Nanwaq cikumauq. - The lake is iced up.
Although no place in the Kodiak Archipelago is more than eighteen miles from the ocean, lakes and rivers are important topographic features for both people and animals. In addition to drinking water, fresh watercourses provide access to char, trout, salmon, and waterfowl and an avenue into the interior.
Although ponds are common, there are few lakes in the archipelago and most are fairly small. Karluk Lake, the largest, covers only 14.7 square miles. These topographic characteristics reflect Kodiak’s glacial history. Most streams descend directly out of steep, glacially carved mountains into adjacent bays. Lakes and larger streams tend to occur in a few valleys not completely covered in ice during the last glacial epoch.
Elder Larry Matfay remembered ice fishing for steelhead on a frozen lake. Covered with a blanket, he would watch for fish through a small hole in the ice. The blanket blocked the sunlight, allowed him to see the fish, and kept the fish from spooking. As the fish began to swim by, he would use a leister—a multipronged spear—to capture it. Small fish lures carved from ivory and found in archaeological sites suggest that this practice may be quite ancient, perhaps more than two thousand years old.
Photo: Early morning at Olga Lake, 2005.
Man’a nunarpet. - This (here) is our land.
The Alutiiq homeland stretches from Prince William Sound almost to the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula, covering a vast section of the Alaska coast. Archaeologists believe that Alutiiqs have always lived here, because the distribution of prehistoric artifacts across this landscape closely mirrors the distribution of modern Alutiiq communities. From ancient occupations to the present day, groups of tools occur in the Alutiiq homeland that are different from those found in surrounding areas.
In classical Alutiiq society, people did not own land in the modern sense. Families, perhaps even communities, maintained harvesting rights to the resources in particular locations. Berry patches, salmon streams, bird rookeries, and other fixed harvesting spots were habitually used by the same group, who asserted their hunting and fishing rights in reference to ancestral patterns. A family maintained its right to a salmon stream because previous generations fished in the same spot. Rights to resources were passed through families, not the ownership of land.
Today, land remains an important symbol of Native identity. Passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 returned many thousands of acres to the Alutiiq people. Although the ways that people use these lands have changed, the land and its resources continue to provide for Alutiiq communities.
Photo: Roy Rastopsoff hunting on southern Kodiak Island.
Ken’akan suu’ut qapilanek iwa’itaartut. - When the tide is low some people go down to get blue mussels.
For coastal peoples, daily life is closely connected to the cycle of the tides. The ebbing and flowing of nearshore waters affects boat travel, altering currents and wave activity, water depth, and suitable boat landing locations. It also covers and uncovers important subsistence resources. In Alutiiq communities, the lowest tides of spring are eagerly awaited because they reveal a wealth of food.
Minus tides are particularly important for accessing shellfish. Although mussels can be collected during any low tide, accessing burrowing species like clams and cockles, and the chitons, urchins, and limpets that inhabit lower intertidal waters, often requires a minus tide. Throughout the year, minus tides typically occur for a few days every other week, making shellfish intermittently available. In winter, access is further limited by darkness as minus tides rarely coincide with daylight. Native people throughout the Gulf of Alaska dealt with this problem by illuminating darkened beaches with torches. Even today, residents of Akhiok will collect shellfish by lantern light.
As spring approaches, minus tides begin to coincide with daylight. This creates many more opportunities to collect intertidal resource at a time of year when fresh foods are limited and stores of food from the previous are exhausted. As Alutiiq Elders often note, “When the tide goes out, the table is set.”
Photo: Low tide on Afognak Island.
Unugpak iraluq tatartuq. - Tonight the moon is full.
In classical Alutiiq cosmology, there are five sky worlds, layered one on top of the other. The fifth sky world, farthest from earth, is the most pure. This is the home of Llam Sua, the Alutiiq supreme being. The first sky world, closest to earth, contains the moon, the stars, and the northern lights. Alutiiq tradition holds that the moon is a man who wears a different mask each night. At dusk, he enters a cave, changes his clothes, and puts on the mask for that evening. When the moon is eclipsed, the man is said to be wearing grease that darkens his face. When the eclipse fades, he has cleaned himself.
Legend tells how the moon met a girl and carried her to his sky world. They were married and he took good care of her. She became angered, however, when he would not tell her where he went each night. One night, she set off on her own to explore the sky world. She came to a house with a curtain and looked behind it. Here she found masks representing the different phases of the moon. She put a nearly full moon up to her face and it stuck. From then on, she became her husband’s assistant, sharing the work of the moon with him.
Photo: Moon mask by Perry Eaton. Alutiiq Museum collections.
Ing'it patumaut aniumek. - The mountains are covered with snow.
Some of Kodiak’s most beautiful features are its rugged mountains. Carved by glacial ice over the past hundred thousand years, these mountains are a continuation of the Kenai Peninsula’s Chugach Range and part of the dramatic belt of coastal peaks that curve southward to Prince of Wales Island in southeast Alaska. Kodiak’s mountains rise to altitudes of more than four thousand feet. They create a dramatic landscape. Throughout the archipelago, steep-sided valleys rise directly out of the ocean at the back of narrow coastal fjords.
Although Alutiiqs have always built their villages along the coast, Kodiak’s mountainous interior is economically, socially, and spiritually important. The mountains contain valuable resources. Here, people hunt bears and ptarmigan, pick plant foods, fill baskets with alpine berries, and even harvest wood. In the hills surrounding some communities people cut alder branches, tie them in bundles, and roll the bundles downhill. The mountains are also avenues for travel. People once hiked up to ridge tops to follow trails across the island. Large cairns, stacks of stones piled along these ridges, may have been used as route markers.
Photo: A Kodiak Island mountain surrounded by morning fog.
Qiugyat asingcugtut unugpak. - The northern lights are beautiful/nice tonight.
The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are shimmering curtains of light that illuminate the night sky across the north. Similar lights seen in southern polar regions are known as the aurora australis. Interaction between the Sun and the Earth creates these lights. The aurora is powered by an electrical discharge that occurs when magnetism from solar winds collides with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Glowing molecules created by this collision form dancing bands of multicolored light that extend from forty to six hundred miles above the Earth.
The aurora can cast a dramatic glow that illuminates the landscape. Athabaskan and Iñupiat people took advantage of this light to travel and hunt at night, even on moonless evenings. The Iñupiat also used the aurora for navigation, because the most cohesive bands of light trend from east to west before bending north.
Most northern cultures have legends about the aurora that connected these eerie lights with life after death. The Iñupiat believed that the aurora could kill people, and they brandished knives at the lights to keep them at bay.
The Tlingit Indians of southeast Alaska believed that the spirits of people who died during warfare traveled to a world in the sky. When these spirits came out to play, people on earth saw them as the aurora. These displays were a sign of impending war and bloodshed.
In Alutiiq cosmology, the northern lights are also believed to be the spirits of dead warriors. These spirits live in the first of five sky worlds, closest to earth, with the spirits of the stars and the moon. And like the Yup’ik, Alutiiqs once believed that whistling would bring the lights closer.
Imam taanga taryutuu’uq. - The ocean's water is salty.
The bountiful North Pacific Ocean has been the economic foundation of Alutiiq communities for more than 7,500 years. Kodiak’s first settlers arrived by boat and were fully equipped to exploit the marine environment. These early colonists probably came from coastal areas of southwest Alaska and remained in Kodiak to harvest the wealth of sea mammals, fish, birds, and shellfish they encountered. Colonization is itself convincing evidence of a seafaring people, because the Kodiak Archipelago was surrounded by water sixteen thousand years ago, more than eight thousand years before the first known Native settlement. Kodiak’s first families must have arrived by boat.
In addition to food, the ocean provided Alutiiqs with raw materials. Tools were made of whale bones, boats covered with sea lion skins, and clothing made from the pelts of puffins and cormorants. Although the technologies used to harvest marine resources have changed with time, today’s reliance on the ocean is very similar to the ancient economic pattern. Alutiiq communities continue to make their living from the sea, whether it be through subsistence practices, as part of the tourist industry, or in the commercial arena. The ocean continues to feed Alutiiq families.
Photo: Rocky coast of Kodiak Island. Nekeferof Collection.
Sun'ami qitengtaartuq. - It rains all the time in Kodiak.
From September to April, a winter storm crosses the Gulf of Alaska about every five days, bringing intense rain, high winds, and heavy seas. Surrounded by ocean and encircled by Alaska’s high coastal mountains, Kodiak is continually exposed to the full force of these storms. The archipelago receives about 79 inches of precipitation annually and has more than one hundred wet days. Most of this precipitation, about ninety percent, falls as rain.
Alutiiq people have always adapted their practices to this soggy environment. Hunters, travelers, and people working outdoors once wore waterproof garments stitched from the intestines of sea mammals and bears. These flexible, lightweight coats were easy to work in and kept the wearer very dry. Houses were also built to keep out the rain. A thick cover of thatch and sod over a wooden frame helped to shed winter’s constant drizzle. Archaeological data, however, suggest that water did eventually seep into sod dwellings, particularly through their earthenfloors. To combat this seepage, Alutiiqs constructed drainage ditches to direct water away from living areas. Home builders lined and covered these trenches with boards, forming a network of channels below the floor.
Rain also influences subsistence activities, because it can affect the harvesting and processing of resources. Even today, people tend not to pick plant foods in the rain. Heavy rain makes berries watery, and wet vegetables are difficult to preserve. Similarly, fair weather is necessary to dry the quantities of salmon and halibut that people eat all winter long. Too much rain and fish flesh will fail to dry and will spoil.
Photo: A storm approaches Old Harbor.