Uksumi pat’snartaartuq. - It is always cold in the winter.
The Kodiak Archipelago lies in a maritime environment. Despite the region’s northern latitude, encircling ocean waters and prevailing weather keep air temperatures mild by Alaska standards. At sea level, Kodiak’s temperatures typically range from 40° to 60° Fahrenheit (4.4°–15.6° Celsius) in summer and hover around freezing (32° Fahrenheit, 0° Celsius) in winter. Moreover, the average temperature in the warmest month, August, is only 38° Fahrenheit (3.3° Celsius) higher than the average temperature in the coldest month, January. And while extremely cold temperatures can occur, they are rare and do not last for long.
Despite these relatively mild air temperatures, the Kodiak environment is highly seasonal, with a distinct period of warm weather and resource abundance followed by period of colder weather and resource scarcity. Like all northern peoples, therefore, Kodiak Islanders have always had to adapt to the cold.
In classical Alutiiq society, people combated cold weather with well-insulated sod houses, interior fires, warm fur clothing and bedding, gut rain gear, and a diet rich in nutritious, high calorie, sea mammal fat. They paired these technological and dietary choices with social and economic practices. Storage and exchange were the most important. By harvesting and processing large quantities of summer’s foods, people stockpiled proteins, fats, and carbohydrates for winter use and created stores that could be exchanged with neighbors.
In addition to preparing for the cold, Alutiiqs took advantage of the preservative qualities of cold weather. Elders recall storing foods, particularly garden produce and eggs, in cellars and pits dug into the ground. Others put subsistence foods like clams and berries in oil-filled containers and left them in a cold place to keep throughout the winter.
Photo: Children play on the ice in Old Harbor at recess, February, 1962. Violet Able Collection, courtesy the Old Harbor Native Corporation.
Kasaakat kanuyamek tait'llriit. - The Russians brought copper.
Copper is one of the few metals that Alutiiq people used prehistorically. Artists ground copper oxide, a mineral available on southeastern Kodiak Island, to make pigment. However, they obtained copper suitable for tool manufacture in trade with the Alaska mainland, particularly the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. Historic sources indicate that the Ahtna Athabaskan Indians mined copper in the Copper River basin, which they traded annually to the Dena’ina Indians, who in turn traded with Alutiiq societies. By the time copper reached Kodiak, it had passed through many hands. Most copper use dates to after AD 1000.
From copper Alutiiqs fashioned arrowheads, which were used in warfare, as well as spears and knives. Craftsmen worked the metal raw, shaping it into tool forms by cold hammering.
In historic times, Russian traders also brought copper items. Among their imports to Kodiak were copper kettles, copper rings, and thimbles made with a copper alloy.
Alutiiq stories suggest that copper tools were both prized and powerful. A tale from Prince William Sound describes how Raven, the wily hero of many Alutiiq stories, bribed a blue crane with the gift of a copper spear to help him retrieve his kidnapped wife. Another story relates how an evil spirit killed people with a copper spear.
Photo: Copper Kettle. Alutiiq Museum collections, gift of Larry Matfay.
Carwaq tukniuq. - The current is strong.
Tanqigyaturtuq. - It is starting to dawn
Dawn is the period of early morning twilight that begins as the sun nears the horizon, lifting its leading edge into the sky. The appearance of first morning light around Kodiak changes with the seasons. In summer dawn comes early and rapidly, as the sun rises high above the horizon filling the sky with strong, direct light for many hours. By contrast, dawn seems to linger in the midst of winter, as the sun remains low on the horizon and casts long shadows. Some areas of Kodiak receive little direct sunlight between November and January. The tall mountains lining narrow waterways can block the low-lying rays of the sun even on cloud-free days. Alutiiqs prepared for winter darkness by choosing village sites in open, coastal locations beyond the reach of persistent winter shadows. Place with names like Sunny Cove on Spruce Island record the locations of such spots.
An Alutiiq legend suggests that the sun and the moon are twins, born from the union of a brother and sister who fell in love. The human-like qualities of the sun are also expressed in an Alutiiq story from Prince William Sound. In this tale, the sun is a man who fights with a family of alders. Although the sun could not defeat the alders, and eventually became their friend, his arrows scarred their bark, causing dark spots, and his heat burnt their leaves. This is why alder leaves become brown each fall.
Photo: Sunrise over Mill Bay.
Erneret taklliyut. - The days are getting long.
Spring in the Kodiak Archipelago brings lengthening days and warmer temperatures. As the sun reaches farther above the horizon, warming ocean waters stimulate plankton blooms that attract fish, birds, and sea mammals back to coastal environments. This yearly increase in daylight was once greatly anticipated by Alutiiq people. Longer days meant the renewed availability of fresh foods and more time for outdoor activities. Comparisons of seasonal daylight patterns illustrate the dramatic annual changes that influenced Alutiiq life. At the height of summer Kodiak experiences eighteen hours of daylight and the sun reaches a maximum angle of fifty-seven degrees above the horizon. In contrast, there are only six and a half hours of daylight separating sunrise and sunset in late December, and the angle of the sun dwindles to eight degrees.
Spring days were busy in Alutiiq communities. A typical day might have passed like this. A large family awakes in the cozy planked side rooms of their sod house. Crawling out of their heavy bearskin bedding, parents and children join aunts, uncles, and cousins for a meal of shellfish collected the previous afternoon. In a warm breeze, the family packs their kayaks with freshwater and a modest supply of the remaining dried fish and seal oil from the previous summer’s harvest. Children crawl into the bow of their parent’s boats, where they lie and watch the water ripple past as their parents paddle. The family arrives at a small rocky island noisy with the screeches of nesting birds. Women and children collect from the easily accessible nests, looking for freshly laid eggs and leaving those with growing chicks. The men hike to the top of a nearby cliff. They rappel down the cliff face on tough sealion-skin ropes anchored by weighty rocks. They collect both eggs and birds, which are placed in baskets tied to their sides. After a snack of dried fish and oil, the women collect fresh greens growing along the beach edge, while the men watch for signs of migrating whales. Tired, the family returns to their community for a dinner of fresh vegetables, eggs, and bird meat. Community members visit on the beach where children play with toys that were stored over the long winter.
Photo: Sunny day at Cape Alitak, May 2011
Tan’urat waamut iqami. - The boys are playing in the dirt.
The soils in the Kodiak region are relatively young, formed since the end of the last ice age less than twelve thousand years ago. Deposits of volcanic ash brought to the archipelago by the wind and the weathering of bedrock and glacial deposits are the main sources of local soil. Although there are a variety of different soils, reflecting regional differences in precipitation, vegetation, and topography, most of Kodiak’s dirt can be classified as a silt loam. This reddish brown earth ranges from one to two feet thick and contains large amounts of organic material. In the wet environment, however, rain removes many of the soil’s nutrients. Water leaches out the soluble minerals, creating wet, acidic earth.
For Alutiiqs, this thick mantle of dirt provided a perfect foundation for houses. They created the walls and floors of structures by excavating through the soil into glacial gravels below. Digging was done with sturdy, pointed, sea mammal ribs and shovels made by tying a sea mammal scapula to a wooden handle. Builders piled the earth removed from these excavations along the outer walls and roofs of their houses to create warm, weather-resistant structures. The practice of building houses partially underground is at least five thousand years old and perhaps older. Some of the oldest houses, built before there were substantial accumulations of dirt to dig down into, appear to have been made by piling up blocks of sod.
Photo: Layers of dirt in an archaeological site.
Pukilaanek iwa’at’skut. - Let’s look for driftwood.
Spruce trees are a recent addition to the Kodiak environment. Pollen and tree-ring studies indicate that the spruce forests of Shuyak, Afognak, and northern Kodiak are 500 to 900 years old. For ancient Alutiiq communities, driftwood was the primary source of lumber for home construction, tool production, and fuel. Locally available alder and cottonwood were useful for some tasks, but they were no substitute for the spruce, hemlock, yew, and cedar logs that washed onto Kodiak beaches.
Today, driftwood heats Alutiiq homes, fuels banyas, and smokes salmon. Families collect wood, searching the coast for suitable logs, particularly after stormy weather. Logs are tapped with a rock to ensure that they are not waterlogged and then towed home behind a skiff. Others may be marked and left for future collection. People use different signals to showlog ownership. Some carve their initials into the ends of a log. Others will place a rock on top of a log or stack driftwood and tie a line around one end of the pile. These actions signal that the finder will be back to retrieve his supply.
Photo: Driftwood on the beach at Cape Alitak, May, 2010.
Nuna aulakan alingnartuq. - It is scary when the land shakes.
The Kodiak Archipelago lies at the juncture of two major tectonic plates, enormous pieces of the earth’s crust that are continually colliding. Here rock formed on the ocean floor is scraped off the Pacific plate as it slides beneath the more stationary North American Plate. As the Pacific plate adjusts to this pressure, sections occasionally slip, creating earthquakes.
Alutiiq legends provide several explanations for earthquakes. Some say that invisible men who lived inside the earth created quakes and made volcanoes steam and smoke when they fought, cooked meals, or heated a steam bath. Others suggest that earthquakes are caused by a powerful shaman grieving the loss of his son, and some believed that they were the result of a mythical being giving birth: the favorite animal of the Alutiiq supreme being Llam Sua.
Whatever their source, earthquakes have repeatedly shaped the lives of Alutiiq people. The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, one of the largest in recorded history, created a tsunami that leveled the communities of Kaguyak and Old Harbor, forced residents to vacate Afognak village, and generated dramatic changes in the distribution and availability of subsistence resources. Geologists believe that quakes of this size happen every four to five hundred years—more than fifteen times in the past 7,500 years of Kodiak’s human history.
Photo: Downtown Kodiak, Summer 1964, showing damage from the 1964 quake. Photo by Bill Workman. Workman Collection.