ALUTIIQ MUSEUM  215 Mission Road, Kodiak, Alaska 99615   |  844-425-8844  |  view calendar > | search >
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Word in Alutiiq: Swaaciit; Kulusut
In a sentence:

Swaaciit imasinam akiani et’ut. - Tlingits are across the big ocean.

MP3 File: tlingits

The Tlingit Indians of southeast Alaska are the Alutiiq people’s eastern neighbors. Their homeland extends from Yakutat Bay at the entrance to the Alaska Panhandle to northern coastal British Columbia. Like the traditional Alutiiq societies, Tlingit communities were once large and affluent. The Tlingit lived in big coastal villages organized around clans, extended families that worked and lived together. They had hereditary social classes, hosted elaborate winter festivals, kept slaves, waged warfare, and traveled widely.

Travel to the west brought Tlingit people into contact with Alutiiq communities. Interaction was most frequent in Prince William Sound. Here, contacts were both friendly and hostile. Traditional stories recount the slaughter of Alutiiq hunters who strayed into Tlingit territory as well as raids on Alutiiq communities that resulted in the death and enslavement of residents. Alutiiq communities took brutal revenge, developing a reputation for fierceness. These same accounts, however, reveal that neighboring communities also invited each other to compete in friendly games, participate in festivals, and trade.

Anthropologists believe that interaction between the two societies became more common in the late prehistoric era. At this time, southeast Alaska trade goods like abalone and dentalium shells appear more commonly in Kodiak’s archaeological sites, elements of Tlingit form line art appear in Alutiiq art, and Alutiiqs adopted items of Tlingit technology, like spruce root hats and two-pieced halibut fishing hooks. In turn, early historic Tlingit people are known to have utilized items of Alutiiq technology: skin-covered kayaks and sea otter harpoon darts.

Photo: Tlingit and Alutiiq dancers work together in a cultural exchange, Kodiak, summer 2011.

Podcast Available: Tlingits
Word in Alutiiq: Angaaq; Atataaq
In a sentence:

Angaaqa. - My uncle.

MP3 File: uncle

Alutiiq people reckon descent bilaterally. This means that children trace their ancestry equally through their mother’s and father’s lineages. A child is recognized as belonging to both sides of his or her family. While Alutiiqs share this practice with the Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, and Inuit societies of northern Alaska and Canada, they are unique in the Gulf of Alaska. Neighboring Tlingit, Athabaskan, and Aleut societies practiced matrilineal kinship. In this system of identifying relatives, children inherit family ties through their biological relationships with women. They are members of their mother’s family.

Kinship systems are often reflected in the words people use to identify family members. For example, among societies with bilateral kinship systems like the Alutiiq people, the word for uncle, angaaq, can be used for any uncle: your mother’s brother or your father’s brother. However, in matrilineal societies, there are often separate terms for mother’s brother and father’s brother.

In Alutiiq communities, extended family members—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—are an important part of many children’s lives. Older relatives like uncles often act like parents, teaching, guiding, and caring for children as they learn adult skills. In the modern era, it is not unusual for an Alutiiq boy to be raised by his uncle or to act as crewmember on his uncle’s boat.

Photo: Man and boys in Old Harbor.

Word in Alutiiq: Anguyartaasqaq
In a sentence:

Qangiq, anguyartaasqat agellriit Swaacit nuniinun. -  Long ago, warriors went to the Tlingits’ lands.

MP3 File: warrior

In the Gulf of Alaska, Native people traditionally raided each other’s communities to avenge a wrong, secure hostages, and obtain wealth. Members of the elite class led raids. These were wealthy individuals who maintained their status by accumulating goods and slaves. On Kodiak, such individuals mobilized adult men to attack villages both at home and afar. Historic accounts tell of battles waged in the Aleutian Islands, Cook Inlet, and Prince William Sound.

Before embarking on a raid, warriors met in the community men’s house. Here they received food, water, and gifts from the family of the man leading the raid. Warriors then took turns dancing and recounting their ancestors’ successes in war. Then the host offered each a gift as a token of the riches they were soon to obtain.

Early the following morning, the warriors departed in large, open skin boats. Historic accounts indicate they painted their faces, wore vests of wooden armor, and armed themselves with bone-tipped spears, bows and arrows, wooden clubs, and large wooden shields. The object of a raid was to kill adult men, take women and teenagers as slaves, and gather large quantities of plunder. However, with the help of mediation, hostages might be freed and returned to their homes.

Photo:  Daniel Harmon, Alutiiq man from Woody Island, serving in the Viet Nam war.  Harmon Collection.

Podcast Available: Warrior
Wild Rhubarb; Sourdock
Word in Alutiiq: Aatunaq
In a sentence:

Aatunat qiurtut. - The sourdock are ready.

MP3 File: wildrhubarb 1

Sourdock (Rumex fenestratus) is a member of the buckwheat family that produces tasty green leaves. It is sometimes called wild rhubarb, though there is a similar, related plant that botanists classify as wild rhubarb (Rumex arcticus). Both plants have tasty green leaves. Those of the sourdock plant are sour, while those of the wild rhubarb have a lemony flavor.

Sourdock is particularly prized in Alutiiq communities. This large herb produced thick stems and long leaves. It grows four feet tall and is widespread in the Kodiak Archipelago. Sourdock can be found in wet meadows, on slopes, and in disturbed areas. Roadsides and in vacant lots are good places to collect this plant.

Alutiiqs traditionally gather sourdock leaves and stems in May and June, before the plant flowers and becomes tough. The leaves can be eaten fresh or stored for later use. In the past, Alutiiqs preserved quantities of cooked sourdock in seal oil for winter consumption. Raw berries, especially blackberries, or chocolate lily roots were often added. Today, sourdock is made into jams and pies, boiled and served as a vegetable, and added to soups. It stores well in the freezer and can be used all winter long as a vegetable or condiment.

Photo:  Sourdock in a coastal meadow. 

Podcast Available: Wild Rhubarb; Sourdock
Word in Alutiiq: Arnaq
In a sentence:

Arnat peknartutaartut. - Women work hard.

MP3 File: woman

Women had important economic, social, and spiritual roles in classical Alutiiq society. In addition to collecting plant foods, they processed fish for storage, tanned hides, sewed the skin coverings for kayaks, wove baskets, and manufactured clothing. In winter villages, groups of related women lived together in large sod houses with their husbands and children. A pair of sisters, for example, might share a household. Some anthropologists believe that Alutiiqs were a matrilineal society. Descent may have been traced through women, with children gaining their family identity from their mother’s side.

 In the spiritual realm, women shared their powers as both shamans and healers. The shaman was a mystical person. They communicated with the spiritual world and could foretell the future, forecasting the wealth or predicting the success of subsistence activities. In contrast, healers were community doctors. They manufactured herbal medicines, tended the sick, and acted as midwives.

Photo: Female doll by Coral Chernoff.  Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum collections with assistance from the Rasmuson Foundation.

Word in Alutiiq: Nuliq
In a sentence:

Nulingr'tua. - I've got a wife.

MP3 File: wife

Everyone in Alutiiq society was expected to marry. Although marriages were not typically arranged, there were preferred marriage partners. According to anthropologist Birket-Smith, a young person was particularly encouraged to marry a cousin. However, not all cousins were potential mates. Parallel cousin (your parents' same sex siblings' children) were considered siblings and were not appropriate spouses. But cross cousins (your parents' opposite sex siblings' children) were desirable mates. For example, a young man in search of a wife would consider marrying his father's sister's daughter, or his mother brother's daughter. A cross-cousin was only one choice for determining a marriage partner.

In addition to their many domestic activities - making clothing, stitching boat covers, weaving, cooking and caring for children, Alutiiq wives helped to maintain their husband's hunting luck. First, they could never touch their husband's weaponry and had to seclude themselves in a special hut during each of their menstrual periods. By observing these taboos, they insured that their husband's hunting gear was not polluted by their fertility. Additionally, wives had an obligation to assist their husbands with hunting rituals. The wife of a whaler, for example, was instructed to stay in-doors and remain quiet while her husband was hunting, least she scare the whale. And when the dead whale washed ashore, she was responsible for giving it a drink of fresh water.

Photo: Akhiok husband and wife, ca. 1930  Courtesy the National Archive, Seattle.

Word in Alutiiq: Ar'ursulek / Arwarsulek
In a sentence:
Ar'ursulem ayaququtara ar'uq. - The whaler is going to spear the whale.
MP3 File: Whaler
whalerIn ancestral Alutiiq society, each community had a set of cultural specialists. Politicians, shamans, ritual leaders, healers, and whalers were among the people with unique knowledge who served others. Some of these positions were passed down through families. Others were taught to people who showed an aptitude for certain work. Learning the job of a cultural specialist involved apprenticeship. Young people worked with an experienced mentor to study skills like healing with herbal medicine, resolving disputes, predicting the weather, and hunting whales.
A legend told by Ralph Demidoff of Little Afognak in 1962 shows how whalers passed their knowledge to the next generation. In this tale, an Alutiiq village was home to a great whale hunter. This highly skilled man would disappear for days and when he returned, a whale would wash up on the shore. A mischievous boy from the village dreamed of becoming a whaler, and so the expert hunter made him his apprentice.
To train the boy, the whaler took him on one of his journeys far from the village. Here he gave the boy tasks, taught him about hunting rituals, discussed animal behavior, shared experiences from his own apprenticeship, challenged his courage, and most of all, instructed him to watch. The whaler told the boy, "Young hunting partners learn by watching what is done and by doing what they are told to do. But never by asking questions." This is the central message of the story. Unfortunately, the boy was disrespectful and did not follow instructions. He would often sneak after the whaler to watch forbidden activities. In the end the boy failed as an apprentice and did not become a whaler.
Image:  Petroglyph image of whalers, Cape Alitak, Courtesy Akhiok-Kaguyak, Inc.
Podcast Available: Whaler
Word in Alutiiq: Llaatesurta
In a sentence:

Llaatsurtaallriit. They used to be weathermen.

MP3 File: Weatherman
WeathermanLong before marine radios, the nightly, television weather report, weather aps and weather cams, Alutiiq people interpreted the weather by reading the wind, waves, clouds, and phase of the sun and moon. Shaman, men and women skilled at interacting with the unseen world, were weather specialists. Harvesters and travelers consulted these knowledgeable people before leaving home, and adjusted their plans accordingly.

Understanding the weather, especially the behavior of the wind, remains an essential skill in Alutiiq communities. Today, the weather is a central topic of conversation, and accurate weather information helps people order their daily lives and stay safe. The weather affects everything from the ability to hunt, fish, and collect, to the arrival of the mail plane. Interpreting weather conditions is a difficult business, as conditions vary across the landscape and can change quickly. This means that people must know how a set of conditions affects different areas of the island.

Alutiiq weather lore is particularly rich in knowledge of the wind and its effects on the water and animal behavior. The Alutiiq language reflects this detailed perception. Alutiiq speakers use a great number of terms to discuss the direction, speed, intensity, and duration of winds. Other words describe the noises the wind makes or the relationships between the wind and the landscape. For example, a speaker might report that the wind is whooshing, or use a word that describes the wind as blowing from the east and out of a bay.
Photo: Weatherman mask, ca. 1872, Pinart Collection, Courtesy the Château-Musée, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France.
Podcast Available: Weatherman
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