Amitatut nan’ryaartaakenka. - I used to trap weasels.
The short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), also known as an ermine, is one of only six land mammals indigenous to the Kodiak Archipelago. Biologists believe that weasels, along with bears, otters, foxes, voles, and bats, colonized Kodiak following the last major glaciation. Weasels probably migrated to Kodiak from the Alaska Peninsula or the Kenai Peninsula, before sea levels rose to their modern levels. However, they must have arrived after voles, because these mice-like rodents are the weasel’s primary source of food.
Alutiiq people trap weasels for their pelts. This small animal is coveted for its white winter fur, which fades to a chocolate brown in summer. Strips of weasel fur are still used to adorn traditional clothing. The tassels decorating a snow-falling parka and the bands of fur used in headdresses are some of the embellishments made of weasel fur.
Weasels are a favorite prey of children, who hunt them in the fall with deadfall traps. In the past, parents saved the skin from a boy’s first kill, presenting it to their community at a winter festival. The boy’s weasel, fox, or seal skin demonstrated his potential as a hunter and his upcoming passage into adulthood.
Photo: White weasel fur trims the parkas of Kodiak's Alutiiq dancers.
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.
Tumasurtaallriakut kaugyanek. - We used to track foxes.
Alutiiq hunters stalk animals with great knowledge of both animal behavior and the Kodiak environment, using their knowledge to intercept animals, improve the success of their hunts, and protect themselves.
Historic sources indicate that Alutiiq men in search of a bear did not usually begin by tracking animals through the dense tangle of brush that backs Kodiak’s shores. Instead, they paddled along the coast looking for bears foraging on the beach or fishing at the mouths of salmon streams. The bear was then shot at. If wounded, the hunter would then track the animal inland to complete the kill, following blood trails, broken brush, and tracks.
Another common way to stalk a bear was to learn its habits. Alutiiq men are renown for spending hours watching a hillside to locate a den, observe an animal’s daily habits, or identify a bear trail. Once a hunter knew when and where a particular bear was likely to go, he could pick the perfect spot to ambush his prey. Careful observation and patience brought the animal to the hunter saving a tough slog through the brush and preventing dangerous surprises.
Although animal tracks are not a common in Alutiiq art, a prehistoric wooden labret from Karluk features a track that may be a bear print. An artist carved the track into the surface of the labret, which is also decorated with salmon teeth.
Photo: Wooden labret with bear track carving. Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Carliarluki nakernaten. - Nakciquten. Take care of your talisman. You will be lucky.
Arhnam qapuwait pugtartaartut. - Sea otter's bubbles always float up.
In the Alutiiq language, the term qapuk has several meanings. It can be used to describe froth, foam, or scum–like a film of algae that forms over a pond, or the layer of scum the rises to the top of a pot when you cook meat. Karluk villagers used qapuk as the word for pumice–the pale grey, porous, floating stone created by volcanic eruptions. More commonly, however, you will hear the team used to mean bubble–a pocket of air trapped in liquid.
Understanding the way bubbles move in water was part of an Alutiiq hunter’s education. When birds and animals dive, air trapped in their fur and feathers escapes and forms a trail. Similarly as animals exhale under water, bubbles rise to the surface. Hunters who watch the water carefully can see air bubbles reaching the surface and locate their prey.
This technique was particularly important in communal sea otters hunting. Teams of men working in kayaks hurled their arrows at a sea otter each time it surfaced to breath. Watching the trail of bubbles left by the animal, they could judge the direction it was moving and anticipate where it might surface again. An ancient painting from the village of Karluk records this important piece of knowledge. A small skin working board shows a swimming otter with bubbles streaming off its coat.
Photo: Painted, miniature work board, showing a swimming sea otter. Koniag, Inc. collection, Karluk One.
Neqllet taitaartut maut uksugmi. – The emperor geese always come here in the winter.
Emperor geese typically arrive in the archipelago between October and April. In summer, they breed in the Yukon-Kuskokwin Delta and along the coast of the Bering Sea in Alaska and Russia. As colder temperatures and ice develop, the birds fly south in search of open beaches to feed on seaweed and intertidal organisms. Most travel to the Aleutian Island, the coast of the Alaska Peninsula, or the Kodiak Archipelago.
Alutiiq hunters report that the Emperor goose population, at an historic low in the 1980s, is now rebounding. Although the birds cannot be taken for subsistence purposes due to legal protection, large gaggles of emperor geese are starting to appear, and even chase away flocks of wintering ducks.
Geese were once hunted with snares or bow and arrow. Today, they are taken with guns. Alutiiq people harvest geese for their meat and feathers. Elders recall that families used soft, warm goose down to stuff pillow and mattresses. Bird down is also an excellent fire starter. Despite the variety in species, Elders report that all geese, “taste the same!”
Photo: Emperor Geese on the shore of Chiniak Bay. Photograph by Dave Menke. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.