Gui wiinam itgai pingaktaanka. - I always like the sea lion’s feet.
Sea mammals propel themselves through Alaska’s coastal waters with strong, sleek flippers. Flippers not only help animals swim, they can be important tools for exiting the water and moving on land. Seal and sea lion flippers, for example, have a tough rubbery surface that keeps the animal from sliding on slippery rocks.
Many coastal societies harvested sea mammal flippers for this nonslip quality, carefully removing the extremities from the seals, sea lions, and walruses they captured to make boots. In western Alaska, people also inflated sea lion flippers to use as net floats, and in the Aleutians, people boiled seal flippers to make a thick paste that served as glue.
The most common use for flippers, however, is as food. Across Alaska, flipper meat is roasted, boiled, stewed, and fried, creating meals that many people consider a delicacy. On Kodiak, Elders debate whether seal or sea lion flippers are the best tasting, but both are considered a treat. Be careful, though: if you haven’t eaten sea mammal meat in a while, the rich flipper meat can give you gas.
Alutiiqs have several ways of cooking flippers. Some people pickle the meat. They boil it with onions and spice, remove the skin and bones, and store the meat in jars of vinegar. Others age the flippers for a short while or soak them in soda water overnight. Then they boil the flipper. When the skin comes off easily and the toenails fall out, the meat is ready to eat.
Photo: Whale breaching off of Cape Alitak, May 2010.
Kaugya’arsurlunuk. - Let’s (two of us) go fox hunting.
Kodiak is home to several varieties of fox (Vulpes vulpes). Coastal habitats support both red-furred animals as well as their darker cousins the silver and cross fox. Foxes are one of the region’s six indigenous land mammals, present in the archipelago for thousands of years. They occur throughout the archipelago, with the exception of the Trinity Islands. Foxes den in meadows and along stream banks but forage primarily in coastal habitats where they prey on rodents, birds, eggs, insects, fruit, and carrion. They are also adept at living near human habitations, where they forage in garbage.
Alutiiq people traditionally harvested foxes for fur, because their meat has an unpleasant musty taste. They were only taken for food in extreme emergencies. In fall, people hunted foxes with bows and arrows, snared them along habitually used trails, or since historic times, captured them with traps.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Alutiiqs participated in fox farming, an industry that developed to help trappers secure a stable income. There were seven major fox farms in the Kodiak Archipelago, located on small, uninhabited islands. The largest was on Long Island, where more than one thousand animals were raised on locally caught salmon.
Photo: Fox in the Karluk Lake area, Kodiak Island.
Aatat quiliutaartut. - Fur seals are (always) fat.
Each November, northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) leave their summer home in the Pribilof Islands, swimming south to winter in the warmer waters off California. Until they return the following summer, these animals rarely touch land. Most fur seals live between ten and on hundred miles from land, near the edge of the continental shelf. In winter, however, some fur seals stray closer to shore and can occasionally be found in protected coastal waters. Large, older males, weighing up to six hundred pounds, often winter in the Gulf of Alaska.
Archaeological data illustrate that Alutiiqs harvested fur seals in small numbers. The remains of fur seals are scarce in village sites. Animals that ventured close to shore were probably hunted in February and March, because most fur seals have moved past Kodiak by April. In the historic era, however, fur seals seem to have been more common. Their remains occur more regularly in garbage deposits from this era, and Russian observers describe seeing them. The cargo manifests of trading vessels even list a small number of fur seal hides. The term fur seal comes from the animal’s plush under-fur, which has more than 350,000 hairs per square inch.
Photo: Fur Seal in the Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge, courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Archive.
Ikauwitiit nitnirtaartut. - Golden-crowned Sparrows always sound beautiful.
Sparrows are among the best-known birds in North America. There are many species and subspecies of sparrows, particularly west of the Rockies. Eleven species of these small, shy songbirds frequent Alaska, summering in brushy habitats from the coastal meadows of western Alaska to the rainforests of the Panhandle.
Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) are one of several species that summer on Kodiak. These larger sparrows have a long tail, a grey breast, and a crown of distinctive yellow-and-black striped plumage on their heads. When they are excited or about to fly, they may lift the feathers on their crown. Golden-crowned Sparrows feed in flocks, eating seeds and insects. Although they build grass-lined nests on the ground, they spend much of their time perched in alder and willow thickets singing, preening, and twittering. Males make a distinctive, whistling call, singing three descending notes that sound like the children’s song “Three Blind Mice.”
In the Alutiiq world, the Golden-crowned Sparrow is a harbinger of spring. Elders remember watching for sparrows and geese to return to Kodiak in the days following Easter, so they could play games on the beach and take their toys out of storage. It was considered unlucky for children to play outdoors or with certain toys before spring returned. While they waited for the ikauwiitii, however, children could play string games to hasten the rising sun.
Photo: Golden-crowned sparrow in summer. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library
Qangananek atkulitaalriit. - They used to make clothes out of ground squirrels.
The arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) is a largest ground squirrel in the new world. Known also as the tsik tsik, for its distinctive call, these plant-eating furbearers weigh up to two pounds and are about fifteen inches long. They have blunt faces, bushy tails, and a distinctive white speckled coat. Arctic ground squirrels occur widely across northern Canada, Alaska, and eastern Siberia and as far south as northern British Columbia.
Throughout the North, Native people trapped ground squirrels for food and clothing. Alutiiqs sewed their small furs together to make warm coats. A man’s ground-squirrel parka collected from the Bristol Bay village of Ugashik in 1883 features more than sixty pelts stitched together with sinew. This long, loose-fitting, hoodless robe was embellished with pieces of ermine, sea otter, and caribou furs.
Ground squirrels can be seen around northeastern Kodiak Island today, particularly in the Buskin River valley. They are also found on Chirikof Island and formerly inhabited Marmot Island. However, they are not indigenous to the region. Like many other Kodiak furbearers—beaver, muskrat, hares, and red squirrels—they are an introduced species. Archaeologists believe that Alutiiq people introduced these small mammals to the archipelago in prehistoric times, based on an abundance of ground squirrel remains in the archaeological sites on Chirikof Island and the animals’ limited capacity to reach the islands without human assistance.
How did Alutiiqs get pelts for clothing? Historic sources suggest that ground-squirrel pelts were traded to Kodiak from the Alaska Peninsula, Chirikof Island, and regions farther west. On Kodiak, therefore, ground-squirrel parkas were prized as a sign of wealth and influence.
Photo: Ground Squirrel, coutesy Steve Ebert, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Qatayat nernertutaartut! - Gulls will eat anything!
Glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucescens) and Mew Gulls (Larus canus) are familiar residents of Kodiak’s shores. These opportunistic scavengers eat almost anything. They range throughout the Gulf of Alaska and Bristol Bay, where they are particularly attracted to human settlements. Each spring, gulls lay many thousands of eggs on inaccessible cliffs and rocky ledges. This protects the eggs from foxes, but not from Alutiiq people, who have long gathered gull eggs from boats and by rappelling down cliff faces.
In addition to food, gulls provided mariners with important environmental information. Travelers know that gulls can help them predict bad weather, find schools of fish, mark currents, avoid rocks, and lead boaters to land in the fog. Elders from the Alaska Peninsula remember that Alutiiq hunters had at least two helping animal spirits, one for land hunting and one for sea hunting. These spirits provided luck and guidance and were frequently birds. In fact, bird imagery is widely used in Alutiiq art, particularly on the bentwood hats worn by Alutiiq men when kayaking.
Photo: Glaucous Winged Gull, Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge, Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Aanaqa isuwim qilunek kenirllia. - My mother cooked seal guts.
In addition to food and oil, Kodiak’s mammals provided Alutiiqs with gut: a flexible, durable, waterproof material derived from the intestines of bears and sea mammals. Gut was sewn into a variety of bags, caps, and hooded jackets: the Gortex rain gear of the past. Known today by the Russian term kamleika, these lightweight jackets were an essential part of a hunter’s tool kit. They kept him dry, providing protection from hypothermia in Kodiak’s wet, windy environment.
Each gut garment was individually tailored to fit its owner. Bear intestine, the widest and most supple source of gut, was the preferred material. After harvesting, lengths of gut were soaked in urine to remove fat. Then they were turned inside out, scraped clean, inflated, and hung to dry. The final step was to split the gut into wide swaths of material. These swaths were sewn into jackets with special waterproof stitches. Skin sewers folded a piece of ryegrass into each seam to absorb any water that seeped through the holes made by their needles. While stitching, they also decorated each garment with beads, feathers, pieces of hair, strips of dyed skin, and bird beaks.
Russian traders, who valued these lightweight, water-resistant jackets, commissioned Native women to produce garments styled after European capes. These prized items were a sign of high status. They were worn by Russian officers and given as gifts to visiting dignitaries.
Photo: Elders work with seal gut. Dig Afognak Program, Afognak Island.
Kuskaanaq ekllinartuq. - The hare looks delicious.
The varying hare or snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) occurs widely throughout North America. This small furbearer is well known for its seasonally changing fur color. In winter, the snowshoe hare has a pure white coat and black-tipped ears, which provides camouflage in a snowy landscape. In summer, hares turn a reddish brown to blend with the loose soil and brush surrounding their nest. Snowshoe hares breed prolifically. They can bear four to eight litters a year, with as many as eight young in each. They are largely herbivorous, eating leafy shrubs, tree bark, and vegetables, although some adults will also feed on mice and carrion.
Kuskaanatare not native to Kodiak. In the past, Alutiiqs obtained their pelts in trade with the mainland and used them to make clothing, including hare parkas. In 1934, 558 snowshoe hares were captured along the railway in Anchorage and shipped to Kodiak for release. Their introduction was successful, and hares are now abundant in some areas of the archipelago. Although they can be hunted year-round, many hunters prefer to pursue them in fall and spring when their fur is changing colors and they are easier to see. Today, hares are taken with rifles and shotguns for both food and fur. Some Alutiiq Elders prefer not to eat them, however, because they are seen as nuisance animals, akin to cats.
Photo: Gilr in Ouzinkie with stuffed rabbit toy. Melinda Lamp Collection.