Qikumek asulitaartut. - They make pots out of clay.
Clay, a substance found in most types of soil, is made up of minute particles of silica and alumina bound together by water. This sediment forms as the surface of the earth weathers, breaking rocks into smaller and smaller pieces. In the Kodiak Archipelago, weathering of the islands’ slate and granite core during the last glacial epoch created distinctive deposits of blue clay. This clay is widely available, particularly in areas once covered by glacial lakes.
Throughout the world, craftsmen mine clay to mold this supple material into useful shapes. Alutiiqs are no exception. They once created clay-lined cooking features around household hearths. Archaeological data suggests that small clay-lined pits held water and acted as cooking vessels for soups and stews heated with hot rocks. Clay-lined troughs leading into these pits may have captured the oil exuded by chunks of blubber set by the fire to melt.
Alutiiqs also lined underground pits with thick layers of clay. These large depressions, dug into the soil beneath household floors, acted like root cellars. Here, foods could be stored or fermented in the cool ground. People sealed some of the pits with a clay cap. Others had a stone or wooden lid.
Alutiiqs also used clay to manufacture fired ceramic pots. There are no historic descriptions of this process, but it has been determined from the study of pot fragments and a few complete pots from archaeological sites. These finds suggest that people mixed clay with beach gravel and formed it into large, thick-walled, conical pots with a flat base. These vessels were hardened by firing, and then used for cooking and rendering oil. Some of these ceramic pots were finished with decorated applique rims.
In the nineteenth century, Alutiiqs adopted a variety of European items made from clay. These included English ceramics and delicate tobacco pipes made in Europe of white kaolin clay.
Photo: A clay-lined pit uncovered at the Outlet site, Buskin River area.
Qetegmek canamauq. - This is made out of coal.
Coal is a black or dark brown sedimentary rock formed from decomposed and compressed plant material. There are a number of minor coal occurrences in the Kodiak region. Lignite, a soft coal, occurs along the southeastern coast of the archipelago, in Kiliuda Bay, around Sitkalidak Island, and on the Aliulik Peninsula. Also, scientists report the presence of a higher grade, bituminous coal on Sitkinak Island. The coal seams are thin, thus none of these sources have been commercially mined. However, prehistoric residents may have used them.
Although archaeological data indicate that the prehistoric residents of Kachemak Bay burned locally available coal for fuel, coal was more commonly used to manufacture jewelry. Beginning about 2,700 years ago, Alutiiq people carved beads, pendants, nose rings, and labrets from coal. Craftsmen broke, sawed, and carved chunks of the material into desirable shapes with stone tools, then polished them to a lustrous sheen.
Some people refered to this material as jet, a term used by Western craftsmen for a type coal used to make jewelry. However, mineralogical studies suggest that the coal used by Kodiak craftsmen was probably a harder coal mined at tidewater on the Alaska Peninsula. Studies of the coal available in the Kodiak region suggest that it is either too soft or too brittle to be worked into jewelry. In contrast, a more pliable material can be found in the Ugashik and Chignik areas. These observations suggest that coal was one of the many materials Alutiiq people obtained from the Alaska mainland. Like antler, volcanic stone, and beaver incisors, Alutiiqs imported coal to Kodiak in quantity.
Photo: Coal artifacts from the Uyak Site, Larsen Bay Tribe collection.
Umiartusqaq masiinaq stuulumi et'uq. - The computer is on the table.
Kasaakat kanuyamek tait'llriit. - The Russians brought copper.
Copper is one of the few metals that Alutiiq people used prehistorically. Artists ground copper oxide, a mineral available on southeastern Kodiak Island, to make pigment. However, they obtained copper suitable for tool manufacture in trade with the Alaska mainland, particularly the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. Historic sources indicate that the Ahtna Athabaskan Indians mined copper in the Copper River basin, which they traded annually to the Dena’ina Indians, who in turn traded with Alutiiq societies. By the time copper reached Kodiak, it had passed through many hands. Most copper use dates to after AD 1000.
From copper Alutiiqs fashioned arrowheads, which were used in warfare, as well as spears and knives. Craftsmen worked the metal raw, shaping it into tool forms by cold hammering.
In historic times, Russian traders also brought copper items. Among their imports to Kodiak were copper kettles, copper rings, and thimbles made with a copper alloy.
Alutiiq stories suggest that copper tools were both prized and powerful. A tale from Prince William Sound describes how Raven, the wily hero of many Alutiiq stories, bribed a blue crane with the gift of a copper spear to help him retrieve his kidnapped wife. Another story relates how an evil spirit killed people with a copper spear.
Photo: Copper Kettle. Alutiiq Museum collections, gift of Larry Matfay.
Kungyut amlertaallriit kangiyami. - There used to always be a lot of crested auklets in the bay.
The crested auklet (Aethia cristatella), known by some as the sea quail, is a member of the alcid family, a group that includes auks, puffins, and murres. About two million of these sea birds live in Alaska, in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, but they range as far as the Kurile Island of Japan and the central Gulf of Alaska.
Roughly 9 inches tall, with a black back and a grey belly, these birds take their name from a distinctive tuft of black feathers found on their foreheads. This ornamental plumage curves forward over the auklet’s short orange beak. Crested auklets feed on zooplankton and nest on rocky slopes and beaches. They aggregate in colonies with other species of auklets and are known for their spectacular flocking behavior. Large groups of birds will swoop, soar, and dive together, especially during the mating season.
Kodiak lies at the far eastern edge of the crested auklet’s range. Birds can be seen in small numbers around the archipelago in the summer. However, they are more common in the cold season, when they gather in protected marine waters. Hunters recall taking auklets in the winter. Men pursued the birds on the water, often with the assistance of moonlight or by the light of the rising sun. Due to their small size, people harvested a number of birds, which they roasted or made into soup.
Alutiiq Elders report that crested auklets were once more common around Kodiak, and have declined in number. This may be why they are no longer hunted, as they seldom occur in large flocks. Although auklets are not considered endangered, Elder’s observations illustrate how people who harvest from an environment for many years can notice subtle changes in plant and animal life. Their ecological knowledge can provide information on the impacts of development, disasters, or technological changes, or chart the gradual progress of phenomena like climate change.
Photo: Crested Auklets in the Kodiak Archipelago. Photo Courtesy Rich Macintosh.
Suu'ut ilait KRiistaartumataartut. - Some people wear a cross.
Introduced to Kodiak by nineteenth-century Russian Orthodox clergy, the Christian cross is a symbol that appears widely in Alutiiq communities. Although kRistaaqsounds like the word Christ, it comes from the Russian word for cross, kRest, which may be related to the Latin word ‘crux.’ It is not derived from KRistuusaq, the Alutiiq word for Christ, which comes from the Russian khristos and from the Greek khristos, meaning “the anointed one.” Both words are Alutiicized by adding -aq to their final consonant. This is one common way of turning Russian nouns into Alutiiq nouns.
As in other Christian communities, crosses are a common sight in Alutiiq villages, where they decorate homes, mark graves, and grace Orthodox churches. One notable characteristic is their three bars. The top horizontal bar signifies the sign placed above Christ’s head, where the Romans displayed the mocking title “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The second bar, also horizontal, represents the beam on which Christ’s arms were nailed. The third, lower bar is slanted. It represents the footrest that supported Christ’s body.
Photo: Crosses on the spired of the Three Saints Russian Orthodox Church in Old Harbor.
Mas’kaaq culungq’rtuq. - The mask has feathers.
Birds were a central part of classical Alutiiq society, both as an economic resource and as spiritual beings. In addition to eggs and meat, they provided a variety of feathers with important everyday uses. Eagle feathers were used in mattresses and as fletching for hunting arrows and toy darts. Waterfowl down could be used to start a fire, and feathered pelts were a primary material for clothing. Beautiful parkas were stitched from the skins of puffins and cormorants and worn as everyday clothing.
Feathers were also used for decoration. Inserted between the strands of spruce-root baskets, woven into grass mats, or sewn into the seams of clothing made from bear or sea mammal gut, feathers helped to accent the beauty of Alutiiq objects. Feathers also adorned spiritually powerful hunting hats and ceremonial masks, symbolizing the magical ties between people and birds. Birds were seen as helping spirits. They fed families, helped fishermen find schools of fish, marked currents and rocks, and led mariners to land in Kodiak’s dense fog. Modern fishermen still appreciate birds for these qualities.
Photo: Puffin skins sewn into a parka, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Qulnek sua’angq’rtua. - I have ten fingers.
The Alutiiq word sua’aq refers generally to a finger. Like English speakers, however, Alutiiq speakers have unique words for individual fingers. For example, Alutiiqs call the middle finger akulimaq, from the word for in-between. The second, or index finger is tekeq. Alutiiqs have a joke about people who wag their index fingers at others. This sort of nagging is said to make your finger grow longer!
Because most Alutiiq speakers don’t know the individual finger terms, language instructors recently translated “Where is Thumbkin,” a popular British children’s tune that teaches finger terms, into Alutiiq.
Some classic Alutiiq tools had special places for fingers. The throwing boards used to loft harpoons had specially carved grooves for the last three fingers. Harpoons featured a small finger rest, a crescent-shaped piece of wood or bone tied to the weapon’s shaft. The hunter placed his index finger on the rest to steady the harpoon while he prepared for a strike. One example in the Alutiiq Museum’s collections is carved from a walrus molar.
Photo: Harpoon finger rests. Koniag, Inc. collection, Karluk One.