Amartut angitut. - The pink salmon (humpies) are coming back.
Pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha), also known as humpbacks or humpies, are the most abundant variety of Pacific salmon. In North America these three- to four-pound fish range from California’s Russian River to Canada’s McKenzie River. The Kodiak Archipelago has more than three hundred known pink salmon streams. Each year millions of fish return to these waterways, spawning in river gravels between late July and mid-October. According to Alutiiq folklore, when the salmonberries are abundant, pink salmon runs will be strong.
Pink salmon have long been a focal resource for Alutiiq families. Archaeologists find ancient fish camps on many Kodiak pink salmon streams. Here fish were caught with nets, trapped behind weirs, speared with leisters, or captured with special salmon harpoons. They were taken in large quantities, processed, and stored for winter use, particularly in the late prehistoric period.
Today, Alutiiqs harvest pink salmon both commercially and for the dinner table. The thinner, less fatty filets are perfect for smoking and drying. The hump of a spawning male, which is eaten raw, is considered a great delicacy. To add flavor, some people wipe the hump with fresh cow parsnip leaves. Pink salmon are also cut into steaks and boiled, or added to fish soup, head and all.
Photo: Freshly caught pink salmon on a Kodiak Island beach.
Ayaa, CiRpuumek pit’ua! - Wow! I got a rockfish!
A variety of rockfishes (Sebastes spp.), including the Pacific ocean perch, yellowmouth, and rougheye, live in the marine waters surrounding Kodiak. These colorful fish grow up to eighteen inches long and can be found from the Aleutian Islands to southern California. In the Kodiak region, rockfish, particularly perch, concentrate in deep ocean waters of 300 to 2,600 feet. However, they may range closer to shore from May to September, feeding on the proliferation of food in warmer coastal water. Rockfish mate in September and then disperse over deep marine waters for the winter. Subsistence fishermen typically harvest them in the summer months. Like other marine fish, rockfish were captured with fishing rigs carved from wood, bone, and stone lowered into the ocean with kelp line.
Rockfish are members of the larger order of fish, the Scorpaeniformes. This group includes greenlings and sculpins. Archaeological data indicate that all of these fishes have been captured in small numbers by Alutiiqs for at least two thousand years, probably by fisherman jigging for the more popular and widely harvested cod. Fish remains from the Settlement Point site, a five-hundred-year-old winter village in Afognak Bay, illustrate this pattern. Salmon remains are most abundant (60 percent), followed by cod (36 percent), with notably smaller numbers of rockfish, greenling, and sculpins (3 percent), and a few flounder (1 percent). Halibut remains are rare in many archaeological sites, perhaps because these large fish were not butchered in villages.
Photo: A rock fish from Kodiak waters.
PaRaguutat kugyasinek aturtaartut. - The boats use seine nets.
A seine is a weighted fishing net, designed to hang vertically in the water. Seines are among the fishing gear Alutiiqs have used to capture salmon for millennia. Historic accounts indicate that Alutiiq people wove their seines from animal sinew and attached bark floats and stone sinkers: ancient versions of the cork and lead lines found on modern nets. Floats kept the top edge of the net on the water’s surface and sinkers weighted the bottom edge and helped to keep the net open. To ensure an evenly tied net, craftsmen used a net gauge, a small hand-held tool with a bar the width of the desired net mesh. By tying each knot against the bar, they could ensure that all of the knots were equally spaced.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, Alutiiq families living at the south end of Kodiak Island worked for canneries during the summer, beach seining and packing fish. Men worked in teams with dories to drag seines around schools of fish, pull the loaded net to shore, and pitch the fish into a skiff. When commercial fishing waned, they moved to their own fish camps to put up supplies of salmon for their families. Elders recall the fun they had as children, pretending to beach seine and capturing sticklebacks with nets made out of cloth flour sacks.
Today Kodiak fishermen set seines behind fishing vessels, encircling schools of fish and then gathering the bottom of their nets to entrap them. Others anchor nets with a larger mesh in shallow water, where they trap fish by the gills (gill nets). Both techniques are popular methods of commercial fishing.
Photo: Beach seining in the Karluk River, 1984.
Kuignun itertut qakiiyat. - The silver salmon are entering the creeks.
Silver salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), also known as coho salmon, begin to appear in Kodiak waters in June, but they do not typically enter streams till mid-August. Runs continue through the fall, and fish may be present in freshwater well into December. Silvers prefer larger watercourses for spawning and are most abundant in the river systems of southwestern Kodiak. Elsewhere, they tend to occur in the larger streams at the heads of bays.
In the past, Alutiiqs harvested silver salmon at weirs, using barbed harpoons and gaffs. Silvers were also captured in traps woven from roots, grass, and bark. Fishermen sunk these traps in intertidal waters surrounding stream mouths, with their openings toward the water’s surface. As the tide receded, any fish that had ventured inside the trap was unable to swim away.
Silver salmon remain a favorite subsistence food and are prepared in many ways. Dried or smoked fillets are cut into strips and stored in oil. Silvers are also eaten raw with tender cow parsnip stems, roasted with cow parsnip leaves as a seasoning, or baked with a stuffing of chocolate lily roots, wild chives, and rice. They are also a common addition to perok, a fish pie made with rice and vegetables.
Photo: Woman filets a silver salmon in the grass at Cape Alitak.
Nikllinek kupcuunalirciqukut. - We are going to make smoked salmon out of red salmon.
Sockeye salmon, or red salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka), are the first salmon to move into Kodiak’s freshwater streams each year. They begin arriving in early May and are the second most abundant salmon species. More than two million return annually, with peak runs in August and September. Unlike pink and silver salmon, however, reds are not evenly distributed, because they require lake-headed streams for spawning. There are only thirty suitable streams in the Kodiak area. Reds spawn primarily in the major river systems of southwestern Kodiak. Over half the population can be found in the Karluk, Ayakulik, and Frazer rivers, and Olga Creek.
Archaeological data show that Alutiiqs have harvested red salmon from these important streams for thousands of years. Along the Karluk River alone, there are dozens settlements dating from 6,000 years ago to the historic era. Many have large sod houses framed with wood, indicating that these were not temporary settlements, but places where people intended to stay for long periods of time. In the late prehistoric era, people may have occupied these settlements year-round, paddling to the coast for the marine resources they needed, and for visiting and trading.
From these villages, Alutiiqs captured salmon at weirs with traps and spears. Simple barriers of logs or rocks were built in streams to keep fish from passing. This allowed fishermen to spear fish with special harpoons carved of bone. According to traditional beliefs, the soul of a fish lived in its guts. Once captured, the intestines had to be returned to the water to free the soul and produce more fish.
Photo: Freshly caught red salmon on a Kodiak beach.
Waa’ut piturnirtaartut mikelngut. - The small flounders are tasty.
The starry flounder (Platichthys stellatus) is an abundant, bottom-dwelling fish found in Kodiak’s shallow ocean waters, brackish estuaries, and even intertidal areas of rivers. Like halibut, flounder have both eyes on one side of their head. The eye side of the flounder is typically brown or black, and the blind side of the fish is white. However, this fish can camouflage itself by changing its color to blend with the surrounding environment. Flounder live throughout the North Pacific from California to Japan, where they can grow up to three feet long and weigh twenty pounds. Birds, sea mammals, and people eat flounder.
Alutiiq people once harvested flounder with fishing spears known as leisters. These leisters had a series of long, narrow, barbed bone points tied around a central shaft. The points curved inward to form a multipronged spear used to impale fish resting on the bottom of shallow lagoons, swimming in shallow waters, or caught in traps. To pursue flounder, fishermen would wait in boats or stand quietly in the water until a fish was visible. A calm day and clear water were essential for this type of flounder fishing.
Flounder can be captured at all times of the year, but they were most important to Alutiiqs in winter and spring, when poor weather limits access to fish in deeper, less protected ocean waters. Alutiiqs prize the flounder, an oily fish like king salmon or herring, for its fat.
Photo: Ice fishing for flouder, Karluk Lagoon. Alutiiq Museum library, courtesy Patty Mahoney.
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.