Swaaciit imasinam akiani et’ut. - Tlingits are across the big ocean.
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.
Angaaqa. - My 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.
Qangiq, anguyartaasqat agellriit Swaacit nuniinun. - Long ago, warriors went to the Tlingits’ lands.
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.
Aatunat qiurtut. - The sourdock are ready.
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.
Arnat peknartutaartut. - Women work hard.
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.
Nulingr'tua. - I've got a 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.
Llaatsurtaallriit. They used to be weathermen.
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.