Una arnaq caugnga’istaq. - This woman is an acupressurist.
Although many people think of acupressure as an Asian science, healers in societies around the world use their hands to restore health to the sick by applying gentle, carefully directed pressure. This pressure promotes blood circulation, stimulates the production of hormones, relieves tension, and reduces pain, helping the body to heal.
In Alutiiq society, acupressure was once an important form of traditional medicine practiced by village healers. Women trained in the art of bleeding, the use of plant medicines, and midwifery were also acupressurists. They used their hands to feel illness and to move it from the body with directed pressure and massage.
The Alutiiq word for an acupressurist, caugnga’istaq, comes from the word for pulse. According to Elders, there were certain points on the body where the caugnga’istaq would feel a patient’s pulse to both diagnose and treat illness. Some of the commonly manipulated pulse points included the temple, the collarbone, and the ankles. If a person’s pulse felt faint in a certain area, the acupressurist might perform a holding technique to restore blood flow or choose a blood letting or herbal treatment to promote healing.
Photo: Alutiiq Elder and traditional healer, Mary Peterson.
Alap’aaq Nuniamen taillria. - An African-American person came to Old Harbor.
African Americans began living and working in Alaska in the late nineteenth century. Although their history in the Far North is poorly documented, they came to harvest natural resources and to work for government agencies like other colonists. African Americans mined gold, staffed revenue cutters, served in Alaska military posts, and helped to build the Alaska Highway.
Today, the African-American population of Alaska is quite small. About 3.5 percent of Alaska’s population is African American, as compared with 12.5 percent nationally. Rural Kodiak is home to even fewer people of African descent. Recent census statistics indicate that there are about 13,600 people living in the Kodiak Island Borough. Of these people, less than 1 percent are of African-American descent, as compared with 55 percent Caucasian, 20 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 14 percent Native American, 7 percent multiracial, and 4 percent other races.
The Alutiiq word for African American is aRap’aaq or alap’aaq, and it comes from a Russian word meaning Arab. This word is easily confused with aRapak, a similar-sounding Alutiiq word for rubber boots. Some people think that Alutiiqs called African Americans aRap’aat because their skin was black like a boot, but this is untrue.
Another clue to the Russian origins of the word aRap’aaq is its R sound. This sound is not found in the Alutiiq language but appears in words borrowed from Russian and English. In the modern Alutiiq alphabet, people write the Western R sound as a small capital letter (r) to distinguish it from the Alutiiq r sound, which is written with a lower-case r.
Photo: Visitors to Old Harbor, 1890. Albatross Collection, courtesy the National Archives.
Aluuwirmiu’at yaqsisinartut. - People of the Alaska Peninsula are far away.
The Alaska Peninsula is a cultural crossroads, a place where the peoples of the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska have long interacted. Archaeological data suggest that Alutiiq people spread west across the peninsula about 750 years ago, settling the low, wet, tundra floodplain of the northwestern peninsula. One of the largest Alutiiq communities in this area was Ugashik.
Ugashik village lies on the bank of the Ugashik River, about sixteen miles above Ugashik Bay. Early travel accounts suggest that people in Ugashik spoke a unique dialect of Alutiiq that included many elements of the Yup’ik language spoken to the north. This unique mix of the Alutiiq and Yup’ik languages likely reflects the mobility of Alaska Peninsula peoples and their contact with neighboring groups. Ugashik residents harvested widely from Bristol Bay waters, peninsula environments, and the Pacific coast. In the late nineteenth century, Ugashik families traded in Nushagak to the northwest but also traveled across the Alaska Peninsula to trade at Katmai.
Ugashik village flourished as a center of trapping activity in the Russian era. However, as commercial canneries developed in Ugashik Bay, many residents moved to participate in wage labor, establishing the adjacent coastal village of Agishik, or Pilot Point. Similarly, in the 1890s, a substantial number of villagers moved to the Pacific coast to the new community of Kanatak. This settlement lay in Portage Bay, at the end of the portage trail at the head of the Ugashik River. In 1918, many remaining villagers died from a devastating flu pandemic. Ugashik never regained a substantial population.
Map: Alutiiq communities of the western Alaska Peninsula.
Ikna suk taya’uq. - That person is an Aleut.
The word Aleut has a colorful history. Introduced to Alaska by Russian fur traders in the eighteenth century, it originated in eastern Siberia. Aleut comes from a Siberian Native language, and it means coastal dweller: a person who makes a living from the sea. Although Russian explorers recognized differences between the groups of Alaska Natives they encountered, they used this one term to describe all Native peoples. Russian traders called people with different languages, social practices, beliefs, and histories Aleut. In the modern era, this has caused confusion, because people of different heritages are known by the same term.
Despite this situation, the word Aleut remains a popular self-designator both in the Aleutian Islands and in southcentral Alaska. Many people prefer this familiar term because they were raised using it. Others have chosen to use traditional terms for their people: Unangan in the Aleutians and Sugpiaq in the central Gulf. The word Alutiiq is itself derived from Aleut and became common usage in the 1970s. It is the way that the Native residents of Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, and the Alaska Peninsula say Aleut in their traditional language.
Map: Distribution of EskAleut speakers.
Cuumillat lisngataallit. - The ancestors were very learned.
Concepts of time differ between societies. Western cultures think of time as linear and progressive: species evolve, investments grow, technologies develop, and the past is often seen as outdated or quaint. To many Native people, including Alutiiqs, time is more circular and fluid. From this perspective, the past is part of the present and events from distant times influence daily life. This view is particularly evident in Alutiiq beliefs about ancestors, forbearers whose lives are beyond the reach of living memory.
Importantly, Alutiiq people view distant ancestors as revered family members. Ancestors may be separated from the living by hundreds or even thousands of years, but they remain aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. This reverence for ancestors is evident in the respect Alutiiqs feel for ancestral knowledge.Hunting expertise, artistic skill, environmental knowledge, stories, songs, and dance are all gifts bestowed to the living from previous generations.
Image: Afogank Man, water color painting by Helen J. Simeonof, Alutiiq Museum Collection AM459
Katie carliangkutartuq. - Katie is going to have a baby.
Among the Alutiiq people, babies are signs of luck. In traditional society, women gave birth with the help of a healer, who functioned both as a midwife and a community doctor. Pregnant women began visiting the midwife when they were three to five months pregnant. Prenatal care took place in the banya or steam bath. Here a midwife monitored the baby’s growth and worked with their hands to position the infant and avoid complicated deliveries.
Babies were born in small, temporary huts adjacent to their mother’s homes. Here a laboring woman was secluded to prevent contamination of her husband’s hunting gear. A midwife tended to those in labor, holding the expectant mother in a sitting position for delivery. Herbal medicines soothed labor pains and assisted the production of milk. Seclusion lasted five to ten days after birth, and then mother and child were reintroduced to their household with a steam bath. At this time, the infant’s labret holes were pierced. Until they could walk, babies were strapped to cradleboards with supports woven from beach ryegrass. Moss was used for diapers, and infants were affectionately tended. Mothers never left a baby to cry.
Photo: Mrs. Riley and baby, Woody Island Station. Sather Family Collection, courtesy Melvin H. Sather.
Kugyasigtaangama naRaciyutaallianga. - When I was fishing (seining) I used to be a boat captain.
The Alutiiq word for boat captain, naRiaciikor naRaciik, comes from Russian. It includes a small capital R to indicate an “r“ sound, as in the English word run. While this sound is common in English and Russian words, it is absent in Alutiiq. Despite the recent origins of the word naRaciq, boat captains have a long history in Alutiiq communities.
In classical Alutiiq society, political leaders and successful hunters owned angyat: large, open skin boats. Used for long distance travel, trade, transport, and warfare, these boats were up to forty feet long and could carry twenty paddlers, as well as passengers and great quantities of supplies. Therefore, angyat were a sign of both affluence and leadership. They required support from community members to build and paddle, and they represented the ability to acquire wealth. Angyaq owners were the first boat captains.
Today’s boat captains own seiners and lead family members in commercial fishing. Often a father acts as the skipper and his sons, sons-in-law, nephews, or grandsons act as crew, although any combination of relatives may fish together. The strong family ties around captains and their boats are also expressed in boat names. Many are named for the captain’s daughter. The boat becomes her aalukaq, or namesake.
In addition to acting as family leaders, skippers are considered community leaders. Boat ownership is one of the most visible signs of wealth and status in Alutiiq villages, and with status comes the responsibility to help others. For example, many skippers donate time and resources during the busy fishing season to ferry people from Kodiak to Monk’s Lagoon for the annual pilgrimage to St. Herman’s grave.
Photo: Young boy at the helm of a fishing boat. Ouzinkie area, ca. 1940. Courtsey Tim and Norman Smith.
Gui angayuka Kicarwigmen ag’uq. - My partner is going to Anchorage.
Throughout Native Alaska, friendships were an important source of economic assistance as well as a safety mechanism and a way to enhance wealth. In addition to forming friendships within their communities, many men and women established lifelong trading partnerships with people in distant places. There was no limit to the number of trading partners, and many people had several. Trading partners were never relatives, but the children of trading partners might establish their own partnerships. These relationships connected communities to ecologically distinct areas with different resources. In times of need, a person could request assistance from a trading partner. Trading partnerships also facilitated movement. A person with ties to a trading partner in another region could safely travel in that region and might gain access to valuable, nonlocal materials.
Historic sources suggest that Kodiak Alutiiq people maintained trading partnerships with mainland people. Kodiak travelers partnered with Dena’ina traders in Cook Inlet, exchanging whale meat and kayaks for land mammal pelts and goat horn. Additionally, trading partners may have met at large regional trading fairs. Kodiak people traded wooden hats at intertribal fairs, and the southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula was one location for such fairs. Similarly, the Chugach Alutiiq reportedly traveled to the headwaters of the Susitna River to participate in trade fairs with Ahtna, Dena’ina, and Tanana peoples.
Photo: Girls in Old Harbor, ca. 1950. Violet Able Collection, Courtesy the Old Harbor Native Corporation.