Iqsaka narya’aliyaqa. - I'm putting bait on my hook.
We often think of bait as something fishermen use on hooks to catch fish or in pots to lure crab, but Alutiiq hunters once used bait to capture birds. In Prince William Sound, hunters placed sinew nooses on the surface of the water, filled the centers with tempting pieces of crushed clam, and then made gull noises to attract diving birds. A quick tug on the noose secured the line around the unsuspecting bird.
A gorge was another simple and effective bird-hunting device. A hunter sharpened a sliver of bone or wood on two ends, then attached a length of sinew near the middle, and baited the sliver with something tasty. Then he placed the baited gorge in an open spot and hid behind a rock, holding the end of the line. When a bird swallowed the bait, the gorge became stuck in its throat, and the hunter had his prey on a string.
Alutiiqs also hunted birds with snares, staking loops of leather or baleen in spots where birds congregated. The loops would catch the head, foot, or wing of a bird, tightening as the animal struggled. People even caught eagles with snares, using salmon heads as bait.
Photo: Historic halibut hook from Old Harbor. Purchased with support of the Old Harbor Native Corporation.
Amutarsuqutartuq. - They are going to get some cod.
Pacific cod or grey cod (Gadus marcocephalus) is an abundant, bottom-dwelling, round fish found widely in the Gulf of Alaska. These fast-growing, schooling fish are highly mobile. Cod winter in deep waters along the upper slope of the continental shelf, where they spawn. In spring they migrate to shallower nearshore waters, where they feed through the summer. Alutiiq fishermen have long taken advantage of the spring cod migration to harvest fresh food for their families.
At an ancient settlement on outer Uganik Island, archaeologists found evidence of a cod processing camp between 3,000 and 3,800 years old. Here, people harvested, split, and smoked cod in quantities over many years. The site holds a huge accumulation of cod bones as well as numerous cutting tools and quantities of burned rock and charcoal. These finds suggest that people were drying cod to eat later in the year.
In the historic era, traders forced Alutiiqs to fish for spring cod for the Russian American Company. Elderly men, those who could no longer hunt effectively, were assigned this task. Each man had to procure a quota of fish, but he was not allowed to keep any of the food. Many Alutiiq families went hungry due to such practices. Men, women, and children were required to harvest a variety of resources for the company, and they were paid meagerly for their work. This left little time to procure food or to accumulate winter stores.
Today, Alutiiqs help to supply the United States with cod as part of commercial fisheries. The vast majority of cod eaten across America comes from Alaska waters, where it is caught with pots, long lines, jigs, and trawlers.
Photo: Freshly caught cod.
Alimat kuigmen asgurtaartut. - Dog salmon always go up the stream.
Chum salmon, also known as dog salmon (Oncorhynchus keta),are the most widely available species of Pacific salmon. These large fish live in marine waters from southern California to the Arctic Ocean and the Sea of Japan. Chum can reach over thirty pounds,but more commonly weigh between seven and eighteen pounds.
In Kodiak waters, chum salmon are the third most abundant species of salmon. They are broadly distributed and spawn in many of the same streams as pink salmon, particularly the island’s larger watercourses. There are more than one hundred dog salmon streams around the archipelago and about 1.7 million chums return to the island each year. Like king salmon, chums may inhabit near-shore ocean waters for weeks before moving into freshwater. However, once they enter streams, they spawn rapidly, developing distinctive vertical bars of green and purple. Around Kodiak, chum salmon spawn in the greatest numbers from mid August through early October.
Chum salmon are not as widely eaten as other varieties of salmon. Many people find their pale-colored flesh less appealing,perhaps because it contains less oil than other varieties of salmon and has a firmer texture. Some Alutiiq Elders note that they have never eaten much chum salmon, although others report that the fish is tasty when boiled and that it makes good smoked salmon.Across northern and interior Alaska, dried and smoked chum salmon have long been staple winter foods. Chum salmon are also an economically important species. Sport fishermen seek out these fish as they fight a hook energetically, and commercial fishermen prize them for their large, flavorful roe.
Illustration: Male dog salmon, Goldsborough, Edmund Lee (1907) The Fishes of Alaska, Washington, D.C.: Department of Commerce and Labor Bureau of Fisheries
Nanwam ancii miktaartut. - Lake trout are always small.
Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma Walbaum) belong to a group of fishes called char. The light spots on their sides distinguish dollys from most trout and salmon, which are usually black spotted or speckled. There are two varieties of Dolly Varden in Alaska waters. The southern variety ranges from southeast Alaska to the tip of the Aleutian Chain, and the northern variety occurs from Bristol Bay to Alaska’s northern coast.
In Alutiiq, the words nanwam ancia mean lake trout, referring to the common habitat of Kodiak’s Dolly Varden. However, Alutiiq people also use the word anciq meaning trout, for these small fish. However, these fish should not be confused with Kodiak’s two varieties of arctic char — rainbow trout and steelehead trout.
Kodiak’s dollys are available most of the year, from September through mid-May. They reach maturity between age five and six, at a length of twelve to sixteen inches and a weight of up to a pound. Although small, these fish are an important subsistence resource because they can be harvested in winter. They are a source of fresh food that can be harvested from lakes and streams when weather makes it difficult to fish and hunt in ocean waters. Dollys are also abundant and easy to catch. Historic sources suggest that Karluk residents dried Dolly Varden alongside salmon.
In Alaska’s territorial days, Dolly Varden were also a source of cash. Westerners considered them a pest, because they were seen to prey on salmon eggs and fry. Between 1921 and 1941, the federal government set a bounty on these small fish, paying two cents for every Dolly Varden tail.
Photo: A string of Dolly Varden and salmon. Nekeferof Collection.
Tamuuq kinertaa. - The fish is dry.
Catching salmon is only the first step in a long process of preserving summer’s abundance for winter use. The real work begins once the fish are in the net. In the past, Alutiiq women used slate knifes, known as ulus, to clean and split fish, which they hung by the tail on wooden racks. Historic photos of Alutiiq summer villages show drying racks laden with filets beside sod houses. Fish had to be processed quickly to avoid spoiling and then carefully tended to protect them from bugs, birds, and rain. Fish that were not completely dried would rot, threatening even the most successful fisherman with a hungry winter. In addition to salmon, Alutiiqs dried halibut, cod, and many types of meat. At meals, people dipped strips of dry fish into bowls of sea mammal oil.
Dried fish remains a favorite food. Alutiiq families continue to hang red salmon filets and strips of halibut. In good weather, thin pieces of halibut will dehydrate in about ten days. Salmon filets take a number of weeks, but once dry, they can be stored for months. Many people eat dry fish as a snack, dipping it in special homemade sauces. Others carry dried fish when traveling for a quick meal.
Photo: Fish drying under protective netting, Afognak Island.
Iksak ipegtuq. - The fishhook is sharp.
Archaeological sites in the Kodiak Archipelago illustrate that Alutiiqs have harvested marine fish for many thousands of years. Even the earliest camps hold grooved cobbles used to weight fishing rigs to the ocean floor. More recent sites preserve the wood and bone parts of these rigs. Alutiiqs landed halibut, cod, and rockfish with hooks carved from bone. Small barbed pieces of bone were lashed to a curved shank, often fashioned from a seal rib. The, a pair of hooks was tied to a wooden bar, or rig spreader, with one hook suspended from each end. Then a stone sinker was tied from the center of the rig. Each fishhook received a baited with clams or fish and then lowered to the ocean floor with a line made from bull kelp. Some rigs included a wooden snood-a slender wooden leader-to strengthen the line above the hook.
In the historic era, metal hooks, monofilament, and steel leaders replaced bone barbs, kelp line, and wooden snoods. Whatever the materials they are made of however, the halibut fishing tackle used by sportsmen is essentially the same as the rigging ancient kayakers used to pull fish from Chiniak Bay.
Photo: Fishhook parts, Karluk One Site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Iqallut iniki initamen. - Hang the fish on the fish rack.
Fish racks are an essential feature of Alutiiq communities. Although salmon, halibut and cod are abundant in Kodiak waters, each is seasonally available. Salmon return to the islands waters in great numbers in summer and fall, and ocean fish move closer to shore in warm weather and are easier to catch in the spring and summer months. To make efficient use of these resources, Alutiiqs harvest fish in quantity when they are available and them process them for long term storage. One popular method is drying-using the air and the sun to dehydrate fish flesh. Racks were an important for the drying process.
Archaeological data suggest that people built fish racks both inside and outside structures. Post holes in village sites many thousands of years old, hint at the presence of racks, and the earliest historic photos from Kodiak show fish drying on long racks around sod houses. In the remains of some specialized structures, an abundance of small post holes, burned rocks, and charcoal suggest the rack were set up inside to dry fish with fires and perhaps smoke.
Today, fish racks may be made from rough-cut lumber or from spruce poles, branches, or young tree trunks that have been carefully limbed. Upright poles form a brace for a long bar over which thin strips of fish or entire filets can be hung. Many people loosely cover their racks with plastic tarps, creating a roof to keep off Kodiak’s persistent rain. However, it is important not to cover the rack too tightly, or the fish will mold. The final touch is often a fishing net covering. The net’s open weave lets in the air and sun but keeps small scavengers away. The Alutiiq word for fish rack, initaq, literally means “something you hang something on.” The same word can be used for other kinds of racks, like a coat rack.
Photo: Salmon drying on a rack beside Karluk lagoon, ca. 1987.
Sisut piturnirtaartut kallagkwarluki. - Fish Eggs always taste good after you boil them.
Fish eggs are an Alutiiq delicacy. Each spring people collected herring roe from coastal waters and in the summer they carefully removed the eggs from hundreds of salmon captured with nets. Roe was traditionally eaten fresh or lightly smoked. Fish eggs were crushed with pestles, washed with freshwater to remove any fat, and then stored in wooden boxes to ferment. After several weeks, a hard crust formed on top of the eggs. People removed and ate this crust, then added the remaining eggs to akutaq — an Alutiiq dish of seal oil and berries. Fish eggs were also pressed. After air-drying, people placed the eggs in a wooden box and weight it with a board. Over time, they formed a dense mass that was sliced and eaten, much like cheese.
In addition to food, fermented fish eggs were also used to process or tan bird hides for clothing. According to an historic account, people cleaned their bird skins by scraping the fat off or chewing the skin to remove any fat. Then, they covered the skin with fish roe and left to sit. After several days, they skins were scraped clean and kneaded till soft and dry.
Photo: Salmon egg caviar and crackers.