ALUTIIQ MUSEUM  215 Mission Road, Kodiak, Alaska 99615   |  844-425-8844  |  view calendar > | search >
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Word in Alutiiq: Tunngat
In a sentence:

Tunngat manigtut p’hnami. - The puffins are laying eggs on the cliff. 

MP3 File: puffins

Puffins, also known as sea parrots, are members of the auk family. The Kodiak Archipelago is home to two varieties of this bird, the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) and the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata). Both have large, brightly colored, yellow and orange beaks, with white breast feathers and black back feathers. In summer, they live in nearshore ocean waters where they nest on cliffs, between boulders, and in burrows. In winter, they move out to sea. Although puffins are small, weighing just one to two pounds, Alutiiqs captured them for both food and raw material. The meat of the puffin is said to taste like tuna fish.

Puffin skins were one of the most common materials used for parkas and were typically worn by the poor. It took up sixty puffin skins, complete with their white breast feathers, to make such a garment. Puffin beaks also adorned a variety of objects. They decorated clothing, were tied to drums, and in Prince William Sound, they were worn on the aprons of shamans performing at festivals. However, their best-known use was on dance rattles. One of three traditional musical instruments, these rattles were about twelve inches wide and had as many as five concentric wooden hoops. Craftsmen painted the hoops red and black and lashed them to a cross-shaped handle. Then, they drilled each ring with small holes so that clusters of puffin beaks could be attached.

Photo:  Carved ivory puffin, Settlement Point site, Afognak Island.  Afognak Native Corporation collection.

Word in Alutiiq: Qiteq
In a sentence:

Sun'ami qitengtaartuq. - It rains all the time in Kodiak.

MP3 File: rain

From September to April, a winter storm crosses the Gulf of Alaska about every five days, bringing intense rain, high winds, and heavy seas. Surrounded by ocean and encircled by Alaska’s high coastal mountains, Kodiak is continually exposed to the full force of these storms. The archipelago receives about 79 inches of precipitation annually and has more than one hundred wet days.  Most of this precipitation, about ninety percent, falls as rain.

Alutiiq people have always adapted their practices to this soggy environment. Hunters, travelers, and people working outdoors once wore waterproof garments stitched from the intestines of sea mammals and bears. These flexible, lightweight coats were easy to work in and kept the wearer very dry. Houses were also built to keep out the rain. A thick cover of thatch and sod over a wooden frame helped to shed winter’s constant drizzle. Archaeological data, however, suggest that water did eventually seep into sod dwellings, particularly through their earthenfloors. To combat this seepage, Alutiiqs constructed drainage ditches to direct water away from living areas. Home builders lined and covered these trenches with boards, forming a network of channels below the floor.

Rain also influences subsistence activities, because it can affect the harvesting and processing of resources. Even today, people tend not to pick plant foods in the rain. Heavy rain makes berries watery, and wet vegetables are difficult to preserve. Similarly, fair weather is necessary to dry the quantities of salmon and halibut that people eat all winter long. Too much rain and fish flesh will fail to dry and will spoil.

Photo:  A storm approaches Old Harbor.

Rain Jacket (gut)
Word in Alutiiq: Kanaglluk
In a sentence:

Kanagllun asingia'artuq. - Your gutskin jacket is really nice.

MP3 File: rainjacket2

Good outdoor clothing is essential on Kodiak, where cold wet weather or sea spray can easily cause hypothermia. Before the introduction of rubberized clothing, Alutiiq people fashioned waterproof jackets from gutskin. They sewed the intestines and esophagi of sea mammals and bears into flexible, lightweight garments with special waterproof stitches. The typical garment was knee length, although longer jackets were created for kayakers. These garments tied around the boat’s cockpit to keep rain and sea spray out.

Also known by the Russian term kamleika, these garments were so valued by western colonists that they commissioned Native people to produce them in European styles like cloaks. Gut rain jackets were popular gifts and souvenirs in the historic era.

Alutiiq people share the gutskin jacket with their northern neighbors. From Prince William Sound to the Aleutians and from the Gulf of Alaska to arctic Canada, Native people stitched similar garments to protect themselves from wet weather. Archaeological data suggest that this type of gear is very ancient. The delicate needles needed to work gut occur in some of Kodiak’s oldest sites, suggesting that coastal hunters wore protective gutskin clothing more than 6,000 years ago.

Photo: Child's gutskin rain coat.  Made on Kodiak between 1905 and 1910 by Mary Demedov Sargent for Estern Sargent.

Shoes (plural)
Word in Alutiiq: Pashmakiit
In a sentence:

Naama pashmakiigka? - Where's my (2) shoes?

MP3 File: shoes

Traditional Alutiiq clothing included long hoodless bird-skin parkas, waterproof gut jackets, and a variety of fur, spruce root, and wooden hats, but footgear was rarely worn. Only in the coldest weather did people put on shoes. Next time you watch the Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers, look at their feet. They dance barefooted!

Footwear was made from a variety of raw materials. Throughout the Alutiiq world, fish skin was fashioned into boots, particularly dog salmon skin. A pair of traditional boots from Egigik, an Alutiiq community on the Alaska Peninsula, has a thick hide sole and salmon skin uppers, with leather laces and leather drawstrings at the top.

In Prince William Sound, the Chugach Alutiiq people made boots from sea lion skins and from the hind feet of black bears. The claws and pads were removed from the bear’s feet and replaced with a sole of sealskin. People made hip boots by using the fur from a bear’s entire hind legs with the feet still attached. To increase their warmth, boots were stuffed with bundles of grass or moss, fitted with a loose sole of mountain goat or bear fur, or paired with socks woven from ryegrass.

Photo:  Historic leather shoe soles, Alutiiq Museum Collections.

Snow Goggles
Word in Alutiiq: Iingalarsuutek
In a sentence:

Iingalarsuutegken aturkek. - Use your snow goggles.

MP3 File: snowgoggles

Although snow can provides a helpful surface for traveling, transporting goods, and tracking animals, it also presents challenges. One of these is snow blindness. The bright reflection of the sun’s ultra violet rays off the snow’s white surface can damage a traveler’s eyes. Known as photokeratitis, this condition is essentially sunburned eyes. It can affect the thin outer surface of the eye, the inside of the eyelids, and the whites of the eye. People who experience snow blindness often don’t notice that their eyes have been burned until they experience redness, blurry vision, tearing, a gritty feeling, sensitivity to light, or even a temporary blindness.

Photokeratitis can be a problem in Alaska during the long days of spring. To protect their eyes from snow glare, Alutiiq people fashioned a variety of goggles from wood, bone, and even baleen. In Prince William Sound, people sewed baleen eyeshades into fur caps, and on the Alaska Peninsula, hunters carved wooden goggles with narrow eye slits that they tied around their head with strips of sinew. Like sunglasses, these slits emitted enough light to see but limited harmful glare.

Photo: Inuit man wearing snow goggles carved of caribou antler.  Photo by Julian Idrobo, courtesy Wikipedia.

Podcast Available: Snow Goggles
Spruce Root Hat
Word in Alutiiq: Awirnaq
In a sentence:

Awirnanek slaapanek pilitaallriit. - They used to make spruce root hats.

MP3 File: spruceroothat2

Woven hats are one of the stunning pieces of headgear once worn by Alutiiq men. Twined from split lengths of spruce root, these waterproof, conical hats had a flat crown and ornate decorations. Anthropologists believe that Alutiiqs adopted these hats from the Tlingit Indians. Examples of Alutiiq awirnat in museum collections feature painted designs similar to the form-line art of Northwest Coast societies. On many, red and black designs depict the face of an animal.

In addition to painted images, spruce root hats, particularly those from Kodiak, featured attachments. Craftsmen sewed beads and dentalium shells to the surface of hats in symmetrical patterns and attached bundles of sea lion whiskers to their sides.

Spruce root hats were symbols of power and prestige. They were considered heirlooms and passed down through families. Historic sources indicate that these hats had the power to attract sea otters and that they were worn for hunting. In fact, the animal images painted on many hats may reflect helping spirits.

Elders recall that women wove spruce root hats on Kodiak until the 1920s. The roots they used were typically collected in spring. With the help of a digging stick, women pulled young roots from shallow soil. After heating the roots briefly to soften their sap, they pealed off the outer brown bark. The pale interior of the root was then split with a fingernail to form narrow strands, and the root’s dark core was discarded. Women then soaked their root strands in water to make them pliable and bundled them for later use.

Photo:  Historic spruce root hat, purchased jointly by the Alutiiq Museum and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

Word in Alutiiq: KRaasiruaq
In a sentence:

Ipimni kRaasiruangq’rtua. - I have a tattoo on my arm.

MP3 File: tattoo

Tatooing was once a widespread practice among Alaska’s Native societies. Anthropologists believe that arctic peoples have been tattooing themselves for at least 3,500 years, based on tattoo-like designs found on ancient depictions of the human body. Like clothing and jewelry, tattoos carried messages. They transform the skin into a palette that provides social information, spiritual protection, and medicinal assistance.

Early historic descriptions of Alutiiq people record two methods of decorating the body. One method was to break the skin with a fine bone needle and then rub the resulting cut with a mixture of spruce charcoal and blood. This created a dark blue tattoo. A second method was to run a blackened sinew thread beneath the skin with the aid of a needle. Because women were the principal sewers in Alutiiq society, and famous for their intricate embroidery, it is likely that women were also tattoo artists.

Both men and women wore tattoos. At puberty, young women tattooed their chins with fine vertical lines. These lines were a sign of adult status, marriageability, and probably fertility. Other facial tattoos included lines running from the ears to the chin, lines across the cheeks, or small round dots on the cheeks. At marriage, an Alutiiq woman might also tattoo her chest or arms as a sign of love for her husband. Other common tattoos were bands of designs that originated at the shoulders or under the arms and crossed the chest. These tattoos were signs of wealth and high social standing.

Like the practice of wearing labrets, tattooing disappeared with western contact. At least one observer noted that body decoration was becoming less common in the Kodiak region by the early 1800s. This change probably reflects western disdain for a practice that was believed to be disfiguring. Today, however, some young Native people are choosing tattoos as a way to express their heritage. A woman from Unalaska recently tattooed her cheeks in the style of her ancestors, and in the Kodiak region, petroglyph tattoos connect people with their past.

Image: Drawing of an Alutiiq woman with face tattoos.

Word in Alutiiq: Kelugkaq; K’lugkaq
In a sentence:

Kelugkanek aturtaartukut mingqu’akamta. - We always use thread when we sew.

MP3 File: thread

Alutiiq seamstresses manufactured thread from the tendons of whales, porpoises, and seals. Thin strands of sinew were separated with the fingernails from sea mammal tendons and the resulting thread wrapped around a wooden spool. This sturdy sewing material was used to stitch clothing and lash together hunting and household implements. The wooden slats of a warrior’s vest of armor were tied together with sinew thread and dyed strands of sinew were woven into men’s belts. Porpoise sinew, used for the fine emboridery, was especially valued.

With sinew thread, a thimble made from a thick piece of hide, and sharply pointed awls and needles, Alutiiq women stitched and decorated clothing. With a bone awl, a seamstress would pierce a hole in the hide she was working and then use a slender bird bone or ivory needle to pull the thread through the hole. Some needles had tiny eyes. Others had a small knob for attaching the thread. Still other needles were unmodified. Women wrapped sinew strands around these implements to pass them through the holes made by their awls. Needles, thimbles, and spools of thread were stored in finely decorated sewing bags.

Photo: Youth and adults learn to make thread from Sinew with the help of Coral Chernoff.

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