Sun'ami maani napat amlertut, angsinarluteng cali. Kal'uni, Larsen Bay-mi napaitaartukut. - Here in Kodiak we have a lot of spruce trees and tall ones, but in Karluk and Larsen Bay we don't have any.
The Kodiak Archipelago lies at the ecological boundary of windswept coastal tundra and the foggy rainforests of coastal Alaska. Here, the coniferous forest gives way to grassy meadows and groves of cottonwood trees. Kodiak’s forests are young. Biologists believe that the Sitka spruce, known by its Latin name Picea sitchensis, began spreading into the area just nine hundred years ago, and it is still spreading southward. Black cottonwood trees (Populus balsamifera) are more ancient, colonizing the archipelago thousands of years ago.
The Alutiiq word napaq can be used to refer to a tree in general or to a spruce tree specifically. Although Kodiak’s forests are relatively young, wood collected from area beaches and both deciduous and coniferous trees are important for fuel and raw material. In Kodiak’s northern Alutiiq communities, Sitka spruce is a major source of firewood, and it was used in the construction of traditional sod houses, fish drying racks, temporary shelters, and many common wooden objects. Cottonwood was primarily used for smoking fish, because it burns slowly, creates a lot of smoke, and imparts a nice flavor. It was also used for carving children’s toys.
Photo: A grove of deciduous trees overlooking a bend in the Karluk River.
Angermek aturtaakait. - They used tree pitch.
Alutiiq people used every part of the spruce tree, from its wood and roots to its needles and sticky pitch. When the bark of a spruce is ripped or cut, sap collects at the site of the injury. Alutiiqs recognize two different types of pitch, soft and hard, that form in a variety of colors: clear, white, yellow, pink, and even black.
The harder pitch, particularly the pink, yellow, and white varieties, makes the best chewing gum and tends to occur on older trees. Alutiiq Elders recall the fun of gathering pitch for gum. As children, some spent entire afternoons searching the forests for lumps of hardened sap, fighting over the pink pieces, which had the best flavor. Others remember chewing spruce gum so often that everything they ate tasted of spruce. Today, people use the hard pitch to make a tea to treat colds and coughs or apply warmed lumps of the soft yellow pitch to cuts to stop them from bleeding.
Like many Alaskans, Alutiiqs once used spruce pitch as a sealant. By mixing soft pitch with a little oil and heating it, they created a paste for waterproofing the seams of bark containers or temporarily fixing small holes in skin boats. The oil helped to keep the pitch from cracking as it dried. Spruce pitch can also help you start a fire. Like bark, wood shavings, or bird down, it is a good source of tinder.
Photo: Pitch oozing from the trunk of a Sitka spruce tree.
Muuguat amlerpianitut maani, allrani kesiin iquutaartukut, piturnirtut. - There are not many watermelon berries around here, but sometimes we find them, and they’re delicious.
The watermelon berry (Streptopus amplexifolius) is a slender, tall, leafy shrub. It grows to about three feet tall and can be found in woods, alder thickets, and meadows across the southern half of Alaska. A member of the lily family, watermelon berry has small white flowers and broad oval leaves that grow in an alternating pattern up its stem. This gives the plant a twisted appearance, and some people know it as twisted stalk.
In August, the plant forms oval, orange or red berries with many seeds. Alutiiqs call this fruit muuguaq—“something you suck”—a name that aptly describes the berries’ watery quality. Because watermelon berries are not often found in large quantities around Kodiak, most people harvest them for a snack. They are not a species that is taken home for processing. However, if you find enough of them, they will make tasty jelly.
On the Kenai Peninsula, Alutiiqs gather the young shoots, leaves, and stems of watermelon berry from late April to early June, while they are tender. These leafy parts of the plant can be eaten raw, fried, or steamed. By summer, the plants become tough and are not good to eat.
Photo: Watermelon berry. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Naama uqgwingcut? - Where are the willows?
There are more than fifty species of willow (Salix spp.) in Alaska. One botanist estimates that seventeen of these species can be found in the Kodiak region. Although most Alaska willows are shrub-sized plants, northern species can range in size from dwarf bushes to full-sized tress. Willows thrive in moist soils, particularly along streambanks. Their edible parts include leaves, buds, new sprouts, and inner bark, which are excellent sources of vitamin C.
The most common use of willows among Kodiak Alutiiqs is as a spring vegetable. Tender young shoots and leaves can be collected throughout the archipelago in May and June and eaten raw or added to salads and side dishes. Some Alutiiq people serve willow shoots with sea seal oil or preserve the shoots in oil for later use. Others enjoy eating the leaves and shoots with milk and sugar, much like akutaq, or Alutiiq ice cream.
Willow wood is soft, so it is not considered a good source of fuel. Willow is only used to warm houses or smoke fish if other woods are not available. The plant’s soft wood, however, is a favorite material for Alutiiq children, who fashion whistles and slingshots from willow branches.
Photo: Large willow bush in a coastal meadow.
Qanganangua’itukut Kasukuagni. - We don’t have yarrow in Akhiok.
Northern yarrow (Achillea borealis), also known as squirrel’s tail, is a hardy, medium-sized herb that thrives in open habitats throughout the Kodiak Archipelago. This member of the sunflower family has frilly grey-green leaves that are slightly hairy. In late summer, the plant produces clumps of small, white or pale pink flowerets.
Yarrow has many medicinal applications. Alutiiq people commonly use it as a steam bath switch or add it to poultices to relieve aches and pains. Warmed, wet leaves or crushed roots can be applied directly to an afflicted area or wrapped in a moistened cloth. Northern yarrow can also help to cure external infections such as sores, cuts, or in some cases toothaches. Tea can also be made from either fresh or dried yarrow leaves, steeped or boiled. The tea is said to relieve cramps and gas, increase appetite, and alleviate the symptoms of a cold. You can also repel mosquitoes by rubbing the plant on your skin or clothing.
Photo: Yarrow growing on a Kodiak beach. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Kumaq kuakaskameng tamleritaartuq. - The wick always gets black after it burns.
Stone lamps filled with sea mammal oil once illuminated and heated Alutiiq homes with the aid of small wicks twisted from plant fibers. Many different plants could serve this purpose. Kodiak’s early Russian colonists noted lamps fitted with grass wicks. Alutiiq people also used clumps of moss and tufts of cotton grass to fashion wicks, as both materials absorb oil well.
Cotton grass (Eriophorum spp.) is a sedge that grows in a wide range of wet habitats. There are three varieties in the Kodiak region. Cotton grass blooms in summer, creating an easily identifiable white, fluffy seed head that resembles cotton, as well as narrow, grass-like leave that rise from its base. Elders remember rolling several tufts of the cotton to create an absorbent wick that burned gradually.
The wick is an ancient piece of Alutiiq technology. Although plant fibers are seldom preserved in prehistoric sites, archaeologists know that Kodiak’s earliest residents used them. Settlements over 7,000 years have produced lamps with soot-blackened rims. They were charred as a burning wick consumed the seal, sea lion, or whale oil within.
Photo: A field of cotton grass. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
There is no one English word that describes tugluq, a flavorful, traditional, Alutiiq dish. Like akutaq or ciitaq, tugluq was a mixture of ingredients tailored to the maker’s tastes and the availability of foods. The base was uququq–fermented seal oil. To this, chefs added berries and greens to form a tasty, aromatic, uncooked meal. Although tugluq is not currently served in Alutiiq homes, Elders remember eating it as late as the 1950s.
A key feature of tugluq was its longevity! This dish was the Alutiiq version of the never-ending pot, a perpetual plant food stew that was never fully eaten and could be replenished for months. In Alutiiq communities, a barrel of tugluq might last all winter, as people added more fermented oil, and whatever fresh or stored plants were available. And as the mixture aged, and continued to ferment, it becomes more flavorful. Both the fermentation and the oil in the dish acted as preservatives.
Making tugluq was a way for Alutiiq people to avoid waste, as leftovers could be added to the mix. Thrift, especially with food, is an essential Alutiiq value. It demonstrates respect for the natural world and ensures a future supply of plants and animals. Tugluq makes good use of the foods you have. Moreover, tugluq supports another Alutiiq value, hospitality. The pot is always available when guests arrive.
Many cultures have a perpetual stew tradition. The hunter’s pot, with meat and tubers, was part of medieval European cuisine. Caribbean cultures make pepperpot. Vietnamese pho and Japanese ramen are often made with stock from a perpetual pot of bone broth. And a legend from India tells of a woman with five husbands who fed her large family from a never-ending pot.
Photo: Phyllis Peterson holds a jar of berries preserved in oil, an ingredient in Tugluq. Photo by Priscilla Russell, Kodiak Area Native Association Collection.
ARapagka nag'art'lliik mararmi. – I lost my (2) boots in the bog.
The Alutiiq word maraq can be used to talk about any low lying, wet piece of land–a swamp, bog, marsh, or even a muddy meadow. The rainy Kodiak Archipelago is unofficially full of such places, but if you consult a map of Kodiak habitats, maraq is particularly common on the south end of Kodiak Island. The Ayakulik river flats are a good example. Here, numerous shallow ponds are surrounded by grasses, sedges, and small shrubs, forming a habitat classified as wet tundra.
Kodiak’s bogs contain a multitude useful plants harvested by Alutiiq people. These include a variety of berries collected for food, a coarse ‘swamp grass’ once woven into mats, and the medicinal plant narrow-leaf Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum Harmaja).
Known in Alutiiq as atsaqutarpak, or by the newer word nunallaq caayuq (wild tea), Labrador tea is a low-growing, evergreen shrub with narrow, leathery leaves. It is commonly used to treat lung and throat ailments–from coughs, colds, and fevers to asthma and tuberculosis. Alutiiq families brew tea from the plants aromatic leaves. They boil the leaves in water, steep them in hot water, or even chew the raw leaves and swallow the juice. People use the plant fresh and dried, but are careful to consume it in moderation. Large quantities of Labrador tea can be toxic.
Photo: Wet lowlands of southern Kodiak Island.