Maaninguall'raq macamek tang'rpakartaan'itukut. - Around here (pitifully) we do not see the sun.
Sunshine is an important ingredient in Alutiiq subsistence activities. To preserve the quantities of meat, fish, and even plants harvested during the productive summer months, families need dry weather. Without it, foods do not desiccate and can spoil rapidly in the damp Kodiak environment. Even the best hunter can experience a lean winter if a wet summer makes processing his catch difficult. With luck, families had some sunshine and a little wind to speed the process.
Sunshine was also important for drying the plant fibers used in weaving many common objects - baskets for carrying, cooking and storing foods, mats for household use, woven clothing, and cordage. The Alutiiq also used the sun to soften spruce pitch, used to waterproof kayak seams and patch dories. To coax the sun from behind the clouds, and to hasten its return during the dark days of winter, Alutiiq children played a sunrise game with a wooden bead on a string.
According to Alutiiq lore, the sun is a spirit who lives in the fifth sky world - the one that is closest to earth. A number of legends explain the origin of the sun. In one, a man fell in love with his beautiful sister and they had twins. One twin became the moon, the other the sun. Another legend says that the sun is a man from Cook Inlet who fled to the sky after killing his brother. One side of him shines during the day as the sun, the other at night as the moon. And in a story from Kodiak, Raven brought daylight to his community by capturing the sun, moon, and stars from a stingy chief and releasing them from their boxes into the sky.
Photo: A Kodiak Sunset
Lla Asirtuq. - The weather is good.
From footprints, it is possible to estimate the size, age, and gait of a person and to tell how recently they passed by. As such, ancestral Alutiiq people were keen observers of not only bear and otter tracks, but of the footprints left by people and spirits in human form. Alutiiq legends record this practice. In traditional tales, footprints provide vital clues about the activities of others, concrete evidence in a world often filled with deception.
One legend reports that deep indentations in bedrock are the footprints of heavy, powerful beings. Another records a young man improving his hunting luck after footprints help him to find an encampment of spirits. In a third tale, footprints lead a woman to her missing husband. The man, who deserted his wife, wished her to believe he was dead. However, when she recognized his footprints along the beach, she knew he had carried his kayak to the water recently. She went in search of him and discovered that he was alive and living with another woman.
In the Alutiiq language, the term for glacier varies by region. Among Kodiak area Alutiiq speakers, the word is cikusinaq. The root of this word, ciku-, means ice, piece of ice, or iceberg. Add the suffix –sinaq, meaning large or great, and you get cikusinaq – large ice. In contrast, Kenai Peninsula Alutiiq speakers pluralize cikuq, the word for ice, using cikut- many pieces of ice, as the their term for glaciers. All of these words reference the size of glaciers, helping people distinguish between common pieces of ice and the massive ice sheets that shaped the Alutiiq homeland into the mountainous, fjorded region we know today.
During the last glacial epoch, a time that stretched from about 120,000 to 10,000 years ago, enormous streams of ice ran out of Cook Inlet, and off the Kodiak Mountains carving valleys, cliffs, and mountains, as well as deep bays. During the first glacial advance, ice covered all of Kodiak, with only mountain peaks rising above the ice. During subsequent advances, ice covered most of the archipelago, but did not reach all the way across southwest Kodiak Island. This region’s lower, rolling topography reflects it’s distinct history. Less glaciation and more exposure to wind and water rounded the topography of southwestern Kodiak.
Geological studies suggest that deglaciation of the Kodiak region, the melting and retreat of glacial ice, began about 17,000 years ago. Western areas of the archipelago were ice-free by about 14,000 years ago. As the ice retreated, freshwater filled valleys forming Kodiak’s major freshwater features, including Karluk and Red lakes and the rivers that drain them.
The Koniag Glacier, found today in the mountains behind Kiliuda Bay, is a remnant of the glaciers that once covered Kodiak. This small mountain glacier flows off Koniag Peak and is about 7 miles long. In 1963, the Kodiak Historical Society named the glacier for the Alutiiq People. Koniag is a term sometimes used for early Alutiiq settlers.
Photo: Koniag Glacier on central Kodiak Island.
The black-capped chickadee is a bold little bird that may eat out of your hand. These chickadees have a round black head and black bib, white cheeks, and a tan belly. They are only about five inches long and weigh less than half an ounce. A thick layer of down covers their tiny bodies and allows them to winter in Alaska, even in the bitterly cold interior.
In winter, chickadees can eat up to eight percent of their body weight in bugs and seeds during the day. At night, they retreat to snug roosts, often a hole in a tree, where they burn off the day’s calories to keep warm. The Alutiiq word for the black-capped chickadee–Uksullaq–reflects the bird’s remarkable adaptation to the far north. It means, “winter one.” Some Alutiiq speakers also use this word to refer to the Pacific wren (Troglodytes pacificus helleri), another songbird that winters on Kodiak.
Image: Chickadees, by Lena Amason. Purchased with support from the Rasmuson Foundation.
The rufous hummingbird has the longest migration of all hummers in the United States. These solitary fliers arrive in Alaska by early May. They spend just three months in the north laying eggs and raising their young. In the fall, they return south, flying thousands of miles to warmer climates. Some travel to Mexico. Others head for places like Florida, an annual round trip of roughly 8,000 miles!
Kodiak lies at the far western limit of the rufous hummingbird’s range, but birds are known to visit in the fall. Local birders believe that many of these individuals are immature birds, inexperience migrators who stray accidentally into the archipelago. Perhaps due to their rarity, Alutiiq hunters prized hummingbirds, and their tiny nest and eggs, as amulets. Dead birds were dried kept in hunting bags for luck, beside bits of bear hear, colorful stones, and other personal talismans.
Kodiak Alutiiq speakers refer to humming birds as kumlurngaq. However, in other parts of the Alutiiq world speakers may use the term megtarpak–from the word megtaq for bumblebee. This word reflects the tiny, buzzing-like characteristics of the hummingbird.
Photo: Rufous Humingbird, courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Just as fishermen today protect themselves from large, thrashing fish with a gaff, or sometimes even a handgun, Alutiiq fishermen once used stunning clubs. With a swift blow to the head, a fisherman could still a writhing fish. This was essential to keeping the creature from escaping the hook, and to protect one’s kayak from damage. A few blows to the head and the fish could be tied to the boat and towed home.
Clubs were also used to dispatch small game caught in snares, like fox or ermine. As a part of their education as trappers, Alutiiq Elders recall learning to club animals.
About 40 cm long, the length of a forearm, Alutiiq clubs featured a thick rounded head and a narrow handle. They look like a small baseball bats. Today, the Alutiiq word for club is also used for baseball bat.
Photo: Fish stunning club, Karluk One site, courtesy Koniag, Inc.
Kallikan alingnartaartut. - When it is thundering it is scary.
Although storms are common in Kodiak, thunder and lightning are relatively rare. This is because thunder storms occur when cold and warm weather fronts collide, and warm air masses pass over Kodiak infrequently. However, electrical storms do occur, creating dangerous conditions in both summer and winter.
Alutiiq people have long feared thunder and lightning, for their power and connection to the unseen world. In January 1801, a Russian naval office recorded an eerie event during an electrical storm. Residents of an Alutiiq settlement were hosting a winter festival. During the storm, many people observed a rock jumping up and down, making its way up a hillside. No one could explain this phenomenon, but villagers suspected it was caused by thunder.
Similarly, an Alutiiq legend suggests that thunder and lightning were once two, poor, hungry girls whose community tired of caring for them and sent them away. This mistreatment led the girls to wander for many days, until they flew into the sky and became the angry and powerful thunder and lightning. The story reminds people of the importance of generosity.
Photo: Cumulus clouds over a Kodiak peak.