Eskimut paagani et’aartut. - The Eskimos live up North.
Although the term Eskimo appears to have passed into English from the French word Eskimeaux, linguists believe that the word’s ultimate origin is in Montagnais, an Algonquian language spoken in the eastern Canadian provinces of Quebec and Labrador. The Montagnais used a similar-sounding word, meaning “snowshoe-netter,” to describe their northern Inuit neighbors. French traders recorded this word and other westerners eventually adopted this term.
Whatever its origin, Eskimo is a controversial term. Anthropologists have used it to describe the indigenous peoples of the North American Arctic, including the first residents of Greenland, the Canadian Archipelago, and coastal Alaska from Prudhoe Bay to Prince William Sound. The term was intended to denote a shared heritage—to highlight similarities in biology, culture, and language among the people inhabiting this northern environment.
However, because Eskimo is not a traditional self-designator, it is not widely used by northern peoples themselves. Most prefer to be called by their own cultural names—Inuit, Iñupiat, or Yup’ik—which mean “real people.” Alutiiqs are no exception. Although the Alutiiq people recognize cultural ties to their Yup’ik neighbors, most do not think of themselves as Eskimo. This distinction is evident in one of the the Alutiiq words for Eskimo, Pamanirmiu’at, which literally means “people up there.”
Ilat naata allringumi ell'uteng. - Families should always stay together.
Families are the basic unit of human societies, and as the structure of societies changes, the organization of families changes as well. In the Kodiak region, archaeological data illustrate that nuclear families—parents and their children— lived together in one-room houses for several thousands of years. Small camps across the landscape suggest that one or two families hunted and fished together, moving in and out of larger winter villages with changes in the seasons.
By about AD 1200, Alutiiqs began to build much bigger houses. Each dwelling had a variety of small sleeping chambers attached to large central room. Historic accounts indicate that large extended families—parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—lived in these structures, with up to eighteen people per household. What caused this reorganization of families? Archaeologists believe that as the Native population grew and competition for natural resources increased, families coalesced to harvest, process, and store large quantities of foods and materials.
Today, families continue to be the primary work unit in Alutiiq communities, particularly for subsistence activities. Although groups of people may help each other with subsistence tasks like splitting fish or hauling wood, family members working together conduct most subsistence activities, and some families even maintain specific harvesting areas recognized and avoided by others. Berry patches, for example, are often family owned. Within the family, there is a division of labor by gender. Men and women tend to different tasks. Men are the primary hunters, wood collectors, and builders. In contrast, women typically gather plants and herbal medicines and process foods.
In addition to the family ties created by blood and marriage, Alutiiqs also build family connections through the Russian Orthodox Church. Every Orthodox child has a krasnaq: a family friend who acts as a godparent and assists that person through life. The bonds between godparent and child are so strong that marriage to the child of one’s godparents is strictly prohibited.
Photo: Erickson Family beside their Chignik home. Erickson Collection.
Qulnek sua’angq’rtua. - I have ten fingers.
The Alutiiq word sua’aq refers generally to a finger. Like English speakers, however, Alutiiq speakers have unique words for individual fingers. For example, Alutiiqs call the middle finger akulimaq, from the word for in-between. The second, or index finger is tekeq. Alutiiqs have a joke about people who wag their index fingers at others. This sort of nagging is said to make your finger grow longer!
Because most Alutiiq speakers don’t know the individual finger terms, language instructors recently translated “Where is Thumbkin,” a popular British children’s tune that teaches finger terms, into Alutiiq.
Some classic Alutiiq tools had special places for fingers. The throwing boards used to loft harpoons had specially carved grooves for the last three fingers. Harpoons featured a small finger rest, a crescent-shaped piece of wood or bone tied to the weapon’s shaft. The hunter placed his index finger on the rest to steady the harpoon while he prepared for a strike. One example in the Alutiiq Museum’s collections is carved from a walrus molar.
Photo: Harpoon finger rests. Koniag, Inc. collection, Karluk One.
Arya’aq qecenguq. - The girl is running.
The life of an Alutiiq girl began in a small hut. Here, her mother labored with the help of a midwife and then rested with her baby for five to ten days before introducing the infant to the household. During this seclusion, the baby might have a hole pierced below her lip to hold a labret. As an infant a baby girl would be carried on a cradleboard and carefully tended to, never allowed to cry for lengthy periods.
By age six, girls helped with simple chores, like making thread from sinew and braiding line. To learn adult skills, they played with replicas of their mother’s tools: tiny stone lamps, wooden water scoops, bentwood cooking boxes, and dolls. Carved from wood and clothed, a girl’s dolls were thought to represent the souls of ancestors waiting to be reborn when the girl became a mother. Girls learned about spiritual life by participating in festivals, dancing with adult women in performances that honored ancestors.
At her first menstruation, a girl passed from childhood into adult life. As at birth, she was secluded in a special hut. This isolation lasted up to several weeks, marking her new ability to bear children and to produce spiritually powerful blood. Following seclusion, a young woman took a cleansing steam bath and had her chin tattooed to publicly display her new social status. Sometimes a festival was held to celebrate her initiation. Menstrual seclusions continued in the Kodiak region well into the twentieth century. Elder women recall being secluded in their bedrooms and forbidden to look out a window for fear they would invite bad weather.
Photo: Girl with crowberries. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
KRaasnaat ag’inartut - Godparents should be respected.
Russian colonists introduced godparenting, a relationship between adults and children that has become second in importance only to parent-child bonds in Alutiiq communities. KRaasnaaq comes from a Russian word meaning “godparent.” Some Alutiiq speakers further differentiate between godmother and godfather with the alutiicized terms maamasinaq (“great mother”), and taatasinaq (“great father”), symbolizing the lifelong importance of godparents.
Today, parents choose both a godfather and a godmother for their child at the time of baptism. If the child is a boy, it is the father’s duty to choose the godparents. If the child is a girl, it is the mother’s duty. Godparents are typically not close relatives, but family friends or distant kin. Moreover, a child’s godmother and godfather are usually not related to each other. The practice strengthens social ties across unrelated or distantly related families. These ties are so strong that a kRaasnaaq’s children are considered a godchild’s siblings, and they are forbidden to date or marry.
The duties of a godparent begin at baptism and continue throughout life. Godparents are responsible for purchasing the blanket and clothing an Alutiiq baby needs for baptism, and the same-sex godparent provides the cross the baby will wear throughout life. The godparents also hold candles during the baptism and the confirmation of baptism that follows. During childhood, godparents take their godchildren to church and help to celebrate birthdays, name days, and Christmas.
Photo: Baptism of Rosemary Rogers, Rogers Collection.
Kasnaam sua taikutartuq. - A government person is coming.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kodiak’s rural villages maintained local governments led by a community chief. The chief was chosen from the adult male residents of each village by a traditional council that included a second chief, a church warden, a lay reader, and community Elders. Although the position was not inherited, and no one was forced to serve as chief, chiefs were often succeeded by a family member.
The chief controlled activities in and around the village, wherever its residents were working. He was responsible for overseeing the community’s economic welfare, managing public safety, and acting as a court system. The chief held meetings to discuss issues that affected the community. This included a meeting before each subsistence season to organize harvesting activities. The chief decided where each family would fish or trap, what camps they would use, and how long they would be gone. This coordination fostered cooperation, ensured that all families were provided for, and helped the chief keep track of the people in his care.
Meetings began at the chief ’s house, where he consulted with his council and formed an agenda. Then the chief called a public meeting, which was often held in the local school. The second chief told residents about the meeting, or it was announced at church. Everyone was invited to come and share their opinion, but the chief made the final decision. This included designing punishments for people who broke community rules.
This system continued into the late 1950s, when Alaska became a state and communities began electing a city mayor and participating in the statewide judicial system. In the 1970s, Alutiiq villages also established tribal councils to meet the requirements of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Today, each tribal council has seven members elected by the villagers for a designated term.
Photo: Karl Armstrong on the steps of the US Capital. Armstrong Collection.
Allenertakinga akgua'aq. - A stranger came to see me yesterday.
Hosting guests was a sign of power and prosperity in Alutiiq communities. Each winter, as the sun sank below the horizon, wealthy families initiated festivals, inviting friends from their own community and neighboring villages to participate in feasting, dancing, singing, visiting, and gift-giving. Guests were anxiously awaited. As skin boats loaded with visitors appeared, members of the host community waded into the water to carry both the boats and their occupants ashore. In the ceremonial house, guests were seated and fed according to their social standing. The most important people sat by the door and were the first to be offered freshwater and food served in ornately carved wooden bowls. All festival guests received gifts, and an elaborately embroidered parka was the ultimate present.
These lavish festivals were just one form of hospitality. Throughout the year, Alutiiqs took pride in providing guests with hearty meals. People served visitors dried fish and meats alongside bentwood bowls filled with oil, and guests often left with refreshments for the trip home.
Welcoming guests with food remains an Alutiiq tradition. A cup of tea, a bit of smoked salmon, or a sweet are common offerings in Native homes and a sign of both respect and hospitality.
Photo: A visitor signed the guestbook at the Alutiiq Museum, May, 2008.
Matarngasqat Camani amlertut. - There are a lot of Indians in the Lower Forty-eight.
When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492,he mistook the Bahamas for India and called the indigenous people he encountered Indians. The term has since come to mean an indigenous person of North America, and many people use it to refer to any person of Native ancestry. To Alaskans, however, the word Indian denotes a more specific heritage.
Anthropologists recognize three distinct populations of Native North Americans: Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts, each with a unique biological ancestry. Alaska is the only part of North America where all three populations are present. Here, people use the term Native rather than Indian to refer generally to an indigenous person. This can be confusing for people from other parts of the continent, who sometimes incorrectly apply the term Indian to Alutiiq people, calling them Alutiiq Indians.
Although the Alutiiq people are not an Indian people, Indian cultures have contributed to Alutiiq traditions. Trade with neighboring Athabaskan and Tlingit peoples brought Indian goods, stories, artwork, and even people to Alutiiq communities. Stories suggest that the Alutiiq were aware of Indian people who lived along the Pacific Coast much farther south, perhaps through long-distance trade networks. The Alutiiq word for these people literally means “naked ones,” a reference to the different clothing styles of warmer climates.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Alutiiq families lived with matarngasqat at Russian posts in northern California. At Fort Ross, a settlement near Jenner, Alutiiq people worked and intermarried with Kashaya Indians. The word kashaya means “expert gambler” in a Pomoan language. Anthropologists believe that the Kashaya taught Alutiiq hunters to play kaataq, a popular guessing game they brought back to Kodiak.
Map: Native North American cultural areas. Courtesy Wikipedia.