Mingqun kakiwigmi et’uq. - The needle is in the sewing bag.
Alutiiq women are known for their sewing skill. In ancient times, they used delicate ivory and bird bone needles, bird bone awls, and wooden spools of animal sinew to stitch fine clothing. Their tools were stored in sewing bags with scraps of fur and gut. Each bag was uniquely decorated with animal-hair embroidery and appliqué of dyed gut. When not in use, sewing bags were rolled up and tied closed.
In classical Alutiiq society, both men and women carried sewing tools, particularly when traveling. Men kept sewing kits in their kayaks to repair tears in the boat’s skin covering. Sewing tools were also used to fasten wooden slats into protective vests or armor, to stitch waterproof containers from birch bark, and to create tattoos. A soot-blackened length of sinew attached to a needle was passed under the skin to make permanent designs on the face, chest, or arms.
Sewing was often a social activity. Women enjoyed each other’s company as they produced clothing and covers for skin boats. Girls began participating at the age of six, making thread and braiding line. In some communities, Alutiiqs recognized a young woman’s coming of age with a public festival where her parents gave away their hunting and sewing tools. This act symbolized a family’s preparation for their daughter’s new adult life.
Photo: Decorated sewing bag, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Mamaayat malugnek salangq’rtut. - Clams have two shells.
The Kodiak Archipelago has more than 2,400 miles of shoreline, much of it covered with intertidal organisms. Most beaches have dense concentrations of shellfish, marine invertebrates, and plants. The region’s rocky shores are home to thick patches of barnacles, mussels, chitons, limpets, snails, and sea urchins, while sandy beaches hold clams, cockles, and tellins. Only the exposed cobble beaches of Kodiak’s outer coast and areas with heavy freshwater drainage are devoid of intertidal fauna.
In addition to food, this abundance of shellfish provided Alutiiqs with raw material. In the prehistoric era, shells were used as cutting and scraping tools and fashioned into decorative beads. Some craftsmen made beads from the center column of whelk shells. Others cut shells bead from clamshells. A collection of worked shell pieces from the Uyak site in Larsen Bay illustrates the process of creating clamshell beads. First the shell was broken into small pieces. These pieces were ground into circular disks with the aid of a sandstone abrader. The final step was to drill a hole in the center of the disk.
Some shells were particularly coveted for decoration. Alutiiqs obtained dentalium shells, the curved, white, tusk-shaped shells of scaphopods, in trade with the societies of southeast Alaska. They were used to decorate clothing and worn as earrings and nose pins and were considered extremely valuable. Historic sources indicate that a pair of delicate dentalium shells could be traded for an entire squirrel skin parka.
Photo: Ancient shell beads, Alutiiq Museum collections.
Naama lapaat'kaaqa? - Where's my shovel?
Digging tools were important in classical Alutiiq society, both for subsistence activities and for construction. Men and women used long, pointed pieces of whalebone to dig clams from the beach and unearth the roots of plants used for food and medicine.
Alutiiqs also fashioned shovels from wood and bone. Artifacts from the Uyak site in Larsen Bay illustrate that craftsmen shaped the scapulas of sea mammals and bears into shovel blades. These broad shoulder bones were drilled at the narrow end so a handle could be attached. Then the wide end of the bone was shaped and tapered to create the digging blade. Similar shovel blades are found in archaeological sites in western Alaska, illustrating the widespread use of this tool.
The use of bone shovels must be thousands of years old, because Alutiiq people built their houses by digging large foundation holes as early as 4,500 years ago. These early sunken floors were up to three feet deep and thirteen feet across, requiring builders to remove large amounts of earth during construction.
The Alutiiq word lapaat’kaaq comes directly from the Russian term for shovel, lopaatka, and illustrates how words from other languages have been absorbed into Alutiiq by simply adding an Alutiiq suffix.
Photo: Archaeologist Molly Odell shoveling dirt at the Amak site, 2012.
Qikarllut tuknirtaartut. - The sinew is strong.
Sinew is a general term for the tough, fibrous, connective tissue found throughout an animal’s body. Tendons and ligaments are both sources of sinew. Tendons connect bones to muscle, while ligaments connect bone to bone.
Sinew is a valuable raw material. In addition to being very strong, it is durable. Moreover, when moistened, sinew creates its own natural glue. Then, when the material dries, it shrinks. As such, it is excellent for creating tight lashings.
Alutiiq people used sinew for many tasks. Seamstresses created sinew thread for stitching garments, tied strips of sinew together to make nets, and braided sinew into thick cords. Carvers used sinew to lash together the pieces of multi-part tools, including everything from harpoons and arrows to vest of armor.
One of the most important uses of sinew was in stringing and reinforcing bows. Many Alutiiq long bows and recurve bows feature a thick bundle of braided sinew strands running down the back of the bow, from nock to nock. This band strengthened the bow, preventing it from breaking during use. Some bows even had a carved channel to help hold the sinew band in place. Caribou sinew, from along the animal’s spine, was particularly valued for backing bows.
Photo: A sheet of sinew and sinew strips created for sewing, courtsey of Coral Chernoff.
Una niuwacestaaq. - This is a telephone.
In the days of cell phones and high-speed Internet connections, it’s hard to imagine that just thirty years ago, many of Kodiak’s rural families had no phone service. Elders recall that signal fires were once used to send messages from one village to the next and that lookouts were posted on mountainsides to signal the arrival of boats before ship-to-shore radios helped fishermen communicate with their families.
In the mid-twentieth century, communication improved with regular mail boat service and the use of telegraph machines and short-wave radios. However, CB radios were the most popular form of communication before the telephone. In the mid-twentieth century, many islanders kept these portable devices in their homes and took them on fishing and hunting trips. Every family had their own radio name, which they used to call others on a widely monitored frequency. To talk, the callers switched to a different channel. Because anyone could listen in, callers often used codes to indicate private information, like the location of good fishing spots.
In the 1950s, Larsen Bay residents established their own community telephone system with surplus World War II phones, linking each house with wire strung through neighborhood trees and bushes. Modern telephone service to the villages began in the 1970s. Although most families did not own a phone, centrally located phones in places like the village post office or community hall provided worldwide telecommunication.
Photo: Woman speaks on the telephone ca. 1970. KANA Collection.
Allrani aigaqa cukirtaartuq. - Sometimes I get a sliver on my hand.
The Alutiiq word for thorn, cukiq, can be used to mean sliver, thorn, barb, quill, or even spruce needle, and the word for the prickly devil’s club, cukilanarpak, means “plant with big thorns.”
When northern European peoples immigrated to Kodiak in the late 1800s, it is likely they introduced a unique woodworking style known as crown of thorns. This carving technique uses notched and uniformly sized sticks to create objects that have a thorny appearance. Artists snap the individual sticks together at their notches, using thousands of pieces to assemble an object without glue or tacks. Puzzlework is another term for this construction technique.
Common examples of crown of thorns objects include bowls and wreath-shaped picture frames that look similar to the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Crown of thorns carving is considered a type of folk art, where artists use small pieces of notched or layered materials to create or cover objects. The materials are often scrounged. In the early nineteenth century, for example, cigar boxes were a favorite raw material for this type of art.
On Kodiak, Alutiiq carvers probably learned the crown of thorns technique from Swedish and Norwegian fishermen who married into their families, as the technique is thought to originate in Germany and Scandinavia. Craftsmen used pocketknives to whittle bits of driftwood into the small sticks needed to build objects, especially picture frames. Today, crown of thorns frames can be found holding icons in community churches or fitted with family pictures in Alutiiq homes. Red cedar is the favored material for this detailed, time-consuming work, which a few Kodiak artists continue to practice.
Photo: Crown of thorns style ornaments and icon frame, by Carol Gronn.
Kelugkanek aturtaartukut mingqu’akamta. - We always use thread when we sew.
Alutiiq seamstresses manufactured thread from the tendons of whales, porpoises, and seals. Thin strands of sinew were separated with the fingernails from sea mammal tendons and the resulting thread wrapped around a wooden spool. This sturdy sewing material was used to stitch clothing and lash together hunting and household implements. The wooden slats of a warrior’s vest of armor were tied together with sinew thread and dyed strands of sinew were woven into men’s belts. Porpoise sinew, used for the fine emboridery, was especially valued.
With sinew thread, a thimble made from a thick piece of hide, and sharply pointed awls and needles, Alutiiq women stitched and decorated clothing. With a bone awl, a seamstress would pierce a hole in the hide she was working and then use a slender bird bone or ivory needle to pull the thread through the hole. Some needles had tiny eyes. Others had a small knob for attaching the thread. Still other needles were unmodified. Women wrapped sinew strands around these implements to pass them through the holes made by their awls. Needles, thimbles, and spools of thread were stored in finely decorated sewing bags.
Photo: Youth and adults learn to make thread from Sinew with the help of Coral Chernoff.
Pisurtat nuqat aturtaarait. - Hunters used throwing boards.
Hunting with hand-propelled weaponry requires great strength and precision, particularly when you are pursuing sea mammals from a kayak in the open ocean. Alutiiq hunters improved the speed, force, and distance of their harpoon throws by employing a throwing board. This simple device was about a foot and a half long and carved of wood. It had a handgrip on one end, a long central body with a groove for a harpoon shaft, and a small hook at the far end. A hunter laid a harpoon in the thrower and then held the complete assembly behind his shoulder. When he was ready to throw, the hunter simply swung his arm forward and snapped his wrist to launch the harpoon. The leverage provided by the thrower acted as an extension of the hunter’s arm, creating a faster, more powerful throw.
Throwing boards also known as atalatals, were once used all over the world. On Kodiak they are very ancient. Throwing board parts from the Rice Ridge site near Cape Chiniak suggest that Kodiak hunters employed these tools more than seven thousand years ago. Similarly, a tiny ivory carving of a throwing board from the Uyak site in Larsen Bay suggests that the practice remained in place 1,500 years ago. In more recent times, Alutiiq throwing boards were embellished with animal carvings or painted designs. Sea otters and seal flippers are some of the motifs that adorn these ingenious tools.
Photo: Ancient Alutiiq throwing boards, Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.