Uyaqurtulit ikegtaartut. - There's not many loons.
Alaska is home to all five of the world’s species of loons (Gavia spp.). Three of these species—the common loon, the red-throated loon, and the Pacific loon—are frequent visitors to Kodiak. This can make it difficult to differentiate between types of loons. Although each species has distinctive plumage in the summer, all loons fade to a similar plumage in the winter, sporting a dark brown back and a white breast. Loons are large diving birds with webbed feet and sharply pointed bills. They feed mostly on fish and aquatic plants in shallow waters, both fresh and marine. They have a number of calls, but are known for their haunting cry: an eerie, laughing sound.
Loons are considered lucky in the Arctic, where they are admired for their speed and sharp vision. To foster these qualities in their children, Alaska Natives often placed newborn babies on loon skins. A Chugach Alutiiq legend illustrates this tie to keen vision and explains how the loon got its white breast. A blind boy sitting by a lake heard a loon’s call. The boy shouted to the loon to approach him. When the bird arrived, the boy asked him to restore his eyesight. The loon agreed and took the boy for a ride on his back, diving under the water and circling the lake five times. When they surfaced, the boy could see again. To thank the loon, the boy returned to the lake with an apron of white dentalium shells: a gift that gave the bird its white breast.
Photo: Red Throated Loon, Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Ilait asiiritaartut. - Some people are always lucky.
Luck was an essential part of hunting in classical Alutiiq society. In addition to promoting hunting success through large public ceremonies that honored the spirit world, Alutiiq hunters collected amulets. Men typically carried these small charms for personal protection and assistance. They could be collected or manufactured but were usually something small and rare.
Historic sources report that hunters collected small, brown, floating rocks, which may have been the seeds of tropical plants transported north by ocean currents. Alutiiq considered these stones powerful good luck charms. Some were worn around the neck, others were kept in a box lined with eagle down and fed with food and red paint. Similarly, hummingbirds, their nests and their eggs, were considered lucky. These rare birds were dried and carried in a bag to promote hunting success.
Other talismans included eagle feathers, raven’s feet, loon skins, bear’s hair, and certain roots, berries, and old archaeological artifacts. Some talismans were lashed to the inside of a hunter’s kayak, near the cockpit where they could be seen. Aleut hunters tied small, ivory sea otter carvings to their boats. Alutiiq hunters lashed parts of animal skulls filled with eagle down and red paint to their vessels. These amulets were said to illuminate the water and attract sea otters. Talismans were also secured to hunting hats.
The tie between talismans and birds was particularly strong, because birds were the personal spirit helpers of many hunters.
Photo: Humingbird in a Kodiak garden. Photo courtesy Richard MacIntosh.
Qallqayat teglengartaartut. - Magpies like to steal things.
Magpies are a member of the crow family, a group that includes crows, ravens, and jays. There are just two species of magpies in North America, the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) found in Alaska and the western United States, and the yellow-billed magpie (Pica nuttalli), indigenous to California. The black-billed magpie is common in central and western Alaska. This large black-and-white bird inhabits shrub thickets and open forests but can live in urban areas. Its most distinctive feature is a black, wedge-shaped tail that is nearly as long as its body. Magpies live in groups and eat everything from bugs and seeds to baby birds, road kills, and garbage.
Magpies are known for their boisterous “mag, mag, mag” call and their bold, confident personalities. These characteristics have made them the subject of stories and jokes in many cultures. Both the Tlingit and the Alutiiq people use the word magpie as a nickname. For example, a difficult person or a talkative person may be called a magpie.
To Alutiiqs, magpies are an annoyance, because they steal drying food. Many people cover their fish racks with netting to keep the birds away.
Alutiiq artists also use the magpie’s black feathers to decorate crafts, as they have a beautiful iridescent green or purple sheen. However, because magpies are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, their feathers may not be bought or sold.
Painting: Magpies, by Lena Amason. Acrylic and oil on birch wood. Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum collections with asistance from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Qapilat piturnirtaartut. - Blue mussels are always tasty.
Blue mussels (Mylitus edulis) are one of the most common intertidal invertebrates in the Kodiak Archipelago. These purple-shelled bivalves inhabit most of Kodiak’s rocky shorelines, forming dense clusters in the upper intertidal zone. Like other shellfish, blue mussels are a great source of fresh spring food. They are widely abundant, easily accessed, and can be harvested by anyone.
The widespread presence of mussel shells in ancient garbage piles illustrates the popularity of mussels as a food source. Archaeologists find huge quantities of mussel remains in middens dating to the past 2,500 years, suggesting that people harvested and consumed many thousands of them. Mussel shells even occur in the village sites site far from the ocean. On the shores of Karluk Lake, for example, archaeologists find sites with the purple shells, indicating that people carried mussels into the interior.
Mussel shells may also indicate the other types of material preserved inside an archaeological site. Shells are rich in calcium carbonate, an alkaline substance that neutralizes acid soils and creates an environment suitable for organic preservation. Where people left shellfish remains, archaeologists are likely to find well-preserved animal remains and bone tools.
Photo: Crushed blue mussel shells give a deposit of ancient garbage a purple tint.
Aikut nerestangq'rtut. - The dogs have lice.
Historic accounts indicate that lice were a constant plague in Native communities. These small, rapidly reproducing parasites were hard to eradicate, as people lived in tight quarters where they passed easily from one person to the next. Moreover, people wore heavy fur and bird skin clothing where vermin could hide, and some communities had limited water for washing. Many loads of furs harvested in Alaska arrived in Europe infested with lice.
Lice are tiny wingless parasite that feed off small amounts of blood. Their bites can be very itchy, and itching louse bites often leads to skin infections. The journals of Russian traders in Alaska report that itch and skin ulcers were common maladies, found on almost everyone.
To get relief from lice, Alaska Natives washed, picked them off, and sometimes turned their clothing inside out. In the coldest regions of Alaska–people took their clothes off at night and left them outside to freeze–which killed the lice. A good shake in the morning and one’s clothes were vermin free.
A traditional Alutiiq song, sung by many dancer groups today, pokes fun at lice and reminds people hard it can be to kill them–even with water and steam. The song describes a louse taking a steam bath, showing of in the heat and singing his own little song!
Photo: Alutiiq dancers singing the louse song, August, 2011.
Maani Sun’ami tunturpanek piitukut. - Here on Kodiak we don’t have moose.
Moose (Alces alces) are the biggest member of the deer family. These large-bodied, long-legged creatures are known for their droopy nose and dewlap: a flap of hair-covered skin beneath their chins. Only the males have antlers. Moose live in forests across North America, Europe, and Russia. In Alaska they can be found from the southeast Panhandle to the Arctic Slope. Throughout this area, the animals prefer habitats with dense shrubs, including river valleys and recently burned areas.
Moose have been part of the Alaska landscape for thousands of years, but despite their enduring, widespread availability, they are not broadly found in the Alutiiq world. Moose are native to the Kenai Peninsula, but they do not occur in the Kodiak Archipelago and only stray into western parts of Prince William Sound. Similarly, archaeological data indicate that moose were not part of the Alaska Peninsula landscape until the twentieth century. Moose spread into the Alaska Peninsula in the early 1900s, becoming relatively common by the 1930s.
Today, moose are a popular source of food in Alaska Peninsula Alutiiq communities on both the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea coasts. Residents hunt moose from August to April, with peak harvesting in December. Moose are often taken while caribou hunting, and like caribou meat, moose meat is widely shared. Sharing is not only an important social practice, it is a good way to manage the sudden acquisition of a large quantity of meat.
Photo: Hunter with moose antlers, Dog Salmon River, Alaska Peninsula, ca. 1960. Nekeferof Collection.
Qepel'ugaa iqalluk. - The fish is getting "maggoty."
Flies are part of summer in Alaska, and where there are flies, there are maggots. Biologists break the life cycle of the fly (Diptera) into four stages. The life of a fly begins when a female lays an egg. Within 24 hours the egg hatches into a larva, the whitish, worm-like creature also known as a maggot. For up to two weeks the maggot gorges itself on food, until it has consumed enough calories to enter the pupal stage. Now the maggot leaves its food source, crawling into a damp place to grow into a fly.
Although maggots often repulse Westerners, these tiny carnivorous creatures have many important functions. Across the globe people use maggots to consume food waste, process animal manure, speed the healing of wounds, as well as for fishing bait and food. Many cultures consume insects, and maggots, like other larva, are a rich package of fat and protein. They are also abundant.
For Alutiiqs, the concept of consuming maggots is not new. Keeping the flies off drying salmon is an age-old problem. Nets draped over draying racks fend off the magpies and gulls, and wind and smoke can reduce bugs, but flies are always attracted to drying fish. One way to protect you fish from maggots is to simply pick them off. Another is to cook infested fish. Elders recall that people used to boil maggot-covered dried fish in a pot of water. Then they put the rehydrated mixture in cheesecloth and mashed it. The final step was to add berries to create piginaq, a dish Elders recall as delicious.
Photo: Fresh caught salmon drying under a protective net.
Utguit yaamat acaatni etaartut. - Octopus are always (located) under rocks.
Kodiak’s rocky shores are home to a variety of octopi. These shy creatures live in deep intertidal and shallow subtidal environments and are commonly found beneath rocks. Octopus can weigh over forty pounds. They capture fish, shellfish, and crab, which they eat with their sturdy beaks.
Octopi are traditionally captured in the spring. At low tide collectors will comb the beach looking for clusters of rocks. A scattering of broken clamshells is a good sign an octopus is nearby. When the collector finds a likely spot there are a number of ways to capture the octopus. One way is to poke a stick under the rock and pull it back quickly. If you are lucky, the octopus will grab hold and come out with the stick. A pieces of bark tied to the stick will sometimes attract the animal. Another way is to pour a little household bleach at the base of a rock. Now illegal, this method flushes the animal from its hiding place. The next step is to grab the back of the animal’s head and flip it inside. This paralyzes the animal so it can be killed and gutted. Be careful of the animal’s beak, however, as a strike hurts! Once gutted, people tenderize octopus by pounding the carcass on a rock. Then they wash it clean with seawater.
Octopus is delicious and this low fat seafood can be eaten in many ways. In Alutiiq communities it is frequently boiled. Pieces of the meat are then dipped in seal oil, butter, or barbeque sauce, or battered and fried. Some people chop or the meat and mix it with a batter to make fritters. Octopus is also used as fishing bait.
Photo: Boy with octopus near Old Harbor.