Ugnerkami miskiiRiat amleritaartut. - In the spring there are many spiders.
There at least 350 species of spiders in Alaska, belonging to seventeen families. Spiders are not insects. They are close relatives of ticks and mites and belong to a group called arachnids. Insects have three body parts, six legs, and a pair of antennae. In contrast, arachnids have two body parts, eight legs, and no antennae.
Alaska spiders are typically small, especially when compared with varieties found in warmer climates. Many don’t build webs but hide in flowers to catch insects or hunt along the ground. Common Alaska spiders include crab spiders with a long second set of legs, shy hairy wolf spiders, and cobweb spiders with an orb-like body.
In the Alutiiq language, miskiiRaqis the general word for spider. However, there are many other spider words, indicating that Alutiiqs recognized different types and had unique names for unique varieties. For example sukunuuk, the Alutiiq word for daddy longlegs, a spider-like arachnid, literally means “one who likes damp places.”
Spiders seek warm places when the weather gets cold and may crawl into houses or be transported inside with materials like firewood. So it is quite likely that spiders were regular residents of Alutiiq sod houses, living among the rafters and grass thatching that covered these warm dwellings.
Photo: Kodiak spider carrying baby spiders.
Uquq isuwim suqani etaartuq. - Oil is always in the seal stomach.
Although seal meat makes a tasty meal, seals once provided much more than food. In classical Alutiiq society, every part of the animal was used. Skins were fashioned into clothing and boat covers, intestines were sewn into waterproof bags and jackets, strips of sinew from the animal’s powerful back were made into thread, seal bladders were shaped into drum coverings, and seal stomachs were made into food containers.
Seal-stomach containers were particularly common household items, and they were used well into the twentieth century. By late fall, the rafters of a typical house were heavily laden with seal stomachs full of summer foods. Berries, greens, oil, fish eggs, and other foods were packaged in these pokes. In addition to storage, such containers were also used to render oil from blubber. Pieces of blubber were stuffed into the stomach and both ends tightly lashed to prevent it from leaking. As it aged, the blubber would release the oil, which was then used for food, fuel, and to waterproof skins. Conveniently, the dark color of the seal stomach protected the oil from sunlight and its taste-altering effects.
Photo: Seal stomach poke from the Alutiiq Museum's collections, gift of the Matfay family.
Tuntuq saRayami inimauq. - The reindeer is hanging in the shed.
Outbuildings have been a part of Alutiiq communities for thousands of years. In studies of ancient Alutiiq settlements, archaeologists find smokehouses, storage sheds, and a variety of small structures that illustrate how people used the space outside their homes. Historic sources tell us that Alutiiq families also built small dwellings for menstruating women and women in labor. To protect hunters from the life-giving power of women, women were secluded in small structures adjacent to their homes. This ensured that the hunter’s ability to kill animals was not diminished by his wife’s power to create life. Men also stored their hunting gear outside their homes to avoid accidental contamination.
Today, Alutiiq families keep sheds to store gear, supplies, and even food. This cool, dry shelter is an excellent place to store leafy alder branches for use in the banya. The branches are tied in pairs and hung to dry. Other people use their sheds to cure meat, stockpile dried fish, and keep their hunting and fishing equipment out of the rain.
Not everything stored in a shed is safe, however. A Karluk hunter remembers a large brown bear that kept raiding his shed, stealing his winter supply of dried salmon. Each night the bear reached into the little wooden shelter, pulling out as much fish as he could and leaving a big mess for the hunter to find in the morning. Angered by several nights of raiding, the hunter decided to wait for the bear. As darkness fell, he hid himself in the shed, standing quietly for hours. Sure enough, the bear returned looking for a meal. With his rifle on his shoulder, the man kicked the door open and shot the very surprised bear standing a few feet away. That was the end of the bear.
Photo: A potatoe shed in Ouzinkie. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Mecuusqanek kenerqat puyurnartuu’ut. - Wet firewood is very smoky.
In Alutiiq communities, wood smoke is best known for its ability to flavor and preserve fish. Each family has its own special recipe for creating savory smoked salmon. Some rely on cottonwood, as both the bark and the wood of this widely available tree create lots of smoke and impart a wonderful flavor. Others prefer alder branches with the bark removed, or birch wood. In the past, smoke was also used to process hides and fumigate houses. Burning branches will drive bugs from your home, and the smoke of seabeach sandwort will keep mosquitoes at bay.
Smoke was also used for medicinal and spiritual purposes. In Akhiok and Old Harbor, the leafy stems of crowberry shrubs were once burned in homes to prevent and cure illness. Visitors to these communities were asked to jump over burning plants and stand in their smoke. This destroyed diseases and chased away evil spirits.
Alutiiqs also used smoke to ritually clean contaminated objects. If a baby was accidentally born in a house or if a menstruating woman touched her husband’s hunting gear, it was fumigated with smoke to restore its potency. Similarly, winter hunting ceremonies began by purifying the air with the smoke of burning grass, and to clear the air, a smoking torch preceded a corpse as it was carried outdoors for burial.
Photo: A smokey camp fire, Cape Alitak.
Kupcuunamek minarnga. - Give me some smoked salmon.
There are many ways to cook salmon, but smoked fish is always a favorite. It takes several weeks and lots of hard work to create this delicacy, but it is a popular way to preserve the wealth of summer salmon. Every family has its own smoking method. Most start by cleaning the fish, creating two fillets joined at the tail. Others cut the meat into strips. Next the fish is dry salted and washed, or dipped in brine. Sugar and spices can be added for flavor. After a day or two of air-drying, people take their fish to the smoker, where slow-burning fires impart a distinct smoky taste. People in the Chignik region prefer the flavor created by alder, while Kodiak residents often choose cottonwood. The smoking process takes from a few days to several weeks. Some families smoke their fish for three days and then allow it to finish drying naturally. Others may smoke over a very low fire for up to three weeks.
It is not clear whether Alutiiqs smoked salmon in the prehistoric era. Russian accounts, historic photos, and oral histories indicate that people dried huge quantities of fish, but less is known about smoking. At an ancient salmon fishing camp on the Buskin River, archaeologists uncovered large charcoal-filled pits inside tent-like structures. Were these smoke houses? Fires may have been lit to create a hot, bug-free environment for drying fish, or they may have been used to create flavorful smoke.
Photo: Bob Ignatin and Nick Lukovitch, Old Harbor, 1946-1949. Fred and Marie Bailey collection, courtesy Wilmer Andrewvitch
Engluq nikiimek patumauq. - The house is covered with sod.
The lush grasses of Alaska’s coastal meadows produce more than just weaving material for Native people. The thick tangles of roots, which cling to deep underlying layers of soil, were traditionally cut into blocks and used in house construction. Piles of sod were used to line walls and create a warm insulating cover for traditional houses. Such roofs were heavery. As such, Alutiiq builders covered the tops of large structures with grass thatching to limit the weight of the roof.
Each fall, Alutiiq people cut sod blocks to renovate their semisubterranean houses. Before the introduction of metal tools, archaeologists believe that Alutiiqs used pointed digging sticks fashioned from sea mammal ribs to harvest sods. Cut blocks were laid on top of the wooden house frame over a layer of beach ryegrass. The grass provided waterproofing, while the sod held the grass in place and acted as insulation.
The use of sod to create warm, durable housing is a practice shared by coastal people from the Gulf of Alaska, the Athapaskans of interiors Alaska, and the Inuit of Arctic Canada. Although many people think igloos—dwellings built from snow and ice—are the most common arctic dwellings, they were not. Aleut and Eskimo peoples have relied on sod for protection from cold, stormy Arctic weather for thousands of years, in many places where it is not possible or practical to build houses from snow.
Photo: Archaeologists sitting on a pile of sod blocks. King Salmon River area, Alaska Peninsula.
Ciqlluaq tukinallia. - The sod house was comfortable.
Known today by the Russian word barabara, the tradition Alutiiq house was a sod and thatch-covered structure built partially underground (semi-subterranean). After digging a foundation pit, builders erected a post-and-beam framework and covered it with planks split from driftwood. Over the wooden frame, they piled sod for insulation.
Houses were entered through a low door that led into a large room with a central hearth. Around the walls were earthen benches for sitting and sleeping. Dry grass or animal skin, particularly bear hides, covered these benches. This is where Alutiiq people cooked, repaired tools, sewed clothing, and hosted visitors.
Attached to the central room were a series of side chambers. Accessible through narrow passageways, people used these rooms for sleeping, steam bathing, and food storage. Groups of related Alutiiq women and their families lived together. Each family had its own sleeping room but shared the large central room.
In addition to houses, Alutiiqs built sod-covered structures for community activities. These large, single-roomed buildings also had benches along the walls. Here, men gathered to socialize, plan war parties, discuss political issues, and lead community festivals. Women and children joined these festivals but as a rule did not visit these community houses regularly. Russian observers noted that most communities had one such structure, although it is not clear whether these “men’s houses,” as they are sometimes called, were owned by wealthy community leaders or simply maintained by the wealthy. Whatever their ownership, the use of community houses is a practice Alutiiqs share with their Yup’ik and Iñupiat neighbors.
Historic photographs show Alutiiq families living in sod houses about one hundred years ago. As the American fishing industry introduced large quantities of western goods, wood-framed structures gradually replaced sod houses. Alutiiq Elders remember that as frame houses replaced traditional sod houses in the early twentieth century, the old, sod-covered buildings became gathering places for steam bathing, processing foods, and playing games. Today, sod houses are used for social and ceremonial gatherings as a proud symbol of Native heritage.
Image: Diagram of an Alutiiq sod house.
Alutiit Spam-eq pingaktaarat. - Alutiiq people (always) like Spam.
The Hormel Foods Corporation introduced Spam to American consumers in 1937. Manufactured in Austin, Minnesota, this now famous lunchmeat came packaged in twelve-ounce cans. Hormel reports that more than seven billion cans of Spam have been sold in the past sixty-five years! Alaskans contributed significantly to this total.
Spam is a mixture of chopped ham and spices. Because it is cooked and canned, Spam does not need refrigeration. This makes it easy to ship and store. Spam gained popularity during World War II and has remained a favorite in Alaska’s rural communities, lodges, and field camps. Each year chefs complete at the Alaska State Fair in Anchorage to win the “best Spam recipe” contest.
Alutiiq families continue to enjoy Spam, adding it to a variety of dishes. In addition to eating fried Spam for breakfast and making Spam sandwiches, Alutiiqs enjoy the spicy meat in spaghetti, soups, and casseroles. And Alutiiq language teachers recently created a Kodiak version of Dr. Seuss’s beloved “Green Eggs and Ham.” The Alutiiq translation features seagull eggs and Spam.
Photo: Nettles and fried spam cooked over a coleman stove.