Swaaciit imasinam akiani et’ut. - Tlingits are across the big ocean.
The Tlingit Indians of southeast Alaska are the Alutiiq people’s eastern neighbors. Their homeland extends from Yakutat Bay at the entrance to the Alaska Panhandle to northern coastal British Columbia. Like the traditional Alutiiq societies, Tlingit communities were once large and affluent. The Tlingit lived in big coastal villages organized around clans, extended families that worked and lived together. They had hereditary social classes, hosted elaborate winter festivals, kept slaves, waged warfare, and traveled widely.
Travel to the west brought Tlingit people into contact with Alutiiq communities. Interaction was most frequent in Prince William Sound. Here, contacts were both friendly and hostile. Traditional stories recount the slaughter of Alutiiq hunters who strayed into Tlingit territory as well as raids on Alutiiq communities that resulted in the death and enslavement of residents. Alutiiq communities took brutal revenge, developing a reputation for fierceness. These same accounts, however, reveal that neighboring communities also invited each other to compete in friendly games, participate in festivals, and trade.
Anthropologists believe that interaction between the two societies became more common in the late prehistoric era. At this time, southeast Alaska trade goods like abalone and dentalium shells appear more commonly in Kodiak’s archaeological sites, elements of Tlingit form line art appear in Alutiiq art, and Alutiiqs adopted items of Tlingit technology, like spruce root hats and two-pieced halibut fishing hooks. In turn, early historic Tlingit people are known to have utilized items of Alutiiq technology: skin-covered kayaks and sea otter harpoon darts.
Photo: Tlingit and Alutiiq dancers work together in a cultural exchange, Kodiak, summer 2011.
Suuget cimiutut. - People are trading.
Sun'ami maani napat amlertut, angsinarluteng cali. Kal'uni, Larsen Bay-mi napaitaartukut. - Here in Kodiak we have a lot of spruce trees and tall ones, but in Karluk and Larsen Bay we don't have any.
The Kodiak Archipelago lies at the ecological boundary of windswept coastal tundra and the foggy rainforests of coastal Alaska. Here, the coniferous forest gives way to grassy meadows and groves of cottonwood trees. Kodiak’s forests are young. Biologists believe that the Sitka spruce, known by its Latin name Picea sitchensis, began spreading into the area just nine hundred years ago, and it is still spreading southward. Black cottonwood trees (Populus balsamifera) are more ancient, colonizing the archipelago thousands of years ago.
The Alutiiq word napaq can be used to refer to a tree in general or to a spruce tree specifically. Although Kodiak’s forests are relatively young, wood collected from area beaches and both deciduous and coniferous trees are important for fuel and raw material. In Kodiak’s northern Alutiiq communities, Sitka spruce is a major source of firewood, and it was used in the construction of traditional sod houses, fish drying racks, temporary shelters, and many common wooden objects. Cottonwood was primarily used for smoking fish, because it burns slowly, creates a lot of smoke, and imparts a nice flavor. It was also used for carving children’s toys.
Photo: A grove of deciduous trees overlooking a bend in the Karluk River.
Angermek aturtaakait. - They used tree pitch.
Alutiiq people used every part of the spruce tree, from its wood and roots to its needles and sticky pitch. When the bark of a spruce is ripped or cut, sap collects at the site of the injury. Alutiiqs recognize two different types of pitch, soft and hard, that form in a variety of colors: clear, white, yellow, pink, and even black.
The harder pitch, particularly the pink, yellow, and white varieties, makes the best chewing gum and tends to occur on older trees. Alutiiq Elders recall the fun of gathering pitch for gum. As children, some spent entire afternoons searching the forests for lumps of hardened sap, fighting over the pink pieces, which had the best flavor. Others remember chewing spruce gum so often that everything they ate tasted of spruce. Today, people use the hard pitch to make a tea to treat colds and coughs or apply warmed lumps of the soft yellow pitch to cuts to stop them from bleeding.
Like many Alaskans, Alutiiqs once used spruce pitch as a sealant. By mixing soft pitch with a little oil and heating it, they created a paste for waterproofing the seams of bark containers or temporarily fixing small holes in skin boats. The oil helped to keep the pitch from cracking as it dried. Spruce pitch can also help you start a fire. Like bark, wood shavings, or bird down, it is a good source of tinder.
Photo: Pitch oozing from the trunk of a Sitka spruce tree.
Ulukaq aturluku. - Use the ulu.
Cuumi tan’urat etquat aturtaakait. - They used to use boys’ urine before.
Across Alaska, Native people used human urine for processing hides. In Alutiiq communities, urine was collected in wooden tubs stationed outside people’s houses. Hides were soaked in these tubs, where the ammonia acted as soap, breaking down fatty deposits clinging to the skin. According to Russian observers, animal gut for waterproof clothing was prepared by turning the gut inside out, scraping it clean with a shell, and washing it repeatedly in urine. Urine was also used to remove the hair from hides. Hides were soaked in urine and then rolled and left in a warm place to sit for several days until the hair could be easily scraped away. Urine was even used to help set dyes. In Prince William Sound, people soaked spruce roots dyed for basket weaving in urine to fix the color.
Alaskans also once used urine for washing, because of its grease-cutting properties. From southeast Alaska to the North Slope, Native peoples cleaned their hair, clothes, and bodies with sterile, freshly passed urine. Urine was also noted for its medicinal properties. In the Kodiak area, Alutiiqs used urine to clean sores and dislodge devil’s club needles from the skin. The urine caused the skin to swell, making the spines easier to remove. To relieve arthritis, people diced the leaves of the licorice fern, mixed them with urine, and heated the mixture to form a comforting poultice.
Photo: Larsen Bay student scraping bear gut, Alutiiq Week, 2013.
Anguyartut. - They are having war.
In classical Alutiiq society, where social positions were inherited and a small class of wealthy individuals acted as community leaders, warfare was a means of enhancing wealth. In addition to avenging wrongs, elite men led raids on other communities to acquire plunder and slaves, and increase their affluence. Neighboring Alutiiq communities were attacked, as well as more distant Aleut, Dena’ina and Tlingit villages.
In battle, warriors carried short wooden clubs, spears, bows, and specially fashioned arrows. The arrows were tipped with bone points that had thin, splintery barbs. Craftsmen designed these barbs to cause extensive internal damage by breaking off inside their victims. In addition to weaponry, warriors carried large shields made from thick planks of hardwood and wore protective vests of wooden armor. Fashioned from small pieces of wood and tied together with sinew, these sturdy yet flexible shirts protected a warrior’s chest from enemy arrows.
Warfare is a common topic in Alutiiq stories, where incidents leading to conflict often unfold in predictable ways. In many stories, visitors from a distant place ridicule and embarrass a community member—particularly a chief or a child. After the incident, community members secretly follow the offenders to their homes and take revenge, sometimes with the assistance of neighbors. These stories illustrate the types of events that led to conflict and probably reminded people about the consequences of cruel behavior. They also illustrate that the goal of conflict was not simply to punish the offender, as this could be done anywhere, but to separate the offenders from their possessions. By taking revenge in the offender’s home, raiders could acquire plunder.
Photo: War sheild and club made by Andrew Abyo. Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum's collections with support from the Rasmuson Foundation's Art Acquisition Initiative.
Nuusiq ipegcaru minguutamek. - Sharpen the knife with the whetstone.
For more than six thousand years, Kodiak’s Native people fashioned cutting tools from sheets of hard, black slate. Flensing knives for slicing blubber, ulus for splitting fish, and sharp-sided lances for hunting sea mammals were all carefully ground to shape and sharpened with the aid of whetstones—special sharpening stones. Tabular pieces of fine-grained siltstone, commonly found on Kodiak beaches, were used to hone tool edges to razor sharpness, perhaps with the aid of some water or oil. Many of the whetstones found in archaeological sites have been used repeatedly and have very smooth worked surfaces.
Kodiak’s prehistoric archaeological sites are also full of other types of grinding tools. In addition to the smooth whetstones used to sharpen slate implements, archaeologists find gritty pieces of pumice, scoria, and sandstone used to shape bone and wood objects, much like sand paper. Some of these have deep grooves from the tools shaped against them. Burnishing stones are also common. Smooth, flat pebbles were used to flatten the grain of wooden objects to create an even, lustrous finish. Masks, paddles, dishes, and many other objects were finished with this technique.
Photo: Whetstones from the Outlet site, Buskin River. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.