also one of the materials Alutiiq people traded for with communities on the Alaska Peninsula. Historic accounts indicate that Kodiak Islanders exported finished parkas, sinew thread, and sea otter skins, in exchange for antler, caribou hair, amber, and caribou hide clothing manufactured by their neighbors.
Photo: Basket decorated with Amber beads, by Cleo Chernoff. Courtesy Cleo Chernoff.
Paulartuu'uq p'litaami. - There's a lot of ashes in the stove.
The Alutiiq word for ash—paulaq or peluq—usually refers to wood ash. This is the fine, grey sediment found in the bottom of a fire pit or a wood burning stove after a hot fire. Cleaning the wood ash out of the household stove was a common task in decades past, before Alutiiq families adopted oil burning and electric stoves. Wood ash is also a common find in archaeological sites, in and around the rock-lined hearths where people cooked. However, it is just one of the types of ash Kodiak researchers encounter. Volcanic ash is the other.
Although Kodiak has no volcanoes, it lies adjacent to the volcanically active Alaska Peninsula. Over the millennia, the Gulf of Alaska’s strong winds have transported quantities of this ash to Kodiak, creating distinctive layers. These layers help scientists interpret the past. A good example is the ash deposit from the 1912 eruption of Mt. Novarupta, known locally as the Katmai ash. Any materials found below this layer, which covers roughly half the archipelago, date prior to March 27, 1912: the date the ash began to accumulate.
Layers like these are known as stratigraphic markers. Although digging animals and people can rearrange the position of ash deposits relative to cultural remains, stratigraphic markers are still an excellent research aid, because they provide a limiting date. They also document major environmental events that impacted the lives of Kodiak’s first residents.
Photo: Layer of volcanic ash (yellow) in an excavation on Woody Island, 2008. Courtesy Mark Rusk.
PaRaguutaq kangiyamen iluwartuq. - The boat is coming into the bay.
Kodiak’s many fjords, inlets, and estuaries reflect its glacial history, when tongues of ice carved valleys out of the island’s granite core. As the earth’s climate warmed twelve thousand years ago, the ice receded and rising sea levels filled these valleys with ocean water. This process created a coastline that is long in comparison to the archipelago’s land mass. Kodiak has more than 2,410 miles of shore and no interior location is more than 18 miles from the ocean. This complex coast provides habitat for an abundance of marine creatures as well as a sheltered environment for hunting and fishing.
The ways Alutiiq people used bay environments are preserved in the location and character of hundreds of past settlements. By locating and mapping these sites, archaeologists can reconstruct patterns of land use and the economic systems they represent. For example, we know that Kodiak’s earliest foragers made their camps in protected lagoons and mid-bay environments, harvesting resources from small camps and moving frequently. As the region’s population grew and there was more competition for resources, people began to build larger, more permanent settlements at bay mouths. These centrally located settlements allowed people to monitor many resources at once and to bring foods and raw materials to their families rather than moving their families to these resources. However, by the late prehistoric era, no coastal area was unused. Large settlements are even found in the most active outer coast, where the residents of villages watched for migrating whales.
Arnat qutmi et’ut. - The women are at the beach.
The place where the ocean meets the land is a diverse, productive environment, close to many resources. From the first occupation of the Kodiak Archipelago, Alutiiq families took advantage of this environment, building their homes behind quiet beaches where they could launch boats, harvest shoreline foods, and watch for sea mammals. Today, the beach remains a popular place for collecting and processing food, storing gear, camping, picnicking, and relaxing.
Kodiak has many types of beaches. The outer coast is covered in rocky headlands and high-energy cobble beaches. Quieter bays feature gravel shores, sandy bights, and even mud flats. On all of these beaches, beachcombing is a favorite pastime. The currents that sweep northward into the Gulf of Alaska from the central Pacific carry debris from far away. Glass net floats and plastic soda crates are among the Asian flotsam that reaches the archipelago’s shores.
Archaeologists believe that Kodiak’s prehistoric residents also collected objects from the beach, salvaging metal from fragments of Asian shipwrecks, collecting driftwood, and picking up artifacts. Water-worn stone tools from ancient deposits show up in more recent archaeological sites. They suggest that Alutiiq people of the past occasionally collected their ancestors’ tools.
Photo: The beach at Cape Alitak - looking northwest.
Qikumek asulitaartut. - They make pots out of clay.
Clay, a substance found in most types of soil, is made up of minute particles of silica and alumina bound together by water. This sediment forms as the surface of the earth weathers, breaking rocks into smaller and smaller pieces. In the Kodiak Archipelago, weathering of the islands’ slate and granite core during the last glacial epoch created distinctive deposits of blue clay. This clay is widely available, particularly in areas once covered by glacial lakes.
Throughout the world, craftsmen mine clay to mold this supple material into useful shapes. Alutiiqs are no exception. They once created clay-lined cooking features around household hearths. Archaeological data suggests that small clay-lined pits held water and acted as cooking vessels for soups and stews heated with hot rocks. Clay-lined troughs leading into these pits may have captured the oil exuded by chunks of blubber set by the fire to melt.
Alutiiqs also lined underground pits with thick layers of clay. These large depressions, dug into the soil beneath household floors, acted like root cellars. Here, foods could be stored or fermented in the cool ground. People sealed some of the pits with a clay cap. Others had a stone or wooden lid.
Alutiiqs also used clay to manufacture fired ceramic pots. There are no historic descriptions of this process, but it has been determined from the study of pot fragments and a few complete pots from archaeological sites. These finds suggest that people mixed clay with beach gravel and formed it into large, thick-walled, conical pots with a flat base. These vessels were hardened by firing, and then used for cooking and rendering oil. Some of these ceramic pots were finished with decorated applique rims.
In the nineteenth century, Alutiiqs adopted a variety of European items made from clay. These included English ceramics and delicate tobacco pipes made in Europe of white kaolin clay.
Photo: A clay-lined pit uncovered at the Outlet site, Buskin River area.
Naken taimallrianga penat qus'igtut. - In place where I came from, the cliffs are high up.
Over the past hundred thousand years there have been three distinct periods of glaciation in the Kodiak Archipelago. Streams of ice from Cook Inlet and from Kodiak’s own mountains carved deep, narrow valleys into the region’s bedrock. As the ice retreated and sea level rose about twelve thousand years ago, the sea inundated these ice-carved valleys, forming the archipelago’s irregular coastline with its fjords, inlets, straits, estuaries, rocky headlands, and dramatic cliffs.
Alutiiqs took advantage of Kodiak’s rough topography, even its precipitous cliffs. Hunters scaled rock walls with thick ropes of sea mammal hide to collect birds and eggs from nests on cliff faces. People gathering brush for firewood and fish smoking tied bundles of sticks together and dropped them over cliffs to the beach, where they could be collected by boat. And in late prehistoric times, entire communities retreated to villages built behind sheer cliffs to protect themselves from invaders. Here people perched logs secured with kelp lines on the cliff edge, ready to release on top of enemy invaders.
Alutiiq legends also mention cliffs. According to one tale, the first man and woman who entered the world paddled between two cliffs. When the cliffs closed in on their boat, they broke one end, creating the curved prow that has since characterized Alutiiq kayaks.
Photo: Kodiak Island ocean side cliff.
Qilaruartuq ernerpak. - It’s kind of cloudy today.
Cloud cover, precipitation, wind, and fog are persistent features of Kodiak’s environment that reflect the continual passage of storms through the region. The Gulf of Alaska is almost always partly cloudy, and there are usually less than seven clear days a month. The city of Kodiak is completely overcast fifty percent of the year, with an average daily cloud cover of about seventy percent. Although many people associate cloudy weather with the stormy winter season, summer days often have lingering low clouds and rain.
For Alutiiq people, cloud cover and the bad weather that accompanies it influence daily life. In the dark days of winter, clouds further limit the daylight available for outdoor activities and hide the moon that can provide light for evening chores. In spring, heavy cloud cover can block the solar radiation needed to increase air and water temperatures and stimulate plankton blooms. This can delay the arrival of spring resources— the fresh fish, sea birds, and sea mammals that Alutiiqs anticipate after a long winter of relying on stored foods.
In classical Alutiiq society, a person’s behavior was thought to influence the weather. On Kodiak, menstruating women were secluded in special huts. One reason was to shield their eyes from the sky, so they would not invite bad weather. In Prince William Sound, a woman who wished for good weather might take a wooden bowl to the beach and beat on its bottom with two sticks. Then she would lie down, wish for good weather, and pretend to sleep. On waking, she would look at the sky and say, “I was dreaming it would be fine weather tomorrow.”
Photo: Clouds in the sky over Karluk Lagoon.
Qetegmek canamauq. - This is made out of coal.
Coal is a black or dark brown sedimentary rock formed from decomposed and compressed plant material. There are a number of minor coal occurrences in the Kodiak region. Lignite, a soft coal, occurs along the southeastern coast of the archipelago, in Kiliuda Bay, around Sitkalidak Island, and on the Aliulik Peninsula. Also, scientists report the presence of a higher grade, bituminous coal on Sitkinak Island. The coal seams are thin, thus none of these sources have been commercially mined. However, prehistoric residents may have used them.
Although archaeological data indicate that the prehistoric residents of Kachemak Bay burned locally available coal for fuel, coal was more commonly used to manufacture jewelry. Beginning about 2,700 years ago, Alutiiq people carved beads, pendants, nose rings, and labrets from coal. Craftsmen broke, sawed, and carved chunks of the material into desirable shapes with stone tools, then polished them to a lustrous sheen.
Some people refered to this material as jet, a term used by Western craftsmen for a type coal used to make jewelry. However, mineralogical studies suggest that the coal used by Kodiak craftsmen was probably a harder coal mined at tidewater on the Alaska Peninsula. Studies of the coal available in the Kodiak region suggest that it is either too soft or too brittle to be worked into jewelry. In contrast, a more pliable material can be found in the Ugashik and Chignik areas. These observations suggest that coal was one of the many materials Alutiiq people obtained from the Alaska mainland. Like antler, volcanic stone, and beaver incisors, Alutiiqs imported coal to Kodiak in quantity.
Photo: Coal artifacts from the Uyak Site, Larsen Bay Tribe collection.