Paulartuu'uq p'litaami. - There's a lot of ashes in the stove.
The Alutiiq word for ash—paulaq or peluq—usually refers to wood ash. This is the fine, grey sediment found in the bottom of a fire pit or a wood burning stove after a hot fire. Cleaning the wood ash out of the household stove was a common task in decades past, before Alutiiq families adopted oil burning and electric stoves. Wood ash is also a common find in archaeological sites, in and around the rock-lined hearths where people cooked. However, it is just one of the types of ash Kodiak researchers encounter. Volcanic ash is the other.
Although Kodiak has no volcanoes, it lies adjacent to the volcanically active Alaska Peninsula. Over the millennia, the Gulf of Alaska’s strong winds have transported quantities of this ash to Kodiak, creating distinctive layers. These layers help scientists interpret the past. A good example is the ash deposit from the 1912 eruption of Mt. Novarupta, known locally as the Katmai ash. Any materials found below this layer, which covers roughly half the archipelago, date prior to March 27, 1912: the date the ash began to accumulate.
Layers like these are known as stratigraphic markers. Although digging animals and people can rearrange the position of ash deposits relative to cultural remains, stratigraphic markers are still an excellent research aid, because they provide a limiting date. They also document major environmental events that impacted the lives of Kodiak’s first residents.
Photo: Layer of volcanic ash (yellow) in an excavation on Woody Island, 2008. Courtesy Mark Rusk.
Inartamek piliyuq. - She’s making a basket.
Very few classic Alutiiq baskets are preserved today. Museums around the world hold just a handful of ethnographic and archaeological examples of this beautiful and functionally important art. Despite their rarity, baskets were an integral part of Alutiiq household equipment. They held small objects; were used as cooking, drinking, and eating vessels; and functioned as containers for food storage and collecting. Very large baskets, fitted with leather straps, even acted as backpacks for travelers to carry clothing and bedding. The tight weave of these baskets protected their contents from rain and sea spray.
In the Kodiak Archipelago, Alutiiqs wove much of their basketry from spruce roots that were dug from the forest floor, cleaned of their outer coverings, and split into flexible strands with a fingernail. Other common weaving materials included beach rye grass and baleen. Spruce-root baskets were woven upside down, with concentric rings of extra twining to reinforce their base. Some were painted or finely decorated with overlays of other weaving materials, for example, maidenhair fern. Today, basket weaving is experiencing a revival. Elders are passing the art to their families, and artists are studying museum collections to learn ancestral techniques and to share their knowledge at community workshops. Traditional forms are reappearing but have been supplemented with tiny baskets made into popular forms of jewelry: necklaces, pendants, and earrings.
Photo: Basket by Fedosia Inga, KANA collection, Alutiiq Museum
Una ulik aturnirtuq. - This blanket is comfortable.
Before the introduction of western mattresses and blankets, Alutiiq people slept on piles of soft, dry grass and covered themselves with bear hides. These warm, insulating materials provided bedding both at home and while traveling. A person who had to camp unexpectedly simply collected a pile of grass for sleeping. Elders recall that Old Harbor residents fleeing the tsunami that followed the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake wrapped them themselves in bundles of grass as they waited on the hillside for the water to recede. Campers made another type of mattress by piling grass and moss over branches and covering the pile with a woven grass mat.
In the historic era, seamstresses blended Alutiiq and western traditions by fashioning European-style blankets from traditional materials. One such blanket, collected in the Alutiiq region in the early twentieth century, is now part of the Milwaukee Public Museum’s collection. Sewn from eider skins (Somateria spp., a type of sea duck) this piece is 55 inches wide by 88 inches long. It has two separate layers of skins, one forming the front and one forming the back. On the front, the seamstress stitched more than forty-eight rusty brown, female eider skins into a rectangular panel and then created an elaborate border using the colorful throat skins of fifty-two male king eiders. The result is a beautiful bird-skin quilt.
Photos: Skin sewers examine a blanket of bird pelts, National Museum of Finland, 2013.
Naaqisuut'ka terlellruma. - Somebody must have stolen my book.
Alaska’s gold rush was followed by wave of scientific inquiry. As the state’s infrastructure grew and travel became easier, researchers made their way north to study everything from geology to wildlife biology. Anthropologists were among the researchers. In the early decades of the twentieth century, men and women interested in recording cultural traditions visited Native communities across the territory. Their research resulted in a series of ethnographies—books that systematically described the economy, social organization, and spiritual practices of Alaska cultures.
Although there are a number of explorer’s accounts that describe Alutiiq culture, there is only one formal ethnography. In 1933, Kaj Birket-Smith, a Danish anthropologist, traveled to Prince William Sound, where he spent three months studying Chugach traditions with the help of American scholar Frederica de Laguna. His study was published in 1953 under the title The Chugach Eskimo, and remains one of the most detailed written records of Alutiiq traditions.
Why weren’t there more studies of Alutiiq culture? By the time anthropologists arrived in the Kodiak region, Alutiiqs had been participating in a western economic system for over a century. Many traditional practices had changed or were hidden from view. This contrasted strikingly with the societies in interior Alaska, where contact with Europeans was much more recent. Most researchers choose to conduct studies in places where western influence was less evident. However, in recent decades, anthropologists have recognized the wealth of cultural information in Alutiiq communities, and written recent studies of Alutiiq traditions.
Photo: Primer written in the Alutiiq language, 1848. Autiiq Museum collections.
Caqinka yaasiimen lliitaanka. - I put my stuff in boxes.
In classical Alutiiq society, craftsmen fashioned wooden boxes in many shapes and sizes to hold food, water, and objects. Hunters carried small rectangular boxes packed with supplies in their kayaks. Women cooked traditional dishes by dropping hot stones into oval wooden containers filled with food, and left large bentwood buckets by the household doorway to collect urine for processing skins.
All of these vessels were made by bending wood with steam, a technique perfected by Native artists from the Northwest Coast to the high Arctic. Carvers began by creating the vessel’s rim. They cut a thin wooden plank to shape and carefully smoothed it. Then they gradually bent the prepared plank with steam, a process that could take several days. The Alutiiq method for bending is not recorded. However, Tlingit artists steamed wood in pits packed with hot rocks and seaweed. People poured hot water into these pits to create steam. Once shaped, a craftsman lashed the ends of his rim together with spruce root or baleen, or pegged it closed with small wooden dowels. To the rim, the carver fitted a flat wooden base, which was also pegged into place. Some vessels were finished with a wooden lid or a woven handle and then brightly painted.
Photo: Bentwood box, Karluk One Collection, courtesy Koniag, Inc. Photo by Chris Arend.
Taugkut qiluryat ekllinartut. - Those braided seal gut look delicious.
Visitors to Kodiak often ask how Alutiiq people can hunt protected species like sea otters and sea lions. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibited the harvesting of all marine mammals to preserve their populations. However, this law recognizes the importance of sea mammals to Alaska Native life and includes a Native exception. Under the law, Eskimo, Indian, and Aleut hunters living along Alaska’s coast may harvest marine mammals for food and the production of clothing and crafts.
In the Kodiak area, Alutiiqs continue to harvest marine mammals for both food and raw material. Seal meat and oil are widely enjoyed, as are the animal’s internal organs. One Alutiiq delicacy is braided seal gut, a Native version of sausage. Women prepare this dish from fresh intestines. They begin by washing long pink tubes of gut, using fresh or saltwater to thoroughly remove the contents. This is a time-consuming job. Alutiiqs often stuff the seal gut with heart, liver, and fat. Then the guts are braided. Women work with three or more strands at a time to create a loaf three to four feet long and about three inches thick. Some braid long strips of seal fat with the gut. The final step is to cook the braid, which may be fried, baked, or boiled and shrinks in the process. The resulting savory dish tastes of the intestine’s stuffing and seasoning.
Photo: Ronnie Lind holds some braided seal gut. Photograph by Sven Haakanson.
Gelipalikutartua. - I am going to make bread.
Bread came to Kodiak with Russian traders, who imported flour and knowledge of baking. Yet baked goods appear to have been a luxury item in the early historic era. Historic accounts suggest that bread was in short supply, due to limited quantities of flour. Russian attempts to grow wheat and rye in Kodiak’s wet climate were unsuccessful, although oats and barley thrived. At Fort Ross, a Russian settlement in Northern California, colonists worked to grow and mill grain to supply flour to Alaska settlements. Even this proved difficult. Weeds, fog, and limited knowledge of farming techniques resulted in poor yields.
Bread seems to have become a staple of the Alutiiq diet in the late nineteenth century, and bread baking became a common household task. Alutiiq Elders remember baking all of the bread used by their families, a job that took many hours. One Elder reports that her large family ate eight to ten loaves a week, and baking was a large part of two days every week. Because houses were unheated, women worried about keeping the yeast in their rising dough from dying overnight. One Elder reports that she commonly wrapped the dough bowl with blankets to protect it from the chilly air. Some families baked their bread in coffee cans or butter tins; others used bread pans or employed large cake pans to make three loaves at once.
A favorite way to eat bread was with sweet gravy. To a roux of butter and flour, women added milk and sugar. This made a thick, sweet sauce, which people spooned over slices of fresh-baked bread. However, people rarely made sandwiches, because it was considered a waste of bread.
Photo: Boys in Karluk eating fresh baked bread. Clyda Christensen Collection.
KaaRamek igu’ullianga. - I bought a car.
Before the development of a western cash economy, Kodiak’s Alutiiq people obtained many of the foods and materials they needed through trade. In good weather, men traveled by skin boat to communities to share their surplus goods and barter for items. Trade with the Alaska mainland was particularly important. Here, Kodiak Islanders could acquire resources not locally available. These included caribou skins, walrus ivory, antler, volcanic rocks, and other exotic items. What did Kodiak Islander’s offer in trade? Mainlanders coveted Kodiak’s high-quality slate, perfect for making ulus and spear points.
In the historic era, Alutiiqs found opportunities to earn money. At first, families sustained themselves through subsistence activities, earning small amounts of cash through trapping and reinvesting these funds in hunting and fishing equipment. But as cannery jobs became more widely available, people began to work for wages and to purchase more of their supplies.
Today, most Alutiiq communities have a local store where families can buy necessities. Many also purchase food and clothing in Kodiak, order from catalogs, and as computers have become more accessible, shop via the Internet. But bartering remains an important and valued part of village economies.
Photo: Ouzinkie store (center behind dock), 1949. Marie Heinrichs Colletion.