Taugna suk pisurta. - This person is a hunter.
The Alutiiq word pisurta translates literally as “one who hunts.” Hunting has always been essential to life on Kodiak, a way to procure not only food but many of the raw materials of daily living: animal skins for clothing and boat coverings, gut for waterproof rain gear and containers, bone and antler for tools, and whiskers, claws, teeth, and hair for decoration.
Hunting takes skill, athleticism, a keen knowledge of the natural world, and in the Alutiiq world, respect. In classical Alutiiq society, children began practicing hunting skills at a young age, mimicking adults with toy boats and weapons. Both boys and girls learned to hunt by accompanying adults on hunting trips. Once a girl began menstruating, however, she could no longer participate for fear of contaminating hunting weapons.
In addition to learning how to use weaponry, where to find animals, and how animals behaved, Alutiiq children learned rules for hunting. A hunter had to show respect for the animals he pursued by dressing cleanly, keeping tools in good repair, and never bragging about successes. A hunter must store his tools away from adult women, whose menstrual blood was considered contaminating and could offend animals. A hunter had to release the souls of the animals he killed so that they could be reincarnated and continue to provide for people.
Throughout the historic era, Alutiiq men were sought for their prowess as hunters. Russian traders recognized that the Alutiiq style of sea otter hunting was far more successful than their own and conscripted Native hunters to harvest otter pelts for Asian and European markets. Since the twentieth century, Alutiiqs have worked as hunting guides, leading sportsmen on hunting trips for brown bear and introduced species like deer and elk.
Image: Hunters clibming a snowy hillside on Afognak Island, ca. 1961. Chadwick Collection.
Atmangq’rtuq. - He has a backpack.
Packing well for a hunting or fishing trip was as important in the past as it is today. Alutiiq men filled their kayaks with useful things: wooden containers filled with fresh food and water, sleeping blankets, and even inflated seal bladders for emergency buoyancy—the personal flotation devices of the past. Each hunter also carried a special skin bag with smaller necessities: harpoons and arrowheads to equip hunting tools; needles, sinew, and skin to patch tears in the skin of their kayaks; and in the historic era, ammunition and tobacco.
These bags were exquisitely made and decorated, because beauty in clothing and personal articles was considered a sign of respect for the animals a hunter pursued. One such hunting bag, collected on Woody Island in the late nineteenth century, is elaborately decorated with colored thread, caribou hair embroidery, and strips of dyed gut—perhaps sea lion esophagus.
Photo: Skin bag, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland, Helsinki.
Caguyaq qupuramek canamauq. - The hunting hat is made of wood.
In the cool, wet Kodiak environment, hats are an essential item of clothing. Among Alutiiqs, headgear was once fashioned from many different materials. Warm, water-resistant hats were sewn from animal pelts and loon skins, woven from spruce root, and carved from wood. The most spectacular of these were bentwood hats, expertly bent to shape with steam.
Bentwood hats shielded their wearers from sun and sea spray, but they also held magical powers. These elegant hats hid the hunter’s human face and transformed him into a mystical being with the power to kill seals, porpoises, and whales. Each hat was elaborately decorated—a work of art reflecting the owner’s personality, achievements, and social status. Hats were brightly painted with geometric designs, images of sea mammals, and hunting scenes and then embellished with ivory carvings, beads, woven tassels, feathers, and sea lion whiskers. Each element was rich with symbolism. Some motifs recounted great chases; others referenced helpful bird or animal spirits.
On Kodiak, the typical hunting hat had a closed crown and a long brim. In contrast, Alutiiq people of the Alaska Peninsula wore bentwood visors with an open crown and shorter brim, much like their Yup’ik neighbors to the north. The art of hat bending continues today. Artists like Jacob Simeonoff of Akhiok and Peter Lind of Chignik are passing this tradition to the next generation, teaching carving and bending and helping students develop their own unique decorative styles.
Image: Alutiiq hunter in decorated benwood hat. Detail of watercolor by Helen Simeonoff, Alutiiq Museum collections.
Qayaq miktuq. - The kayak is small.
The Alutiiq kayak is a wood-framed boat covered with sea lion skins. Carved from driftwood, craftsmen once built each lightweight frame to fit the specific proportions of its owner. In the past, single-holed and double-holed boats were the most common, although Alutiiqs developed triple-hatched boats during the fur-trading era to carry gear for long-distance hunting trips and transport people. These larger baidarka, as Russian traders called them, were more stable but required greater strength to propel.
Alutiiq kayaks have a distinctive split prow designed to slice through the waves and limit sea spray. Paddlers propelled their boats with narrow, single-bladed wooden paddles with a diamond-shaped cross-section. These paddles were specifically engineered for Kodiak’s windy weather, where quick stabilizing movements are often necessary.
Men lashed their hunting implements to the deck of their kayaks within easy reach. This gear included darts, harpoons, throwing boards, a spare paddle, a wooden quiver, and a bailer. Hunters also carried a patch kit so that tears in the kayak’s skin covering could be quickly mended.
In the winter, when stormy weather limited travel, Alutiiq men removed the coverings from their kayaks. They oiled the skins to maintain their water resistance and allowed the skins to rest while they repaired the boat’s frame. Kayaks are still seen in local waters, although people use them for recreation more often than hunting and traveling.
Photo: Sven Haakanson kayaking in Womens Bay. Photo courtesy Eric Waltenbaugh.
Pustaartaartut Paas’karpailata. - They always have Lent before Easter.
In Alutiiq communities, the Lenten season covers the forty days preceding Orthodox Easter. The two or three weeks before Lent are often a time of celebration, in preparation for the fasting and quiet lifestyle expected in the days leading up to Easter. Before Lent, Alutiiqs eat lots of good food, hold dances, and play games that will be forbidden until after the holiday. Some people call this time “crazy week.”
Lent is a time of sacrifice and reflection, when the faithful are forbidden to hunt or eat meat. Elders describe Lent as a time when families work on their homes or join to clean up the community, repair buildings, and fix the church. It is also a time for quiet visiting. Akhiok’s Alutiiq Week, a community celebration of Native culture with arts activities, language lessons, and traditional foods, is often held during Lent.
During Lent, children are expected to play indoors. Akhiok Elders remember playing a game where they would cover themselves with blankets while a child tried to guess who was hiding under each one. These restrictions mirror those in classical Alutiiq society, where children were not allowed to play outdoors until the migratory birds returned, signaling the rebirth of the year.
Men also play games during lent, particularly augca’aq, a dart game, where kneeling adults throw spears at a swinging whale model, acting out hunts not allowed during the season. Although Lenten restrictions have eased in recent decades, gambling is still considered inappropriate, and a number of villages halt community bingo during the season.
Photo: Augca’aq, an Alutiiq dart set. Carved by Speridon Simeonoff, purchased for the Alutiiq Museum collections with assistance from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Akgua’aq kemegtullianga. - I ate meat last night.
Meat has been a mainstay of the Alutiiq diet for millennia. Like their forefathers, modern Alutiiqs are accomplished hunters who fill their freezers with sea mammal, deer, and even bear meat. But successfully slaying an animal is only the first step in feeding a family. Animal carcasses have to be processed and the meat they produce transported, stored, and cooked.
In classical Alutiiq society, animals were butchered with stone tools. Hunters used cobble spalls, sharp flakes of stone knocked off of beach cobbles, as well as ulus and flensing knives ground from slate, to skin, dismember, and deflesh carcasses. Bundles of meat were then wrapped in skins or placed in woven knapsacks and transported home. Hunters traveling on foot might place a layer of fresh grass on their backs to prevent meat carried on their shoulders from bloodying their clothing. At home, hunters often aged fresh meat, hanging it for a week or two to tenderize the flesh and mellow its flavor.
Fresh meat was cooked by stone boiling. Families dropped red-hot rocks into watertight containers—baskets, wooden boxes, hollowed out logs, and even animal stomachs—to heat their contents. They often added wild berries, particularly cranberries, to enhance the flavor of meat dishes. Roasting was another common cooking method. Alutiiq people used a flat stone slab heated in a fire to cook their meat, or they placed a roast on a skewer by the fire, turning it occasionally to help the meat cook evenly. Until the historic era when smoking, salting, and canning became popular, families air-dried meat not intended for immediate consumption. They stored this meat in wooden boxes and dipped it in oil before eating.
Photo: Frying bear meat for a potluck, 2013.
Utguit yaamat acaatni etaartut. - Octopus are always (located) under rocks.
Kodiak’s rocky shores are home to a variety of octopi. These shy creatures live in deep intertidal and shallow subtidal environments and are commonly found beneath rocks. Octopus can weigh over forty pounds. They capture fish, shellfish, and crab, which they eat with their sturdy beaks.
Octopi are traditionally captured in the spring. At low tide collectors will comb the beach looking for clusters of rocks. A scattering of broken clamshells is a good sign an octopus is nearby. When the collector finds a likely spot there are a number of ways to capture the octopus. One way is to poke a stick under the rock and pull it back quickly. If you are lucky, the octopus will grab hold and come out with the stick. A pieces of bark tied to the stick will sometimes attract the animal. Another way is to pour a little household bleach at the base of a rock. Now illegal, this method flushes the animal from its hiding place. The next step is to grab the back of the animal’s head and flip it inside. This paralyzes the animal so it can be killed and gutted. Be careful of the animal’s beak, however, as a strike hurts! Once gutted, people tenderize octopus by pounding the carcass on a rock. Then they wash it clean with seawater.
Octopus is delicious and this low fat seafood can be eaten in many ways. In Alutiiq communities it is frequently boiled. Pieces of the meat are then dipped in seal oil, butter, or barbeque sauce, or battered and fried. Some people chop or the meat and mix it with a batter to make fritters. Octopus is also used as fishing bait.
Photo: Boy with octopus near Old Harbor.
Maani tang’rtaanitua parananek. - I never see mountain goats around here.
Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) are one of four large ungulate species introduced to Kodiak in the early twentieth century. These docile alpine grazers live on steep, rocky mountain slopes, where they eat grasses, herbs, and low-lying shrubs. The have pointed black horns, a thick white coat, and distinctive long hair along their backs, necks, shoulders, rumps, and legs. Mountain goats captured on the Kenai Peninsula were moved to Kodiak in 1952-53 and released in Ugak Bay’s Hidden Basin. Today there are more than 1,400 animals in the Kodiak region. A good hiker can get close to mountain goats, which rely on their rugged habitat for protection.
Although goats were not indigenous to Kodiak, Alutiiq people obtained their hair and horns in trade with the Chugach of Prince William Sound and the Dena’ina of the Kenai Peninsula. Alutiiqs used long goat hairs to embroider sewn objects and fashioned goat horn into elegant spoons. Craftsmen softened the horn with steam, bent it into shape, and carved it into intricate shapes. One of the Alutiiq words for mountain goat, paRanaq, is the same as the word for sheep.
A story from Prince William Sound indicates that Alutiiq hunters pursued goats with bows and arrows. To indicate ownership of a slain animal, a hunter might place an item of his clothing—a spruce root hat or a ground-squirrel parka—on the carcass. This gesture of respect also honored the goat’s spirit and welcomed it to the hunter’s village.
Photo: Mountain goat on northern Kodiak Island. Photo by Zoya Saltonstall.