Wiika taugum taqikii. - My husband was lanced by that person.
Among the techniques used by Alutiiq healers, lancing and bloodletting were chief remedies for pain and illness. Elders recall that the famous tribal doctor Oleanna Ashouwak (1909–1965), a resident of Kaguyak, used these techniques to help people experiencing headaches. She would cut the skin at the back of a patient’s head with a small knife, to release “bad blood.” If the patient didn’t bleed very much, Ashouwak used a small tool made from a cow’s horn to suck out additional blood. Similar bloodletting practices employed on the head, wrists, or thumb, were also treatments for pneumonia, tuberculosis, and chest pain. Healers also employed bloodletting after the birth of a baby, to help new mothers regain their strength.
A bloodletting tool in the Alutiiq Museum’s collections is fashioned from a cow’s horn. This piece was collected in Old Harbor in the 1950s. Elders recall that such horns were used both to numb the skin before it was lanced and to induce bleeding after lancing.
In addition to bloodletting, Alutiiq healers practiced a variety of other surgeries and employed massage, herbal treatments, and holding to treat their patients. Many of these activities took place in the warm, restorative environment of the steam bath.
Photo: Blood letting horn from Old Harbor. Collected by By Bill Laughlin, KANA Collection.
Nerciquq aarimek. - He is going to eat liver.
People around the world enjoy eating liver. From liverwurst to fried chicken livers people savor its flavor and texture. Alutiiqs are no exception. Elders report enjoying a variety of wild game liver. They consider seal liver the best, followed by deer liver. Bird livers and fish livers are also delicious and long ago people ate bear liver, often raw. Today, most Alutiiqs panfry liver, serving it with onions. To insure a pleasant flavor, some soak the organ meat before cooking. A water bath can remove any gamey taste.
Be careful, however, eating too much liver in the Arctic can be risky. Sea mammals store high levels of vitamin A in their livers, a nutrient that can be toxic when consumed in large quantities. Small overdoses of vitamin A make people sleepy, queasy, and irritable. Large overdoses can cause painful pealing skin, coma, and even death. How do Alutiiqs avoid over consumption? People often share liver, so one person seldom eats very much of this rich food. Traditional stories also remind people to be careful of what they eat.
A legend from Prince William Sound tells of a woman who liked to eat liver. When her husband gave her an odd looking liver, she refused to eat it. She later discovered that he had killed her sister and harvested the girl’s liver! To repay him for his treachery, the woman tricked her husband into falling asleep by a fire. She sang him a dead person’s song till he was no longer able to move, and then killed him by throwing his body on the fire!
Photo: Seals off of Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
Ing’im ceniini kenegtangq’rtuq. - The mountainside has cranberries.
The lowbush cranberry, or lingonberry (Vaccinium vitisidaea), is a creeping plant with thick, oval, shiny, green leaves; pink, bell-shaped flowers; and round, red berries. The word kenegtaq literally means “something pressed down.” This plant flowers in mid to late June and is commonly found throughout Kodiak’s spruce forests, particularly in wet areas.
Alutiiq people harvest the bright red, sour cranberries as food, preferably after a heavy frost when the berries are sweetest. They were eaten as a condiment with fish or mixed into Alutiiq ice cream. Unlike many juicier berries, lowbush cranberries can be stored for a long time. Those used before freezing weather were traditionally kept in freshwater in a cool place. After freezing weather, the berries were stored in gut containers filled with seal oil.
The lowbush cranberry plant has medicinal properties. Alutiiq people prepared tea made from the leaves to treat colds. Eating raw lowbush cranberries is also recommended for sore throats, canker sores, and kidney problems.
Photo: Low bush Cranberry, By Dawn Endico from Menlo Park, California (Lingonberry), via Wikimedia Commons
Una arnaq caugnga’istaq. - This woman is an acupressurist.
Although many people think of acupressure as an Asian science, healers in societies around the world use their hands to restore health to the sick by applying gentle, carefully directed pressure. This pressure promotes blood circulation, stimulates the production of hormones, relieves tension, and reduces pain, helping the body to heal.
In Alutiiq society, acupressure was once an important form of traditional medicine practiced by village healers. Women trained in the art of bleeding, the use of plant medicines, and midwifery were also acupressurists. They used their hands to feel illness and to move it from the body with directed pressure and massage.
The Alutiiq word for an acupressurist, caugnga’istaq, comes from the word for pulse. According to Elders, there were certain points on the body where the caugnga’istaq would feel a patient’s pulse to both diagnose and treat illness. Some of the commonly manipulated pulse points included the temple, the collarbone, and the ankles. If a person’s pulse felt faint in a certain area, the acupressurist might perform a holding technique to restore blood flow or choose a blood letting or herbal treatment to promote healing.
Photo: Alutiiq Elder and traditional healer, Mary Peterson.
Uqgwit kua'akameng cillkataartut. - When alders burn they make a crackling sound.
Sitka alder (Alnus crispa) is a large shrub that grows up to twenty feet tall. Found commonly across the Kodiak Archipelago, this plant thrives in a wide range of environments, from mountain slopes to coastal meadows and the banks of freshwater streams. Sitka alder often forms dense thickets in disturbed areas. You can identify this shrub by its dark green, oval, toothed leaves, which the plant sheds in the fall. Sitka alder produces two types of flower clusters of catkins: long, narrow, drooping male catkins and smaller, brown, cone-like female catkins. Another distinguishing feature is its smooth, gray bark.
Alutiiq people used flexible alder branches to construct kayaks and snowshoes. The leafy branches are also employed as switches for steam bathing, where they relieved aches and pains and promoted good health. Some people use alder for smoking fish, although the outer bark may be peeled and removed to prevent an unpleasant aftertaste. Alder is also a source of firewood, particularly in bad weather. This plentiful plant provides fuel when it is difficult to collect other types of wood.
Photo: Alder brush. KANA collection. Courtesy Priscilla Russell.
Uriisat tak’ut. - The angelica are tall.
Angelica (Agelica lucida) is a large, leafy herb with a stout fleshy stem and small, greenish-white flowers that form a large head. This aromatic plant, which grows in Kodiak’s coastal meadows, on beaches, and along streambanks, is prized for its healing qualities. However, be careful not to mistake angelica for its extremely poisonous cousin, the deadly water hemlock. Both are members of the parsley family. Angelica can only be picked and used during the warm summer months, because it does not preserve well.
In Alutiiq communities, people value angelica as a steam bath switch and medicinal herb. Alutiiqs may also put angelica leaves on the floor of their steam baths to perfume the warm air and open the sinuses. Others wave the plant’s leafy stem in the heat of a steam bath and rub it on their bodies to relieve aches and pains. The plant is also said to contain oils that heal and revitalize the skin. In some villages, people rub the fleshy, inner part of the stem and leaves on their skin to heal skin irritations. Similarly, rheumatism was once treated with wet, heated angelica leaves.
Angelica is also useful outdoors. Hikers use the plant’s stems to switch away bugs, and hunters rub their hands with angelica leaves before touching animal traps to hide their human scent.
Photo: Elder Lucille Davis demonstrates the application of angelica as bug repellent. Photo by Priscilla Russell, courtesy the KANA collection.
Aikut nerestangq'rtut. - The dogs have lice.
Historic accounts indicate that lice were a constant plague in Native communities. These small, rapidly reproducing parasites were hard to eradicate, as people lived in tight quarters where they passed easily from one person to the next. Moreover, people wore heavy fur and bird skin clothing where vermin could hide, and some communities had limited water for washing. Many loads of furs harvested in Alaska arrived in Europe infested with lice.
Lice are tiny wingless parasite that feed off small amounts of blood. Their bites can be very itchy, and itching louse bites often leads to skin infections. The journals of Russian traders in Alaska report that itch and skin ulcers were common maladies, found on almost everyone.
To get relief from lice, Alaska Natives washed, picked them off, and sometimes turned their clothing inside out. In the coldest regions of Alaska–people took their clothes off at night and left them outside to freeze–which killed the lice. A good shake in the morning and one’s clothes were vermin free.
A traditional Alutiiq song, sung by many dancer groups today, pokes fun at lice and reminds people hard it can be to kill them–even with water and steam. The song describes a louse taking a steam bath, showing of in the heat and singing his own little song!
Photo: Alutiiq dancers singing the louse song, August, 2011.
Mal'ugnek segnengq'rtua, kinam tenglukiinga! - I got two black eyes, somebody hit me!
There are many ways to get a black eye. Elders recall that men and boys working around swinging fishing gear were frequently bruised in the face. Others got shiners from fighting, particularly after school. Parents forbid such sparring and would punish them if they found out they were involved in a fight. Even those who were defending themselves were punished for fighting. Parents taught their children to walk away from fights. Similarly, if a woman got bruises from her husband, this behavior was whispered about and looked down upon by the whole village.
Although Alutiiqs discouraged fighting, they encouraged wrestling. Among the Chugach Alutiiq of Prince William Sound, wrestling matches occurred at community gatherings, where people tested their strength and agility. Players would grasp each other’s hands, or wrap their arms around each other’s waists, and try to knock their opponent off his feet. When a person fell, he lost. Other forms of wrestling included finger, arm, or leg wrestling, where participants hooked each other and pulled. Today, wrestling remains popular among Alutiiqs. Young men participate in competitive high school and college wrestling with support from Alutiiq corporations.