Iqalluarpat amlertut kiagpak. - Herring are plentiful this summer.
Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi) are small marine fish that inhabit the near shore and continental shelf waters of the Gulf of Alaska. They spawn in at least thirty-five bays around Kodiak, with concentrations in Marmot Bay, Chiniak Bay, Sitkalidak Strait, and the fjords of western Kodiak. Each spring, herring mass in shallow waters to spawn. They prefer protected rocky coasts with dense bottom vegetation, where their sticky roe clings to eelgrass, rockweed, kelp, and even boulders. There are some traditionally used spawning sites, but spawning locales vary from year to year in many regions. Wherever they spawn, herring are highly visible. Their milt turns coastal waters milky and attracts the birds and sea mammals that feed on their roe.
Although adult herring are a potential source of food, modern Alutiiq people primarily harvest herring roe. Subsistence fishing begins in May, during peak spawning, and tapers off by July as the fish move offshore to feed. Alutiiq families collect the spawn stuck to seaweed, which they boil for just a moment. Elders flavor this dish with seal oil.
Herring remains are notably rare in Alutiiq archaeological sites. This does not mean that prehistoric people ignored this plentiful resource. Archaeological sites full of stone net sinkers occur in many coastal sites well situated for herring fishing. Perhaps Alutiiqs harvested herring or herring roe with these nets. The soft roe would not leave any traces for archaeologists to find.
Photo: Herring drying in Old Harbor. Photo by Fred and Mary Bailey. Andrewvitch Collection.
Kingut ilait kumsugnartaartut. - Some insects are ugly.
Mosquitoes, black flies, white socks, no-see-ums, and other biting insects are an inescapable part of summer in the Gulf of Alaska. Hatched during the warming days of May, they thrive until the heavy frosts of fall. Anyone who has worked outdoors on a still day knows the agony of these pests. Early Russian explorers to the Alaska coast were amazed at the swarms of insects and reported that “itch” was a very common problem.
Alaska Natives devised many ways to control bugs. People across Alaska coated their skin with seal oil or lit smudge fires with wet moss to deter flying insects. Before the days of bug spray and citronella candles, Alutiiqs burned nettle leaves and seabeach sandwort to drive away the mosquitoes. They also fumigated their houses with the smoke from burning crowberry plants and carried angelica switches while hiking. Villages and camps were strategically located in windy areas and activities timed to coincide with breezy weather. Berry pickers, for example, would wait for a windy day to collect fruit from coastal meadows.
Photo: April Counceller wears a bug net to protect against biting insects. Outlet site, 2001.
Aq’alartut iluani. - There are jumpers inside (the seine).
Jumping salmon are a conspicuous sign of summer around Kodiak. Scan the surface of the ocean in June and you will see pink salmon hurling themselves out of the water as they head for their spawning grounds. Jumping is an adaptation that helps salmon clear obstacles as they move upstream. As fish near freshwater they begin to leap. In Alutiiq, the word for jumper, aq’alartuq, literally means “it fell into the water.”
Different species of salmon have different jumping skills and patterns. While all Pacific salmon jump, even large kings, silvers are the most avid jumpers, often clearing the water completely. Pink salmon are also strong jumpers, although they tend to flop to one side as they land. Chum salmon are the poorest jumpers. Obstacles that will not impede other salmon can stop chum from migrating upstream.
Jumpers help Kodiak fishermen locate schools of salmon. Boat captains will drive slowly, scanning for acrobatic fish before making a set, and anglers will cast out in front of a jumper, tossing their line in the direction the fish is moving. Sometimes, jumpers will tell you when fish are present when you least expect it. Villagers know that kings will jump in winter as they feed in ocean waters near shore.
Photo: Jumping salmon. Courtesy Sven Haakanson, Jr.
Iraluruat tang’rniitaartut! - Jellyfish don’t look very good!
Jellyfish are plentiful in Alaska waters. These ancient marine creatures are not actually fish but invertebrates related to corals and sea anemones. Jellyfish have no brains, no heart, no eyes, and no ears, yet they are effective predators. To capture food, they use tentacles armed with poisonous, stinging cells. When their tentacles touch prey, thousands of tiny stinging cells fire, delivering a potent nerve toxin.
Some jellyfish are more poisonous than others. Around Kodiak, the lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata), a large, bright-red species, delivers an intense sting that is much more painful than the sting of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita), a small clear variety.
Jellyfish have long been a problem for Kodiak fishermen, particularly for beach seiners and those who work unloading purse seines on the decks of fishing boats. Fishermen report releasing entire nets full of fish when large quantities of jellyfish are hauled in with the catch, because they are so painful with which to work.
It is important to take care of a jellyfish sting immediately to minimize its impact. Alutiiqs wash the area and then apply a soothing agent. Some people use canned milk, particularly if the sting affects an eye. Others may employ vinegar or cool urine. Even with careful treatment, stings often produce red welts and may leave a scar.
Image: Jelly Fish, acrylic and oil paint on birch wood, by Lena Amason. Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum collections with support from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Aamasuut cuklliuluteng taitaartut ugnerkami. - King salmon are the first to come in the spring.
King salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), also known as chinook, are one of five varieties of Pacific salmon that spawn in the Kodiak region. They are the first salmon to arrive in the archipelago each year, heralding the beginning of the salmon fishing season. Kings may be present in ocean waters by mid-March, but don’t usually enter streams until mid-June. According to Alutiiq lore, the first fish captured each year had to be eaten completely, with the exception of its gills and gallbladder. This showed reverence for the animal and ensured an abundant future supply of fish.
The largest of the Pacific salmon, kings require streams with a lake at their headwaters for spawning. Although they have been introduced to some streams, they are only indigenous to the Karluk and Ayakulik rivers, both on southwestern Kodiak Island. Fish headed for these streams migrate through Shelikof Strait, with a peak returns in late June. Given their very limited distribution, kings are the least abundant of Kodiak’s salmon. Only about 13,500 of these fish return to the archipelago’s streams each year.
The large size of king salmon and their rich, oily meat make them a highly coveted wild food. However, this delicious fish was thought to interfere with the effectiveness of some plant medicines, so an Alutiiq healer might advise her patient not to eat king salmon while being treated with herbal remedies.
Photo: Sven Haakanson, Sr. with a king salmon. Rostad Collection.
Cuumi nukallpiaq aaquyanek pisurtaallriit. - Men before used to always go hunting for land otter.
Kodiak is home to two varieties of otters, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) that inhabits nearshore coastal waters, and the land otter (Lutra canadensis) that lives primarily in freshwater lakes and streams but ventures into saltwater to hunt. Land otters are opportunistic feeders that eat everything from fish to waterfowl, insects, rodents, and plants. Land otters live in family groups, inhabiting the same den for many years. Like the sea otter, land otters have a soft, warm pelt that Alutiiqs fashion into clothing. Land otters were once captured in deadfall traps weighted with a large rock or in snares made of flexible sticks.
An Alutiiq legend from Prince William Sound explains the land otter’s use of both the sea and the land. When the spirits of the land and sea divided the animals between them, the land otter was left behind. At that time the otter had a short tail. The two spirits quarreled over the otter, tugging on its tail until it stretched. The otter cried, “Please let me go! I will stay with both of you.”
Photo: Land Otters. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Suupaligua sawak'iitanek. - I am making soup from limpets.
Limpets (Lottia spp.) are among the intertidal organisms that encrust the rocky shores of Kodiak. The archipelago is home to a variety of these small invertebrates: the keyhole limpet, the tortoiseshell limpet, and others. Limpets are grazing animals that form distinctive cone-shaped shells. They feed on algae by moving slowly across rocks on a single foot. They are particularly active at night and when covered by ocean water. At low tide, limpets clamp tightly to rocks to protect themselves from birds and sea stars.
Ancient shell middens illustrate that limpets were once a common part of seafood dinners on Kodiak. They were probably collected most intensively in the spring, during the lowest tides of the year. Spring is also the time when winter stores were exhausted and people depended on shellfish while they waited for other resources to become available. Alutiiq people continue to harvest limpets today, adding them to stews and chowders or simply eating them raw. Children sometimes collect them for a quick snack.
Kodiak Islanders sometimes refer to limpets as “China caps” because the shape of the animal’s shell is similar to the hats once worn by Chinese laborers. This comparison is probably passed down from the late nineteenth century, when salmon processors hired Chinese work gangs to run canning equipment in communities like Karluk.
Taugna piugcinitaqa, iqallungcuk mikpakartuq! - I don't want that (one), the fish is too small.
In the Alutiiq language there is a distinction between fish of different sizes. If you want to speak of fish generally, you use the word iqalluk, but if you are referring to smaller fish like smelt, capelin, needlefish, or Pacific sand lance, you say iqallungcuk, or little fish. Herring fall somewhere in the middle and are called iqalluarpak. This term for herring comes from the word for smelt, iqalluaq. It is used by Yup’ik people and Alaska Peninsula Alutiiq people, and literally means, “big smelt.”
Little fish have many functions in the Alutiiq world. Small fish provide plentiful food for the animals Alutiiqs depend on. Where little fish congregate, Alutiiq people know they can also find halibut, salmon, seals, ducks, and other valued species.
Some little fish are eaten. Alutiiq families continue to fish for smelt in the springtime, catching them with poles or nets near the mouths of rivers. Smelt fishing is popular in near shore waters, around river mouths. Smelt can be eaten fresh or processed for later use. Some families roll the entire fish in flour and fry them. Others squeeze the guts out, then soak the fish in brine, lay them on trays, and smoke them like salmon. Smelt may also be kippered: partially smoked and canned or preserved in salt.
Photo: Little fish on the beach at Cape Alitak, 2010.