ALUTIIQ MUSEUM  215 Mission Road, Kodiak, Alaska 99615   |  844-425-8844  |  view calendar > | search >
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Word in Alutiiq: Nepyutaq; Nept’staq; Nep’at’staaq
In a sentence:

Nept’stanek nuryugtua. - I need some glue.

MP3 File: glue

Without the aid of nails, superglue, or duct tape, Alutiiq craftsmen invented many ingenious ways to join the pieces of their complexly designed tools. The parts of a harpoon shaft, for example, were specially carved with scarfs to fit snugly together and then lashed to hold them in place. In addition to scarfing and lashing, glue was used for a variety of projects. Some ulu handles appear to have been secured to their slate blades with glue, ands mall objects, like mask attachments, may have been glued in place. Archaeologists report that birch bark was glued over the joints of prehistoric sea otter darts.

How did the Alutiiq make glue? Historic sources don’t provide many clues, but information from Aleutian Island Elders illustrates one way it can be done. In the Aleutians, glue is traditionally manufactured from fur seal flippers, both front and back. About half of the blubber from the flippers is removed and then the remaining parts boiled with water to create a thick paste.  The resulting glue is particularly well suited for joining wood to wood. It creates strong, lasting bonds, but smells badly if left sitting too long. Another method of manufacturing glue is to simply boil cod eyeballs in a pot of water. The eyeballs are crushed as they cool, and then the mixture is stored in a cool, dark place in a bit of seal gut with both ends tightly tied.

Photo:  Salmon harpoons designed to fit together.  Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. collection.

Grasses (plural)
Word in Alutiiq: Weg’et
In a sentence:

Weg’et kiagmi anglitaartut. - The grass grows tall in the summertime.

MP3 File: grass

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.

Word in Alutiiq: Nutek
In a sentence:

Taatillka nutengq'rtaallia. - My late father always had a gun.

MP3 File: gun

The Alutiiq word for gun, nutek, is closely related to the word nutegluku, “to shoot it.” The first firearms Alutiiq people encountered were flintlock muskets imported by Russian traders.  Stephen Glotov, who wintered in Alitak Bay in 1763, used musket fire to scare Alutiiq warriors attacking his ship. The warriors fled but returned later with shields impenetrable to Russian musket balls. In 1784, Alutiiqs suffered the destructive power of cannons when entrepreneur Gregorii Shelikhov attacked the settlement at Refuge Rock off Sitkalidak Island. When musket fire failed to subdue the community, Shelikhov fired two half-pound cannons at their sod houses, killing many and crushing further resistance.

Some historic sources suggest that guns were not initially traded to Native people, that firearms were a limited, valuable commodity Russian traders kept for themselves. However, archaeological data suggests that guns were part of Alutiiq households in the early decades of the nineteenth century. At Mikt’sqaaq Angayuk, “Little Partner,” an archaeological site, archaeologists found lead shot, gun parts, and a gunflint in an Alutiiq sod house dating to the 1820s.

Although Alutiiqs apparently had guns in the Russian era, their arrows and lances were better hunting weapons. The loud report of muskets frightened game, and their iron parts corroded quickly in the rain and salt spray. Most muskets survived in Russian America for only a few years.

More widespread use of guns began in the 1860s, when muzzle-loaded percussion cap lock guns replaced flintlock muskets.  Explosive caps, a valuable trade good, ignited the powder charge in these weapons. Like arrows and lances, Alutiiq hunters often fired percussion guns from double-holed kayaks. The person in the front seat operated the gun, while his partner used a paddle to steady the boat from the rear.

In the early years of the American era, traders imported surplus civil war .44 caliber rifles that fired small rim fire cartridges, as well as some .50 caliber rifles. Rifles that fired large center fire cartridges replaced these older-style guns.

Photo: Lead shot, gun part, and a gunflint from an Alutiiq sod house ca. 1820s,ikt’sqaaq Angayuk site. Leisnoi, Inc. collection.

Guts; Intestines
Word in Alutiiq: Qilut
In a sentence:

Aanaqa isuwim qilunek kenirllia. - My mother cooked seal guts.

MP3 File: guts

In addition to food and oil, Kodiak’s mammals provided Alutiiqs with gut: a flexible, durable, waterproof material derived from the intestines of bears and sea mammals. Gut was sewn into a variety of bags, caps, and hooded jackets: the Gortex rain gear of the past. Known today by the Russian term kamleika, these lightweight jackets were an essential part of a hunter’s tool kit. They kept him dry, providing protection from hypothermia in Kodiak’s wet, windy environment.

Each gut garment was individually tailored to fit its owner. Bear intestine, the widest and most supple source of gut, was the preferred material. After harvesting, lengths of gut were soaked in urine to remove fat. Then they were turned inside out, scraped clean, inflated, and hung to dry. The final step was to split the gut into wide swaths of material. These swaths were sewn into jackets with special waterproof stitches. Skin sewers folded a piece of ryegrass into each seam to absorb any water that seeped through the holes made by their needles. While stitching, they also decorated each garment with beads, feathers, pieces of hair, strips of dyed skin, and bird beaks.

Russian traders, who valued these lightweight, water-resistant jackets, commissioned Native women to produce garments styled after European capes. These prized items were a sign of high status. They were worn by Russian officers and given as gifts to visiting dignitaries.

Photo:  Elders work with seal gut.  Dig Afognak Program, Afognak Island.

Word in Alutiiq: Nuyat
In a sentence:

Suk uksurtuwiqami nuyai qat'ritaartut. - When a person gets to be an Elder their hair turns gray (white).

MP3 File: hair

Before the adoption of western hairstyles in the mid-nineteenthcentury, Alutiiq men and women wore their hair long. Men typically cut their hair at the shoulders and braided it. Women cut bangs across their foreheads but let their hair grow down their backs. A woman’s long hair was typically braided, or folded and tied at the back of her head. Like clothing and jewelry, special hairstyles were worn for different occasions. For winter festivals, people greased their hair with seal oil and adorned it with ochre and white feathers. And at the death of a close family member, mourners blackened their faces with soot and cut their hair short.

Hair also had economic and spiritual functions. Human hair was used to suture wounds. Animal hairs were used in embroidery, particularly the white chest hairs of caribou. Kodiak Alutiiq people obtained these hairs in trade with the Alaska Peninsula. The hairs were dyed and then used to decorate garments, caps, skin bags, and even boots.

According to traditional beliefs, the hair was a resting place for the soul. For this reason, shamans often used human hair on their dolls. Such dolls represent people who were waiting to be reincarnated, or they might reflect living people the shaman wished to harm. A shaman would carve a wooden replica of a person, attach a piece of the person’s hair or clothing, and then harm the doll by cuttingit, burning it, or sticking it with pins. The doll was then left for the person to find. This practice was believed to cause illness.

Photo: Pastor Chadwick receives a hair cut, Aognak village, ca. 1961.  Chadwick Collection.

Word in Alutiiq: Mulut’uuk; Murut’uuk
In a sentence:

Allrani mulut’uuq atu’akamgu aigaqa mulut’uurtaaqa. - Sometimes when I use the hammer I hit my hand.

MP3 File: hammer

Before the availability of iron tools, Alutiiq people fashioned hammers from hard stones. They collected greywacke and granite cobbles from Kodiak beaches for help with chipping, pounding, and splitting jobs. Small hand-sized stones with pitted sides and ends illustrate the use of hammerstones for delicate jobs like shaping pieces of chert into scrapers and arrow points. Larger cobbles with heavy battering attest to rougher jobs. With these tools, Alutiiqs hammered tent stakes, split bone and wood for carving, and knocked spalls from other cobbles to make sharp-edged butchering and scraping tools.

Although Kodiak’s Native people used hammerstones throughout prehistory, large, carefully made mauls occur mainly in the late prehistoric era. This trend reflects the construction of multiroomed houses, fishing weirs, and large, open skin boats. As Alutiiqs began to build large wooden structures, they developed new tools to help. Fashioned from greywacke cobbles, D-shaped mauls feature large horizontal and vertical grooves, suggesting that they were hafted to make heavy-duty hammers.

Photo:  D-shaped maul of granite.  Karluk One Collection, courtesy Koniag, Inc.

Word in Alutiiq: Ayaquq
In a sentence:

Ayaquq egtaakait cuumi arwanun. - They used to throw a harpoon at a whale before.

MP3 File: harpoon

For thousands of years Alutiiqs used harpoons to hunt sea mammals in Kodiak’s rich marine waters. Harpoon points were carved from bone and fitted into a wooden shaft equipped with an air-filled float. Alutiiq people used two kinds of harpoon points: a barbed point that stuck directly into an animal and a toggling harpoon designed to turn sideways in prey. The float was made from an inflated seal stomach. It acted as a drag on the wounded sea mammal and made the animal more visible in the water.

Alutiiq kayakers hurled their harpoons with the help of a throwing board. This wooden tool acted as a lever, lengthening the arm and improving throwing distance. It also allowed hunters to throw with greater force. Once wounded, the sea mammal was followed until it could be dispatched with a slate lance. To save the animal’s blood, which was eaten, wooden plugs were inserted into the wounds. Then the animal was tied to the hunter’s kayak and towed home.

Photo: Bone harpoon head, ca. 1200 years old, Uyak Site, Larsen Bay Tribe Collection.

Podcast Available: Harpoon
Word in Alutiiq: Cawik
In a sentence:

Cawik tamaani uyaqsami patam Kal’uni amlertaartut. - There is a lot of iron around at Larsen Bay and Karluk.

MP3 File: iron

Although metals were a rare material in Alutiiq communities before the historic era, they were not unknown. Kodiak Alutiiq people traded with the Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound for copper from the Copper River area and collected small pieces of naturally occurring graphite, hematite, and iron. Strong ocean currents also brought metal to the Alutiiq homeland, washing Asian shipwrecks ashore. From this flotsam, people collected iron objects, like nails, that may have been incorporated into tools or hammered into useful shapes. A prehistoric tool handle from Larsen Bay’s Uyak site features an iron stain on its working end. Perhaps an ancient craftsman lashed a small piece of iron to the handle for use in delicate engraving or hole piercing.

In the historic era, iron tools gradually replaced traditional stone implements. Some new tools supplanted older forms. Other tools were simply updated with metal parts. A crooked knife in the Smithsonian’s Fisher Collection, collected on the Alaska Peninsula in 1884, features a steel blade for carving. However, this blade is lashed to a caribou-rib handle with spruce root, not unlike the carving tools traditionally made with beaver incisors. And ulu knives, once made of ground slate, were refitted with iron blades fashioned from discarded saw blades.

Photo: Daryl Squartsoff holds a Russian era iron axe head, Karluk, 1984.

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