Inartamek piliyuq. - She’s making a basket.
Very few classic Alutiiq baskets are preserved today. Museums around the world hold just a handful of ethnographic and archaeological examples of this beautiful and functionally important art. Despite their rarity, baskets were an integral part of Alutiiq household equipment. They held small objects; were used as cooking, drinking, and eating vessels; and functioned as containers for food storage and collecting. Very large baskets, fitted with leather straps, even acted as backpacks for travelers to carry clothing and bedding. The tight weave of these baskets protected their contents from rain and sea spray.
In the Kodiak Archipelago, Alutiiqs wove much of their basketry from spruce roots that were dug from the forest floor, cleaned of their outer coverings, and split into flexible strands with a fingernail. Other common weaving materials included beach rye grass and baleen. Spruce-root baskets were woven upside down, with concentric rings of extra twining to reinforce their base. Some were painted or finely decorated with overlays of other weaving materials, for example, maidenhair fern. Today, basket weaving is experiencing a revival. Elders are passing the art to their families, and artists are studying museum collections to learn ancestral techniques and to share their knowledge at community workshops. Traditional forms are reappearing but have been supplemented with tiny baskets made into popular forms of jewelry: necklaces, pendants, and earrings.
Photo: Basket by Fedosia Inga, KANA collection, Alutiiq Museum
Kiagmi nunaqutaartukut alagnanek. - In the summer we go berry picking for salmonberries.
Collecting from the land remains a popular activity in Alutiiq communities. Spring greens, berries, shellfish, medicinal herbs, and driftwood are among the resources that Alutiiqs gather from the mountains, meadows, and shores of Kodiak Island. The Alutiiq language reflects the importance of this activity. In Alutiiq, the suffix –sur means “to get that thing.” Add this suffix to a noun like alagnaq, or salmonberry, and you get alagnarsur-, a root word that means “to get salmonberries.” This same suffix can be applied to almost anything you wish to gather.
However, the word for berry picking, nunaquq, is different. This verb appears to be related to the Alutiiq word for land, nuna, andmay once have referred to collecting more generally: to go outon the land. Today, speakers use nunaquq to refer only to berrypicking, although it can be applied to gathering berries of any kind.
Kodiak Alutiiqs harvest wild berries more than any other plant,collecting seventeen different varieties from mid summer to earlyfall. The most popular are plump watery salmonberries; shiny,tart crowberries; tiny, sweet alpine blueberries; and bright redlowbush cranberries. Some people freeze their berries for winteror preserve them in jams and jellies. Others eat their berries fresh.Some Alutiiqs boil berries with sugar to make a hot drink or mixin some cornstarch and allow the mixture to cool into a pudding.One popular dish is ciiitaq, a combination of crushed berries and milk. The word ciitaq comes from the Alutiiq verb ciilluku, meaning to smash it flat, and translates as “something mashed.”
Photo: Boys picking berries near Karluk, Clyda Christensen Collection.
Pingaktaanka alagnat. - I like berries.
Kodiak’s Alutiiq people harvest seventeen varieties of berries, which are used for food, medicine, and natural dyes. Salmonberries are collected in the largest quantities, although crowberries, lowbush cranberries, and early blueberries are other favorites. Berry picking begins in late June and continues well into the fall. People often wait to pick certain varieties till October or November, when they have been sweetened by a frost.
Groups of related women and children typically work together to gather berries. Men may accompany the pickers to provide protection from bears or hunt nearby. While picking, women teach their children to respect berry patches. Over-picking, breaking branches, stepping on plants, or eating too many berries are considered poor etiquette.
In the past, families collected up to fifty pounds of berries for winter use. They preserved this fruit in seal oil and stored the mixture in dried seal stomachs. Today, some Alutiiqs continue to use oil as a berry preservative, placing their fruit in jars of cooking oil. Others freeze their berries. Traditional Alutiiq ice cream, known as akutaq, is made from berries mixed with fish eggs, seal oil, and the bulbs of the Kamchatka lily. Modern versions include sugar or mashed potatoes. To make your own, mix two cups of shortening with a cup of sugar and a quart of frozen berries. Enjoy!
Photo: Ripe salmonberries. Photo by Priscilla Russel, KANA collection.
Akagwingq’rtuten-qaa? - Do you have cloudberries?
The cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), also known as the lowbush salmonberry, is an herbaceous plant that grows in Kodiak’s meadows and bogs. These plants produce juicy, pale-orange berries that look like plump raspberries. Cloudberries are some of the first plants to fruit in the Kodiak region. They can often be gathered as early as late June and remain available through mid-August. Many people prefer to harvest them early in the season, when they are firm and easiest to pick. These berries can over ripen quickly and become mushy.
Cloudberries are a favorite wild food among the Alutiiq people. They are gathered in large quantities because they store well, and they were once kept in seal stomach containers filled with seal oil. These containers were hung from the ceilings of sod houses and their contents used throughout the winter. Today, cloudberries are eaten raw, stored in the freezer, or cooked into a tempting selection of jams, jellies, and desserts. This popular berry is also a favorite addition to akutaq, a traditional dish made by mixing berries with combinations of fat, fish eggs, mashed potatoes, and sugar.
Drawing: Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 276. Courtesy the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.
Qahmaquryugtua. - I want some cockles.
Kodiak’s shores are encrusted with a wealth of intertidal organisms. Clams, cockles, whelks, mussels, sea urchins, chitons, limpets, and periwinkles are all available in quantities. Alutiiq people harvested these resources throughout the year, but they were particularly important in the late winter and early spring. This was a time when food stores were exhausted and fresh foods were hard to find. Shellfish were an accessible, abundant food that could be collected by anyone. A digging stick, an open weave basket, and a leisurely walk on the beach were the only harvesting requirements. Today, some communities take advantage of low winter tides, harvesting shellfish in the dark by the light of kerosene lamps. According to Alutiiq Elders, “when the tide is out, the dinner table is set.”
Alutiiq people continue to enjoy shellfish, although they are wary of the red tide. Algae that carry a deadly nerve toxin can easily contaminate clams and other filter feeders. These algae can be present at any time of year and are difficult to detect. How did coastal peoples avoid the red tide? It wasn’t by shunning shellfish. Village sites from Attu to Ketchikan contain abundant evidence of clam dinners. Perhaps villagers took their clues from the birds and fish that are also affected by the poison or avoided clams from areas known to produce illness. Native place names like Poison Cove warn of beaches with deadly shellfish. Whatever the answer, their technique remains a mystery.
Photo: Christina Lukin openning clams. Afognak Village, ca. 1960. Chadwick Collection.
Ugyuutet piturnirtaartut. - Pushki (cow parsnip) always tastes good.
Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum), known locally by its Russian name puchki, is an herbaceous plant that can grow up to eight feet tall. It has a fleshy stalk topped by large clusters of small white flowers. Cow parsnip thrives in open environments: forests, mountain meadows, and along the coast. It can be found in northern habitats from the Canadian Maritimes all the way to Japan. It prefers sunny locations and flourishes in the rich organic soil that forms over archaeological sites.
Alutiiq people traditionally harvested young, tender, cow parsnip stems from mid-May through early July. Be careful when picking this plant, however. Hairs on the plant’s stems and leaves can irritate your skin, causing rashes, itching, and blistering. Early morning or late evening are the best times to pick cow parsnip, because light can enhance its irritating qualities.
Today, people peel away the stem’s outer skin and eat the underlying flesh either raw or mixed with oil. Fresh cow parsnip leaves are also used to wipe away the slime on raw fish and to flavor fish when baking. However, people consider the leaves to be poisonous and they are never eaten. A poultice of hot, mashed cow parsnip roots is said to ease many common aches and pains.
Photo: Philip McCormick in a patch of cow parsnip, Uyak Bay, 1987.
Manigsurciqukut. - We’re going to look for eggs.
Bird eggs are a favorite spring food in Alutiiq communities. Each year many thousands of seabirds nest along the rocky shores of the Gulf of Alaska coast. Collectors begin gathering eggs in May, particularly gull eggs. To avoid eggs with developing chicks, it is important to collect those that have been recently laid. Elders teach that you should not collect from a nest with three eggs. This means that the bird has laid its entire clutch and the eggs have been developing for some time. Most people collect eggs by boat, but in the past, they were also harvested by rappelling down steep cliffs with the aid of ropes made from sea-mammal hide.
In the past, people ate eggs fresh or stored them in pits for future use. Elders remember cooking eggs and other fresh foods in hollowed-out cottonwood logs on the beach. They dropped hot rocks from a campfire into the log to heat water for cooking. Before refrigeration, people stored eggs in grass-lined pits to keep them cool, but unfrozen, throughout the winter. Upright sticks marked these pits so they could be easily located.
Tuuciiqutat alagnangq'rtaartut. - The elderberry bushes always have berries.
Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is a large shrub with toothed leaves and soft wood that grows up to twelve feet tall. This bush occurs throughout northern North America in both wooded and open areas. Around Kodiak, it is particularly fond of the rich organic soil that forms over archaeological sites. Red elderberry has small, strong-smelling, ivory-colored flowers that produce clusters of small, red berries. Warning! The seeds, leaves, twigs, and roots of this plant are poisonous and can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Only the fleshy part of the berries and the blossoms are edible.
Alutiiq people use red elderberry for medicinal purposes. A tea made from the plant’s flowers was once used to induce sweating in cases of high fever, pneumonia, chills, flu, tuberculosis, and other chronic diseases, and a poultice made from the inner and outer bark could relieve back problems. The leaves can be used to make a yellow dye and the berries a purplish red dye, and the flowers can be used to make wine.
Photo: Alexandra (Sacha) Smith standing in front of a Pacific Red Elder bush in fruit, ca. 1991. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA collection.