Angutet awai ungastaartut kangillaruakameng. - Elders always let their whiskers grow when they get old.
Like all men, Alutiiq men grow facial hair. In classical society, some wore small beards and mustaches while others plucked their faces clean. In Prince William Sound, Chugach Alutiiq men pulled out their facial hair with their fingers.
Although men often removed their own whiskers, animal whiskers were commonly used for personal adornment. In addition to bone tubes, men threaded sea lion whiskers through holes in their nasal cartilage and attached sprays of whiskers to variety of hats. Artists fastened whiskers threaded with tiny beads and decorated with tassels of color thread to elaborate wooden hunting visors. These whiskers were tied to the rear of large closed crowned hats and to the sides and tops of visors. Individual whiskers were secured by looping them through a pair of small, drilled holes and then tying the end of the whisker to its shaft with a piece of sinew thread. Some hats featured a few whiskers. Others displayed dramatic sprays, which looked like the plumage of a bird. Bundles of whiskers were also tied to hats woven from spruce root. One such hat, collected in Karluk in 1884, features two bundles of more than 17 whiskers each. These bundles were wrapped with red trade cloth and fastened to either side of the hat. Painted blue and decorated with shells obtained in trade, this hat was probably a symbol of its wearer's great wealth and power.
Photo: Bundles of sea lion whiskers adorn the side of this Alutiiq hat woven from spruce root. Owned jointly by the Alutiiq Museum and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
Over the front of their vest, warriors sometimes attached a breastplate. They made this extra layer of protection by lashing narrow rods of wood together. A collar of tightly woven sinew provided protection for the neck, and warriors wore hats of wood or thick animal skin.
In addition to protective vests, Alutiiq warriors carried shields and shield walls in combat. Historic accounts describe large groups of men advancing with a wooden shield wall, a set of heavy, connected, wooden planks that could stop a musket ball. These portable walls were large. Russian observers note that they could shield 30 to 40 men each and were made of three layers of cedar boards tied together with kelp and sinew.
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.
Cuukii'itua!–I have no socks!
In the past, Alutiiq people often went barefoot. A historic account from Karluk tells of Alutiiq ladies dressed in stylish, velvet dresses, walking to church barefoot. Boots were saved for cold winter weather, and often included a lining of moss or grass, and a pair of hand woven grass socks.
Why did people line their boots with grass? Dried grass is naturally absorbent. It contains air pockets that pull in moisture. This is important. The human foot contains over 250,00 sweat glands and can produce half a pint of moisture a day! Like a good pair of wool socks, loose grass and grass socks provided insulation and wicked sweat away from the wearer’s feet. They also absorbed moisture that leaked into the boot from the outside.
Grass socks were usually ankle high and sometimes decorated with dyed strips of grass incorporated into the weaving. Weavers created tightly woven socks to create more grass-covered surface area with greater wicking ability. The socks acted as a barrier, moving sweat away from the feet and into loosely stuffed grass between the boot and the sock. People dried their sock after wearing, which helped these ingenious garments last a long time.
Photo: Grass socks woven by June Pardue, AM727.