This warning is evident in an Alutiiq tale of a husband who betrays his wife. A mother and father with two sons lived a happy peaceful life. The father left daily to hunt and fish, always returning with an abundance of food. One day, he was very late and brought little to eat. From that day forward, the father departed for longer and longer stretches and his family suffered hunger. Eventually, he stopped returning. Fearing for her husband's safety, the mother put on an eagle skin and flew off to search for him. She found him in a large village, living with a young woman. Grabbing her unfaithful husband with her talons, she dropped him in the ocean where he drowned. The woman returned to her home and armed her oldest son with tools to help him evade the trickery of others. The boy used these implement well, defeating evil beings and improving life in his community.
Arnaurciqsaqlluni. - He has feminine ways.
Native American societies commonly celebrate people of two spirits. Such people may be seen as a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics or as gender neutral. They may also hold special or esteemed roles in their communities.
Explorers recorded the presence of cross-gendered people in Alaska Native societies. Historic sources indicate that parents could give a girl a boy’s name, or a boy a girl’s name, when a child of a particular sex was desired. Or if the child appeared to better fit a different gender role, parents could raise the child in the traditions associated with that gender–with the skills, clothing, tattoos, and social roles. Transgendered individuals were valued members of their communities who could marry and become cultural specialists like shamans.
The Alutiiq word for a two-spirit or transgendered man, arnauciq, translates as “a male who is sort of female.” Arnauciq sometimes accompanied hunting trips to perform women’s tasks, as women were forbidden to hunt or using hunting speech. The term for employing such a companion is arnaucirluni – to provide oneself with a take-along woman.
Image: Petroglyph from Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
In the eighteenth century, Russian entrepreneurs spread eastward into Alaska, settling the Pacific coast of North America to claim land and harvest the region’s rich resources. Although the number of Russian colonists was very small, they established communities from western Alaska to northern California. By the mid 1800s, strained by the financial impact of the Crimean War, the Russian crown could no longer defend its far eastern colonies. Afraid of losing the valuable territory to another power, Russia offered to sell Alaska to both the United States and Great Britain in 1859. Neither accepted.
However, in the spring of 1867, Russia proposed the sale again. Under the guidance of Secretary of State William Seward, the U.S. Senate approved a treaty of purchase signed by President Andrew Johnson. Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18th, 1867. The purchase added over half a million square miles to the U.S. and a gave the country a strong strategic position in the Pacific. Alutiiq people, and other Alaska Native residents, were not consulted about the sale.
Although, 2017 marks the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the Alaska Purchase, many Alaska Natives see this as a time for contemplation not celebration. The purchase brought American military rule and many new cultural and economic challenges for Native people. Moreover, western powers assumed the authority to control lands used by Native people for millennia. This issue was exacerbated by the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958, which disclaimed all Native rights to traditional lands. More than a century after the purchase, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 acknowledged indigenous title and returned some Alaska lands and resources to Native peoples.
Photo: Kodiak in 1889, 22 years after the American Purchase. Albatross Collection, National Archives.
The Alutiiq word pilinguar translates literally as, “to make one’s own.” Alutiiq speakers use this word for adoption. It is a very specific term for adding a person to one’s family, or for fostering a child. It is not typically used for circumstances like adopting a pet or a practice. There are other words for these activities.
Adoption is a very important tradition in Alutiiq communities. Being an orphan, or lliya’aq, is dangerous, as family affiliation provides support and social standing. Orphaned children were often adopted by members of their extended family–grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even an older sibling. This safeguarded them from becoming laborers in another family’s home. Sometimes, however, a local adoption was not possible.
In the twentieth century, Alutiiq children in need of a home were sent to orphanages like the Jesse Lee Home in Unalaska and the Kodiak Baptist Mission orphanage on Woody Island. One of the lesser known homes was Baker Cottage, a Baptist Mission facility in Ouzinkie. Baker Cottage operated from 1938 to 1958 and cared for up to about 15 children at a time. It was built after a fire destroyed the facilities on Woody Island. The youngest children in the Woody Island orphanage were sent to Ouzinkie, where they lived in a large, wood-framed home supervised by house parents. The house sat among the spruce trees on a hill overlooking Ouzinkie harbor and had running water.
When the orphanage closed, it became a community mission, overseen by the Reverends Norman and Joyce Smith. Children still gravitated to the home, where the Smith’s taught Kindergarten, had a playroom, provided nursing care, hosted clubs, parties, game nights, films, and Bible study.
Photo: Reverend Goudie with children at the Kodiak Baptist Orphanage. Goudie Collection, courtesy the Tangirnaq Tribe.
Sun'aa'rausqak Nuniami et'aarllriik. - These two young people were in Old Harbor.
All human societies recognize the teenage years as a time of transition, a period when young people grow from children into adults. Adolescence is also universally a period of preparation, where boys and girls are trained for marriage, child rearing, and work. Alutiiq families educated young people through mentorship. Teens worked alongside family members to acquire the array of knowledge and skills needed for adult life. When sun'aa'aq were physically and socially mature, communities marked their new status in special ways.
For girls, menarche, the onset of menstruation, signaled adulthood. This was an extremely powerful moment, the point when a girl gained the power to create life. After a feast for family members and friends, the initiate gave away her toys and changed her appearance. She received a woman’s haircut, tattoos to her joints, and pieces of braided sinew tied around her neck, elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles. Finally, she put on an undecorated coat of reindeer calf skins and entered a period of seclusion in a special hut. The unusual coat symbolized her transformational state. At end of her confinement she took a steam bath and reentered the community. Alutiiq shaman, the intercessors of the spirit world, acknowledged the great power of this transition by decorating their clothing with the hair of young women preparing for seclusion.
For boys, first-kill ceremonies were the equivalent of a girl’s menarche ritual. Among the Chugach Alutiiq, boys gave away the meat from their first kill and then fasted for three days. This was followed by a feast where the boy was dressed as baby. Then, his mother sang him a lullaby, while another woman danced as the animal killed by the young man. A third woman pretended to kill the animal and distribute its fur, demonstrating the importance of the young man’s generosity.
Photo: Marra Adonga and Alfred Hansen, Old Harbor Alaska, ca. 1946-1949. Andrewvitch Collection, Alutiiq Museum, Gift of Olive Beemer, AM694.125.