WiRafkuuq ilag'ngauq. - The rope is knotted.
The Alutiiq verb for tying a knot–Ilagluni–is related to terms used for tangled, confused, or impassable. The sentence WiRafkuuq ilag'ngauq can mean either that a rope is secured with a knot or that it is tangled.
In classical Alutiiq society, sturdy, knotted ropes, cords, and lines were essential parts of many common tools. People secured harpoon points to shafts with twined cordage, towed sea mammal carcasses home with ropes tied to their kayaks, hunted birds with braided nooses, tied nets from nettle fiber, and retrieved fish from the ocean floor with hooks secured to long lines. In their homes, people suspended gear from the rafters with line, tied seal stomach containers closed to hold oil and plant foods, carried baskets with braided handles, and used cords in manufacturing clothing and jewelry.
Making line was a job undertaken by women, and one of the tasks little girls practiced. Historic accounts suggest that Alutiiq ladies preferred whale sinew for cord, but archaeological finds suggest that they also manufactured cords of grass, spruce root, and baleen. Fragments of these lines show that people created both three and four string braids, and that they used a box stitch to make sturdy lanyard-like cords.
Knotted fibers not only tied tools together, they helped repair broken items. An ancient water scoop, from Karluk illustrates this technique. A hole drilled in each side of a crack in the scoop allowed a craftsman to tying the crack shut with thin strips of baleen.
Photo: A man works to untangle a knotted seine. Photo by Mike Rostad, courtesy the Rostad.
Allrani iwaiyaqa qapuk qutmi, kesiin miktaartuq. – Sometimes I find pumice on the beach, but it is always small.
Alutiiq craftsmen once used pumice like sandpaper, to smooth the surfaces of tools during manufacture. Kodiak’s archaeological sites commonly contain pieces of pumice with facets, ground surfaces created by rubbing the stone against a bone or wood object. In more recent times, people used pumice to clean their stove tops, and anything else they wanted to smooth or shine.
Although Kodiak Island has no volcanos, pumice can often be found along the archipelago’s shores, delivered to the area by wind and tides from the volcanically active Alaska Peninsula. Much of the pumice found on Kodiak in the past century comes from the 1912 eruption of Mt. Novarupta on the Alaska Peninsula. The explosion, the largest in the 20th century, sent more than 30 cubic kilometers of volcanic debris into the air. Although prevailing winds carried much of the massive debris cloud toward the northern end of the Kodiak Archipelago, light weight pumice clogged the ocean and floated around the islands.
In the days following the eruption, people in boats reported that the pumice was a foot deep and that in Shelikof Strait, the pumice field was dense enough for a person to walk on! As the tides carried pumice to shore, and as pumice eroded from the Alaska Peninsula landscape, Kodiak beaches were inundated with the material. People found garbage can-sized pieces and collected pumice along the shores for decades.
Photo: Pumice and Scoria abraders from the Karluk One Site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Ukut kulunguat aihmnanek canamaut - These earrings are made from dentalium shells.
There are two types of dentalium found along the Pacific coast of North America. The most common, and the only type found in Southeast Alaska and Western Canada, is the Indian money tusk (Denatlium pretiosum). These one-footed creatures burrow into sea floor sediments where they feed on microscopic organisms. They often grow beneath deep waters, but can also be found close shore.
Dentalium are particularly common around Vancouver Island, where Native people once harvested them with weighted, broom-like tools. By dragging the broom across the sea floor, fishermen trapped dentalium in its bristles.
Native Alaskans fished for dentalium shells in the Copper River area and in several locales in Southeast Alaska. G.I. Davydov, a Russian Naval Officer, reported that the Tlingit harvested dentalium near the Charlotte Islands by immersing a human corpse in the water for several days. When they retrieved the body, dentalium would be clinging to it. Trade in dentalium shells is also a well-documented, with shells traveling great distances from the Northwest Coast to places like interior Alaska, Kodiak, and the Aleutian Islands.
Empty dentalium shells are ideal for beading, as they have a hole at each end. Alutiiq people sewed dentalium shells to hats, and used them in beaded earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and headdresses, and as nose pins. The shells were considered very valuable, and their use may be hundreds of years old. Pebbles incised with drawings of people more than 500 years ago seem to show dentalium shell necklaces.
Photo: Students with dentalium shell earrings made at the Alutiiq Museum.
Inartat kag'it'ruamek pilitaallriit. - They used to make baskets out of baleen.
For centuries Native Alaskans have used baleen to make containers, scoops, sled runners, line, nets and other useful objects. In the early 20th century, Inupiaq men in communities from Barrow to Point Hope began weaving baleen into baskets for the tourist trade. They followed traditional patterns for willow root baskets and often embellished their containers with small ivory carvings. Weaving baleen is difficult, as the material is flexible but stiff and plastic-like, and Inupiaq baleen baskets were thought to be the earliest examples. However, studies of archaeological materials from Karluk One indicate that baleen weaving was once an Alutiiq tradition.
The Karluk One site contains the remains of an Alutiiq village dating from about 600 years ago to the historic period. Baleen is common throughout the site’s prehistoric layers, both as raw material and as a part of finished objects. Karluk residents used thin strands of baleen to lash handles to tools, stitch the ends of bentwood vessel rims together, tie suits of wooden armor, join the pieces of model kayaks, braid cords, and weave baskets. There are pieces of three, open weave baleen baskets from the site. Thick vertical strands of baleen spaced about 1 cm apart were secured with thin horizontal bands of twining. One of the baskets is quite large, suggesting that it was used for collecting or storing items.
Photo: Baleen basket fragment, Karluk One site, ca. AD 400, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Wiinarpat guut'gpagtuut. – Walrus have big teeth.
Winarpk, the Alutiiq word for the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) translates as ‘big sea lion.’ This term that reflects the rarity of walrus in the Alutiiq homeland. Walruses are coastal resident of western Alaska, found along the shores of the Bering and Chukchi seas. These large sea mammals occasionally stray into the Gulf of Alaska, but the region’s warm, ice free waters are beyond their typical range.
Although walruses are not indigenous to the Gulf of Alaska, walrus ivory has made its way to Kodiak for thousands of years. Small, carved, ivory objects appear in Kodiak’s oldest sites. Although they are rare, these objects indicate Alutiiq people were familiar with the properties of ivory. About 2,500 years ago ivory became more common and settlements contain worked pieces of ivory as well as finished ivory objects. These artifacts suggest that ivory was accessible and worked regularly. Most of these ivory carvings are smalls and decorative. People made jewelry, amulets, and even dolls from ivory. One such carving, from the Uyak site in Larsen Bay, depicts a walrus head! But there are also some stunning, large ivory carvings. A figurine found on Afognak Island was fashioned from a 10-inch section of tusk.
Why do craftsmen value walrus ivory? Even the most compact bone has small holes that create a grainy appearance. In contrast, ivory is heavily mineralized, smooth, and free of irregularities. These characteristics allow ivory to be carved and polished into beautiful shapes.
Photo: Ivory carving of a walrus head. Uyak site, Larsen Bay Alaska, courtesy the Larsen Bay Tribe.
Salat inuat rirtut. - Shell insides are shiny.
The Pinto Abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) is a shallow-water, marine snail. It is one of eight abalone species that inhabit the Pacific coast of North America, and the only abalone that lives in Alaskan waters. It can be found from Alaska’s Yakutat Bay to Point Conception in southern California. This small abalone has an oval shell that can grow up to six inches long. It thrives in areas with kelp beds, a rocky sea floor, and currents, between the lowest limit of the daily tides to about 40 feet of water. Although the Pinto Abalone has an unremarkable, dull, tan or pink outer shell, the shell’s interior features a beautiful, glossy, blue-green nacre. This iridescent coating, also known as mother of pearl, is exceptionally strong.
Alaska Native artists prize the colorful, durable abalone shell. The Tlingit people have long used it to decorate clothing and jewelry. They wear abalone earrings, decorate blankets with abalone buttons, and once, fastened thin pieces of the shell to their faces with spruce gum. The Tlingit also inlay carvings with piece of abalone, lining many objects with shimmering pieces of shell.
Some of the abalone used in southeast Alaska was collected for food and raw material by Native residents. However, as abalone is found only on the outer western coast of southeast Alaska, and as Alaskan abalone has a smaller more brittle shell than California abalone, abalone was a major trade item along the northwest coast. Some of this material made its way to Kodiak.
At the Karluk One site, archaeologists recovered two pieces of abalone shell. The presence of abalone many hundreds of miles from its source illustrates the far-reaching trade networks that existed long ago. People traveled great distances to obtain valuable materials, materials that helped community leaders show both their wealth and ability to connect with distant people and places.
Photo: Inside of an abalone shell from Sitka Sound.