Qangananek atkulitaalriit. - They used to make clothes out of ground squirrels.
The arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) is a largest ground squirrel in the new world. Known also as the tsik tsik, for its distinctive call, these plant-eating furbearers weigh up to two pounds and are about fifteen inches long. They have blunt faces, bushy tails, and a distinctive white speckled coat. Arctic ground squirrels occur widely across northern Canada, Alaska, and eastern Siberia and as far south as northern British Columbia.
Throughout the North, Native people trapped ground squirrels for food and clothing. Alutiiqs sewed their small furs together to make warm coats. A man’s ground-squirrel parka collected from the Bristol Bay village of Ugashik in 1883 features more than sixty pelts stitched together with sinew. This long, loose-fitting, hoodless robe was embellished with pieces of ermine, sea otter, and caribou furs.
Ground squirrels can be seen around northeastern Kodiak Island today, particularly in the Buskin River valley. They are also found on Chirikof Island and formerly inhabited Marmot Island. However, they are not indigenous to the region. Like many other Kodiak furbearers—beaver, muskrat, hares, and red squirrels—they are an introduced species. Archaeologists believe that Alutiiq people introduced these small mammals to the archipelago in prehistoric times, based on an abundance of ground squirrel remains in the archaeological sites on Chirikof Island and the animals’ limited capacity to reach the islands without human assistance.
How did Alutiiqs get pelts for clothing? Historic sources suggest that ground-squirrel pelts were traded to Kodiak from the Alaska Peninsula, Chirikof Island, and regions farther west. On Kodiak, therefore, ground-squirrel parkas were prized as a sign of wealth and influence.
Photo: Ground Squirrel, coutesy Steve Ebert, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Aanaqa isuwim qilunek kenirllia. - My mother cooked seal guts.
In addition to food and oil, Kodiak’s mammals provided Alutiiqs with gut: a flexible, durable, waterproof material derived from the intestines of bears and sea mammals. Gut was sewn into a variety of bags, caps, and hooded jackets: the Gortex rain gear of the past. Known today by the Russian term kamleika, these lightweight jackets were an essential part of a hunter’s tool kit. They kept him dry, providing protection from hypothermia in Kodiak’s wet, windy environment.
Each gut garment was individually tailored to fit its owner. Bear intestine, the widest and most supple source of gut, was the preferred material. After harvesting, lengths of gut were soaked in urine to remove fat. Then they were turned inside out, scraped clean, inflated, and hung to dry. The final step was to split the gut into wide swaths of material. These swaths were sewn into jackets with special waterproof stitches. Skin sewers folded a piece of ryegrass into each seam to absorb any water that seeped through the holes made by their needles. While stitching, they also decorated each garment with beads, feathers, pieces of hair, strips of dyed skin, and bird beaks.
Russian traders, who valued these lightweight, water-resistant jackets, commissioned Native women to produce garments styled after European capes. These prized items were a sign of high status. They were worn by Russian officers and given as gifts to visiting dignitaries.
Photo: Elders work with seal gut. Dig Afognak Program, Afognak Island.
Suk uksurtuwiqami nuyai qat'ritaartut. - When a person gets to be an Elder their hair turns gray (white).
Before the adoption of western hairstyles in the mid-nineteenthcentury, Alutiiq men and women wore their hair long. Men typically cut their hair at the shoulders and braided it. Women cut bangs across their foreheads but let their hair grow down their backs. A woman’s long hair was typically braided, or folded and tied at the back of her head. Like clothing and jewelry, special hairstyles were worn for different occasions. For winter festivals, people greased their hair with seal oil and adorned it with ochre and white feathers. And at the death of a close family member, mourners blackened their faces with soot and cut their hair short.
Hair also had economic and spiritual functions. Human hair was used to suture wounds. Animal hairs were used in embroidery, particularly the white chest hairs of caribou. Kodiak Alutiiq people obtained these hairs in trade with the Alaska Peninsula. The hairs were dyed and then used to decorate garments, caps, skin bags, and even boots.
According to traditional beliefs, the hair was a resting place for the soul. For this reason, shamans often used human hair on their dolls. Such dolls represent people who were waiting to be reincarnated, or they might reflect living people the shaman wished to harm. A shaman would carve a wooden replica of a person, attach a piece of the person’s hair or clothing, and then harm the doll by cuttingit, burning it, or sticking it with pins. The doll was then left for the person to find. This practice was believed to cause illness.
Photo: Pastor Chadwick receives a hair cut, Aognak village, ca. 1961. Chadwick Collection.
Nasquqa allrani anq’rtaartuq. - My head sometimes hurts.
Alutiiq people fashioned other headgear from wood, spruce root, and animal tissues. In their kayaks, men wore elaborately decorated hats and visors bent from wood. In addition to shielding their faces from rain and glare, these hats were a type of amulet, an object that provided spiritual assistance with the hunt. Helmets carved in the shape of a seal’s head were another type of hunting hat. Shaped like a hard hat, these hats featured a seal’s head on the crown, as if the animal were poking its head out of the water. Wooden figurines from archaeological sites depict hunters wearing these helmets, and illustrate that this type of hat is hundreds of years.
Alutiiq women made other hats by weaving spruce roots into round-rimmed caps, or stitching skins into tall, narrow headdresses. Like wooden hats, these garments were colorful and elaborately decorated. Spruce root hats were painted with geometric designs or animal faces, and embellished with beads and dentalium shells. Skin hats featured a stunning mix of bird and mammal tissues, with decorations of puffin beaks, tufts of hair, and embroidery. And in the historic era, Alutiiq ladies crafted beautiful gutskin hats modeled after the caps of Russian seafarers.
Caguyaq qupuramek canamauq. - The hunting hat is made of wood.
In the cool, wet Kodiak environment, hats are an essential item of clothing. Among Alutiiqs, headgear was once fashioned from many different materials. Warm, water-resistant hats were sewn from animal pelts and loon skins, woven from spruce root, and carved from wood. The most spectacular of these were bentwood hats, expertly bent to shape with steam.
Bentwood hats shielded their wearers from sun and sea spray, but they also held magical powers. These elegant hats hid the hunter’s human face and transformed him into a mystical being with the power to kill seals, porpoises, and whales. Each hat was elaborately decorated—a work of art reflecting the owner’s personality, achievements, and social status. Hats were brightly painted with geometric designs, images of sea mammals, and hunting scenes and then embellished with ivory carvings, beads, woven tassels, feathers, and sea lion whiskers. Each element was rich with symbolism. Some motifs recounted great chases; others referenced helpful bird or animal spirits.
On Kodiak, the typical hunting hat had a closed crown and a long brim. In contrast, Alutiiq people of the Alaska Peninsula wore bentwood visors with an open crown and shorter brim, much like their Yup’ik neighbors to the north. The art of hat bending continues today. Artists like Jacob Simeonoff of Akhiok and Peter Lind of Chignik are passing this tradition to the next generation, teaching carving and bending and helping students develop their own unique decorative styles.
Image: Alutiiq hunter in decorated benwood hat. Detail of watercolor by Helen Simeonoff, Alutiiq Museum collections.
Kulutruaq gua’i. - The labret is right here.
Throughout Alaska, many Native people wore labrets: decorative plugs of bone and stone inserted through holes pierced in their cheeks and below their lips. Alutiiq men and women wore labrets singly or in pairs. At birth, babies were fitted with a tiny starter labret, often made of ivory. Over the course of an individual’s life, they enlarged their labret hole to hold a series of bigger plugs. A larger labret might be inserted to recognize a marriage, the birth of a baby, or another important life event. Some labrets were decorated with inlays of animal teeth, incised with geometric designs, painted with ochre, or embellished with strings of beads.
Craftsmen carved labrets in many different shapes. Some look like top hats, others like a whale’s flukes or a large spool. Anthropologists believe that labrets acted as symbols of personal identity, illustrating the status and family of the wearer. High-status individuals wore large, highly decorated labrets, and each family may have had its own style. Labrets first appeared in the Kodiak Archipelago about 2,500 years ago, at the same time that other forms of jewelry developed. Labrets disappeared rapidly in the historic era because of western intolerance and changing social circumstances. Explorers, merchants, and missionaries were unanimously horrified by a practice they believed caused facial disfigurement.
Photo: Labrets from Kodiak Island, Alutiiq Museum collections.
Uyamillquan qup’artllria. - Your necklace got broken.
In classical Alutiiq society, jewelry was an important means of social and personal expression. Decorative lip plugs, nose pins, ear ornaments, bracelets, arm bands, belts, pendants, and necklaces were worn by both men and women, providing outward signs of the wearer’s place in society. Jewelry helped to indicate wealth, social standing, and passage through life events like coming of age or marriage.
In the historic era, Alutiiqs made necklaces from colorful glass beads imported from European factories by fur traders. They strung the beads on lengths of animal sinew and tied multiple stands together to create jewelry. In earlier times, Alutiiqs formed beads by mixing clay with seal oil or by carving them from shell, coal, stone, bone, ivory, or amber. A necklace collected in Kodiak in the nineteenth century features more than three hundred tiny bird claws set into each other to form small loops.
Children wore a different type of necklace, referred to today as a spirit pouch. At birth, a midwife dried the child’s amniotic sack or a portion of the placenta and placed it in a small pouch made of hide or cloth. The child wore this pouch around the neck as a protective charm for comfort and security. As the sack and placenta protected the child during pregnancy, they protected him or her in life.
Photo: Necklace and earrings of dentalium, glass beads, and abalone by Alutiiq artist LaRita Laktonen.
KRaasiyaqa maaskaaqa. - I am painting my mask.
Painted designs are the final artistic touch on many Alutiiq objects. Artisans continue to decorate everything from masks, hunting hats, and paddles to household implements withcolorful geometric designs, animal shapes, and human figurines. In classical Alutiiq society, paint was also applied to the body. People reddened their faces before traveling or receiving guests, and warriors painted their faces before a raid. At winter festivals, dancers adorned their faces and chests with painted lines, and shamans performed naked, wearing only body paint. To show their grief, mourners covered their faces with black paint, and like travelers, the faces of the dead were painted red.
Before the availability of commercially manufactured pigments, Alutiiq people created paints from plants and minerals. Artists extracted colors from barks, grasses, and berries or created colorful powders by crushing red shale, iron oxide, copper oxide, and other minerals with a mortar and pestle. They mixed these pigments with a binder of oil or blood. Historic sources indicate that artists often cut their noses with shells to obtain blood for paint. Paint mixed with blood lasted longer than paint mixed with oil, and therefore it was used to decorate objects, like paddles, that were used in the water.
Artists applied paint to objects with their fingers, a small stick, or possibly a paintbrush made with animal hair. Archaeologists studying late prehistoric village sites have found small, decorated handles with a tiny knob on one end. They speculate that bristles were tied to these delicate knobs for fine painting. Native artists in southeast Alaska once used similar tools.
Photo: Objects associated with painting, Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection. Top row from left - Pumice grinder covered in red pigment, wooden bowl stained with red ochre, piece of red ochre, possible paint brush handle, piece of copper oxide; Bottom row from left - miniature skin sewing board painted with a sea otter, painted mask bangles (decorative attachments).