Akgua’aq natermi qawallianga. - I slept on the floor last night.
Traditional Alutiiq houses had earthen floors. Dug into the soft volcanic soils of Kodiak Island, these floors had many features. In the center of most was a stone-ringed hearth that provided light, heat, and a place to cook. Clay-lined pit for holding water and food surrounded some hearths. Large roasting pits, where meat was buried with hot rocks to bake, flanked others. Other houses had subfloor storage pits. Lined with grass, these pits kept foods cool but unfrozen throughout the winter season. Some houses were also equipped with drainage ditches: board-covered trenches dug into the floor that helped to channel rainwater away from living areas.
Elders recall that dirt floors had to be carefully maintained throughout the year. Floors were swept with brooms made of eagle wings and covered with thick layers of clean, dry grass. In fall and spring and before important festivals, people cut fresh dry grass from the hillside to cover their floors. In sleeping areas, this grass might be covered with bear or otter hides to create warm, soft bedding.
In winter, household floors became a stage for festivals—the place where community members gathered to dance, sing, and communicate with the spirit world. Stories of these festivals, recorded in the nineteenth century, tell of spirits so frightening that the grass on the floor retreated in fear.
Image: Floor of a 900 year old house, Flies and Grass site, Olga Bay area.
Alatiryugtua. (N); Alaciryugtua. (S) - I want fry bread.
Travel almost anywhere in Native America and you will find fried bread. This beloved food is a common addition to meals, a staple at celebrations, and a symbol of intertribal unity. Alutiiq communities are no exception. Fry bread is favorite food that is often found at gatherings, offered with holiday meals, and served to guests. Elders recall dipping fried bread into syrup or canned milk mixed with sugar, sprinkling the bread with sugar, or topping it with homemade berry jam. Today, people often enjoy it with butter and honey.
When did Kodiak’s Native people adopt fry bread? Some think it is a Russian addition, others suggest this food was developed in the American era. In the western United States, Indian women first created fried bread from food commodities issued to reservation families. Here, frying with deer or bear tallow was a traditional method of cooking cakes made from seed meals.
Poor-quality western rations were simply adopted to create a similar food. Perhaps Alutiiq families faced with commercial foods also created fried bread, or perhaps children sent to Native boarding schools learned how to make it from friends.
Whatever the origins of Kodiak’s fry bread, there are differences in the way Alutiiqs make this food. Kodiak chefs typically add yeast and sugar to their dough. In contrast, Native people in the Lower Forty-eight omit the sugar and use baking powder for leavening. The flavor of the bread is also influenced by the handling of the dough, the shape of the bread, the oil used for frying, and the frying time. Thus, although all bread dough is made with essentially the same ingredients, there is an art to making light, fluffy pieces of fried bread, and each chef has their own method for success.
Photo: Potluck plate with two pieces of fried bread.
PiRani qawartaartua. - I (habitually) sleep on a grass mat.
If you were to enter a typical Alutiiq household of the seventeenth century, fine weaving would surround you. Woven mats would lie on sleeping benches, cover the walls, and hang in doorways. Woven containers for collecting, storing, and cooking food would surround a central fireplace. People would wear woven socks, mitts, and caps. A mother would hold her baby in a woven carrier. And in the rafters would lie woven tools: nets for fishing and birding and lines for harpoons and boats.
Large mats were perhaps the most impressive of these weavings. Grass mats served as bedding, door and wall coverings, household partitions, kneeling pads for kayaks, and wrapping for the dead. They were woven from dried and bleached beach rye grass and many were embroidered with designs made of colored grasses or adorned with fabric, gut, or decorative attachments. This attention to beauty in an everyday object reflected a reverence for the plants that provided the weaving material.
Large mats took a great deal of time to make. Anthropologist Lydia Black reports that Aleutian Island weavers might spend a year creating one mat six feet long by four feet wide. Weavers stopped making these large, labor-intensive pieces in the late nineteenth century. Instead they focused on producing smaller baskets, which were highly prized by westerners and could be used as currency.
Photo: Rye grass in a coastal meadow, Kodiak Island.
Una kenirwik angsinartuq. - This hearth is big.
In the center of most Alutiiq sod houses there was a stone-lined fireplace. In addition to heating and lighting the household, this hearth was a gathering place. People cooked around the hearth, repaired their tools, sewed clothing, and visited. In the evening, when families retired to small sleeping rooms, guests and single adults remained by the hearth to sleep and stay warm. The Alutiiq word for hearth reflects these functions. Kenirwik means “place to cook”, and it can be used for cookhouse or kitchen.
Alutiiq people created hearths by digging a shallow pit into the earthen floors of their homes. They lined these depressions with carefully trimmed slate slabs or encircled them with a ring of large, rounded beach cobbles. Some hearth pits were also lined with clay or small flat cobbles to retain heat. Hearths ranged in size from small fireplaces to enormous roasting pits, and some houses had several of these features.
Alutiiq hearths were also a spiritual place, where the living connected with departed relatives. According to Alutiiq tradition, when the fire cracks, the souls of the dead are hungry, and a piece of meat should be thrown into the flames. This practice mirrors the Yup’ik tradition of offering ancestors food through the fire. The Yup’ik believe that the souls of the dead wait beneath the hearth to be fed during winter festivals. Fire amplifies the small bits of foods offered to it by the living, ensuring that the dead do not suffer from hunger.
Photo: Mark Rusk by the stone-lined hearth in a 900 year old Alutiiq house. Flies and Grass site, Olga Lakes area.
Piiwaq piturnaituq. - Home brew tastes bad.
Although historic sources report that Alutiiq people once fermented salmonberry juice to create a sour, mildly alcoholic beverage, Russian fur traders were the first to introduce large-scale brewing. Accounts indicate that traders were a hard-drinking group who enjoyed brandy, rum, vodka, and gin imported from Siberia. Although they were not allowed to traffic in alcohol, traders could brew kvass, a beer made from grain and fruit designed to prevent scurvy. Their brewing techniques were quickly passed to Native people. The Alutiiq word from ferment beverages, piiwaq, comes from the Russian word for beer, pivo.
In the early twentieth century, Alutiiq people brewed piiwaq for winter consumption and holiday celebrations. Elders recall making batches by the kitchen stove, where cooks kept a supply of warm yeasted water for baking. In a barrel, brewers mixed yeast water with potato shavings, sugar, and sometimes fruit. Raisins, canned peaches, or even canned pineapple were added to the mixture for flavor. Then a cloth tied tightly over the barrel sealed the top. Fermentation took from two days to two weeks, depending on the desired strength of the brew and the patience of its maker. The longer the fermentation, the stronger and clearer the resulting liquor.
Another variation of piiwaq was made from dried peas or beans. This thick mixture bubbled as it fermented, making a boiling sound and creating a terrible stench. Elders recall that this type of home brew tasted okay but that it gave you gas and very bad breath!
Home brewing declined in the mid-twentieth century, when regular air service to rural communities made commercially produced beverages easier to obtain.
Photo: Historic liquor bottles.
Nutaamek engluliyut. - They are building a new house.
When Alutiiq people travel outside Alaska or meet visitors from distant places, they are often asked about igloos. “Do you live in an igloo? Do you know anyone who does?” This tired stereotype traces its origins to twentieth-century portrayals of northern people by the media. Movies about the Inuit of the high Arctic taught Americans that northern indigenous people lived in snow houses, or igloos, obscuring the diversity of arctic cultures and housing types.
Although the word igloo comes from the Inuit word for house, it can refer to a variety of structures: a permanent wood and sod house or a temporary shelter made of snow. Although Alutiiq people never used snow houses, the Alutiiq word for house, ungluq, is similar to igloo. This reflects the deep linguistic ties between coastal societies of the far north.
For at least five thousand years, the traditional Alutiiq house was a wood-framed structure covered with warm, weatherproof sod. Alutiiq families lived in these structures into the early decades of the twentieth century, when log cabins and milled lumber houses became the norm. A photograph taken in Old Harbor in the 1890s shows a western-style log structure among a community of sod houses. Elders recall that such structures gradually replaced sod houses, which were transformed into steam baths, cooking houses, and places where men gathered to gamble.
Sava Matfay, father of the late Larry Matfay, built the first wood-framed house in Akhiok. Sava traded a fur buyer a single sea otter pelt for a load of red cedar planks. The fur buyer shipped the lumber to Akhiok and then helped the Matfays build a home.
Photo: Remains of the Matfay house, Akhiok, Alaska.
Cuumi, siinami taangapet puckaani et’aallriit. - Before, in the kellidor we kept our water in barrels.
In northern climates where people rely on heavy clothing, stored foods, and sophisticated technologies for survival, storing one’s supplies is always a concern. Northern peoples manage this problem by creating special storage areas in their homes.
In addition to piling supplies along the walls and filling the rafters with dried fish, Alutiiqs once used their entryways to keep belongings safe and dry. Most sod houses had a small entry, an antechamber known today as a kellidoor. In prehistoric times, these chambers were wide tunnels leading from the main room of the house to the outdoors. In later times, when people added western-style doors to their homes, the kellidoor was more like a small room, similar to a modern entry room. A smart craftsman made sure the door to this small room opened inward. Then, when it snowed, his family would not be trapped inside!
Historic sources indicate that Alutiiqs stored outer garments and barrels of berries, oil, and dried fish in the kellidoors of their sod houses. Today many Alutiiq homes continue to have kellidoors. These are often small plywood shelters added to the back of the house. These rooms contain modern versions of the traditional kellidoor items, including coats and rain gear, Xtratufs, and often a freezer stocked with fish, berries, and deer meat. The kellidoor is also where polite guests leave their muddy shoes.
Photo: Kellidoor on a house in Karluk, 1950s. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Cainiik kallaqsiituq. - The kettle didn’t boil yet.
Drinking tea, a favorite pastime in Alutiiq households, has ancient roots. Alutiiqs have long steeped medicinal plants in hot water to create healing infusions. In the nineteenth century, Alutiiqs began drinking black tea obtained in trade from Russian colonists. With European tea came a variety of teapots, cups, saucers, and samovars. Samovars are tall, brass urns that burned spruce cones or charcoal to heat water for tea. Historic sources suggest that Alutiiq families often fired up their samovars when a guest arrived for tea, sharing a hot drink, cube of sugar, and bits of dried salmon and brown bread. Samovars fell into disuse in the early twentieth century, when collectors bought up many of these remarkable pieces. At this time, Alutiiqs appear to have switched to simpler teakettles.
A copper kettle in the Alutiiq Museum’s collections belonged to the Matfay family. This heirloom reached Akhiok in the early nineteenth century with a load of lumber from Woody Island. Elder Larry Matfay recalled that the kettle was a centerpiece at many family parties: birthday celebrations, parties honoring a boy’s first kill, and evenings of storytelling.
Mr. Matfay also described how some families suspended their kettles above wood fires built on the floors of their sod houses. Small posts placed on either side of the fireplace rocks held a pole for suspending pots and kettles. Sometimes a kettle was set into another, larger pot to bring it closer to the flames.
Photo: Historic kettle in an archaeological site near Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.