Pitun’illgu una-yaatartuq. - Don’t eat this—it is poisonous.
Alutiiq people have long recognized the poisonous qualities of certain local plants. Some of these plants were harvested for their medicinal value, and at least one was used in hunting. The most well-known Alutiiq poison was made from the roots of the monkshood plant, Aconitum delphinifolium. This beautiful blue-flowered herb grows in meadows and has a long slender stem. According to one historic source, the roots were dried, pounded or grated, mixed with water, and left to ferment. Fat from the corpse of a dead whaler was then added to the concoction to make a chemically and spiritually potent toxin.
Aconite poison contains an alkaloid that paralyzes the nervous system and lowers both body temperature and blood pressure. Whalers used it to immobilize whales. They smeared the poison on the long tips of slate whaling darts that they cast into the side or the tail of an animal. Although the poison did not kill the whale immediately, it acted over several days to paralyze the animal, which eventually drowned. With luck, the carcass would float to shore, providing abundant food and raw material for the whaler’s community.
Photo: Purple flower of the poisonous monkshood plant.
Masrilumi arwarsurtaallriit. - They used to hunt whales at Port Hobron.
Today the derelict hull of a wooden ship, rusting tanks, and building remnants are all that remain of the whaling station at Port Hobron. Nestled against the shore of Port Hobron Bay, a narrow fjord on the northern coast of Sitkalidak Island, the now-abandoned station was an active commercial enterprise run by the Alaska Whaling Company from 1926 to 1937. The station lies at the mouth of Fugitive Creek, a sheltered spot that provides easy access to the deep waters off eastern Kodiak and the migration path of the Pacific Ocean’s great whales.
From Port Hobron, whalers pursued animals along the eastern coasts of Afognak and Kodiak islands between May and October, intercepting animals as they moved toward summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Whaling focused on blue, fin, humpback and sperm whales, although right, sei, and grey whales were also taken. The hunt was effective. With sturdy ships and explosive harpoon guns, even large, fast-swimming whales many miles from shore could be harvested. During its eleven years of operation, the station processed more than 2,300 whales.
Alutiiq laborers assisted with the catch. Photographs show that they staffed whaling ships, retrieved dead and wounded animals, and butchered carcasses at the station. Whale meat was salted and packed in barrels and sold for ten cents a pound at Port Hobron. Alutiiq families continued to eat whale steaks and to use whale oil as a dipping sauce for fish and bread into the early twentieth century.
Photo: Aerial view of the remains of the Port Hobron whaling station. Photo by Rick Knecht.
Amlertaallrit qateriut. - There used to be a lot of ptarmigan.
Alaska is home to three varieties of ptarmigan, two of which live in the Kodiak Archipelago. The willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) inhabits low, wet tundra environments while the rock ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) lives in rocky mountain habitats. Ptarmigans are small birds, weighing no more than a pound and a half. Biologists believe that they are abundant in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Although the size of the population is unknown, willow ptarmigan are more common than rock ptarmigan.
During the warm season, ptarmigan scatter across the landscape to feed on plants, berries, flowers, and insects. In fall, ptarmigan form flocks, congregating and dispersing repeatedly until winter conditions prevail. During the cold season, the birds live in large nomadic flocks, moving continually in search of food. This is the easiest time of year to hunt ptarmigan.
Ptarmigan are a valued winter resource in Alutiiq homes. When stormy weather makes it difficult to hunt by boat, people often hike into the hills in search of birds. On Kodiak, the official ptarmigan hunting season is mid-August through the end of April. Ptarmigan are not always easy to find, however. Although they may be abundant in places, their populations can fluctuate dramatically. Moreover, they are susceptible to over-hunting.
Although ptarmigan are always a delicious meal, Elders recall eating the birds when they were sick. Because ptarmigan feed on wild herbs, they are thought to have strong medicinal properties. Some Alutiiq people will boil the birds for hours to create a rich, healing broth.
Photo: Willow Ptarmigan on Kodiak Island. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Archive.
Asuq atunkirciiqaqa. - I'm going to reuse the pot.
Salvaging, recycling, and reusing are essential components of Alutiiq spirituality. In the Alutiiq world, animals are smarter than people. Seals, ducks, and salmon give themselves to people who must in turn demonstrate their respect. Thrift is an essential component of this relationship. By utilizing resources carefully, including every part of an animal, people show their appreciation and help to ensure a future supply of game.
This sense of thrift includes recycling. Alutiiq people are well known for reusing objects and materials. Archaeologists note this in ancient tool collections. Alutiiqs ground broken slate ulu fragments into lances and arrows, created fire starters from old kayak parts, and used the broken bases of wooden containers as cutting boards. In more recent times, Elders recall stitching underwear and slips from the pretty flowered sacks that held cooking flour, and fashioning stoves for their banyas from empty 55-gallon fuel drums.
Modern Alutiiq artists also demonstrate the value of thrift in their work. Look closely at contemporary works and you will find strips of a plastic crab pot buoy framing a painting, or pieces of polar fleece garments cut into decorative designs to adorn a scarf. Like their ancestors, artists transform leftover materials into objects with lasting beauty.
Photo: A rock paddle mended and then resused as a cutting board. Koniag, Inc. Collection, Karluk One.
Caqit asiiyutaakameng, narlurtaapet. - When something spoils, we always smell it.
The human sense of smell pales by comparison to that of many animals, yet nature equipped people to recognize thousands of odors strong and faint. Biology isn’t the only determinant of the way we smell, however. Our cultural heritage influences everything from the scents we enjoy to how we use smells in our daily lives.
For example, historical records tell us that the early sailing ships that visited Kodiak smelled badly to Alutiiqs, as did the scent of Alutiiq villages to sailors. Each culture had different olfactory preferences.
Strong smells have long been a part of Alutiiq society. Elders remember the pungent odors of cooking bear meat, weasel skins stretched to dry, and fermenting salmon eggs. These aromas were not unpleasant, although an Alutiiq legend featuring a comical, smelly raven shunned by his wife, reminds people that smelling badly can cause problems!
Where there are strong smells, people often devise ways to eliminate them. Alutiiqs use steam bathing and deodorizing plants to manage odors. People still rub fresh pineapple weed on their hands to neutralize smells, hang alder branches in smokehouses and outhouses to refresh the air, and cover traps in grass to remove human scent. Hunters will also rub their hands with angelica before touching their traps to mask their scent.
Photo: Alutiiq Elder with yarrow, a plant whose ordor repells mosquitos. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Wiinat carliangut. - The sea lions are having babies.
The Gulf of Alaska is home to the Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), the largest pinniped in the North Pacific. Bulls average 1,150 pounds, cows 580 pounds, and both are nearly ten feet long. Sea lions are opportunistic feeders that range from intertidal areas to the edge of the continental shelf. Fish are their primary food, although they also eat squid and an occasional harbor seal. Like seals, sea lions haul out on land to rest, breed, and pup.
Alutiiq people hunted sea lions both on land and in the water. Some animals were taken from kayaks with harpoons, but it was easier to capture them at rookeries. With clubs and spears, hunters would sneak up on resting sea lions, particularly during the summer pupping season.
In addition to food, sea lions provide an array of raw materials. Sea lion bone was fashioned into tools, intestine was used for clothing and containers, and whiskers decorated hunting hats. The most important resource, however, was the animal’s skin. Sea lions are one of the only sources of large hides in the Kodiak Archipelago. Kayaks and larger open skin boats were covered with sea lion skins, particularly those of cows. Sea lion skins were also used to cover the smoke hole of a sod house and to wrap the dead for burial.
Allringuq arnaq maani pilitaartuq arhnat amit aturluki. - There is one woman here who makes things using sea otter skins.
Hunted nearly to extinction during the historic era, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is now a common sight in Kodiak waters. These playful mammals live in nearshore colonies where they feed on a variety of fish, shellfish, and invertebrates. Although they are not traditionally hunted for food, Alutiiqs sought sea otters for their elegant fur, which was fashioned into clothing.
In classical Alutiiq society, hunters worked in teams to pursue sea otters from kayaks. They would encircle an animal, shooting at it with bone harpoon darts each time it surfaced. Air bubbles showed the hunters the way the otter was traveling. When exhausted, the animal could be captured and clubbed to death. Hunting magic was an important part of the chase. Hunters tied amulets of eagle down and red ochre to the inside of their kayaks and dressed neatly out of respect for the animal. A good hunter could attract a sea otter by learning and repeating its vocalizations.
Alutiiq legend tells that the sea otter was originally a man. While collecting chitons he was trapped by an incoming tide. To save himself, he wished to become an otter. His transformation created all otters. Because of this connection between otters and humans, hunters are required to provide otters with special treatment. Freshly killed sea otters are traditionally taken to shore, skinned, given a drink of freshwater, and their bones buried or sunk to perpetuate the animal.
Photo: Sea otter mother and baby. Painting in acrylic by Sara Squartsoff. Alutiiq Museum collections.
Isuwiq piturnirtuq. - The seal tastes good.
Kodiak’s sea mammals provided a variety of resources for Alutiiqs. Seals, sea lions, porpoises, and whales produced meat for food, oil for light, hides for boat coverings, and bone and sinew for tools. Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) were particularly important, because they were available year-round and could be hunted in protected waters. Alutiiq people harvested seals both on land and at sea. Hunters wearing wooden helmets carved in the shape of a seal’s head would sneak up to haul-outs and spear sleeping animals. Young seals were particularly easy to catch and desired for their tender meat. Others chased seals by kayak and harpooned swimming animals. It was important to strike a seal after it took a breath of air, so the injured animal would not sink. This remains true for people who hunt seal with guns.
Today, Alutiiq hunters are working with the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the National Marine Fisheries Service to study the decline in local seal populations. By sharing tissue samples from their catches, Alutiiqs help scientists learn more about the place of harbor seals in Kodiak’s marine ecosystem and ensure that seals will be plentiful for future generations.
Photo: Harbor seals in the water off Cape Alitak, 2010.