Kulic’kiit miktut, kesiin piturnirtut. – Snipes are small but they taste good.
The common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) is a shorebird found around Kodiak’s grassy coastal meadows, ponds, and fields during summer. This member of the sandpiper family breeds yearly across northern North America, then heads south to winter in warmer climates.
A small bird, snipes have a long, straight bill designed for pursuing shellfish, insects, and worms in the mud. Mottled brown plumage keeps the shy snipe camouflaged. However, snipes will flush when approached and fly in a zigzag pattern to escape predators. This makes them hard to harvest.
Alutiiq Elders report hunting snipes at low tide in the nighttime. People approach the birds on sandbars, using a spray of pellets from a shotgun to bring down the darting snipes and harvest a number of animals at once. Rather than pluck snipes, people skin them and add their small bodies to soups and stews. They are also tasty roasted.
Harvesting small birds may seem like a lot of work for a small return, but it is a common practice in the Arctic. Like collecting shellfish, or fishing for herring, people take advantage of the abundance of food represented in many small packages to create nourishing meals. This is a strategy many societies use, particularly when large animals like seals or caribou are hard to harvest or not available.
Photo: Common Snipe, coastal Alaska. Couresy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Mikllumni papaama neganek pilitaakiinga, amitatugnek pisiurluta. - When I was small my dad made me snares so we could catch weasels.
Fall and early winter are the best times to hunt Kodiak’s furbearers, when their coats grow full and plush in response to cold weather. Although trapping was introduced in the historic era, Alutiiqs have long used snares to capture fox, land otter, ermine, and even bears and waterfowl.
Snares were set along habitually used paths or in areas where animals were known to feed. To capture bears, the Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound attached a snare to a tree that was cut nearly in half. When the bear became entangled the ensuing struggle broke the tree and created a drag that slowed the animal, making it difficult for it to escape.
An ingenious Alutiiq goose snare in the Smithsonian Museum’s collection is fashioned from wood, baleen, and leather. It features a slippery loop of baleen tied to a set of wooden stakes. The stakes were set in the ground and the loop left to catch the head, foot, or wing of a bird. Alutiiq people set these snares along the shores of ponds and marshy areas where geese fed.
Photo: Wooden snare pins, Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Panamek iqallugnek pit’llianga. - I got some fish with a spear.
There are many ways to catch a salmon. Today, a pixie, a wet fly, or a gill net will do the trick, but before the introduction of treble hooks and monofilament, Alutiiq people used an ingenious salmon harpoon. Similar to pieces fashioned by Tlingit fishermen, this harpoon featured two articulating valves made of dense bone. One side of the valve was smaller than the other. These pieces were carved to fit together over a long bone foreshaft. With sinew, a fisherman bound the spear’s components to a slender pole of flexible wood to create the complete weapon.
Fishermen standing in a stream thrust this weapon into passing salmon. People would block the stream with a simple stone or log weir and wait for a school of fish to appear. The spear was designed to completely penetrate the fish and then turn sideways. This kept the harpoon from tearing out of the soft flesh of the fish. After each successful catch, a fisherman would simply tie another harpoon to his spear and continue fishing.
This technology first appears in Kodiak’s archaeological record at least six hundred years ago, at a time when large number of Alutiiq people moved to Kodiak’s salmon streams, increasing their annual harvest of salmon.
Photo: Salmon spear points. Kalruk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Suumacirpet asirpiartuq. - Our way of living is the best.
There is no easy way to translate the word subsistence into the Alutiiq language. Westerners often think of subsistence as the process of obtaining and eating wild foods, an alternative to buying groceries. This definition, however, fails to capture the complexities of living off the land.
To the Alutiiq people, subsistence is life. Collecting wild foods is not simply an economic act, but a central component of social and spiritual life. Through hunting, fishing, and gathering, Alutiiq people experience and express Native identity. They explore their deep and enduring connection to the land. They care for their families and communities. They celebrate and sustain life.
To Alutiiqs, subsistence is also a birthright, a way of living passed down from ancestors that has sustained countless generations. As one Alutiiq leader puts it, “it’s being who you are.” While not a literal translation of the word subsistence, suugucirpet, “our way of living,” expresses these many connections.
Photo: Collecting chitons along the shores of Mission Bay, Kodiak Island, 2012.
Kiakutartukut. - We are going to have summer pretty soon.
Summer in the Kodiak Archipelago comes slowly. In April and May, low pressure systems generated in the Aleutian Islands shift westward into the Bering Sea and Kodiak’s weather begins to moderate. Warm, foggy conditions replace cold winter winds as the days lengthen and the sun rises high above the horizon. By June, temperatures are mild and the hillsides green.
For Alutiiqs, summer has always been a time of work. The resources critical to a subsistence lifestyle are abundant and most easily obtained during the warm months. In June and July people hunt sea mammals and sea birds, fish for cod and halibut, and collect fresh greens from coastal meadows. Salmon fishing and berry picking follow in August and September.
In the distant past, summer was also the time for travel and trading. During the warm, light months, villagers regularly paddled to the Alaska mainland to visit their neighbors and obtain foods and raw materials not locally available.
Photo: Summertime at Ocean Bay, Sitkalidak Island. Courtesy the Don Clark collection.
qugyut qat’rtaarut. - The swans are (always) white.
The tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus), a common visitor to Kodiak’s coastal wetlands, is one of three species of swans found in Alaska and the largest Alaska bird. This all-white bird is distinguished by a teardrop-shaped splash of yellow on either side of its black bill. Tundra swans summer in Alaska, migrating up to four thousand miles each fall to wetlands in the eastern United States. At age two, young swans develop their white adult plumage and mate for life. In the Kodiak Archipelago, tundra swans are particularly common in the open, grassy environments of southern Kodiak Island. Here, about two dozen breeding pairs raise cygnets each year.
Alutiiqs once harvested swans for food and raw material. Hunters captured these large birds with bows and arrows as well as snares. Archaeological collections indicate that their long, sturdy, lightweight wing bones were commonly fashioned into awls: tools for punching holes in leather.
An Alutiiq story about a beautiful female swan illustrates the human-like spirit inside of every animal. In this tale, the swan removes her skin to go swimming, revealing a beautiful woman. A young man steals her skin and when she can’t flee, they marry. Later the swan-woman escapes the man’s village and takes their young son. The man begins a long quest to find his family and eventually arrives in a special bird world. Here, in the far-off place where birds migrate in the winter, he sees naked birds painting on their colorful plumage. When he begs to travel back to earth with the birds, the raven agrees to carry him. But he is too heavy for the birds and falls into the ocean, where he becomes a white whale.
Photo: Swans flying over the ocean off Cape Alitak at sun set.
Alutiit’stun niuwaneq pingaktaaqa. - I like to talk the Alutiiq language.
The Alutiiq language, the indigenous language of the Kodiak Archipelago, is known as Sugt’stun, which literally means “to speak like a person.” Although there are just a few handfuls of fluent Sugt’stun speakers in the Kodiak region today, Alutiiqs know that in any language, words can impact the world around them. Speaking is a powerful act.
In classical Alutiiq society, there were many restrictions on human speech. Alutiiqs had to be very careful with their words, because everything around them—animals, objects, rocks, flowers, clouds, and even mountains—is alive and aware of human conduct. Among the Chugach Alutiiq people, it was taboo to make noise when passing a dangerous place, to laugh at the convulsions of a dying animal, or to use the name of a recently deceased person until a newborn had been named for that person. These acts could anger spirits and imperil human lives. Words were also a source of power, and certain people were said to learn special words. For example, a person who knew the secret word belonging to the fire could make a blaze burn brighter, and a person who knew the secret word for the sea swell could make the water calm.
One taboo on human speech that persists today is talking about bears. Kodiak Elders believe that bears are people who ran away from human society a long time ago and that bears remain particularly good at hearing and understanding human speech. A good hunter never talks about his preparation to kill bears or brags about his skill. This could ruin his luck and put him in danger, as a bear might be listening and become enraged. When a hunter approaches a bear, he must break his silence. He must speak to the animal, letting it know he needs its body. ”We do this because we need you, not for fun.”
Photo: Kathy Nelson talks with Elder John Pestrikoff.
Pisurtat nuqat aturtaarait. - Hunters used throwing boards.
Hunting with hand-propelled weaponry requires great strength and precision, particularly when you are pursuing sea mammals from a kayak in the open ocean. Alutiiq hunters improved the speed, force, and distance of their harpoon throws by employing a throwing board. This simple device was about a foot and a half long and carved of wood. It had a handgrip on one end, a long central body with a groove for a harpoon shaft, and a small hook at the far end. A hunter laid a harpoon in the thrower and then held the complete assembly behind his shoulder. When he was ready to throw, the hunter simply swung his arm forward and snapped his wrist to launch the harpoon. The leverage provided by the thrower acted as an extension of the hunter’s arm, creating a faster, more powerful throw.
Throwing boards also known as atalatals, were once used all over the world. On Kodiak they are very ancient. Throwing board parts from the Rice Ridge site near Cape Chiniak suggest that Kodiak hunters employed these tools more than seven thousand years ago. Similarly, a tiny ivory carving of a throwing board from the Uyak site in Larsen Bay suggests that the practice remained in place 1,500 years ago. In more recent times, Alutiiq throwing boards were embellished with animal carvings or painted designs. Sea otters and seal flippers are some of the motifs that adorn these ingenious tools.
Photo: Ancient Alutiiq throwing boards, Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.