Aakanat amlertaartut uksuakaarmi. - Old spawned-out fish are plentiful in the early fall.
After growing to full size in the ocean, salmon return to freshwater to spawn. This journey is physically taxing. Salmon stop eating when they enter streams, relying on their stores of fat for energy to swim, build nests, and reproduce. Malnutrition, exhaustion, and physiological changes associated with spawning cause their bodies to change dramatically. The lithe, bright silvery fish found in the ocean fade and turn to red, green, brown, and even grey. Some species develop stripes or skin lesions. Others grow a hump, a hooked upper jaw, and jagged teeth.
There is a common misconception that salmon are inedible, perhaps even poisonous, once their bodies begin to decay. Alutiiq Elders report that this is simply not true. Although the texture of salmon flesh changes as fish deplete their energy stores, these fish are still a good source of food. Many Alaska Natives enjoy eating aakanaq—old fish.
Alutiiq Elders report that old fish have a more crumbly, white flesh, similar to the texture of canned tuna. This fish does not fry well, because it contains less oil, but it is very good to bake, boil, or dry. Old silver salmon make especially good dried fish. Old fish can also be eaten raw. Elders remember harvesting old red salmon from the Olga Lakes as late as March. People packed the fish back to Akhiok and cut thin, partially frozen slices of meat from their tails to eat raw. One Elder recalls his father eating silver salmon heads harvested from streams in winter. The fish heads were still good to eat, even if the remainder of the fish was gone. With two slices of bread, the gentleman had a quick and nutritious sandwich.
Photo: Children play with a dead salmon, Afognak Village area, ca. 1960. Chadwick Collection.
Arllut kuimartut imarmi. - Orcas are swimming in the ocean.
The orca or killer whale (Orcinus orca) is the largest member of the dolphin family. These large, toothed sea mammals are aggressive hunters known for their feeding habits. In addition to fish and squid, killer whales will eat other whales, sea lions, seals, and even birds. Adult orcas grow to between twenty-three and twenty-seven feet long and weigh up to ten tons. They are easily identified by their prominent dorsal fin and distinctive black and white markings, with a white spot behind each eye, a white lower jaw, and a white stomach.
Killer whales live in all the world’s oceans. In Alaska, they frequent waters over the continental shelf from southeast Alaska to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, moving northward in the spring as sea ice retreats and south in the fall as the ice advances. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that there are about one hundred killer whales living in the area encompassing the Kodiak Archipelago and the Shumigan Islands.
According to Alutiiq legend, killer whales are people who have turned into spirits. A story from the Alaska Peninsula tells of a group of mountain people who became killer whales by putting on whale skins. To go hunting, the whale people dove into a smoking, bubbling, mountain lake to reach the ocean. On the coast, there was a village where the residents were lazy and played kaataq all day. One day, dressed as people, the killer whales entered the men’s house and challenged the villagers to a game of kaataq. When the villagers lost the match, the whale people took them to the mountains, killing everyone but two old couples whom they left to tell the story.
Photo: Orca swims in the channel between Kodiak and Near Island.
Ugnerkami miskiiRiat amleritaartut. - In the spring there are many spiders.
There at least 350 species of spiders in Alaska, belonging to seventeen families. Spiders are not insects. They are close relatives of ticks and mites and belong to a group called arachnids. Insects have three body parts, six legs, and a pair of antennae. In contrast, arachnids have two body parts, eight legs, and no antennae.
Alaska spiders are typically small, especially when compared with varieties found in warmer climates. Many don’t build webs but hide in flowers to catch insects or hunt along the ground. Common Alaska spiders include crab spiders with a long second set of legs, shy hairy wolf spiders, and cobweb spiders with an orb-like body.
In the Alutiiq language, miskiiRaqis the general word for spider. However, there are many other spider words, indicating that Alutiiqs recognized different types and had unique names for unique varieties. For example sukunuuk, the Alutiiq word for daddy longlegs, a spider-like arachnid, literally means “one who likes damp places.”
Spiders seek warm places when the weather gets cold and may crawl into houses or be transported inside with materials like firewood. So it is quite likely that spiders were regular residents of Alutiiq sod houses, living among the rafters and grass thatching that covered these warm dwellings.
Photo: Kodiak spider carrying baby spiders.
Maani tang’rtaanitua parananek. - I never see mountain goats around here.
Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) are one of four large ungulate species introduced to Kodiak in the early twentieth century. These docile alpine grazers live on steep, rocky mountain slopes, where they eat grasses, herbs, and low-lying shrubs. The have pointed black horns, a thick white coat, and distinctive long hair along their backs, necks, shoulders, rumps, and legs. Mountain goats captured on the Kenai Peninsula were moved to Kodiak in 1952-53 and released in Ugak Bay’s Hidden Basin. Today there are more than 1,400 animals in the Kodiak region. A good hiker can get close to mountain goats, which rely on their rugged habitat for protection.
Although goats were not indigenous to Kodiak, Alutiiq people obtained their hair and horns in trade with the Chugach of Prince William Sound and the Dena’ina of the Kenai Peninsula. Alutiiqs used long goat hairs to embroider sewn objects and fashioned goat horn into elegant spoons. Craftsmen softened the horn with steam, bent it into shape, and carved it into intricate shapes. One of the Alutiiq words for mountain goat, paRanaq, is the same as the word for sheep.
A story from Prince William Sound indicates that Alutiiq hunters pursued goats with bows and arrows. To indicate ownership of a slain animal, a hunter might place an item of his clothing—a spruce root hat or a ground-squirrel parka—on the carcass. This gesture of respect also honored the goat’s spirit and welcomed it to the hunter’s village.
Photo: Mountain goat on northern Kodiak Island. Photo by Zoya Saltonstall.
Isiit awa’i angitut. - The owls have returned.
Three varieties of owls are common to the Kodiak Archipelago. The boreal owl (Aegolius funereus) and the northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula) frequent forested areas, and the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) lives in open country.
Kodiak’s forest-dwelling owls are year-round residents. They nest in tree trunks and tend to be reclusive. These solitary, territorial animals hunt exclusively at night and are easier to hear than see. Short-eared owls, which migrate south each winter, are more visible. These birds nest in grass-lined burrows in lowland tundra, marshes, and tidal flats, often in small colonies. They eat voles, squirrels, bats, insects, and birds, which they hunt at night and in the morning.
Throughout Alaska, Native people associate nocturnal, carnivorous owls with the supernatural. Among the Tlingit, owls are feared. They are believed to bring bad news, foretelling warfare, sickness, fire, and accidents with their hoots. Moreover, witches are said to transform themselves into owls. The Aleut believed owls were magical and dismembered captured birds to release their powerful spirits. The Yup’ik associate owls with shamanism, due to their extraordinary vision.
Like the Yup’ik, the Alutiiq believed that owls assisted shamans. A wooden mask recovered from a late prehistoric village in Karluk features the face of a short-eared owl. This rare depiction of a bird’s face on a mask suggests that the artifact was spiritually powerful.
Photo: A mask carved to represent the face of an owl. Koniag, Inc. Collection, Kalruk One site.
Kiwiksat maniigtaartut qutmi. - Oystercatchers always lay their eggs on the beach.
With a world population of about ten thousand birds, the American black oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) is a large, jet-black shorebird with a long orange beak and orange-encircled eye. It inhabits the western coast of North America, ranging from the Aleutian Islands to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. It is most common at the northern end of this range, where it thrives along rocky coasts. Over half of all black oystercatchers live in Alaska, with the largest concentrations in Prince William Sound and the Kodiak Archipelago.
The oystercatcher’s diet reflects its environment. Around Kodiak, oystercatchers are present year-round, eating limpets, mussels, gastropods, and chitons as well as fish and crab from the rich intertidal zone. Oystercatchers are monogamous and territorial.
They mate with one partner and defend their nesting territories. In spring, females lay small clutches of eggs in simple nests on the beach. Scraped into the ground, these nests can be hard to see. Oystercatcher eggs are grey and spotted, like stones, blending into the beach. People and foxes are the biggest threat to oystercatchers, because the beaches the birds use can attract people and animals that disturb their nests.
According to an Alutiiq legend, God punished the oystercatcher for laying its eggs too early one year. The birds were not supposed to reproduce until May, but they did not wait. Now, they must lay their eggs right on the beach as they have been banished from the land.
Photo: Black Oystercatcher in the Shumigan Islands. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Amartut angitut. - The pink salmon (humpies) are coming back.
Pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), also known as humpbacks or humpies, are the most abundant variety of Pacific salmon. In North America these three- to four-pound fish range from California’s Russian River to Canada’s McKenzie River. The Kodiak Archipelago has more than three hundred known pink salmon streams. Each year millions of fish return to these waterways, spawning in river gravels between late July and mid-October. According to Alutiiq folklore, when the salmonberries are abundant, pink salmon runs will be strong.
Pink salmon have long been a focal resource for Alutiiq families. Archaeologists find ancient fish camps on many Kodiak pink salmon streams. Here fish were caught with nets, trapped behind weirs, speared with leisters, or captured with special salmon harpoons. They were taken in large quantities, processed, and stored for winter use, particularly in the late prehistoric period.
Today, Alutiiqs harvest pink salmon both commercially and for the dinner table. The thinner, less fatty filets are perfect for smoking and drying. The hump of a spawning male, which is eaten raw, is considered a great delicacy. To add flavor, some people wipe the hump with fresh cow parsnip leaves. Pink salmon are also cut into steaks and boiled, or added to fish soup, head and all.
Photo: Freshly caught pink salmon on a Kodiak Island beach.
Aiwiakaut paragautakun mangat taitaaartut, waamenguarluteng. - When you are going by boat, porpoises come and kind of play.
Two varieties of porpoise frequent Kodiak’s coastal waters: the harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and the Dahl porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli). These swift, muscular animals are members of the cetacean family, a group of marine mammals that includes whales. Porpoises feed on fish and invertebrates in coastal waters and are known to follow boats. Porpoise bones in ancient coastal middens illustrate that Alutiiq people have been harvesting these animals for at least six thousand years.
Alutiiq people hunted porpoises in spring and summer. Men in kayaks carrying sharp-ended harpoons pursued them in the water. Like whales or sea otters, they had to be taken at sea and could not be ambushed at rookeries like seals and sea lions. Therefore, porpoise hunting was a much more difficult and risky undertaking. A traditional Alutiiq dart game, where kneeling players toss darts at a swinging porpoise model, highlights the enormous skill involved in killing and landing a porpoise. In addition to food, Alutiiqs coveted porpoise for their sinew, particularly the long fibers that run along the animal’s spine and tail. These were separated into thread for fine embroidery and into line for kayaks and hunting gear.
Photo: Porpoise target piece carved of bark, Malina Creek site, Afognak Joint Venture Collection.