K’liaqa ciruneq. - I am carving the antler.
Although antler-bearing mammals are not indigenous to the Kodiak Archipelago, antler has long been a favored material of Alutiiq craftsmen. Antler is a compact form of bone grown and shed annually by animals of the deer family. Unlike horn, which is made of keratin, antler is formed from ash, calcium, and phosphorous. This porous, resilient material is excellent for making tools.
Archaeological data illustrate that craftsmen employed antler regularly in the manufacture of objects designed to withstand an impact. Harpoons, fish spears, arrows, and wedges for splitting wood are some examples.
Where did Kodiak’s Alutiiq people obtain antler? Most of it was probably caribou antler traded, collected, or obtained through hunting on the Alaska mainland. Although small quantities of moose antler may have made it into artists’ hands, moose were rare on the Alaska Peninsula until the twentieth century, making the peninsula’s caribou herds a more likely source.
Today Alutiiq people collect the antlers of the Sitka black-tailed deer, a species introduced to Kodiak in the early twentieth century. Artists generally prefer the hardened tines of fully grown deer to the spongier tines of immature animals. Craftsmen fashion this material into strong, attractive handles for a variety of knives and baskets. Small pieces are also skillfully polished, painted, or engraved to make jewelry.
Photo: Moose anter collected on the Alaska Peninsula. Nekeferof Collection.
Nukallpiat ruuwartaallriit agayuwim tunuani. - The men used to shoot arrows behind the church.
Alutiiq hunters carried a variety of arrows: powerful, accurate weapons launched with a stout wooden bow. Each arrow had a slender wooden shaft carved from spruce, cedar, or hemlock and was painted red and fletched with eagle feathers. This shaft supported a sharply pointed head fashioned from bone, wood, and even copper obtained through trade with Athabaskan people. Arrows for land hunting had fixed heads and people carried them in a skin quiver. In contrast,
arrows used to hunt seas otters and ducks had detachable heads attached to the shaft by a line. People carried them in cylindrical wooden quivers that could be lashed to the deck of a kayak.
Toy bows and arrows are common finds in Kodiak’s well preserved archaeological sites. Elders recall that boys used these miniature versions of adult implements to improve their hunting skills. When migratory birds returned to the archipelago each spring, signaling the rebirth of the year, youth were allowed to take their toys from storage and engage in competitions on the beach. Adult men would often challenge boys to shooting matches. Players aimed their arrows at wood or kelp targets while spectators cheered for their favorite archers.
Photo: Arrow shafts, Karluk One Site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Siilaq ipegtuq. - The awl is sharp.
An awl is a sharp, pointed tool used to punch holes in leather. In prehistoric times, Alutiiqs fashioned awls from wood, bone, and ivory. Archaeological data indicate that bird bone was the most common material. To create an awl, a carver removed the knobby ends from the hollow wing bone of a large bird. This created a tube from which long narrow slivers of bone were cut. The slivers were then ground to a sharp point with a piece of pumice or sandstone.
Awls were an important component of sewing kits. Using an awl, a seamstress would punch multiple holes in the skins she was working. Then, she used her needle to pass strands of sinew through the holes to create stitches. This kept her delicate needle from breaking.
In addition to clothing, women sewed skin covers for traditional boats. Each spring, groups of women worked together to mend old covers and create new ones from sea-mammal hides. An older woman might lead the group, creating pieces of thread from porpoise sinew while directing the sewers. When finished, the cover was oiled, pulled over a wooden boat frame, and stitched closed.
Photo: Bird bone artifacts demonstrating the process of creating an awl. Uyak collection, courtesy the Larsen Bay Tribe.
Puuc’kaat saRayami et’ut. - The barrels are in the shed.
The Alutiiq word for barrel—puuc’kaaq—comes from the Russian word bochka, also meaning barrel. This link reflects the use of barrels for bulk storage on sailing ships in the early historic era. Russian traders imported grain, beads, and many other commodities to Alaska in wood barrels. Assembled from wooden staves bound with a series of hoops, barrels were strong, air and watertight, and good at protecting their contents from vermin. They could also be rolled easily on and off ships.
In Kodiak, Sitka, and California’s Fort Ross, the Russian American company employed coopers, skilled craftsmen who made and refurbished wooden barrels. In the 1850s, Russian traders on Kodiak began filing barrels with salted salmon for use in other colonies. However, salting techniques were poor and the fish often spoiled.
In the American era, Kodiak entrepreneurs perfected salting salmon, establishing salteries in productive fishing locales. These operations were fairly simple, but they required a cooper to fashion the barrels needed to hold the salted fish. As such, barrel parts are among the artifacts that appear in Kodiak’s historic sites. In Karluk lagoon, for example, coopers made barrels with lumber imported from Afognak Island.
Alutiiq Elders recall playing with barrel hoops as children, amusing themselves by rolling and chasing the hoops. In the mid twentieth century, the use of wooden barrel faded as salting salmon became less common. However, a new type of barrel began appearing in Alutiiq communities, oil barrels shipped to villages with fuel for oil-fired furnaces.
Photo: Children playing on empty fuel barrel, Armstrong Collection.
Qupuraq pertaa. - He bent the wood (just now); He is bending the wood.
From arctic Alaska to the forests of Southeast, Native societies have long fashioned objects by bending wood. Wood is a naturally elastic material that can be molded into many shapes with pressure, moisture, or heat. Alaska Natives bent wood to produce boat parts, sled runners, snowshoes, hunting hats, visors, mask hoops, rattles, and household containers of every size.
This widespread use of bentwood objects illustrates the importance of bending as a manufacturing technique and the skill of craftsmen. Bending wood is not very difficult, but it takes time. A carver must pick his material carefully, work it with precision and patience, and know how the wood bends. If you rush, the piece may break. But when a thin piece of wood is successfully bent, beautiful objects can be made. From a single plank, artists create strong, useful, and exceptionally beautiful objects. To aid the bending process, carvers carefully thinned planks and sometimes cut kerfs. These small notches help the wood flex and provide space for compression along a bent edge.
How did Alutiiq people bend wood hundreds of years ago? It is possible they worked with steam in a maqiwik, or steam bathhouse, like neighboring Yup’ik people. Many late prehistoric houses had a small, low-ceilinged room devoted to bathing. People carried hot rocks into these rooms and splashed them with water to create steam for washing and perhaps wood working. Steaming can also be done in pits. In southeast Alaska, carvers softened wood in pits packed with hot rocks and seaweed and filled with water.
Photo: Bentwood box with baleen lashing, Karluk One Site, Koniag, Inc. Collection. Photo by Chris Arend, Courtesy Koniag, Inc.
Iqsak una nenermek pilimauq. - This fishhook is made of bone.
Like stone, wood, and hide, bone was a primary manufacturing material for prehistoric Alutiiq people, and the skeletal remains of animals were carefully butchered to preserve bone for raw material. Bone was processed into pieces much like wood. People split large elements, like whale and sea lion ribs, with the aid of wedges and mauls. Then they cut lengths of bone to size by sawing a fragment until it could be snapped into two segments. Tools were then shaped with a stone knife and sanded to a smooth finish with abrasive pieces of stone and pumice.
Due to its flexibility, bone was the preferred material for subsistence implements. Bone points, hooks, and digging sticks gave with the forces of use rather than breaking. Porous, lightweight whalebone was used for harpoons, bird arrows, fish spears, fishing hooks, and war arrows. Bone was also used for a variety of household objects. People hollowed whale vertebrae into vessels for grinding plants and fashioned compact, lightweight bird bone into needles and awls.
In addition to their technological value, some bones had spiritual significance. Alutiiqs believe that every animal has a spirit: a tiny replica of itself that rests in a special part of its body. Prince William Sound Alutiiqs held that the spirit of the sea otter rested in its bones. So the skeletons of captured animals were returned to the water to ensure their rebirth.
Photo: Leslie Watson holds a bone harpoon point found at the Mitks'qaaq Angayuq site.
Nukallpiam canakii qitguyaq. - The man made the bow.
Before the introduction of firearms, bows and arrows were an essential Alutiiq hunting tool. Craftsmen carved bows from hard, flexible woods. Yellow cedar was preferred, although red cedar and western yew were also used. Before carving, people dried the wood, although they might soak a finished bow in water to improve its flexibility. The typical bow had a narrow grip and flattened wings. Hunters often added a backing of sinew to strengthen the tool as it aged.
In Prince William Sound, hunters held their bows parallel to the ground. An archer gripped the bow in his outstretched arm, palm up. He then used the middle finger of his other hand to pull the bowstring, while his thumb and forefinger held the notch end of an arrow. Arrows were carved of cedar and other straight-grained woods and held in cylindrical quivers decorated with painted designs. Bows and arrows were used primarily to target waterfowl and land mammals. Hunters continued to pursue ducks with this weaponry well into the 1930s, because these quiet tools did not startle birds like a shotgun. However, at sea, hunters had difficulty keeping their bowstring dry, and often preferred to use a spear thrower.
Photo: Sinew backing on an Alutiiq bow.
Qupuraq k’liaqa. - I am carving the wood.
Carving was once a daily act in Alutiiq communities. Native craftsmen made weapons: shafts, arrows and harpoons, split timbers to build houses and boats, and chiseled images into wood. Through woodworking, Alutiiq people produced many of the tools essential for daily life and recorded their beliefs in masks, amulets, and figurines.
Archaeological finds reveal traditional carving techniques. Woodworkers split driftwood logs open with the help of resilient bone and wooden wedges, pounded with weighty granite mauls lashed to sturdy wooden handles. The resulting planks were cut to length and shaped with a variety of stone adzes tied to handles made of flexible alder branches. Hand-held carving implements, particularly rodent incisors hafted in the sides of small wooden handles, were used for finer carving. The narrow bits of these tools left gouges that artists sanded away with gritty abraders of pumice and sandstone. Finishing touches were applied with a burnishing stone, a water-worn pebble rubbed over the carving to create a polished, splinter-free surface.
Today artists search Kodiak’s forests and commercial lumberyards for the perfect grain, but in the old days, before spruce trees colonized Kodiak, craftsmen collected most wood from the beach. Carvers gathered Pacific yew, cedar, and spruce from Kodiak’s shores and collected alder and cottonwood.
In addition to wood, carvers collected feathers, fur, animal hair, and pigments to enhance their carvings. Decoration is an essential part of all Alutiiq arts, as finely made objects show respect for the spirit world.