Tuntumek piturlita. - Let's (al) eat some reindeer.
Today, caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are only present in substantialnumbers in a part of the Alutiiq homeland—the northernAlaska Peninsula. Here communities take advantage of seasonalmigrations, harvesting animals as they move south to calvinggrounds in the spring and north to winter range in the fall. Inthis area, hunters stalk caribou with guns, but in the past, theyworked in teams to scare animals toward men armed with bows and arrows. Although caribou are not indigenous to Kodiak,Alutiiqs obtained their meat, hides, hair, bone, antler, and eventeeth in trade. Caribou hair, used by seamstresses to embroiderclothing, was especially prized.
The federal government introduced domestic caribou, or reindeer, to southern Kodiak Island in 1924. As part of an economic development project, thirty-two animals were shipped to the Akhiok area from Bristol Bay. Simeon Agnot of Akhiok traveled to Cantwell to learn herding skills from Laplanders brought to Alaska to teach Native herders. He became the reindeer chief, organizing and training other Akhiok men to care for the animals. The herders worked in two-week shifts, watching over the reindeer in their pastures. In spring, the men drove the pregnant females to Cape Alitak for fawning, and they herded them back to winter forage later in the year. In return for their care, the herders could harvest animals as needed. Some were taken for food. Others were traded to canneries in return for goods. Herding continued until 1948 when a fire burned thousands of acres of reindeer forage. The herd escaped during the fire and more than 1,200 animals became feral. A few animals survive today in scattered herds found predominately in the Ayakulik River drainage.
Image: Caribou petroglyph, Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
Kasukuagmen agkuma, uriitarsurciqua. - When I go to Akhiok I am going to go get some bidarkies (chitons).
Kodiak’s intertidal fauna include a variety of chitons, a mollusk related to clams, snails, and limpets. Chitons have eight symmetrical, overlapping shell plates that cover a soft body and a large oval foot. Chitons are commonly found in the lower intertidal zone, where they can roll themselves into a ball for protection. Around Kodiak, these slow-moving herbivores are known as bidarkies, after the Russian word for the Alutiiq kayak, because they are curved on one side and flat on the other like a boat. Most common species in the archipelago grow to about 10 cm long, but the large gumboot (Cryptochiton stelleri) can reach over 30 cm in length and live up to twenty years.
Chitons can be collected during a minus tide in any month, although like other shellfish, people harvest them most intensely in the late winter and early spring months when other sources of fresh food are limited. Today, Alutiiq children pick chitons for a quick snack, eating the foot raw. To clean chitons, people immerse them in hot water to loosen their black skin and then remove the underlying shells and innards. Then they are eaten with seal oil or added to chowder. Old stories say that chitons were once mice that floated across the water and became stuck to rocks, eventually becoming uriitat.
Photo: Large chiton on the shore near Old Harbor.
KaRauwaq quiliuq. - The cow is fat.
Russian fur traders introduced the first cattle to Kodiak. When Gregori Shelikov arrived in the archipelago in 1784, he noted the abundance of local grasses and sent orders to Russia to import cattle from Siberia. According to a report by Billings, there were cattle at the Three Saints Bay colony by 1790, just six years later. Cattle fared well and became a staple resource.
Russians traders gave some of the imported cattle to Native communities to supply milk and meat and promote herding. Because Alutiiq people were not used to eating dairy products and had little interest in raising cows, the number of cattle dwindled. By the late 1800s, however, some Alutiiq families maintained milk cows, and cattle were among the animals raised at the Baptist Mission Orphanage on Woody Island. Here, Alutiiq children helped to care for the stock, milking cows and cutting hay for winter feed from the meadows in Kalsin Bay.
By the early 1900s, cattle ranching began in earnest. The herds were hard to care for. Animals were difficult to feed in winter and many fell off cliffs or were killed by bears. However, ranching took hold.
Photo: Cows in Ouzinkie.
Agasuut maani cali amlertaartut. - There are always a lot of cormorants around here.
Four varieties of cormorants (Phalacrocorax spp.) live in Alaska, three in the Kodiak Archipelago. These are the double-crested cormorant, the pelagic cormorant, and the red-faced cormorant. These birds gather in coastal colonies where they feed on fish and crustaceans captured by diving. Cormorants are often found nesting on precipitous cliffs. Although the location of their colonies changes from year to year, cormorants are widely available.
Alutiiqs once captured cormorants with nets braided from sinew or bull kelp. Like a gill net, people stretched these nets and left them near nesting locales to entangle birds as they moved to and from feeding areas. Alutiiqs also hunted cormorants at night with clubs. Cormorants were a source of food, and their feathered hides were valued for clothing, headdresses, and blankets. Alutiiqs prized the smooth throat skin of the cormorant, which has a green iridescent sheen, for ceremonial parkas.
In Prince William Sound, people believe that cormorants chatter at night when they return to their nests to tell each other where they have been. Another saying holds that a bald-headed person is someone who has had a cormorant vomit on his head!
Photo: Detail of cormorant skin parka. Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Aa’i, maani sakuut amlertaallrit. - Yeah, there used to be a lot of crab around here.
Today, Alutiiq people enjoy eating dungeness, tanner, and king crab. But in the past, Kodiak’s Native people avoided these ocean scavengers. Crab live on the ocean floor where they eat carrion, including the corpses of the drowned. For this reason, crab were not a regular part of the traditional diet. This historically observed avoidance appears to be quite ancient. Although delicate, crab remains are not found in even the most exceptionally preserved archaeological sites.
The association between crab and death is reflected in the traditional practices of Alutiiq whalers, who harvested fat from human corpses to make spiritually potent whaling poisons. An historic account of this practice describes a whaler dressed as a crab removing a corpse from its grave. Like the crab that feeds on the dead, the whaler is using the corpse to secure a whale to feed his community. A mask with crab claws in place of a mouth, collected on Afognak Island by French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart, may be part of such a whaler’s costume.
Photo: Fisherman with king crab. Nekeferof Collection.
Qalngaa’aq tan’ertuq. (N); Qalngaa’aq tamlertuq. (S) - The crow is black.
Alaska is home to one species of crow: Corvus cauriuns, the northwestern crow. Smaller than its cousin the American Crow, this black bird frequents the Pacific coast from Washington state to southcentral Alaska and occasionally the eastern Aleutian Islands. The northwestern crow is a coastal species, typically found around beaches, tidal marshes, and spruce forests bordering the ocean. It nests in trees, boulders, and deadfalls and eats shellfish, fish, berries, and insects. Crows are also common around human settlements where they forage in garbage.
The Alutiiq word for raven, qalnga’aq, is very similar to the Alutiiq word for crow, qalngaa’aq, which may mean something like “little raven.” Many people confuse crows with ravens, although crows are smaller and have a distinctive square tail. Crows also have a unique set of calls. They say “kaah” and “wok-wok-wok,” make clicks and rattling noises, and can even meow like a cat.
An Alutiiq story from Prince William Sound warns of the sneaky behavior of crows. Like ravens, crows will steal your food. In a small village on Hinchinbrook Island, an old woman hung her fish to dry in the open air. Later, a group of children came running to say that crows were eating her fish. Angered, the woman grabbed her bow and arrow. While singing a song to shoo the birds away, she launched arrows at them. She missed the crafty crows, but learned to dry her food inside the smokehouse.
Photo: Crow and cat share a bowl of food. Ouzinkie, ca. 1950. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Sukunuut guangkuta mik’tangraata aliktaapet! - We are always scared of daddy longlegs, even when they’re small!
Daddy longlegs is a common term used to refer to a variety of spider-like creatures: bugs with exceptionally long, thin legs. Among this group are harvestmen, eight-legged arachnids with a two-sectioned body and just two eyes. There are just thirteen species of harvestmen in Alaska, out of several thousand recognized worldwide. These creatures typically live outdoors, frequenting dark, damp places where they hide during the day. Harvestmen are omnivorous. They eat small insects and plant material. Unlike spiders, however, harvestmen have no venom.
The Alutiiq word for a daddy longlegs, sukunuuk, literally means “ thing that likes damp places.” John Pestrikoff of Port Lions knows this to be true. He remembers a day when he was traveling along the coast of Kodiak. He and a friend had been rowing for many hours when they stopped at an old barabara to spend the night. The sod house had a small banya, a steam bath in a separate building to the side. The men decided to heat up the banya for a relaxing wash. It was an old-fashioned banya, where rocks had to be warmed outside. So the two men built a fire near the banya door and heated a pile of rocks to carry in.
Pestrikoff took the first turn. He carried some hot rocks into the very small banya. It was dark. A heavy piece of canvas covered the low door and there was just enough room for him, the rocks, and a basin of water. He splashed the hot rocks to get the room steaming and started to wash his face. But he couldn’t get clean. His face felt rough and dirty. So Pestrikoff kept dipping his hands into the basin and splashing his face. But he wasn’t getting clean. Finally, he opened the door and stepped outside. In the basin were hundreds of daddy longlegs that had crawled into the cool water to escape the heat. They had been living in the dark, damp banya and had fallen into his basin due to the hot steam!
Photo: Elder John Pestrikof on Afognak Island. Courtesy Sven Haakanson Jr.
Tuntut piturnirtaartut. - Deer (always) tastes good.
Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) are a popular and important subsistence resource for Kodiak Islanders. Once found only in northern coastal British Columbia and southeast Alaska, the animal’s range now includes Yakutat Bay, Prince William Sound, and the Kodiak region. Sitka deer were first introduced to Kodiak in 1924, with the release of fourteen animals on Long Island. An additional nine deer were released on Kodiak Island in 1934. From these small herds, a large population grew and gradually spread throughout the archipelago.
Sitka deer are small and stocky with a short face. Adults range from 80 to 120 pounds in the fall. They eat leafy green shrub vegetation in summer and evergreen forbs, woody browse, and lichens in the winter.
On Kodiak, deer-hunting season begins in August and runs into early winter. Hunting is most common in the fall, particularly in November and December. At this time of year, snow forces the animals out of the mountains into lower elevation. Deer can even be found on beaches, where people hunt them by boat.
Subsistence studies indicate that the deer are now Kodiak’s third most important wild food, after salmon and sea mammals, and the most important terrestrial resource. People harvest deer in all of Kodiak’s communities, although reliance on these animals is greatest in rural villages. Here, Alutiiq families harvest an average of three to five deer per year, obtaining several hundred pounds of meat.
Alutiiqs prepare deer meat into steaks, roasts, burgers, and stews, and deer antlers are gaining popularity as a raw material. Artists fashion deer antler into jewelry as well as handles for ulu knives and woven baskets.
Photo: Sitka Black Tail deer on a Kodiak mountain side.