Naama uqgwingcut? - Where are the willows?
There are more than fifty species of willow (Salix spp.) in Alaska. One botanist estimates that seventeen of these species can be found in the Kodiak region. Although most Alaska willows are shrub-sized plants, northern species can range in size from dwarf bushes to full-sized tress. Willows thrive in moist soils, particularly along streambanks. Their edible parts include leaves, buds, new sprouts, and inner bark, which are excellent sources of vitamin C.
The most common use of willows among Kodiak Alutiiqs is as a spring vegetable. Tender young shoots and leaves can be collected throughout the archipelago in May and June and eaten raw or added to salads and side dishes. Some Alutiiq people serve willow shoots with sea seal oil or preserve the shoots in oil for later use. Others enjoy eating the leaves and shoots with milk and sugar, much like akutaq, or Alutiiq ice cream.
Willow wood is soft, so it is not considered a good source of fuel. Willow is only used to warm houses or smoke fish if other woods are not available. The plant’s soft wood, however, is a favorite material for Alutiiq children, who fashion whistles and slingshots from willow branches.
Photo: Large willow bush in a coastal meadow.
Cuknangqertuq ulugan. - Your pants got a hole.
The tools of classical Alutiiq society were often complex, featuring many parts. A harpoon, a cooking vessel, a suit of armor, or a mask had numerous carefully shaped, interlocking pieces. To fasten these pieces together, craftsmen drilled small holes for lashing and pegging.
Alutiiq people drilled holes in every type of material, from relatively soft mediums like wood, bone, and slate to much harder materials like ivory. How did they do it? Archaeologists aren’t entirely sure. Despite the great number of stone tools recovered from prehistoric settlements, very few appear to be drills. Some holes were probably drilled with the help of a bow drill–a wooden shaft fitted with a hard tip and rotated with a small bow. Other holes were likely made with a hand held bore. The biggest puzzle is how craftsmen drilled the tiny, precise holes in the ends of ivory needles.
One way to understand drilling technology is to examine cuknat. A study of slate ulus, household knives, illustrates some of the ways that craftsmen made holes. Many ulus had a hole on their upper edge for securing a handle. On some examples, a tight, circular, conical hole indicates the use of a rotary tool, like a bow drill. Interestingly, it was common for craftsmen to drill partly through an ulu, then turned it over and drilled through the opposite side to connect the holes. Other ulus have gouged holes. Here the craftsman used a tool to dig a hole into the slate blade, forming a long, narrow opening.
Photo: Slate knives with drilled holes, Outlet Site collection, Busking River, US Coast Guard collection.
Keniyaqama tuulautek aturtaagka. - When I cook I use tongs.
Una luuskaaq cirunemk canamauq. - This spoon is made from horn.
In the Alutiiq language the words for horn and antler are the same–ciruneq. Like antler, horn is a hard but flexible material that grows from an animal’s heads. Typically found in pairs, horns feature a core of bone covered with a hard layer of keratinized skin. The quality of the material depends on the type of animal and its condition. Healthy animals produce strong, elastic horn that can be made into beautiful objects.
In Prince William Sound and on the Kenai Peninsula, Alutiiq people harvested the horns of mountain goats. Both male and female goats have horns that grow continuously, laying down new rings of keratin each year. These horns are short–just 8 to 12 inches long, sharply pointed, and gently curved. From this material, craftsmen fashioned elegant spoons.
The first step in working horn is to clean out the spongy, blood rich, inner corn, a messy job that can be accomplished with a combination of soaking, scraping, or aging the horn. With a clean piece of material, carvers can season the material and work it dry, or soften the horn by soaking. Alutiiq methods of working horn are not recorded. However, they were probably similar to those of the neighboring Tlingit people, who also manufactured horn spoons. Tlingit carvers spit mountain goat horns in half, boil the pieces, soak them in oil, and then mold them to a desired shape. When it was time to carve, craftsman use warm water to soften the material. The final step was to buff the carving to create a shinny surface.
However they were made, Alutiiq horn spoons are works of art. Known in Alutiiq as alungun, from the root word for licking, theses spoons featured intricately carved handles with stacks of human and animal figures. On the wide shallow bowl, artists incised geometric designs and added inlays. Historic examples features tiny white glass beads set into the bowl. These elaborate decorations suggest that horn spoons were used in ceremonies, perhaps in combination with decorated wooden feast bowls.
Photo: Chugach Alutiiq spoon handle of mountain goat horn, ca. 1834. Courtesy the Etholen Collection, National Musuem of Finland.
Kaiwik angituq arwiryaa'akun. - The old woman is coming back via the bridge.
The Alutiiq word arwiryaa'aq means crossing place or ford, and it has come to mean bridge in modern usage. This word is distinct from the term niraq – which refers to a temporary bridge, like a log used to cross a creek or gulley.
While small nirat were probably common in Alutiiq communities, the distribution of ancient settlements suggests that people relied on boats to cross waterways. Along the Karluk River, archaeologists find many old villages where the remains of houses appear on opposite banks. In places, people may have crossed back and forth by wading. Parts of the river are very shallow. But in other places, it would have been easier to paddle. The historic village of Karluk was this way too. Families lived on both shores of Karluk Lagoon. People traveled by boat to go to the store and the post office, attend church, and visit. Historic photos show Karluk children from the north side of the river riding to school on the south side in a skiff. In the coldest weather, when the lagoon froze solidly, people could also walk or ice skate across the mile separating the parts of the community.
In 1940, options for crossing Karluk Lagoon expanded when a suspension bridge was built over the river. This narrow footbridge connected the southern side of the village with Karluk Spit, the gravel beach separating Karluk Lagoon from the ocean waters of Shelikof Straight. From the spit, people could walk to the northern part of the village. The bridge was about and four feet wide, enough for two people to walk side by side when crossing. It features a board-lined walkway and sides of netting.
This bridge functioned until January of 1978, when it was damaged by severe winter storm. An usually high tide and a storm with intense winds created a new river mouth. Waves washed away the community’s fuel tanks, damaged the bridge and people’s homes, and initiated dramatic erosion. Alaska Governor Jay Hammond declared a disaster and plans to assist the village began. With approval of the Village Council, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development built 23 new homes for villagers in a more protect location of the lagoon shore.
Photo: Suspension Bridge over the Karluk River, ca. 1960. Courtesy Koniag, Inc.
The Alutiiq language suggests that people recognized different types of combs. Kacagsuuteq is the Kodiak Alutiiq term for a hair comb. However, Prince William Sound Alutiiq speakers differentiate between wide-tooth and fine-toothed comb, implying that these tools had different functions. We know that lice were once common, household pests. Perhaps smaller toothed combs were used in the tedious job of removing nits from people’s hair, a remedy employed around the world. It is also possible that Alutiiq people used combs to work grass. Among the neighboring Yup’ik people, women straightened course grass with special combs before braiding the grass into rope.
Archaeological data indicate that Alutiiq people have been using combs for about 2,000 years. A comb from the Uyak Site is carved from antler. It has a tall, gently curved body and widely spaced teeth. This specimen is undecorated, but others from the same era are made of ivory and decorated with geometric patterns and animal carvings. Interestingly these tools appear in the archaeological record at a time when jewelry became popular. As such, these ancient combs were items of personal adornment.
Photo: Ancient Ivory comb, gift of Clyda Christiansen.
TRipiitsaalitaallriit qikumek. - They used to make bricks out of clay.
There were nine brick kilns in Russian America, including two in the Kodiak area–one on Long Island and another in Middle Bay. Here thousands for bricks were made for both local use and shipment to places like Sitka. In the 1820s, Russian colonists and Alutiiq laborers produced about 30,000 bricks annually on Kodiak. They made the bricks from local clay and lime produced by burning shells. Unfortunately, the resulting bricks were of poor quality. Seawater made the bricks porous and many crumbled. As such, Kodiak bricks were only used where they were badly needed.
In 1964, a local rancher found the Middle Bay brick kiln and reported it to archaeologist Don Clark. Erosion and road construction had exposed a part of the kiln, originally manufactured in August of 1828. Archaeological excavations show that the feature had a post and beam structure around it for protection and a storage barn, clay mixing pit, and workers quarters nearby. The kiln was about 16 feet square and of Roman design. Arches supported the floor of the kiln and provided a place beneath it for the fire. Vents allowed the heat to flow into the kiln and around the baking bricks to promote an even firing.
Photo: Historic brick from Long Island kiln, gift of Perry Eaton.
Verbs are particularly complicated part of Alutiiq speech. In Alutiiq, verbs include action words like paddle, spear, butcher, cook, eat, and think. However, they also include words like red or ugly, terms considered adjectives in English. Often, you can identify Alutiiq verbs by their endings. In Alutiiq dictionaries and lessons, verbs appear with a luni or luku ending. For example, nerluni means ‘to eat’, and kawirlirluni means ‘to be red.’
Verbs in Alutiiq have stems. Speakers follow a set of rule to identify the verb stem. Then, they add the appropriate suffix to show the time frame, the subject, or the object they wish to describe. These suffixes are known as postbases. Interestingly, postbases allow word roots to become nouns or verbs. The word for hinge, used in this lesson, is a good example. CaRniilaliluku, means hinge, or literally to make hinges.
Hinges likely became important in Alutiiq communities in the historic era, when people began to add western-style doors to their sod houses. Using nails and strips of leather or an old rubber boot, people created strong durable supports for hanging doors.
Photo: Sod house door, Old Harbor, 1946-1949. Andrewvitch Collection.