Uqaayanat angtaartut. - Nettles are big.
The stinging nettle (Urtica lyalli) grows widely across the northern hemisphere. It thrives in open meadows, flourishes in damp soil, and is found commonly in dense clusters in areas disturbed by human activity. In the Gulf of Alaska, nettles often grow on the surface of archaeological sites-where they prosper in the rich organic soil formed by ancient garbage.
Nettles have distinctive toothed leaves that hold tiny stinging hairs. When broken, these hairs release formic acid, a skin irritant. The Alutiiq word for nettle literally means “something that makes you burn all over.” In the Kodiak area, people often refer to nettles as “burners.” Despite their stinging quality, young nettles are a tasty green vegetable. They are collected in the spring or early summer, boiled for fifteen minutes to remove their bite, and eaten like spinach. Nettles are also used to flavor food. They are added to soups or burned while smoking fish.
Nettles are also widely recognized for their medicinal properties. Nettle leaf tea is said to soothe respiratory problems, particularly tuberculosis, while a tea made from nettle roots can ease the pain of arthritis.
April-rem qelempaq caayuq pingaktaaraa. - April likes the rose hip tea.
The Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) is a spindly shrub that grows in open areas throughout coastal Alaska. It is commonly found along streams and shorelines and in meadows, thickets, and open forests. These prickly bushes flower with pink blossoms each July and then produce hips. This dark red fruit is seedy and dry, but rich in vitamin C. The Alutiiq word for rose hip, qelempaq, is an old word meaning “bag.” This term refers to the shape of the fruit, which looks like a small purse with drawstrings.
Alutiiq people collect both rose petals and rose hips. They flavor tea with the aromatic petals and use the nutritious hips for food and medicine. The hips are typically gathered from September to November, when they have been sweetened and softened by frost. Alutiiq chefs add the fruit to jellies and syrups and occasionally desserts. They also create medicinal teas by steeping the hips in hot water. This tea is said to cleanse the system and can be used to treat a cold, a cough, or a case of bronchitis. Elders recall that sitting on rose hips soaked in hot water helps a laboring mother deliver her placenta.
Photo: Dora Aga and grandchild collecting rose petals. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Kasukuagmen agkuma, uutursurciqua cali. - When I go to Akhiok, I will get sea urchins, too.
Sea urchins are echinoderms, spiny-skinned animals related to starfish and sea cucumbers. Kodiak is home to two varieties, the red urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) and the green urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis). Both are about the size of a tennis ball and both live in lower intertidal and shallow subtidal waters. Urchins have a hard shell known as a test. They prefer rocky substrate where they feed on kelp and floating algae. They mature at age three and produce five skeins of roe, a favorite food of sea otters, starfish, crab, eels, and people. Commercial harvesting of Alaska’s sea urchins began in the early 1980s and continues today. Urchins are easy to catch. Scuba divers simply rake them into a mesh bag.
Urchin shells are a common find in many coastal archaeological sites, suggesting that this seafood has been a delicacy for thousands of years. Today, Alutiiqs gather sea urchins for their eggs, particularly during very low spring tides. Urchins produce roe in late winter and spring for about six weeks, so April is the most common harvesting time. People enjoy eating urchin eggs raw or wrapped with rockweed leaves, a tender marine algae.
Photo: Tristan Kewan and Justin Hays with an urchin filled midden. Horseshoe Cove site, Uganik Island, 2004.
Iput yaamat acaatni etaartut. - Snails are always under the rocks.
Snails, particularly the periwinkle (Littorina sitkana), are common residents of Kodiak’s intertidal waters. These slow-creeping marine invertebrates are members of the gastropod family, a group that includes both snails and slugs. Periwinkles inhabit the rocky beaches of the North American Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja, California. They live in a protective, spirally coiled shell and prefer the high to middle intertidal zone. Here they eat algae and detritus and in turn, provide food for fish, birds, and crab.
Although these small shellfish grow to just half an inch long, archaeologists believe they were once a source of food. Periwinkle shells occur in large quantities in some late prehistoric settlements. While some snails may have accidentally made their way into ancient deposits as unsuspecting passengers on kelp and larger shellfish collected on local beaches, thick dumps of periwinkle shells in some sites suggest that snails were intentionally collected. How were these tiny creatures eaten? Periwinkles may have been dropped into hot broth to make soup. When cooked, the animals come out of their shells, which rise to the surface and can be scooped away.
Taariq taisgu. - Bring me the steam bath scrubber.
Alutiiq sod houses had a small side chamber designed specifically for steam bathing. This room had a low ceiling and a narrow, covered doorway that trapped steam. People carried hot rocks into the steam bath with special wooden tongs and piled them into a corner where they would not block the doorway. Bathers splashed these rocks with water stored in wooden tubs to produce sweat inducing steam. Bundles of roots were used for scrubbing and angelica leaves perfumed the air, providing relief from sore muscles. Steam bathing was also a spiritual practice. Babies born in seclusion huts were washed in the steam bath as part of their introduction to the family household, and warriors would bathe the night before a raid.
Although many people believe that Russian colonists introduced steam bathing, archaeological data illustrate that the tradition is ancient. Alutiiq villages more than three thousand years old contain quantities of rock reddened and cracked by fire. This rubble shows that this type of bathing has been an integral part of Alutiiq social and spiritual life for millennia. Known today by the Russian term banya, steam bathing remains a popular social activity.
Photo: Mrs. Chya with a bundle of roots. Courtesy the Rostad Collection.
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.
Muuguat amlerpianitut maani, allrani kesiin iquutaartukut, piturnirtut. - There are not many watermelon berries around here, but sometimes we find them, and they’re delicious.
The watermelon berry (Streptopus amplexifolius) is a slender, tall, leafy shrub. It grows to about three feet tall and can be found in woods, alder thickets, and meadows across the southern half of Alaska. A member of the lily family, watermelon berry has small white flowers and broad oval leaves that grow in an alternating pattern up its stem. This gives the plant a twisted appearance, and some people know it as twisted stalk.
In August, the plant forms oval, orange or red berries with many seeds. Alutiiqs call this fruit muuguaq—“something you suck”—a name that aptly describes the berries’ watery quality. Because watermelon berries are not often found in large quantities around Kodiak, most people harvest them for a snack. They are not a species that is taken home for processing. However, if you find enough of them, they will make tasty jelly.
On the Kenai Peninsula, Alutiiqs gather the young shoots, leaves, and stems of watermelon berry from late April to early June, while they are tender. These leafy parts of the plant can be eaten raw, fried, or steamed. By summer, the plants become tough and are not good to eat.
Photo: Watermelon berry. Courtesy Wikipedia.