Ipigka awa tukniya’utuk. - My arms now are getting weak.
In classical Alutiiq society, people wore long, hoodless robes stitched from bird or animal skins. These garments had loose, heavy sleeves that could make completing daily chores difficult. To facilitate work, seamstresses created slits in the sides of these robes, long narrow vents that ran from under the arm to the hip. When a person wished to work with their arms, they simply pulled them out of their sleeves and extended them through the vents in their robe. This freed the arms while keeping the torso covered and warm.
Prehistoric Alutiiq skeletal remains indicate that men worked extensively with their arms. Bones and muscles thicken with strenuous physical activity, and larger muscles etch a larger pattern on the underlying bone. From looking at the marks left by muscles on adult male arm bones, particularly the humerus or upper arm bone, anthropologists believe that Alutiiq men developed massive arm muscles. This strength reflects a lifetime of carrying wood and water, building structures, throwing spears, casting darts, and paddling boats.
Photo: Boys carrying wood, Ouzinkie. Courtsey Tim and Norman Smith.
Ilait auk aliktaarait. - Some people are scared of blood.
In English, the word blood has several meanings. It can refer to the liquid that circulates oxygen and nutrients through an animal’s body, or it can denote a person’s family background— their ancestry. In the United States, the federal government uses this second meaning to identify Native people for the purposes of implementing laws and providing benefits. In this context, Native identity is determined through blood quantum, a measurement of a person’s percentage of Native ancestry. For example, if your father is a Native person and your mother is of European descent, the government considers you to have fifty percent Native blood.
This genetically focused method of determining who is Native does not take into account a person’s culture, community of residence, upbringing, or self-concept of ancestry, factors that often contribute powerfully to individual identity. This issue surfaced in the development of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, the federal law that returned land and resources to Alaska’s indigenous people and continues to guide the use of those resources. Those who wished to participate in the settlement had to prove a Native blood quantum of at least twenty-five percent. However, because people did not always know their biological ancestry or considered themselves Native regardless of their genetic past, the settlement included those regarded as an Alaska Native by their community as well as the adopted children of Native parents.
Photo: Three generations of the Knagin - Bishop family.
Isiit iingalartutaartut. - Owls (always) have big eyes.
An Alutiiq story from Prince William Sound tells of a young man who wished to be married. He traveled to a killer whale village, where he gave the chief dried halibut in return for the right to marry his daughter. The daughter left with the young man but discovered quickly that he had dirty, runny eyes. Disgusted, she snuck away and returned to her mother’s village.
The reference to dirty eyes in this story may reflect a common health problem in classical Alutiiq society. The oil lamps that burned daily in sod houses created soot that clogged both the lungs and the eyes. Russian traders report that blindness was a frequent problem.
Alternatively, dirty eyes may be a reference to the suitor’s youth and inexperience. Among the Yup’ik, with whom the Alutiiq people share many traditions, vision is associated with age, knowledge, and power, particularly supernatural power. It is rude for young people to make direct eye contact, and downcast eyes are a symbol of respect and humility.
This association between vision and power is also expressed in Alutiiq stories. Many Alutiiq tales mention taboos related to looking, particularly at supernatural things. For example, people who journey to the spirit world must close their eyes as they travel and are often shielded from watching spirits at work. Moreover, spirits are thought to have excellent vision. The souls of the dead peer down through the sky to observe life on earth, and Llam Sua—the Alutiiq supreme being—is all seeing.
Photo: Ceremonial mask with rays coming from eyes, signifying vision. Pinart Collection, Château-Musée, France.
Suit’kaat asingcugtaartut. - Flowers are pretty.
Each summer blue lupine, purple iris, lavender geranium, magenta fireweed, pink rose, yellow buttercup, and many other flowering plants flood Kodiak’s meadows with color. For Alutiiq people, however, wildflowers are more than a delightful reminder of summer. They are a source of information and a valuable natural resource.
Flowers help collectors judge the quality of plants. Many of Kodiak’s vegetables are picked before they blossom, because their leaves and stems toughen and may become bitter with flowering. Beach loveage, cow parsnip, sourdock, and goose tongue are all gathered when they first appear in May and June. Later in the summer, families will only harvest the nonflowering stems of these plants.
Like many other plant products, some flowers are eaten. Elders report sucking the nectar from salmonberry flowers, eating the berry-like flowers of pineapple weed, and making tea from the petals of wild roses. Other flowers can be used as medicine. Alutiiq people administer a tea made of elderberry flowers, fresh or dried, to reduce fever and relieve flu symptoms. This tea induces a cleansing sweat. Flowers are also used in poultices. A poultice of dried hemlock parsley flowers (Conioselinum chinense) can be used to clean wounds, one of wild sage (Artemisia tilesii) can relieve hemorrhoids, and one of heated single delight flowers (Monese uniflora) can treat tumors.
Photo: Lupine blooming on the shore of Monashka Bay, Kodiak Island.
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.
TuugtaRaq sungarwigmen ag’uq. - The doctor is going to the hospital.
Medical care in Alutiiq communities was once provided by two types of specialists: healers who treated the sick with heat, herbal medicine, and bloodletting, and shamans who realigning the ill with the spirit world.
When new diseases arrived in Alaska with Russian traders, medical care expanded to include Western practices. In the early decades of colonization, sailing ships carried a physician who treated sick sailors and sometimes cared for the ailing in communities they visited.
In the early 1800s, the Russian American Company established a medical system to aid in recruiting Russian workers and promote productivity. The first formal hospital was built in Sitka in about1818. Here the sick received medical care from a physician, food, and rest at no cost. This hospital acted as the central regional facility, providing equipment, drugs, vaccinations, supplies, and even visiting physicians to outlying areas where the company established infirmaries or smaller hospitals.
Historic accounts suggest that the company built a hospital in Kodiak 1840, although a physician was not present. Instead, feldsher, local people trained as medical providers, oversaw treatment. As such, Native people were among the leading staff members at the early hospitals. The Alutiiq word sungcarwik, a recently coined term for hospital, literally means “place to heal.” Alternatively you can use, qenawik, an older term for hospital that means “place for sickness.”
Who received care at Alaska’s first hospitals? The company offered smallpox vaccinations and treatment for syphilis widely, but reserved other services for its employees. Some of these employees were Native people, although many Natives continued to receive medical care in their communities.
Photo: Griffin Memmorial Hospital, 1940s. Courtesy the Anderson Family, Afognak
Kai'akameng kenirtaartut. - When people are hungry they cook.
Throughout northern environments, late winter and early spring are the leanest times of year. There are fewer sources of fresh food in this season, and bad weather can make those that are available hard to reach. Moreover, by late winter, food stores from the previous summer are often exhausted. For many of Alaska’s Native peoples, late winter was a time of hunger. The Alutiiq term for this season translated as “cutting the salmon into strips,” a reference to rationing the last pieces of stored fish. Historic sources note that communities managed this period of shortfall by subsisting on intertidal resources.
In February and March, families collected large quantities of shellfish, seaweed, and invertebrates while waiting for the return of sea mammals, birds, and fish to coastal waters. And when ice covered intertidal areas, people resorted to eating clothing and leather items to prevent starvation.
Hunger was also problematic during the early years of western colonization. Native people forced to work for the fur trade had little time to complete the subsistence activities needed to sustain their families through the cold season.
Photo: Digging for clams at the mouth of the Buskin River in winter. Jarvela Family collection, courtesy Kathy Nelson.
Paluqa'akamta angqiartaartukut. - When we fall down we injure ourselves.
In classical Alutiiq society, two types of healthcare providers treated the sick and injured: healers trained in the arts of acupressure, bleeding, midwifery, and the use of medicinal herbs; and shamans who sought spiritual causes for illness and restored health by identifying and appeasing angered spirits. While a healer might prescribe a steam bath, a massage, or a poultice of salmonberry bark to treat an injury, a shaman would consult helping spirits and perform a healing ritual. Healers learned through apprenticeship. Young women worked with accomplished healers to learn their arts. In contrast, communities recognized shamans for their natural ability to know the spirit world. The Alutiiq word for shaman, kalla’alek, literally means one who has a helping spirit.
Although Russian colonists opened a hospital in Kodiak in 1808, which persisted into the 1840s, western medicine did not reach many rural Native communities until the late twentieth century. In part this reflects the efficacy of the Native practitioners, who were revered for their healing abilities. But it also reflects the priorities of the new American government in Alaska. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister and Alaska’s general agent for education in the early twentieth century, diverted government funds for intended for health care to establish western schools.