Unguwallriat amlertut maani. - The animals are plentiful here.
According to Alutiiq lore, Kas’arpak, a powerful being who resided in the third of five sky worlds, created all of the animals and birds in the universe. He formed the earth’s creatures from a little man, giving them the ability to shift between animal and human form and endowing each with a soul.
Although everything in the Alutiiq universe is believed to have a sua—a person inside that gives it consciousness—only humans and animals are thought to have souls. When an animal dies, its sua dies as well. However, if the animal is properly treated, its soul survives and can be reincarnated in another animal. As such, respectful human action is critical to regeneration of game. The Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound believed that an animal’s soul rested in a particular part of its body and hunters had to be careful to release this part to the environment. Honoring the animal’s inner person, or sua, was also an important part of regeneration. Many of the masked dances performed at winter festivals were dedicated to this task.
The unguwallriat were cared for by two powerful female beings. Imam Sua, who lived at the bottom of the ocean, ruled over marine creatures. Hunters asked her to provide them with game and for protection from the wind and waves when they were caught in a storm. Nunam Sua, the ruler of creatures that lived on the land, lived in mountain forests. She wore a knee-length coat covered with small animals and was surrounded by a bright light that made her difficult to see. Some people believed that she could read hunters’ thoughts.
Image: Sea mammal petroglyph, Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
K’liaqa ciruneq. - I am carving the antler.
Although antler-bearing mammals are not indigenous to the Kodiak Archipelago, antler has long been a favored material of Alutiiq craftsmen. Antler is a compact form of bone grown and shed annually by animals of the deer family. Unlike horn, which is made of keratin, antler is formed from ash, calcium, and phosphorous. This porous, resilient material is excellent for making tools.
Archaeological data illustrate that craftsmen employed antler regularly in the manufacture of objects designed to withstand an impact. Harpoons, fish spears, arrows, and wedges for splitting wood are some examples.
Where did Kodiak’s Alutiiq people obtain antler? Most of it was probably caribou antler traded, collected, or obtained through hunting on the Alaska mainland. Although small quantities of moose antler may have made it into artists’ hands, moose were rare on the Alaska Peninsula until the twentieth century, making the peninsula’s caribou herds a more likely source.
Today Alutiiq people collect the antlers of the Sitka black-tailed deer, a species introduced to Kodiak in the early twentieth century. Artists generally prefer the hardened tines of fully grown deer to the spongier tines of immature animals. Craftsmen fashion this material into strong, attractive handles for a variety of knives and baskets. Small pieces are also skillfully polished, painted, or engraved to make jewelry.
Photo: Moose anter collected on the Alaska Peninsula. Nekeferof Collection.
Isuwim carlia’a ineqsunartuq. - The seal’s baby is cute.
Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are year-round residents of Kodiak’s nearshore waters. Biologists consider them sedentary because they tend to stay in one area throughout their lives, visiting the same spots to feed, rest, breed, and pup. Like sea lions, harbor seals give birth on land. Pupping takes place between late May and early July. Pups weigh approximately twenty-four pounds and double in size in about a month. Seal pups are less shy than adults and spend more time on land. For Alutiiqs, this meant that baby seals could easily be hunted on land in the summer.
Although Alutiiq people are famous for their skill in hunting sea mammals from kayaks, seals of all sizes were taken on land for meat, bone, oil, and hide. In Prince William Sound, the soft hides of baby seals were also used to fashion an apron worn as underwear. One historic account tells of Alutiiq people harvesting seals with nets. At high tide, hunters would stretch a net more than fifty feet long and seven feet wide near a rookery with sleeping seals. When it was tight, they would wake the seals and scare them into the net. In more recent years, Elders recall stalking seals at rookeries. Covered with a sealskin, a hunter might creep up on to the rookery, crying like a baby seal. When an adult came to investigate, the hunter would shoot it.
Photo: Seals in the waters off Cape Alitak, May 2010. Courtesy Sven Haakanson Jr.
Aliktaanka keneryat. - The bats scare me.
Bats are not widespread in Alaska. There are just five species of these small flying mammals found mostly in forested areas of southeast and south central Alaska, where trees provide good roosting places. The most common Alaskan variety is the little brown bat (Myotis lucifugus), which lives year-round in the Kodiak region.
Little brown bats live in small colonies. They are nocturnal animals that feed on insects at night and roost during the day in rock overhangs, trees, abandoned buildings, and chimneys. Biologists believe the little brown bat was one of the early animal colonizers of the Kodiak Archipelago. These animals are common in the region’s northern spruce forests, but can also be seen beyond the limits of coniferous trees. Residents of Larsen Bay report that bats may roost in their attics and campers encounter them in the Karluk drainage.
The Alutiiq word for bat—keneryaq—comes from the word for fire—keneq. Elders say this is because bats are known to circle a fire. One Elder tells a story about a powerful shaman who caused a young woman to become very ill. The shaman took the shape of a bat to spy on the woman, but was captured in his bat form and placed into a container of urine. Here he died. After his death, the young woman recovered from her illness.
Photo: Little brown bat. Courtesy the USFWS National Digital Archives.
Taquka’at yugnitaaraat, “Suk.”; Taquka’at niugnitaaraat, “Suk.” - Bears always say “Person.”
The brown or grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) is the largest terrestrial mammal in North America. The Kodiak Archipelago is home to more than three thousand of these enormous creatures, which have long been a source of food and raw materials for Alutiiq people. Bears once represented the only large land mammal available to Kodiak hunters, because Sitka deer, elk, and reindeer were introduced in this century. In addition to meat and fat, bears provided gut for waterproof clothing, bone for tools, teeth for jewelry, and hides for bedding. Inside the warmth of sod houses, people sat on bear hides to sew, make tools, and play games, and in the evening, families wrapped themselves in the plush fur for sleeping.
Bears were traditionally hunted in winter and spring, but not during the salmon season when their meat tasted strongly of fish. Before the introduction of firearms, hunters took bears with bone arrows, slate spears, snares, and deadfall traps. Some were killed in their dens. Others were taken with deadfall traps placed at streams or ambushed along a habitually used trail.
In the early twentieth century, hunters from around the world flocked to Kodiak in search of trophy brown bears, and Alutiiq men became famous for their expertise as guides. In the 1940s, however, the federal government designated much of Kodiak Island as a national wildlife refuge, and bear hunting was seriously restricted. Some of these restrictions have been lifted in recent years, allowing Alutiiqs to once again hunt bears for subsistence purposes.
Photo: Brown bear mother and cubs, Alaska Peninsula.
Kum'agyam cugaa ipegtaartuq. - An eagle's beak is always sharp.
Elders recall that every Alutiiq hunter had at least two helping animal spirits, one for land hunting and one for sea hunting. These spirits provided luck and assistance and were frequently birds. The frequent use of bird imagery in Alutiiq art symbolizes this guiding relationship.
Beaks and other bird images are commonly found on Alutiiq masks and hunting hats, objects that symbolize spiritual communication and transformation. Alutiiqs believe that every being has a human consciousness, a person inside that can show itself. Many of the masks once used to ritually conjure and honor spirits had beak-like mouths on an otherwise human face. These beak features suggest that the masks were actually images of birds unveiling their human-like spirit. The feathers that surround many mask faces may also symbolize this process.
The ivory carvings attached to Alutiiq bentwood hunting hats also commonly depicted the heads, beaks, eyes, and wings of birds. Like masks, these ornate hats were a means of transformation. They helped the wearer become a magical being with the ability to kill sea mammals. The story of a boy who became an eagle illustrates this connection between birds and sea mammal hunting. The boy traveled to the land of the eagle, where he became an eagle by putting on an eagle skin. He was then able to capture whales and carry them home to feed his village.
Photo: An ivory bird carving decorated a bentwood hunting hat by Jacob Simeonoff. KANA collection.
Pingayun paluqtat kuigmi. - There are three beavers in the creek.
Although beavers (Castor canadensis) thrive around Kodiak today, they are not part of the region’s original fauna. Beavers were introduced to the archipelago in 1925 in an effort to provide valuable game for trapping and a commodity for the fashion industry. Most beaver trapping was done in the fall and winter, after the summer fishing season. Alutiiqs cleaned and stretched the pelts and then sold them to fur buyers in Kodiak and Anchorage. However, beaver meat was not initially eaten because people were unfamiliar with it and equated the animals with cats and dogs. Alutiiqs learned to prepare beaver meat from other Native peoples who traditionally relied on the beaver for food.
Despite the absence of beavers from Kodiak’s prehistoric landscape, Alutiiq people did use beaver parts regularly. In addition to their pelts, craftsmen coveted the animal’s long, resilient incisors, which they obtained in trade from the Alaska mainland. Carvers hafted beaver incisors into small wooden handles to create tools for detailed woodworking, setting the teeth perpendicular to the long axis of the tool handle to create a gouge.
Today beaver are common in Kodiak’s wetlands. Adult animals can reach four feet in length and weigh as much as eighty pounds. In some areas, particularly southwestern Kodiak Island, beaver dams have modified the landscape, stopping up streams, creating new wetlands, and in the process, damaging some salmon streams. Hunters may trap or shoot beavers from early November through April and are allowed to harvest up to thirty animals each season.
Photo: Beaver dam near Pasagshak. Courtesy USF&WS national digital library.
Uuqutiit amlertut suitkaani. - There are a lot of bees on the flowers.
Bumblebees play an important role in the ecology of Alaska’s terrestrial environments. The farther north you move, the fewer pollinators there are. In Alaska, bumblebees and hoverflies do much of the pollinating. Bumblebees have a furry, black-andyellow body and transparent wings. These social insects search flowers for nectar, which they drink with a long tongue. In the process, their hairy bodies become smeared with pollen, which they spread among other plants as they travel and feed.
A fear of bees pervades the Eskimo world, where dead bees were once used in amulets and shamans’ paraphernalia. An Alutiiq Elder reports that bumblebees are “bad, bad, bad.” This may be because bees drink the nectar of the monkshood plant. This plant is the source of aconite, the extremely potent nerve toxin once used to kill whales. The fact that bees can subsist from this deadly plant may make them dangerous. In the Aleutian chain, bumblebees were associated with weaponry and their legs were used in whaling poisons. Like a poisoned spear, the bumblebee deeply penetrates a flower where he remains to do his work. In the traditional language of the Aleutian Islands, the term for the monkshood plant translates literally as “the house of the bumblebee.”