Siilaq ipegtuq. - The awl is sharp.
An awl is a sharp, pointed tool used to punch holes in leather. In prehistoric times, Alutiiqs fashioned awls from wood, bone, and ivory. Archaeological data indicate that bird bone was the most common material. To create an awl, a carver removed the knobby ends from the hollow wing bone of a large bird. This created a tube from which long narrow slivers of bone were cut. The slivers were then ground to a sharp point with a piece of pumice or sandstone.
Awls were an important component of sewing kits. Using an awl, a seamstress would punch multiple holes in the skins she was working. Then, she used her needle to pass strands of sinew through the holes to create stitches. This kept her delicate needle from breaking.
In addition to clothing, women sewed skin covers for traditional boats. Each spring, groups of women worked together to mend old covers and create new ones from sea-mammal hides. An older woman might lead the group, creating pieces of thread from porpoise sinew while directing the sewers. When finished, the cover was oiled, pulled over a wooden boat frame, and stitched closed.
Photo: Bird bone artifacts demonstrating the process of creating an awl. Uyak collection, courtesy the Larsen Bay Tribe.
Makut pinguat cucunartut. - These beads are beautiful.
In classical Alutiiq society, wealthy people displayed their social position through elaborate personal ornamentation. In addition to jewelry, members of the Alutiiq elite wore tattoos and ornate garments to symbolize prestige. Before the availability of European goods, clothing and jewelry were embellished with a variety of hand-carved beads. People fashioned shell, bone, ivory, amber, coal, slate, and even halibut vertebrae into decorations for parkas, rain gear, headdresses, bags, and labrets. In Prince William Sound, Alutiiqs made shiny beads of unbaked clay mixed with seal oil, and on the Kenai Peninsula, people carved beads and nose rings from a distinctive red shale.
With the arrival of Russian fur traders, glass beads replaced those made locally and became an important commodity. Manufactured in distant Asian and European factories, these colorful trinkets were inexpensive, easy to ship, and coveted by Native peoples. In return for their labor, the Russians paid Alutiiqs with beads and other cheap baubles, ensuring a large profit for themselves. For Alutiiqs, new varieties of brightly colored beads fit well into the prestige-based economy and were widely incorporated into ancestral arts. The Cornaline d’Aleppo, a dark red bead made in Venice, was particularly prized, perhaps because its color resembled traditional red pigments.
Photo: Detail of a beaded headdress collected on Kodiak ca. 1972 by Alphonse Pinart. Courrtsey the Château-Musée. Photograph by Will Anderson.
Arya'aq nacartumauq. - The girl is wearing a beaded headdress.
Alaska Natives in communities from interior Alaska to the southeast coast once wore beaded headdresses. Among the Alutiiq people, headdresses were an important item of ceremonial regalia, worn at festivals for dancing, feasting, and visiting. Women’s headdresses were typically made from hundreds of glass beads strung on sinew and embellished with feathers colored with cranberry or blueberry juice. Strands of small beads were tied into a tight-fitting cap with many dangling lengths attached to the sides and the back. These attachments often featured larger, heavier beads that swayed, glittered, and jingled as the wearer moved. In Prince William Sound, the daughters of Alutiiq chiefs wore headdresses of beads and dentalium shell that extended far down their bodies, sometimes reaching their heels. Such lavish garments were a symbol of wealth. Teenage girls and young women typically wore beaded headdresses, perhaps to symbolize their passage into adulthood.
Men also wore headdresses. These garments were hood-shaped, and although they might include beads, they lacked the long strings associated with women’s headdresses. Some were made of ermine skins decorated with feathers, pieces of animal hair, strips of leather, and gut and embellished with embroidery. These ornate decorations symbolized social prestige, but they also indicated respect for the spirit world.
Image: Girl in fur and bead headdress. Watercolor painting, by Helen J. Simeonoff, Alutiiq Museum Collection AM459
Tayarnerutamek nuliqa pikisk’gka. - I gave my wife a bracelet.
The Alutiiq word tayarnerutaq literally means “something for your wrist.” In classical Alutiiq society, a number of objects fell into this category. Some items worn on the wrist were jewelry, bracelets created for adornment. In the nineteenth century, Alutiiq women wore bracelets fashioned from glass beads. Worn at winter festivals, these beautiful ornaments symbolized wealth and were part of a cultural emphasis on beauty.
Traditional shaman’s gear also included bracelets. William Fisher, a collector for the Smithsonian Institution, obtained a pair of such bracelets from the community of Ugashik in about 1885. Each was made from the snouts of river otters and embellished with bone pins and a smooth river pebble.
Alutiiq men wore another type of wristband: functional baleen clips that fastened around the cuffs of waterproof gut parkas. Shaped like a bracelet, these clips kept ocean and rainwater from running up one’s sleeve when the arms were raised. An archaeological example from Karluk is bent from a thin piece of wood and features a thin groove around its center. The clip slipped over the wearer’s hand. Then it was tied around his wrist and cuff with a piece of line that rested in the encircling groove.
Photo: Wrist clip of baleen, Karluk One Collection, Koniag, Inc.
Agunanek piliyuq. - She is making clothes.
Sewing in classical Alutiiq society 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. Some communities recognized a young woman’s coming of age with a public festival where her mother gave away her sewing tools. This act symbolized the family’s preparation for their daughter’s new adult life.
In addition to providing protection from the weather, clothes symbolized an Alutiiq person’s place in society. A garment’s animal skins and decorative elements reflected their wearer’s age, gender, and social position. Members of the wealthy ruling class wore elegantly decorated parkas of sea otter, fox, or ground squirrel pelts, or furs imported from the mainland. Jewelry and tattoos added to the appearance of prestige imparted by these rich materials. In contrast, the less affluent wore simple clothes sewn from bird or seal skins. Whatever your status, your clothes provided a spiritual link to the animal world. Alutiiq people kept their garments clean and well repaired to show respect for the creatures that supported human life.
Photo: Cormorant skin parka. Etholen Collection. National Museum of Finland.
Atkut makut maqartut. - These coats are warm.
Before the introduction of western clothing, Alutiiq men and women wore a long, hoodless robe made of fur and bird skin. Puffins, cormorants, and other sea birds provided the primary raw materials for elaborately decorated parkas. Bird hides were not formally tanned like sealskins, but were scraped and cleaned to soften the pelts. The number of pelts needed for each parka varied by species and garment design. One historic source reports that it took 150 cormorant neck skins to create a snow-falling parka, the style of garment worn by many Alutiiq dancers today. Cormorant neck feathers are a beautiful shimmering black color and very smooth.
The large number of bird hides needed for clothing each year illustrates the importance of bird hunting to the Alutiiq economy. If the majority of Alutiiq people had one bird skin coat per year, and Kodiak’s late prehistoric population was about 10,000 people, Alutiiq communities must have harvested tens of thousands of sea birds annually.
By the mid-nineteenth century, imported, easy to maintain fabric clothing began to replace skin garments. Fabric clothes were often worn indoors and traditional parkas donned as coats. Today, skin sewers are reawakening the parka tradition, replicating garments preserved in museum collections and creating traditionally styled clothing for use in cultural celebrations.
Photo: Squirrel sking parka. Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Kulunguaqa kataigiiyaqa. - I dropped my earring.
Earrings are one of the many items of personal adornment that Alutiiqs once used to express social identity. Like labrets, nose pins, necklaces, belts, and decorated clothing, earrings were worn by men and women and incorporated valuable materials to illustrate the wearer’s status. Historic paintings from the early nineteenth century show Alutiiq people with earrings tied in their earlobes and around the rims of their ears, with up to eight piercings per ear. These earrings were fashioned from strings of European glass trade beads. Other common materials included handmade beads of shell, coal, amber, and ivory and slender dentalium shells from southeast Alaska.
How long have Alutiiqs worn earrings? Archaeological data suggest that this practice may be more than 2,000 years old. Beads and other jewelry begin appearing in Kodiak’s archaeological record about 2,700 years ago and coincide with a period of population growth, extensive long-distance exchange, and increased warfare. It appears that people began wearing jewelry at this time as a way to express their affiliation with particular social groups. Earrings may have been part of this expression.
People wearing earrings are also depicted on incised pebbles, small pieces of engraved slate that appear in archaeological sites about six hundred years old. Although the function of these pebbles is unknown, they show people in ceremonial dress, and some are wearing vertically dangling strings of beads that appear to be earrings.
Photo: Child making dentalium shell earrings.
Aritenka tamartaanka. - I loose my gloves all the time.
Gloves and mittens are an essential piece of clothing in northern environments. Like warm fur parkas and insulated sod houses, they are one of the cultural adaptations that protect people from frostbite and hypothermia. Yet references to Alutiiq gloves, and examples of such garments, are rare.
In Prince William Sound, Alutiiqs are reported to have made mittens from bear paws, adding a separate piece of hide to form the thumb. A Smithsonian Institution collection includes a pair of mitten liners woven from grass. And Kodiak Elders note that people once lined mittens with dried moss to increase their warmth.
The limited use of gloves and mittens is in keeping with the limited use of shoes. Although Alutiiqs made and wore boots, they reserved footwear for the harshest weather.
This cultural preference for bare hands and feet may reflect a physiological adaptation to the cold shared by many northern peoples. The hands and feet of arctic dwellers maintain a consistently higher temperature than those of other human populations. This is caused by cold-induced vasodilation, a physiological process that moves blood from the trunk to the extremities.
Arctic dwellers have a more rapid onset of this process. They divert heat more easily to areas of the body that are far from the core, lose heat more rapidly, and are frequently exposed. This adaptation is critical in cold environments where people need their hands free to manipulate weaponry and tools. It is also evidence of the remarkable ways that human populations adjust both culturally and biologically to their surroundings.
Photo: Mitch Simeonoff runs a skiff in Alitak Bay, 2010.