Kianimek plit’aami aturtaartut. - They use charcoal in the stove.
Charcoal, wood that has been reduced by a fire, is a widely used resource. In the Alutiiq world, charcoal in important for cooking. Pits filled with burning coals were once used for slow-roasting foods. Elders report cooking fish wrapped in beach loveage and aluminum foil in hot coals, and at late prehistoric archaeological sites, large charcoal- and rock-filled pits are a common find in house floors. Elders suggest that people used these features for roasting meat. They recall digging pits in the beach, filling these pits with hot coals and heated rock, then covering the pits with gravel to slowly bake the food inside.
Alutiiqs also recognize charcoal for its medicinal qualities. People use charcoal scraped from burned devil’s club root to create a fine powder. When mixed with milk this powder can be used as a poultice for treating eye inflammations. And in the past, ground charcoal was mixed with oil or blood to make black paint.
Today, charcoal has another important use: it can help archaeologists date ancient Alutiiq settlements. Because all organic matter contains a predictable amount of the radioactive isotope carbon 14, and because carbon 14 begins to decay with the death of an organism, scientists can measure the amount of the carbon 14 remaining in an object to determine its age at death. Carbon dates, however, are not equivalent to calendar dates. Because the amount of cosmic radiation responsible for producing carbon 14 varies over time, carbon dates must be calibrated to reflect these changes and determine their correspondence with calendar dates.
Photo: A hearth in a 700 year old Alutiiq house, Horseshoe cove site, 2004.
Plit’aaq eprirturu. - Clean the stove.
In classical Alutiiq society, house cleaning was both a daily activity and a scheduled spring event. Historic sources and the accounts of Elders indicate that people swept their sod houses with brooms made of eagle wings and covered their floors with clean, dry grass. Alutiiqs also restuffed their mattresses with dry grass, organized food stores in their rafters and side rooms, and carefully stowed gear not in use.
House cleaning is evident in ancient village sites. Archaeologists studying prehistoric dwellings find few artifacts or animal remains on their dirt floors. Only objects that slipped between floorboards, were pressed into the earthen floors, fell into drainage ditches, or were carefully stored away remain.
In addition to physical cleaning, houses were spiritually cleansed with smoke. The smoke from burning grass purified indoor air before festivals, after the birth of a baby, or at the death of a family member.
Maintaining a tidy house is in keeping with Alutiiq views of respect. By caring for one’s house and the objects in it, Alutiiqs show respect for natural resources—for the plants and animals that provided the raw materials necessary for human life.
Photo: Father Gerasim with brooms, Afognak Village 1918, photo by Clara Helgason. Courtesy Gene & Phyllis Sundberg.
Nulima keniyaskiinga akgua’aq sitiin’kamek. - My wife cooked me pork chops last night.
Food traditions are central aspect of a society’s cultural identity. The foods that people eat, and the dishes they make from these foods, are some of the most deeply held social customs. People who immigrate to new lands or whose societies are impacted by colonization typically maintain their traditional cuisines. Alutiiqs are no exception. The rich seafoods of the traditional diet are a cherished part of modern meals, and many favorite subsistence foods are incorporated into dishes introduced by Russian, Scandinavian, American, and Asian settlers.
Cooking subsistence foods is a joyful act. Alutiiq people are proud to feed their families fresh, local foods, which are seen as cleaner and healthier than the groceries available in stores. Moreover, social gathering are not complete without an array of dishes made from Kodiak resources: herring eggs on eelgrass, smoked salmon, fish pie, baked halibut, seal soup, and for desert, salmonberry tarts and berries mixed with fat, sugar, and milk.
Before the availability of stoves and metal pots, Alutiiqs cooked over open fires with tools crafted from cedar driftwood. Because cedar naturally repels water, its fragrant wood was an excellent choice for cooking tubs, bowls, dishes, and spoons. Chefs boiled water and heated soups and stews by dropping hot stones into wooden dishes, tightly woven grass baskets, or by setting large clay pot directly in the fire. Wooden containers from archaeological sites bear burn marks from red-hot rocks. People also cooked by roasting foods over the fire, placing food on hot slabs of stone, baking items in pits filled with hot coals, or fermenting foods in leaf-lined pits.
Photo: Cooking over a campfire on the beach. Nekeferof Collection.
Urnamen carliaq lliiluku. - Put the baby in the cradle.
Finding a safe place for a baby to rest is always a concern. In classical Alutiiq society, mothers solved this problem by using cradleboards. Babies were tightly swaddled to cradleboards, which could be laid on the floor, stood in a corner, or carried like a pack. A cradleboard collected from the village of Nuchek in Prince William Sound features a wooden frame lashed together with spruce root and covered with dehaired sealskin. Oval rings of flexible wood form handles on either end.
Although Alutiiqs adopted different styles of cradles in the historic era, many continued to transport babies on boards. Elders recall siblings being tied to mom or dad with a shawl, or being carried on front boards, which rested against a parent’s chest. And toddlers were hoisted onto an adult’s shoulders for traveling.
When did the practice of cradle-boarding start? Studies of Alutiiq crania suggested that this practice began in the late prehistoric era. Repeated use of a cradleboard can cause a baby’s soft head to flatten and elongate, creating a distinctive shape to the head. Physical anthropologists note this elongation starting about seven hundred years, but not before. This suggests that cradleboards were part of late prehistoric Alutiiq culture.
The word urnaq refers to a different type of cradle. These wood and canvas baby beds hung from by ropes from the ceiling forming a type of hammock. Parents sometimes suspended such a cradle near the foot of their own bed. This allowed a mother to swing the cradle with her foot, soothing a fussy baby at nighttime.
Photo: Baby in highchair, Ouzinkie. Henders Toms Collection, courtesy Melinda Lamp.
Sarsataartukut caskagunk aturluku. - We drink our tea using a cup.
Some historians believe that 1840 was a pivotal moment in Alutiiq history, a point where cultural change accelerated, with major shifts in Kodiak’s social and economic landscape. Devastated by the smallpox epidemic of 1837–1839, Kodiak’s Alutiiq communities reorganized into regional settlements, where survivors began to rebuild their lives. At the same time, Russia and Britain established a formal agreement that allowed the Hudson Bay Company to trade more freely in coastal Alaska, vastly expanding the quantity of western goods available.
Archaeological data illustrate this change. Historic Alutiiq settlements dating before 1840s have few trade goods. Glass beads and copper rings—trinkets from Russian traders with poor links to European supplies—and the occasional fragment of Chinese porcelain occur among assemblages of classical Alutiiq tools. By 1840, however, European ceramics became a common household item. Mid-nineteenth-century Alutiiq villages are filled with fragments of finely made bone china plates, saucers, and teacups. Painted with illustrations from European gardens and cities, they illustrate the dramatic change in the mix of Alutiiq and western objects that characterized this period. While Alutiiq people continued to live in sod houses, their rooms were filled with British teacups, flintlock rifles, iron knives, axes, and other items that began to link them to the global economy. After the American purchase of Alaska, traders brought in cheaper quality ceramics with boldly painted designs.
Photo: Hand stamped cup and saucer. Gift of Patrick and Zoya Saltonstall.
Maqiwigmi qalutat aturtaapet. - We use dippers in the banya.
Enter an Alutiiq steam bath and you will find an assortment of tools for bathing. Adjacent to a wood-burning stove fashioned from a fifty-five-gallon oil drum are large metal tubs for storing, heating, and mixing water; tongs for loading the stove and tending the fire; and water dippers made by nailing a coffee can to a slender wooden pole. Archaeologists note that many of these tools have ancient equivalents. Alutiiqs carried hot rocks into the steam bath with specially carved wooden tongs or rock paddles and stored water for bathing in large bentwood boxes where it was retrieved with carved wooden dippers. Water dippers from Karluk One, an ancient village site, are large, finely made pieces, about the size of a small coffee can.
In addition to water dippers, Alutiiqs used a variety of other spoons and scoops. A small spoon carved from bone or antler functioned as a gut scraper. Women used these implements to remove membranes from bear and sea mammal intestine as they processed the material to make clothing; rain gear especially. People also used simple wooden scoops to remove hot rocks from the fire for cooking and steam bathing and served food with large, elaborately decorated spoons made of mountain goat horn. These beautiful spoons had animal and bird carvings on the handle, and many were painted.
Photo: Wooden dippers from the Karluk One site. Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Mas’kaaq culungq’rtuq. - The mask has feathers.
Birds were a central part of classical Alutiiq society, both as an economic resource and as spiritual beings. In addition to eggs and meat, they provided a variety of feathers with important everyday uses. Eagle feathers were used in mattresses and as fletching for hunting arrows and toy darts. Waterfowl down could be used to start a fire, and feathered pelts were a primary material for clothing. Beautiful parkas were stitched from the skins of puffins and cormorants and worn as everyday clothing.
Feathers were also used for decoration. Inserted between the strands of spruce-root baskets, woven into grass mats, or sewn into the seams of clothing made from bear or sea mammal gut, feathers helped to accent the beauty of Alutiiq objects. Feathers also adorned spiritually powerful hunting hats and ceremonial masks, symbolizing the magical ties between people and birds. Birds were seen as helping spirits. They fed families, helped fishermen find schools of fish, marked currents and rocks, and led mariners to land in Kodiak’s dense fog. Modern fishermen still appreciate birds for these qualities.
Photo: Puffin skins sewn into a parka, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Keneq kuarnarpet. - We can build a fire.
Large fires set in stone-lined hearths once warmed Alutiiq households. Alutiiqs lit these fires with wooden fire starters. These three-piece implements had a flat wooden platform (hearth) and a long shaft (spindle) that was rotated rapidly against the platform with a small bow. The friction caused by the movement of the shaft created an ember that people coaxed into a flame with a small bit of tinder. Wood shavings, birch bark, spruce pitch, and even bird down were used to feed the fire. Driftwood and woody brush then provided fuel for cooking, drying clothing, and heating, as well as light for indoor chores.
Analysis of charcoal from archaeological sites illustrates that people fueled their hearths with a variety of locally available woods. Many ancient fires were lit from brush. Alders, willow, and other woody shrubs were a main source of fuel for the island’s earliest residents. Valuable driftwood logs were often reserved for building houses, boats, and fish-drying racks and for carving hunting and household tools.
Fire was also important to Alutiiq spiritual life. Men lit bundles of dried grass and spruce cones to please the spirit world and ensure hunting luck. And oil lamps have long been lit at gatherings to symbolize the enduring ties among Alutiiqs, their ancestors, and the natural world.
Photo: Fire on the beach, Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.