Laagat qatertaartut. - Lily roots are white.
The chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis) is a delicate flowering plant with lance-shaped leaves and clusters of dark purple or brown bell-shaped flowers. It is widely distributed throughout the coastal meadows of the North Pacific, ranging from the western United States to Japan. This perennial plant grows from a bulb of many rice-like roots and is sometimes called the rice lily. Despite its appetizing names, the flower emits an unpleasant, rotting odor that attracts pollinating flies.
The starchy root of the chocolate lily is edible and was traditionally collected by Alutiiq people in late summer. In August and September, people unearthed lily roots with digging sticks or collected them from vole caches. Many people preserved a portion of their harvest for winter use. Lily roots were ground into a flour or packed in seal stomach with oil and berries. The roots were eaten raw, roasted, boiled till tender and mixed with seal oil, or combined with sourdock and berries to create a tasty side dish. They were also added to Alutiiq ice cream—akutaq—a dish made by mixing fat, berries, and fish eggs with lily roots. In the historic era, mashed potatoes replaced lily roots in this popular dish.
Photo: Akhiok woman with lily roots and Chocolate Lily flower. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Suupaligua sawak'iitanek. - I am making soup from limpets.
Limpets (Lottia spp.) are among the intertidal organisms that encrust the rocky shores of Kodiak. The archipelago is home to a variety of these small invertebrates: the keyhole limpet, the tortoiseshell limpet, and others. Limpets are grazing animals that form distinctive cone-shaped shells. They feed on algae by moving slowly across rocks on a single foot. They are particularly active at night and when covered by ocean water. At low tide, limpets clamp tightly to rocks to protect themselves from birds and sea stars.
Ancient shell middens illustrate that limpets were once a common part of seafood dinners on Kodiak. They were probably collected most intensively in the spring, during the lowest tides of the year. Spring is also the time when winter stores were exhausted and people depended on shellfish while they waited for other resources to become available. Alutiiq people continue to harvest limpets today, adding them to stews and chowders or simply eating them raw. Children sometimes collect them for a quick snack.
Kodiak Islanders sometimes refer to limpets as “China caps” because the shape of the animal’s shell is similar to the hats once worn by Chinese laborers. This comparison is probably passed down from the late nineteenth century, when salmon processors hired Chinese work gangs to run canning equipment in communities like Karluk.
Ing’im ceniini kenegtangq’rtuq. - The mountainside has cranberries.
The lowbush cranberry, or lingonberry (Vaccinium vitisidaea), is a creeping plant with thick, oval, shiny, green leaves; pink, bell-shaped flowers; and round, red berries. The word kenegtaq literally means “something pressed down.” This plant flowers in mid to late June and is commonly found throughout Kodiak’s spruce forests, particularly in wet areas.
Alutiiq people harvest the bright red, sour cranberries as food, preferably after a heavy frost when the berries are sweetest. They were eaten as a condiment with fish or mixed into Alutiiq ice cream. Unlike many juicier berries, lowbush cranberries can be stored for a long time. Those used before freezing weather were traditionally kept in freshwater in a cool place. After freezing weather, the berries were stored in gut containers filled with seal oil.
The lowbush cranberry plant has medicinal properties. Alutiiq people prepared tea made from the leaves to treat colds. Eating raw lowbush cranberries is also recommended for sore throats, canker sores, and kidney problems.
Photo: Low bush Cranberry, By Dawn Endico from Menlo Park, California (Lingonberry), via Wikimedia Commons
Ken’akan suu’ut qapilanek iwa’itaartut. - When the tide is low some people go down to get blue mussels.
For coastal peoples, daily life is closely connected to the cycle of the tides. The ebbing and flowing of nearshore waters affects boat travel, altering currents and wave activity, water depth, and suitable boat landing locations. It also covers and uncovers important subsistence resources. In Alutiiq communities, the lowest tides of spring are eagerly awaited because they reveal a wealth of food.
Minus tides are particularly important for accessing shellfish. Although mussels can be collected during any low tide, accessing burrowing species like clams and cockles, and the chitons, urchins, and limpets that inhabit lower intertidal waters, often requires a minus tide. Throughout the year, minus tides typically occur for a few days every other week, making shellfish intermittently available. In winter, access is further limited by darkness as minus tides rarely coincide with daylight. Native people throughout the Gulf of Alaska dealt with this problem by illuminating darkened beaches with torches. Even today, residents of Akhiok will collect shellfish by lantern light.
As spring approaches, minus tides begin to coincide with daylight. This creates many more opportunities to collect intertidal resource at a time of year when fresh foods are limited and stores of food from the previous are exhausted. As Alutiiq Elders often note, “When the tide goes out, the table is set.”
Photo: Low tide on Afognak Island.
Aatat suit’kait cucunartut. - Lupine flowers are beautiful.
Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis) is a common, brightly flowering plant than can grow up to three feet tall. It has a long, stout stem that supports a dense cluster of blue, pink, or occasionally white flowers. It grows clusters of six to eight silky leaves and long woody roots that are a favorite food of brown bears. Lupine is a member of the pea family found along the North Pacific coast from British Columbia to Japan. It thrives on dry slopes, meadows, and gravel bars, where it produces seed-filled pods. Beware! Lupine seeds are poisonous. When ingested they can cause a fatal inflammation of the stomach and intestines.
Alutiiqs once harvested lupine rhizomes for food. This part of the plant grows underground, between the stem and the roots. Lupine rhizomes were commonly collected in the spring, when most tender, although they could be taken at any time of year. The rhizomes were cleaned, cut in half, and fried in oil to create a tasty dish.
Photo: Lupine growing in a coastal Alaskan meadow.
Qapilat piturnirtaartut. - Blue mussels are always tasty.
Blue mussels (Mylitus edulis) are one of the most common intertidal invertebrates in the Kodiak Archipelago. These purple-shelled bivalves inhabit most of Kodiak’s rocky shorelines, forming dense clusters in the upper intertidal zone. Like other shellfish, blue mussels are a great source of fresh spring food. They are widely abundant, easily accessed, and can be harvested by anyone.
The widespread presence of mussel shells in ancient garbage piles illustrates the popularity of mussels as a food source. Archaeologists find huge quantities of mussel remains in middens dating to the past 2,500 years, suggesting that people harvested and consumed many thousands of them. Mussel shells even occur in the village sites site far from the ocean. On the shores of Karluk Lake, for example, archaeologists find sites with the purple shells, indicating that people carried mussels into the interior.
Mussel shells may also indicate the other types of material preserved inside an archaeological site. Shells are rich in calcium carbonate, an alkaline substance that neutralizes acid soils and creates an environment suitable for organic preservation. Where people left shellfish remains, archaeologists are likely to find well-preserved animal remains and bone tools.
Photo: Crushed blue mussel shells give a deposit of ancient garbage a purple tint.
Uruq mecuutaartuq. - The moss is always wet.
Today, hundreds of species of mosses grow in the coastal environments of the Gulf of Alaska, thriving on wet ground, tree trunks, branches, rocks, and even in freshwater. These soft, fluffy plants absorb water through their leaves and stems, making them an excellent source of spongy material.
In Alutiiq, the word uruq means both moss and diaper, reflecting the use of moss in swaddling babies. Moss collected from the ground was washed and dried, then stuffed into an infant’s clothing, cradle, and carrier. Elders remember this practice and note that people often collected moss in the warm season and saved quantities of it for winter use. Absorbent mosses also served as toilet paper and menstrual pads, lined vegetable roasting pits, functioned as wicks for stone oil lamps, and were employed in processing seal skins for kayak covers. People laid wet moss on seal skins to loosen the hair so they could be easily scraped clean.
Drier mosses, collected from trees, were a source of insulation. Because this moss does not shrink with age, people stuffed it into cracks in sod houses, used it in thatching roofs, and added it to clothing. A layer of moss increased the warmth of hats, mittens, and boots. Campers also piled tree moss on branches and covered the pile with a grass mat to make a comfortable temporary mattress.
Photo: Moss covered Sitka spruce trees, Fort Abercrombie, Kodiak Island.
Puyurnit piturnirtaartut. - Nagoonberries always taste good.
Also commonly known as the wild raspberry, or arctic raspberry, the nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus) is a low-growing plant that bears a sweet, dark red, segmented, raspberry-like fruit. On Kodiak, Alutiiq people use the same term for nagoonberry and raspberry, illustrating the similarity between this indigenous fruit and the historically introduced red raspberry. Many people consider nagoonberries one of Kodiak’s best-tasting wild fruits. Alaska’s Russian colonists called the nagoonberry the king of berries for this reason.
Nagoonberries grow in open environments, particularly in damp soils. They thrive in tundra, bogs, meadows, and along streambanks and lakeshores. The plant has crinkled, toothed leaves with three lobes, similar to those of a strawberry plant. Each plant bears a single pink flower that produces one berry. As such, they are not as abundant as other types of berries.
Nagoonberries ripen toward the end of July and are available through August. They separate more easily from their stems when they are ready to be harvested, although some people prefer to harvest them when they are a little underripe and firm. Kodiak Alutiiq people use these plump, juicy berries in many ways. Nagoonberries are eaten fresh, cooked into jams and jellies, and preserved in freezers and jars of oil. People also harvest the young sprouts of this plant, which can be peeled and eaten.
Photo: Pink flowering nagoonberry plant.