KaRtuugaarturtaartukut, iqallugmek cali. - We eat potatoes to go with the fish.
Derived from the Russian word for potato, kartofel, the Alutiiq word for potato, kaRtuugaaq, reflects the introduction of garden produce to Kodiak in the nineteenth century. Russian traders introduced potatoes and potato gardening, encouraging potatoes to become a staple winter food in Alutiiq communities. Potatoes were particularly valuable because they could be stored well into winter. Elders remember their parents buying sacks of potatoes in the fall, purchased from cannery stores with summer wages. Others helped their mothers tend family gardens, pulling weeds and eating fresh produce on the sly, including raw potatoes.
In the historic era, Alutiiqs began to add mashed potatoes to akutaq, a popular dessert made from berries, fish eggs, seal oil, and the starchy bulbs of the Kamchatka lily. Lily bulbs, which can be dug in the summer, resemble rice. Like potatoes, they can be mashed into a starchy paste. Thus, potatoes were a good garden substitute for this wild ingredient.
Other uses for potatoes include healing. The noted Kaguyak midwife Oleanna Ashouwak is said to have put socks filled with grated potato under sick people’s feet to lower their temperatures and draw out illness. Elders recall that if a potato turned grey during such treatment, it was having the desired effect.
Photo: Potato shack, Ouzinkie area. Simth Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
April-rem puyurnit pingaktaarai. - April always likes raspberries.
The American red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is a recent introduction to Kodiak, brought to the island in the past century. This fast-growing, fruit producing plant thrives in thickets, clearings, and along the edge of wooded areas. It is now a local favorite. Bushes can be found around many villages. As with other types of berries, families have their own patches. The late Elder Julia Pestrikof planted a patch of raspberries on the hill by her home when she moved to Port Lions, following the 1964 tidal wave. This patch flourished, taking over the hillside.
Despite the raspberry’s recent arrival on Kodiak, historic records refer to raspberries as one of the foods eaten by Alutiiq people, and a bay on the western coast of Afognak Island bears the Russian name for raspberry, Malina. These references may reflect confusion with indigenous plants: the salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), the nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus), or the moss berry (Rubus pedatus), which produce a sweet, red, segmented, raspberry-like fruit.
The Alutiiq word for raspberry, puyurniq, is also distinct from that used for other berries. It comes from the word puyuq, meaning smoke. This may be because raspberries have pale grey fuzz around them, like a cloud of smoke.
Photo: Lip balm made by Susan Short with raspberries.
MiskiiRat qar'usiq pingaktaantait. - Spiders don't like red cedar.
Two varieties of cedar are indigenous to coastal Alaska, the yellow cedar or Alaska cypress (Camaecyparis nootkatensis) and the western red cedar (Thuja plicata). Both are large evergreen trees with fibrous bark and a straight-grained, rot-resistant wood. Named for the color of their heartwood, in western North America, cedar trees grow primarily in the forests of southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Cedar has long been an essential resource to the Native societies of these regions. Although cedar does not grow around Kodiak, it was widely used by Alutiiqs, who collected it as driftwood.
Today, Alutiiq people use cedar primarily for firewood, because it burns cleanly. In the past, however, cedar was a coveted building and carving material. Cedar resists water more readily than spruce, so it was used to create objects that came in contact with moisture: houses, boats, hats, paddles and oars, hunting equipment, cooking utensils, and grave markers. Builders preferred to use cedar as the foundation logs and roof posts for sod houses, and in the historic era, they split roofing shingles from cedar.
Alutiiq people also used cedar in boat construction. Although red cedar is not a strong wood, it could be employed in any part of the kayak frame. It was a common choice for bow pieces. Where possible, craftsmen cut the curved prow of the kayak from a cedar stump, using the natural arc of wood formed by the tree trunk and its roots. To create kayak ribs and stringers, they soaked strips of cedar in hot water and bent them to shape.
Photo: Spitting a red cedar log on the beach at Cape Alitak.
April-rem qelempaq caayuq pingaktaaraa. - April likes the rose hip tea.
The Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) is a spindly shrub that grows in open areas throughout coastal Alaska. It is commonly found along streams and shorelines and in meadows, thickets, and open forests. These prickly bushes flower with pink blossoms each July and then produce hips. This dark red fruit is seedy and dry, but rich in vitamin C. The Alutiiq word for rose hip, qelempaq, is an old word meaning “bag.” This term refers to the shape of the fruit, which looks like a small purse with drawstrings.
Alutiiq people collect both rose petals and rose hips. They flavor tea with the aromatic petals and use the nutritious hips for food and medicine. The hips are typically gathered from September to November, when they have been sweetened and softened by frost. Alutiiq chefs add the fruit to jellies and syrups and occasionally desserts. They also create medicinal teas by steeping the hips in hot water. This tea is said to cleanse the system and can be used to treat a cold, a cough, or a case of bronchitis. Elders recall that sitting on rose hips soaked in hot water helps a laboring mother deliver her placenta.
Photo: Dora Aga and grandchild collecting rose petals. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Kapuustat aturtaarait naucestarwigmi. - They use kelp (sea lettuce) in the garden.
The sea lettuce found in the Kodiak Archipelago (Ulva sp.) is a bright green, leafy, intertidal alga that thrives on rocky shores. This marine plant has smooth, transparent leaves with small holes that can grow up to a foot long. These leaves have a short stem, or stipe, that clings to rocks with a tough, fibrous hold on. This plant is widely available. It grows along the Pacific coast from Korea to California. It prefers calm waters in the mid intertidal zone, and can be found in Kodiak’s sheltered bays and inlets.
The Alutiiq word for sea lettuce may come from the Russian word for cabbage, perhaps as a reference to the leafy character of both plants. Today, Alutiiq people do not harvest much sea lettuce. However, one user notes that it can be dried and the resulting flakes added to soups and stews. Some people also fry dried sea lettuce to make tasty chips.
Anthropological information suggests that Alutiiq people used marine algae more frequently in past. Although these plants contain a lot of water, they are nutritious. They are a source of carbohydrates that can be eaten fresh or dried for later use. They are also a valuable source of emergency food and even medicine. One Elder recalls eating rockweed when he was traveling and out of food. Another Elder reports that ribbon kelp can be heated and applied to arthritic joints for pain relief.
Cainiik arillartuq, kallaqutartuq. - The kettle is steaming, it's going to boil.
The traditional Alutiiq steam bath, commonly known by its Russian name banya (a form of sauna), remains important for bathing, socializing, healing, and spiritual cleansing. In a low-roofed shed heated with a woodstove, bathers splash hot rocks to create surges of prickly steam. Benches elevate bathers into the hot rising mist. Today bathing is done in age and gender groups. Men wash first, followed by women, and then children, and there is often friendly competition to see who can withstand the hottest banya.
Many ailments are treated in the steam bath, where steam enhances the potency of herbal medicines. Steam opens the body’s pores, improving the absorption of poultices and helping to shed toxins. Many medicinal treatments are preceded or followed by switching: swatting the body with leafy branches soaked in hot water. People commonly make switches from mountain alder, although birch branches, elderberry branches, beach ryegrass stems, angelica, yarrow, and even ferns may be used. Switching increases circulation, promotes greater sweating, and can relieve common aches and pains.
Steam is also spiritually cleansing. In classical Alutiiq society, steam baths helped to purify the sick, prepare hunters for the chase, strengthen warriors for battle, and ready pregnant women for delivery. Today steam bathing is a favorite way to relax and rejuvenate both physically and mentally.
Photo: Mitch Simeonoff steaming crab legs in Akhiok.
Taariq taisgu. - Bring me the steam bath scrubber.
Alutiiq sod houses had a small side chamber designed specifically for steam bathing. This room had a low ceiling and a narrow, covered doorway that trapped steam. People carried hot rocks into the steam bath with special wooden tongs and piled them into a corner where they would not block the doorway. Bathers splashed these rocks with water stored in wooden tubs to produce sweat inducing steam. Bundles of roots were used for scrubbing and angelica leaves perfumed the air, providing relief from sore muscles. Steam bathing was also a spiritual practice. Babies born in seclusion huts were washed in the steam bath as part of their introduction to the family household, and warriors would bathe the night before a raid.
Although many people believe that Russian colonists introduced steam bathing, archaeological data illustrate that the tradition is ancient. Alutiiq villages more than three thousand years old contain quantities of rock reddened and cracked by fire. This rubble shows that this type of bathing has been an integral part of Alutiiq social and spiritual life for millennia. Known today by the Russian term banya, steam bathing remains a popular social activity.
Photo: Mrs. Chya with a bundle of roots. Courtesy the Rostad Collection.
Taaringa wainiimek. - Switch me with the steam batch switch.
Switching is a common practice in Alutiiq steam baths. In the soothing, wet heat, people slap themselves with flexible branches to promote good health. This practice improves circulation, relieves aches and pains, and can be used to treat illness and prepare a pregnant woman for delivery. Pneumonia, difficulty urinating, and cramps are all ailments that Alutiiqs report treating with the help of switching. Banya switches can also be laid on a person to provide a medicinal effect, or used like a fan to cool the body.
Alutiiqs make switches from a great variety of plant materials. Alder and willow branches are the most common sources, although birch and red elderberry branches, and the stems of angelica, fireweed, fleabane, goldenrod, and large-leaf avens also provide switch material. Many people use leafy switches, particularly those who use alder branches. Alutiiqs often gather alder branches in the middle of the summer, as the young leafy branches of spring tend to be sticky with plant resins. Some tie harvested branches together and dry them. Others leave the branches in a damp place or put them in a freezer to keep the leaves from falling off.
People sometimes confuse the word for steam bath switch—wainiik—with the word for steam batch scrubber— taariq—a bundle of roots used like a loofa. This is because taariq is both a noun and a verb. It means scrubber and to switch with a wainiik.
Photo: An Alder bush on the shore of Olga Lake, Spring, 2005.