Qaatanek pisurciqukuk. - We (two) will gather ferns.
The spreading wood fern (Dryopteris dilatata) is one of at least nine varieties of ferns commonly found in the Kodiak Archipelago. This large fern, which thrives in moist forests and coastal meadows throughout the north, can often be found growing near sourdock and nettle plants. The spreading wood fern has dense, triangular fronds that can reach over a foot in length. When it first sprouts in late April and May, the fronds appear as tightly curled fiddleheads. These tender shoots are both delicious and nutritious.
Alutiiqs collect fiddleheads for food. People prepare the young fronds by boiling or steaming and then eat them as a vegetable. They can also be added to salads. Fiddleheads are best consumed in the early spring when they are less than six inches tall, because the fern develops a bitter taste as it grows and unfurls. In fall, people collect the tender, juicy, buried portion of fern stems, which can be roasted. Both of these edible parts of the fern can be canned, dried, or boiled and stored till needed.
Photo: Fern frond, collected in the Old Harbor area, Kodiak Island Alaska.
Cillqat antaartut uksuarmi. - The fireweed comes out in the fall.
Late summer in the Kodiak Archipelago is brightly heralded by thousands of fireweed blossoms. This widely distributed perennial plant is a member of the evening primrose family, and it grows in both a dwarf and tall variety in the Kodiak region. The tall variety (Epilobium angustifolium) has a long stalk, narrow leaves, bright pink flowers, and long stalks that can reach up to eight feet tall. This variety thrives in meadows, open forests, hillsides, and anywhere the ground has been disturbed. The dwarf variety (Epilobium latifolium) is more common over gravely substrate and grows only about a foot tall. As fall approaches fireweed leaves turn from dark green to a brilliant red and release seeds coasted in a downy fiber.
Fireweed has long been both a source of food and raw material in Alutiiq communities. In the past, the plant served as roof thatching for sod houses, especially in interior regions where ryegrass was not available. And steam bathing switches were made from fireweed stalks.
Young fireweed leaves are often eaten fresh, although they also can be dried and used to make a soothing tea. Fireweed shoots are also harvested and may be cooked or eaten raw. In Nanwalek, an Alutiiq community of the Kenai Peninsula, people cook fireweed leaves in seal oil. Today, many people harvest fireweed blossoms to flavor sweet syrup for pancakes and deserts.
Photo: Fireweed blooming at Cliff Point, Kodiak Island.
Suit’kaat asingcugtaartut. - Flowers are pretty.
Each summer blue lupine, purple iris, lavender geranium, magenta fireweed, pink rose, yellow buttercup, and many other flowering plants flood Kodiak’s meadows with color. For Alutiiq people, however, wildflowers are more than a delightful reminder of summer. They are a source of information and a valuable natural resource.
Flowers help collectors judge the quality of plants. Many of Kodiak’s vegetables are picked before they blossom, because their leaves and stems toughen and may become bitter with flowering. Beach loveage, cow parsnip, sourdock, and goose tongue are all gathered when they first appear in May and June. Later in the summer, families will only harvest the nonflowering stems of these plants.
Like many other plant products, some flowers are eaten. Elders report sucking the nectar from salmonberry flowers, eating the berry-like flowers of pineapple weed, and making tea from the petals of wild roses. Other flowers can be used as medicine. Alutiiq people administer a tea made of elderberry flowers, fresh or dried, to reduce fever and relieve flu symptoms. This tea induces a cleansing sweat. Flowers are also used in poultices. A poultice of dried hemlock parsley flowers (Conioselinum chinense) can be used to clean wounds, one of wild sage (Artemisia tilesii) can relieve hemorrhoids, and one of heated single delight flowers (Monese uniflora) can treat tumors.
Photo: Lupine blooming on the shore of Monashka Bay, Kodiak Island.
Weguat qutmi naut. - Goose tongues are growing on the beach.
Goose tongue (Plantago maritime) is a low-lying plantain, an herb that grows in coastal wetlands on beaches, cliffs, and marshes across southern Alaska. This plant resembles a clump of grass. It has long, narrow, pointed leaves that grow in bunches from its base. These leaves are thick and succulent and a favorite food of bears. From its base, the plant also produces small stems of yellow or greenish flowers that grow up to eight inches tall.
On Kodiak, goose tongue is a widely harvested spring vegetable. The leaves have a mild salty flavor. People collect its tender young leaves from May until the plant flowers in late July. By midsummer, the plant matures and the leaves become bitter and fibrous. Alutiiq people eat goose tongue raw, steamed, or boiled. One local recipe suggests mixing crisp bacon and sautéed onions with four cups of steamed goose-tongue leaves to create a flavorful side dish. Other recipes include goose tongue in fritters or as a salad ingredient tossed with other spring greens.
Photo: Goose tounge growing in a coastal meadow.
Weg’et kiagmi anglitaartut. - The grass grows tall in the summertime.
More than sixty-five varieties of grasses grow in the Kodiak Archipelago, as well as many types of sedges and rushes. The most widely harvested grass is beach rye grass (Elymus arenarius), a plant common across the northern hemisphere. This tall, sturdy grass grows in open environments, particularly at the margins of saltwater beaches. It has wide, flat, coarse leaves that are known for their stiffness, particularly in comparison with other types of grasses. Beach rye grass was traditionally gathered by both Alutiiq men and women and used both fresh and dried.
Grass was an especially important raw material in Kodiak’s treeless regions. Alutiiq people used it in building and insulating structures. Each fall grasses were cut to thatch the roofs of sod houses, provide a clean floor covering, and create fresh bedding. Grass was also used in food storage and preparation. Storage pits were lined with grass, grass provided tinder for cooking fires, and it was used as a cutting surface: a clean place to butcher fish and meat. Alutiiq people once used rye grass to create a variety of household objects. They wove baskets, drinking cups, mittens, and socks from this grass and tied it into banya switches. Rye grass, which can be harvested throughout Alaska, remains a popular weaving material among Native peoples.
Photo: Weaver Arlene Skinner with grass dried for weaving.
Amaryat quuhnartaartut. (S) - Highbush cranberries are (always) sour.
The highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule), known locally as the bog berry or sour berry, is a large flowering shrub that grows in Kodiak’s thickets and clearings, often in shady spots. This plant, found widely across North America, produces small red berries that dangle from a long stem in small bunches. Be careful, it is easy to confuse this plant with the poisonous baneberry.
Alutiiq people harvest highbush cranberries for food and medicine, picking them as they ripen in late summer and early fall. They are collected in as large quantities as larger lowbush cranberries, although their small size makes picking more difficult and time consuming.
Highbush cranberries are made into jams, jellies, and syrups and added to desserts. This berry is also a favorite choice for akutaq, a traditional dessert where berries are mixed with fat and flavorings like salmon eggs, mashed potatoes, or in modern times, sugar. These berries may also be stored in oil for later use.
Many people mash the berries for their juice, which they use to treat sore throats, colds, and respiratory illnesses. A spoon full of highbush cranberry jelly in a cup of tea is not only tasty but soothing.
Photo: Elder picking cranberries with her granddaughter, Larsen Bay. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA collection.
Naparuaqutanek ikuutuq. - She found some horsetails.
Horsetail (Equisetum spp.) is a small green herb that grows throughout the Pacific coast of Alaska. There are many different species of horsetail, some that thrive on land and others that prefer wet, marshy terrain. Some varieties have a thin stem and feathery branches that give it the appearance of a horse’s tail. Horsetail is one of the most widespread plants in the world and a common colonizer. It grows well in wet soils, preferring moist forests, damp meadows, swamps, stream banks, and recently disturbed areas.
Alutiiq people gather and eat the spring stage of this plant, collecting the brown, branchless shoots that begin to develop in mid-April. These thick, succulent shoots grow up to a foot tall and have small, cone-like tips known as strobili. These shoots look like an asparagus spear. After removing the brown covering on the shoot’s head, horsetail can be eaten raw, added to salads, or boiled to make a tender vegetable. In Kenai Peninsula communities, Alutiiqs often serve horsetail with seal oil.
People harvest horsetail until early June when the last sprouts develop. The plants then form tough green stems with feathery branches. Although the plant cannot be eaten in summer, a variety of Alaska Native groups harvest the summer stage for medicinal purposes. People use the silica-rich stalks to polish wooden objects, make a greenish-yellow dye from the mature stalks, and incorporate horsetail fibers into weaving. The plant’s tubers are also edible.
Photo: Horsetail growing in a marshy area.
Unuarpak angli aRastuup'kaalillianga. - This morning I made alot of kindling.
Starting a fire in wet, windy Kodiak requires both skill and help from some good tinder. Alutiiq families use a variety of natural materials to capture a flame. In forested parts of the archipelago, the small, dead lower branches of spruce trees stay dry in the rain. They are easy to gather and make excellent kindling. Other good sources of tinder include dry grass, birch bark, spruce bark, and even spruce pitch and bird down. Some Alutiiqs also make fine shavings of wood for kindling. Any dry wood can be used, although cottonwood works especially well. The practice of igniting wood chips is quite old. Russian histories note that Alutiiqs used hand-held fire drills to ignite wood shavings.
Gathering tinder is often a job for women and children. While men harvest larger wood, and may travel far from home to collect it, women and children gathered kindling and small pieces of wood from nearby beaches and thickets. In the forests of northern Kodiak and Afognak, women gather dried bark or cut it from spruce trees. They place this material in burlap bags and carry it home for kindling to start fires that heat the steam bath.
Photo: Elder John Pestrikoff makes firestarters from driftwood. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.