Uruq mecuutaartuq. - The moss is always wet.
Today, hundreds of species of mosses grow in the coastal environments of the Gulf of Alaska, thriving on wet ground, tree trunks, branches, rocks, and even in freshwater. These soft, fluffy plants absorb water through their leaves and stems, making them an excellent source of spongy material.
In Alutiiq, the word uruq means both moss and diaper, reflecting the use of moss in swaddling babies. Moss collected from the ground was washed and dried, then stuffed into an infant’s clothing, cradle, and carrier. Elders remember this practice and note that people often collected moss in the warm season and saved quantities of it for winter use. Absorbent mosses also served as toilet paper and menstrual pads, lined vegetable roasting pits, functioned as wicks for stone oil lamps, and were employed in processing seal skins for kayak covers. People laid wet moss on seal skins to loosen the hair so they could be easily scraped clean.
Drier mosses, collected from trees, were a source of insulation. Because this moss does not shrink with age, people stuffed it into cracks in sod houses, used it in thatching roofs, and added it to clothing. A layer of moss increased the warmth of hats, mittens, and boots. Campers also piled tree moss on branches and covered the pile with a grass mat to make a comfortable temporary mattress.
Photo: Moss covered Sitka spruce trees, Fort Abercrombie, Kodiak Island.
Una uquq asirtuq. - This oil is good.
Today, many people limit the amount of fat in their diet, but in the past, fat was an essential part of every Alutiiq meal. It provided calories and helped people metabolize the large quantities of protein provided by fish, birds, and shellfish. Alutiiq women melted sea mammal blubber in ceramic pots to produce oil, or left blubber to liquefy naturally in underground pits and sealskin pokes. Fat was served at meals with dried foods. Guests in Alutiiq households received bowls of grease for dipping morsels of fish and meat. Fat was a symbol of prosperity and grease bowls were often highly decorated to reflect the importance of this food. The more grease offered, the more honored the guest and the more generous his host.
In addition to food, oil can be used as a preservative. Berries, shellfish, and other foods were once commonly stored in sea mammal oil in containers made from dried seal and sea lion stomachs. Oil coated the foods and prevented them from drying. Today some Alutiiqs use store bought oil for this purpose.
Oil also provided fuel for stone lamps. A lamp filled with seal oil would burn for hours, providing light and heat for an Alutiiq family.
Photo: Ahiok Elder Phyllis Peterson with a jar of berries stored in oil. Photo by Priscilla Russel, KANA Collection.
Aakanat amlertaartut uksuakaarmi. - Old spawned-out fish are plentiful in the early fall.
After growing to full size in the ocean, salmon return to freshwater to spawn. This journey is physically taxing. Salmon stop eating when they enter streams, relying on their stores of fat for energy to swim, build nests, and reproduce. Malnutrition, exhaustion, and physiological changes associated with spawning cause their bodies to change dramatically. The lithe, bright silvery fish found in the ocean fade and turn to red, green, brown, and even grey. Some species develop stripes or skin lesions. Others grow a hump, a hooked upper jaw, and jagged teeth.
There is a common misconception that salmon are inedible, perhaps even poisonous, once their bodies begin to decay. Alutiiq Elders report that this is simply not true. Although the texture of salmon flesh changes as fish deplete their energy stores, these fish are still a good source of food. Many Alaska Natives enjoy eating aakanaq—old fish.
Alutiiq Elders report that old fish have a more crumbly, white flesh, similar to the texture of canned tuna. This fish does not fry well, because it contains less oil, but it is very good to bake, boil, or dry. Old silver salmon make especially good dried fish. Old fish can also be eaten raw. Elders remember harvesting old red salmon from the Olga Lakes as late as March. People packed the fish back to Akhiok and cut thin, partially frozen slices of meat from their tails to eat raw. One Elder recalls his father eating silver salmon heads harvested from streams in winter. The fish heads were still good to eat, even if the remainder of the fish was gone. With two slices of bread, the gentleman had a quick and nutritious sandwich.
Photo: Children play with a dead salmon, Afognak Village area, ca. 1960. Chadwick Collection.
Cuumi llaami nuus’niingq’rtaallriakut. - Before we used to have an outhouse outside.
In prehistoric times, going to the bathroom was a less private matter than it is today. Alutiiq families kept large wooden tubs near the doors of their houses to collect urine. Valued for its cleansing properties, Alutiiq women used urine to process hides. The ammonia in the urine broke down fat, leaving animal skins grease-free and ready for sewing.
Western colonists introduced outhouses. Although they eventually became popular, these small structures were not always used for their intended purpose. A story from Afognak Island tells how a missionary gave an Alutiiq man lumber to build an outhouse. Instead of using the new structure for its unclean, intended purpose, the man put it to better use smoking fish. Similarly, when missionaries distributed chamber pots to Alutiiq families in the 1890s, many chose to use these large, valuable ceramic containers in the kitchen, not the bedroom.
In Kodiak communities today, there are two common words for outhouse. Some people use the Russian term nuus’niik, which means “necessary place,” while others use the Alutiiq word anarwik, which means “place to defecate.” These terms are not just applied to outhouses, however. With the introduction of indoor plumbing, both words have come to mean bathroom and toilet.
Photo: Outhouse on Sitkalidak Island.
Ugnerkami iqallut taikata sikialitaartukut. - In the spring when the salmon come, we make the partially smoked salmon.
Sikiaq, a lightly smoked salmon, is a common offering at Alutiiq breakfast tables. Stay at an Alutiiq lodge or bed and breakfast and you may awake to the aroma of this baking fish. Unlike typical smoked salmon, which is brined and then smooked for about ten days, sikiaq smokes for just two to three days after salting. This shorter cooking process imparts a gentle smoky flavor and unique texture. The outer layer of the salmon filet becomes firm, while the meat inside stays soft. People usually use filets of silver or red salmon for this dish.
For a delicious meal, people bake sikiaq like fresh salmon, heating it in the oven with a slathering of sliced onions, butter, pepper, and fresh herbs. It makes a delicious hot breakfast, although people enjoy it at all times of the day.
Photo: Elder Julie Knagin filets a red salmon.
Paapuka gui cisllangq’rtaallia. - My grandmother had a peg calendar.
Charting the passage of time was once a relative process. Alutiiq people noted the seasons by following changes in the natural environment and in the economic and social activities that accompanied the yearly cycle. With the introduction of Russian Orthodoxy, however, the Alutiiq faithful adopted Russian-style peg calendars to track their days.
Peg calendars were typically fashioned of wood. Some were small boxes with a calendar carved in the lid. Other calendars were designed to hang on a wall. Each calendar had a flat surface with evenly divided segments representing the months of the year. Each segment had a series of holes representing the days of that month. A small peg was moved from hole to hole to signify the date. Calendars usually started on September 1, the first day of the ecclesiastical year. Special symbols adorned peg holes representing Sundays and church holidays. Each family then added markings to represent special household occasions — family member’s name days and the feast days of beloved saints.
Siberian fur traders introduced peg calendars to Alaska in the eighteenth century. Used in Orthodox communities throughout the state, they were commonly kept in the eastern corner of the house where religious icons were reverently displayed. A senior member of the household moved the peg daily to track the religious calendar. Although Elders remember using these calendars, they were gradually replaced by American-style paper calendars in the later decades of the twentieth century. Today, many examples can be seen in museum collections.
Photo: Peg Calendar by Alutiiq artist Andrew Abyo. Courtesy Andrew Abyo.
PiRuq piturnirtuq. - Perok tastes good.
Alutiiq cuisine, like Alutiiq culture, is a mixture of Native and European traditions that reflects Kodiak’s rich cultural history. Foods inspired by Russian culture can be found on many Alutiiq tables: berry tarts in the summer, sweet kulich bread at Easter, and perok throughout the year. Perok is a fish pie made with rice and vegetables. Although families enjoy perok for supper, it is often served at special occasions, including birthday parties, holiday celebrations, potlatches, wedding receptions, and funeral repasts.
Cooks across Alaska make perok with a variety of ingredients. Some people use root vegetables like turnips and rutabagas. Others add slices of hardboiled eggs, parsley, sautéed onions, or ground bacon. On the Kenai Peninsula you may find moose meat in your pie, and in the Pribilof Islands, chefs fill their perok with halibut. Kodiak Islanders prefer salmon perok, particularly pies made with fresh sockeye or king salmon. Tasty modern versions include hamburger, corned beef, and even gravy. Each cook makes perok a little differently, but you can build a delicious pie from this basic recipe.
Make a large batch of piecrust. Use the crust to cover the bottom and the sides of a rectangular baking dish: a 9-by-13-inch pan works well for a family meal. Cover the bottom crust with a layer of partially cooked rice. Cover the rice with a layer of fish. You can use canned fish, but soak it first to remove some of the salt. Pepper the fish and add a layer of sautéed vegetables, hardboiled eggs, or whatever you like. Moisten the fish and vegetables with a few pats of butter and then cover with a second layer of rice. Cover the entire pie with the remaining crust and bake it for one hour at 350degrees. Serve hot and don’t forget the ketchup.
Photo: A golden brown, freshly baked Perok.
PatRiitairng. - Take a photograph of me.
The world’s first photographs were taken in the 1830s, when French scientist Louis Daguerre captured images on copperplates treated with silver and mercury. Twenty years later, in the1850s, photography became popular in the United States with the invention of a less-expensive process that fixed images to glass or tin.
As Americans spread west, so did photography, recording picturesque landscapes and Native American communities. For those interested in history, these images are a valuable source of information. They illustrate traditional life and document the effects of western culture on Native societies. Photographs often preserve small details about the past that are not present in written accounts.
Scientists studying Alaska’s Native peoples and natural resources took some of the first photographs of Kodiak Alutiiq people. In 1872, French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart took a small number of shots of Afognak and Kodiak. These may be the earliest photographs from the Kodiak archipelago. In 1889, Tarleton H. Bean, a fisheries biologist, took photos of Karluk as part of his study of Alaska salmon, and in the 1890s, the staff of the steamer Albatross, a vessel studying river systems, took photographs of Old Harbor.
These invaluable images demonstrate that although Alutiiqs had adopted western clothing, most families continued to live in traditional-style sod houses and travel by kayak at the onset of the twentieth century. However, these sod houses were not exactly like their prehistoric counterparts. Photographs show that Alutiiqs entered their homes through western-style hinged doors, rather than crawling in through the once-traditional entrance tunnel.
Photo: Old Harbor residents with kayak, ca. 1890. Albatross Collection, National Archives.