Neqllet taitaartut maut uksugmi. – The emperor geese always come here in the winter.
Emperor geese typically arrive in the archipelago between October and April. In summer, they breed in the Yukon-Kuskokwin Delta and along the coast of the Bering Sea in Alaska and Russia. As colder temperatures and ice develop, the birds fly south in search of open beaches to feed on seaweed and intertidal organisms. Most travel to the Aleutian Island, the coast of the Alaska Peninsula, or the Kodiak Archipelago.
Alutiiq hunters report that the Emperor goose population, at an historic low in the 1980s, is now rebounding. Although the birds cannot be taken for subsistence purposes due to legal protection, large gaggles of emperor geese are starting to appear, and even chase away flocks of wintering ducks.
Geese were once hunted with snares or bow and arrow. Today, they are taken with guns. Alutiiq people harvest geese for their meat and feathers. Elders recall that families used soft, warm goose down to stuff pillow and mattresses. Bird down is also an excellent fire starter. Despite the variety in species, Elders report that all geese, “taste the same!”
Photo: Emperor Geese on the shore of Chiniak Bay. Photograph by Dave Menke. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Cingtaatarsurlita! – Let's gather razor clams!
Pacific razor clams (Siliqua patula) can be found in sandy beaches from California to the Aleutian Islands. Alaska is home to some of the world’s largest razor clams, which can grow up to a foot long. These large, narrow bi-valves have a thin, brittle, brown shell, and they are delicious!
Razor clams have a limited availability on Kodiak, due to its rocky coast. They typically occur on sandy or muddy outer coast beaches, from about four feet above mean low tide to a depth of 30 fathoms. However, they are relatively easy to find. These clams leave a distinctive dimple in the sand wherever they burrow. Strong diggers, razor clams can burrow up to five feet per minute to avoid capture. They can be collected during any low tide, but they are easier to harvest in spring when cool weather slows them down.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Kodiak Islanders worked in the razor clam industry on the Pacific coast of the Alaska Peninsula. The Kukak Cannery, built in 1923, processed clams harvested from abundant bed in nearby Swikshak Beach. The cannery employed Alutiiq men to dig clams, living in camps along the beach. They worked with men from the Quinault Indian Reservation and workers recruited in Grays Harbor, Washington. It was a tiring, dirty job done with a shovel and hip boots. The men packed live clams in 50 pound boxes, which were picked up by tenders for delivery to Kukak and other canneries.
Alutiiq women worked in the Kukak cannery processing clams beside ladies from other coastal Alaskan communities. A steamship transported them to the facility, where they lived in bunkhouses and ate in a mess hall. During the day, they spent long hours loosening clams from their shells and cleaning the meat. But after hours, the Kukak cannery was a lively community, where people made close friends, enjoyed music, played games, and explored the bay.
Photo: Razor Clam on the beach at Cape Alitak, May 2010. Photograph by Sven Haakanson Jr.
Qaugtat ilait allrani angtaartut. – Some barnacles are sometimes large.
Barnacles are one of the oldest living species on earth and a familiar resident of Alaska’s shores. These filter-feeding crustaceans typically live in shallow waters and will grow on just about anything–rocks, shellfish, docks, boats, marine debris, and even sea mammals. Whales are especially prone to barnacle colonization. Where do these whale riders come from? As whales swim through plankton rich waters, floating barnacle larvae attach themselves to the animals’ skin with feathery arms and a sticky, cement-like substance that hardens into a shell.
Barnacles are typically found on a whale’s head, flukes, and flippers, and individual whales can carry hundreds of pounds of these crustaceans. Although they burrow deeply into the animal’s skin, and are permanent colonists, barnacles rarely harm their hosts. In fact, whale barnacles can help to protect whales from predators, and they are species specific. Each type of whale barnacle is found only on one type of whale.
Although barnacles are not considered a source of food, they do appear in archaeological sites and provide important cultural information. At Mikt’sqaq Angayuk, a historic Alutiiq settlement at Cliff Point, researchers found examples of whale barnacles, but not whale bone. These barnacles are most likely from a humpbacked whale, indicating that whale meat was present at the site.
Photo: Humpback whale barnacles found in the Little Friend archaeological site, Womens Bay. Courtesy Molly Odell.
Wiinarpat guut'gpagtuut. – Walrus have big teeth.
Winarpk, the Alutiiq word for the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) translates as ‘big sea lion.’ This term that reflects the rarity of walrus in the Alutiiq homeland. Walruses are coastal resident of western Alaska, found along the shores of the Bering and Chukchi seas. These large sea mammals occasionally stray into the Gulf of Alaska, but the region’s warm, ice free waters are beyond their typical range.
Although walruses are not indigenous to the Gulf of Alaska, walrus ivory has made its way to Kodiak for thousands of years. Small, carved, ivory objects appear in Kodiak’s oldest sites. Although they are rare, these objects indicate Alutiiq people were familiar with the properties of ivory. About 2,500 years ago ivory became more common and settlements contain worked pieces of ivory as well as finished ivory objects. These artifacts suggest that ivory was accessible and worked regularly. Most of these ivory carvings are smalls and decorative. People made jewelry, amulets, and even dolls from ivory. One such carving, from the Uyak site in Larsen Bay, depicts a walrus head! But there are also some stunning, large ivory carvings. A figurine found on Afognak Island was fashioned from a 10-inch section of tusk.
Why do craftsmen value walrus ivory? Even the most compact bone has small holes that create a grainy appearance. In contrast, ivory is heavily mineralized, smooth, and free of irregularities. These characteristics allow ivory to be carved and polished into beautiful shapes.
Photo: Ivory carving of a walrus head. Uyak site, Larsen Bay Alaska, courtesy the Larsen Bay Tribe.
Kaugya'at naut'starwiat et'llria Long Island-mi. – There used to be a fox farm on Near Island.
Fur farming was once one of Alaska’s largest industries. For nearly two centuries, Alaskans raised a variety of small fur bearers–fox, chinchilla, rabbit, mink, muskrat, and beaver. The industry worked to improve the quality of pelts available for sale, enhance the range in which animals could be harvested, and stabilize dwindling supplies of fur in over trapped areas.
Causal fur farming began in Russian times when people released foxes on coastal islands. The animals weren’t tended. They simply multiplied naturally and people returned to harvest them. Eventually, caretakers began feeding island fox populations and their operations evolved into carefully controlled farms with pens, nutritional supplements, and veterinary care. Managed farms had greater start-up costs, but they reduced poaching, dramatically improved the survival of fox pups, and permitted selective breeding to create quality pelts.
In the early decades of the 1900s, fox farming became popular in the Kodiak region. Many entrepreneurs, including Alutiiq families, established fur ranching operations. The first formal enterprise was the Kodiak Fox Farm on Long Island, a facility with breeding pens and corals. The initial breeding stock for the farm came from Chirikof Island, where foxes from the Semidi Islands were released in 1891.
Additional fox farms sprang up on many local islands. The impressive list of fox farm locations include Amook Island, Bare Island, Raspberry Island, Whale Island, Abrams Island, Hog Island, Marmot Island, Dry Island, Nelsons Island, Low Island, Kalsin Island, Ugak Island, and others.
To start their farms, ranchers purchased animals from other Alaskan fur farmers or from Alutiiq hunters, who captured and sold live foxes. Live trapping was a lucrative business. A pair of healthy fox pups could be worth as much as $600 (over $7,500 in today’s dollars). Native people also sold dried fish for fox feed, which operators supplemented with fresh wild foods like fish, bird eggs, and berries.
Photo: Fox pelts in Ouzinkie, Melinda Lamp collection, AM588:140.
Salat inuat rirtut. - Shell insides are shiny.
The Pinto Abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) is a shallow-water, marine snail. It is one of eight abalone species that inhabit the Pacific coast of North America, and the only abalone that lives in Alaskan waters. It can be found from Alaska’s Yakutat Bay to Point Conception in southern California. This small abalone has an oval shell that can grow up to six inches long. It thrives in areas with kelp beds, a rocky sea floor, and currents, between the lowest limit of the daily tides to about 40 feet of water. Although the Pinto Abalone has an unremarkable, dull, tan or pink outer shell, the shell’s interior features a beautiful, glossy, blue-green nacre. This iridescent coating, also known as mother of pearl, is exceptionally strong.
Alaska Native artists prize the colorful, durable abalone shell. The Tlingit people have long used it to decorate clothing and jewelry. They wear abalone earrings, decorate blankets with abalone buttons, and once, fastened thin pieces of the shell to their faces with spruce gum. The Tlingit also inlay carvings with piece of abalone, lining many objects with shimmering pieces of shell.
Some of the abalone used in southeast Alaska was collected for food and raw material by Native residents. However, as abalone is found only on the outer western coast of southeast Alaska, and as Alaskan abalone has a smaller more brittle shell than California abalone, abalone was a major trade item along the northwest coast. Some of this material made its way to Kodiak.
At the Karluk One site, archaeologists recovered two pieces of abalone shell. The presence of abalone many hundreds of miles from its source illustrates the far-reaching trade networks that existed long ago. People traveled great distances to obtain valuable materials, materials that helped community leaders show both their wealth and ability to connect with distant people and places.
Photo: Inside of an abalone shell from Sitka Sound.