Uqgwik qelltairu. - Strip the bark from the alder.
Bark was once a widely used resource in the Kodiak Archipelago, despite the fact that the islands’ spruce forests are relatively recent. The coniferous woodlands of Shuyak, Afognak, and northern Kodiak began developing about 900 years ago, almost seven thousand years after people first inhabited the islands. For most of Kodiak’s human history, people collected bark from cedar and spruce driftwood; harvested it from deciduous plants like cottonwood, Kenai birch, mountain alder, Pacific red elder, salmonberry, and devil’s club; or obtained it in trade with the Alaska mainland.
Bark had many uses. People once employed spruce bark as roofing and siding material for homes and smokehouses. For construction purposes, Alutiiqs cut sheets of this material from the tree’s thick inner bark. Alutiiqs also fashioned cottonwood bark into a variety of items, including toys, gaming pieces, fish net floats, and even small masks. The bark of the mountain alder could be steeped in water to create a reddish-brown dye for coloring grass and wood, and dried spruce bark and Kenai birch bark were sources of kindling.
Bark also has medicinal qualities. It is particularly useful for wound care. Kenai birch and alder bark can draw the infection out of cuts and boils. Elders report that you can soften fresh pieces of bark in water and place them on a sore with the inner bark against the skin. Bandage the area and leave it to heal. Dried salmonberry bark can also help to heal wounds. People sprinkle the wound with a power ground from salmonberry bark then bandage it.
Photo: Bark maskette, Karluk One, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Maani tang’rtaanitua parananek. - I never see mountain goats around here.
Mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) are one of four large ungulate species introduced to Kodiak in the early twentieth century. These docile alpine grazers live on steep, rocky mountain slopes, where they eat grasses, herbs, and low-lying shrubs. The have pointed black horns, a thick white coat, and distinctive long hair along their backs, necks, shoulders, rumps, and legs. Mountain goats captured on the Kenai Peninsula were moved to Kodiak in 1952-53 and released in Ugak Bay’s Hidden Basin. Today there are more than 1,400 animals in the Kodiak region. A good hiker can get close to mountain goats, which rely on their rugged habitat for protection.
Although goats were not indigenous to Kodiak, Alutiiq people obtained their hair and horns in trade with the Chugach of Prince William Sound and the Dena’ina of the Kenai Peninsula. Alutiiqs used long goat hairs to embroider sewn objects and fashioned goat horn into elegant spoons. Craftsmen softened the horn with steam, bent it into shape, and carved it into intricate shapes. One of the Alutiiq words for mountain goat, paRanaq, is the same as the word for sheep.
A story from Prince William Sound indicates that Alutiiq hunters pursued goats with bows and arrows. To indicate ownership of a slain animal, a hunter might place an item of his clothing—a spruce root hat or a ground-squirrel parka—on the carcass. This gesture of respect also honored the goat’s spirit and welcomed it to the hunter’s village.
Photo: Mountain goat on northern Kodiak Island. Photo by Zoya Saltonstall.
KRaasiyaqa maaskaaqa. - I am painting my mask.
Painted designs are the final artistic touch on many Alutiiq objects. Artisans continue to decorate everything from masks, hunting hats, and paddles to household implements withcolorful geometric designs, animal shapes, and human figurines. In classical Alutiiq society, paint was also applied to the body. People reddened their faces before traveling or receiving guests, and warriors painted their faces before a raid. At winter festivals, dancers adorned their faces and chests with painted lines, and shamans performed naked, wearing only body paint. To show their grief, mourners covered their faces with black paint, and like travelers, the faces of the dead were painted red.
Before the availability of commercially manufactured pigments, Alutiiq people created paints from plants and minerals. Artists extracted colors from barks, grasses, and berries or created colorful powders by crushing red shale, iron oxide, copper oxide, and other minerals with a mortar and pestle. They mixed these pigments with a binder of oil or blood. Historic sources indicate that artists often cut their noses with shells to obtain blood for paint. Paint mixed with blood lasted longer than paint mixed with oil, and therefore it was used to decorate objects, like paddles, that were used in the water.
Artists applied paint to objects with their fingers, a small stick, or possibly a paintbrush made with animal hair. Archaeologists studying late prehistoric village sites have found small, decorated handles with a tiny knob on one end. They speculate that bristles were tied to these delicate knobs for fine painting. Native artists in southeast Alaska once used similar tools.
Photo: Objects associated with painting, Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection. Top row from left - Pumice grinder covered in red pigment, wooden bowl stained with red ochre, piece of red ochre, possible paint brush handle, piece of copper oxide; Bottom row from left - miniature skin sewing board painted with a sea otter, painted mask bangles (decorative attachments).
Asuq atunkirciiqaqa. - I'm going to reuse the pot.
Salvaging, recycling, and reusing are essential components of Alutiiq spirituality. In the Alutiiq world, animals are smarter than people. Seals, ducks, and salmon give themselves to people who must in turn demonstrate their respect. Thrift is an essential component of this relationship. By utilizing resources carefully, including every part of an animal, people show their appreciation and help to ensure a future supply of game.
This sense of thrift includes recycling. Alutiiq people are well known for reusing objects and materials. Archaeologists note this in ancient tool collections. Alutiiqs ground broken slate ulu fragments into lances and arrows, created fire starters from old kayak parts, and used the broken bases of wooden containers as cutting boards. In more recent times, Elders recall stitching underwear and slips from the pretty flowered sacks that held cooking flour, and fashioning stoves for their banyas from empty 55-gallon fuel drums.
Modern Alutiiq artists also demonstrate the value of thrift in their work. Look closely at contemporary works and you will find strips of a plastic crab pot buoy framing a painting, or pieces of polar fleece garments cut into decorative designs to adorn a scarf. Like their ancestors, artists transform leftover materials into objects with lasting beauty.
Photo: A rock paddle mended and then resused as a cutting board. Koniag, Inc. Collection, Karluk One.
MiskiiRat qar'usiq pingaktaantait. - Spiders don't like red cedar.
Two varieties of cedar are indigenous to coastal Alaska, the yellow cedar or Alaska cypress (Camaecyparis nootkatensis) and the western red cedar (Thuja plicata). Both are large evergreen trees with fibrous bark and a straight-grained, rot-resistant wood. Named for the color of their heartwood, in western North America, cedar trees grow primarily in the forests of southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Cedar has long been an essential resource to the Native societies of these regions. Although cedar does not grow around Kodiak, it was widely used by Alutiiqs, who collected it as driftwood.
Today, Alutiiq people use cedar primarily for firewood, because it burns cleanly. In the past, however, cedar was a coveted building and carving material. Cedar resists water more readily than spruce, so it was used to create objects that came in contact with moisture: houses, boats, hats, paddles and oars, hunting equipment, cooking utensils, and grave markers. Builders preferred to use cedar as the foundation logs and roof posts for sod houses, and in the historic era, they split roofing shingles from cedar.
Alutiiq people also used cedar in boat construction. Although red cedar is not a strong wood, it could be employed in any part of the kayak frame. It was a common choice for bow pieces. Where possible, craftsmen cut the curved prow of the kayak from a cedar stump, using the natural arc of wood formed by the tree trunk and its roots. To create kayak ribs and stringers, they soaked strips of cedar in hot water and bent them to shape.
Photo: Spitting a red cedar log on the beach at Cape Alitak.
Ernerpak pilallriit. - They sawed (wood) today.
Saws are a relatively recent introduction to Kodiak. Russian traders brought the first metal saws in the late eighteenth century. Before the introduction of European tools, however, Alutiiqs devised a variety of manufacturing techniques to complete jobs that employ saws today.
Bone and wood objects that needed to be cut in half were whittled around their girth, the way a beaver gnaws a standing tree. Then, the craftsman snapped the two halves of the object apart manually. Alutiiq people shaped sheets of slate into spears and knives in a similar way. A sharp-edged chip of stone from a beach cobble was used to saw grooves into thin sheets of slate, forming the outline of a tool. Excess slate was then snapped away following these grooves. Archaeological data indicate this technique is more than five thousand years old.
In the twentieth century, as dories replaced kayaks, metal saws became important for boat building. In gathering materials for handcrafted boats, Alutiiq carpenters cut natural knees—arched boat ribs—from living trees. They removed long, L-shaped sections of wood from the lower trunk of a standing tree and its associated roots. This produced a strong, naturally bent piece of lumber that could be cut into sturdy boat ribs. This technique did not kill the tree, but it left a distinctive scar. Evidence of this practice is preserved in the spruce forests of Kodiak and Afognak islands. You can still see dory-knee trees as you walk through the woods, particularly in stands of large trees near shore. The oldest scars bear the marks of saw teeth and axes. More recent scars reflect the adoption of chain saws.
Photo: Men sawing lumber in Ouzinkie. Marie Heinrichs Collection.
Wiinat carliangut. - The sea lions are having babies.
The Gulf of Alaska is home to the Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), the largest pinniped in the North Pacific. Bulls average 1,150 pounds, cows 580 pounds, and both are nearly ten feet long. Sea lions are opportunistic feeders that range from intertidal areas to the edge of the continental shelf. Fish are their primary food, although they also eat squid and an occasional harbor seal. Like seals, sea lions haul out on land to rest, breed, and pup.
Alutiiq people hunted sea lions both on land and in the water. Some animals were taken from kayaks with harpoons, but it was easier to capture them at rookeries. With clubs and spears, hunters would sneak up on resting sea lions, particularly during the summer pupping season.
In addition to food, sea lions provide an array of raw materials. Sea lion bone was fashioned into tools, intestine was used for clothing and containers, and whiskers decorated hunting hats. The most important resource, however, was the animal’s skin. Sea lions are one of the only sources of large hides in the Kodiak Archipelago. Kayaks and larger open skin boats were covered with sea lion skins, particularly those of cows. Sea lion skins were also used to cover the smoke hole of a sod house and to wrap the dead for burial.
Uquq isuwim suqani etaartuq. - Oil is always in the seal stomach.
Although seal meat makes a tasty meal, seals once provided much more than food. In classical Alutiiq society, every part of the animal was used. Skins were fashioned into clothing and boat covers, intestines were sewn into waterproof bags and jackets, strips of sinew from the animal’s powerful back were made into thread, seal bladders were shaped into drum coverings, and seal stomachs were made into food containers.
Seal-stomach containers were particularly common household items, and they were used well into the twentieth century. By late fall, the rafters of a typical house were heavily laden with seal stomachs full of summer foods. Berries, greens, oil, fish eggs, and other foods were packaged in these pokes. In addition to storage, such containers were also used to render oil from blubber. Pieces of blubber were stuffed into the stomach and both ends tightly lashed to prevent it from leaking. As it aged, the blubber would release the oil, which was then used for food, fuel, and to waterproof skins. Conveniently, the dark color of the seal stomach protected the oil from sunlight and its taste-altering effects.
Photo: Seal stomach poke from the Alutiiq Museum's collections, gift of the Matfay family.