Cukaluten, paapuskaaq iwa’aru! Carliangqutartuq. - Hurry, get the midwife! She’s going to have a baby.
Each Alutiq community had at least one midwife, a healer versed in herbal medicines and the arts of bloodletting, surgery, and childbirth. Appointed by her community at a young age and apprenticed to an older midwife, this woman tended the sick, provided prenatal care, and delivered babies. Midwives are remembered fondly for their great knowledge, kindness, and ability to help people.
Healers were believed to have spiritual powers. In addition to learning skills from older women, they were imbued with special knowledge. They simply knew how to diagnose and treat illness—a divine gift. Women worked with their hands to locate sickness and used herbs, steam baths, and touch as therapies. But they were also recognized as helpers for offering domestic assistance. After the birth of a baby, for example, a midwife often stayed in the new mother’s home to help with chores for several weeks.
Midwives delivered most of the babies born in Alutiiq communities until the 1950s, when western practitioners began urging expectant mothers to deliver in hospitals far from home. Today, the role of midwife has evolved into the publically funded position of community health aide (CHA). CHAs work as liaisons between their villages and the western medical world. Most are women, and many are descended from traditional healers.
Photo: Girl holds a new baby sibling, Afognak village, ca. 1960. Chadwick Collection.
KaRauwamek muluk’uungtaartutkut. - We get milk from a cow.
Milk is a relatively recent addition to the Alutiiq diet, a fact illustrated by the Russian derivation of the Alutiiq words for milk. Although midwives brewed a tea from pineapple weed to stimulate the production of a new mother’s milk, and mothers nursed their babies for several years, cow’s milk was not widely used in Alutiiq communities until the twentieth century.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, a few Alutiiq families kept dairy cows. Most families, however, purchased canned milk along with staples like flour and sugar. Akhiok Elders remember hot cereal breakfasts with canned milk. Milk was also used to make pacifiers. Parents mixed milk with bread, sugar, and seal oil or butter and placed this mixture in cheesecloth. They tied the cloth closed with a string and nailed the string to the wall by a baby’s crib. When the baby cried, they offered the homemade pacifier.
Today, Alutiiq families purchase both fresh and preserved cow’s milk from grocery stores. Boxed and canned milk remain popular in rural areas, where groceries arrive by airplane. Milk has also been added to some traditional dishes. Alutiiq people eat tender young willow shoots with milk and sugar and mix milk into their akutaq, a desert made today with mashed salmonberries, sugar, and Crisco. Others enjoy dipping an alatiq (N) oralaciq (S), Alutiiq fried bread, into canned milk.
Photo: Cows on the beach in Ouzinkie. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Uqaayanat angtaartut. - Nettles are big.
The stinging nettle (Urtica lyalli) grows widely across the northern hemisphere. It thrives in open meadows, flourishes in damp soil, and is found commonly in dense clusters in areas disturbed by human activity. In the Gulf of Alaska, nettles often grow on the surface of archaeological sites-where they prosper in the rich organic soil formed by ancient garbage.
Nettles have distinctive toothed leaves that hold tiny stinging hairs. When broken, these hairs release formic acid, a skin irritant. The Alutiiq word for nettle literally means “something that makes you burn all over.” In the Kodiak area, people often refer to nettles as “burners.” Despite their stinging quality, young nettles are a tasty green vegetable. They are collected in the spring or early summer, boiled for fifteen minutes to remove their bite, and eaten like spinach. Nettles are also used to flavor food. They are added to soups or burned while smoking fish.
Nettles are also widely recognized for their medicinal properties. Nettle leaf tea is said to soothe respiratory problems, particularly tuberculosis, while a tea made from nettle roots can ease the pain of arthritis.
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.
Una aRam’aas’kaaq caayuq piturnirtuq. - This chamomile tea tastes good.
Pineapple weed (Matricaria matricarioides) is a widespread, low growing herb with pale green, berrylike flowers and a fruity scent. It thrives in open fields and disturbed areas, and grows particularly well around human settlements. European settlers introduced Pineapple weed to North America and it is now found across the continent. Also known as wild chamomile, the Alutiiq word for pineapple weed—aRam’aas’kaaq—comes from the Russian word for chamomile —romashka.
Alutiiq people use the leaves, stems, and flowers of the pineapple weed. Islanders add the edible flowers to salads or pick them for a snack. Others steep the leaves and stems in boiling water to make a medicinal tea. The plant is potent fresh or dried and may be steeped for up to an hour, depending on the desired strength of the tea. Alutiiqs use pineapple weed tea for relaxation. It is said to soothe nerves, prevent nightmares and promote sleep. It is also a remedy for nausea and a mild laxative. A few drops will help a newborn baby move its bowls.
And if smelly hands are a problem, rub the plant’s fresh leaves on your skin. Pineapple weed has a deodorizing effect.
KaRtuugaarturtaartukut, iqallugmek cali. - We eat potatoes to go with the fish.
Derived from the Russian word for potato, kartofel, the Alutiiq word for potato, kaRtuugaaq, reflects the introduction of garden produce to Kodiak in the nineteenth century. Russian traders introduced potatoes and potato gardening, encouraging potatoes to become a staple winter food in Alutiiq communities. Potatoes were particularly valuable because they could be stored well into winter. Elders remember their parents buying sacks of potatoes in the fall, purchased from cannery stores with summer wages. Others helped their mothers tend family gardens, pulling weeds and eating fresh produce on the sly, including raw potatoes.
In the historic era, Alutiiqs began to add mashed potatoes to akutaq, a popular dessert made from berries, fish eggs, seal oil, and the starchy bulbs of the Kamchatka lily. Lily bulbs, which can be dug in the summer, resemble rice. Like potatoes, they can be mashed into a starchy paste. Thus, potatoes were a good garden substitute for this wild ingredient.
Other uses for potatoes include healing. The noted Kaguyak midwife Oleanna Ashouwak is said to have put socks filled with grated potato under sick people’s feet to lower their temperatures and draw out illness. Elders recall that if a potato turned grey during such treatment, it was having the desired effect.
Photo: Potato shack, Ouzinkie area. Simth Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Mamaayat qasartaapet. - We eat clams raw.
There is a common misconception that the word Eskimo means “eaters of raw flesh.” Linguistic research, however, suggests that the word actually translates as “snowshoe netter.” Despite this mistranslation, northern peoples are known for their consumption of uncooked foods. The Chukchi and Sami peoples eat many part sof the reindeer uncooked, and the Canadian Inuit enjoy many kinds of raw fish. Not all uncooked food is unprocessed, however. Freezing and drying are common ways to preserve plant and animal foods in the north for later consumption.
Uncooked foods have some advantages over those that are roasted, boiled, baked, and fried. First, they are often more nutritious. Cooking can destroy some of the nutrients that foods contain. Drain the liquid from boiled foods, for example, and you lose some of the vitamins and minerals in your supper. Foregoing the cooking fire is also convenient when traveling or when it is difficult to make a fire. Eating uncooked foods saves time, and it conserves fuel in places where wood is scarce or needed for other purposes. Native people will also tell you that freshly harvested raw foods taste great.
Although firewood was not typically scarce in the Alutiiq homeland, raw foods were widely enjoyed. Families commonly ate whale, seal, and sea lion meat raw, as well as fish and fish eggs. A favorite way to eat fresh-caught fish is with cow parsnip leaves. Raw fish, particularly the hump of a spawning pink salmon, can be wiped with these leaves to add flavor, or pieces of fish or fish eggs rolled up in the leaves like sushi.
Alutiiq people still eat many wild plant foods raw, as vegetables, salads, and desserts. Some favorite fresh greens include willow shoots and leaves, the inner fleshy part of salmonberry stems, tender young hemlock parsley stems, fireweed shoots, sourdock stems and leaves, beach loveage, chives, and goose tongue. Even marine plants are a source of tasty raw vegetables. Alutiiq people collect both bull kelp stems and rockweed for immediate consumption.
Image: Cleaning a fresh salmon in Larsen Bay.
April-rem qelempaq caayuq pingaktaaraa. - April likes the rose hip tea.
The Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) is a spindly shrub that grows in open areas throughout coastal Alaska. It is commonly found along streams and shorelines and in meadows, thickets, and open forests. These prickly bushes flower with pink blossoms each July and then produce hips. This dark red fruit is seedy and dry, but rich in vitamin C. The Alutiiq word for rose hip, qelempaq, is an old word meaning “bag.” This term refers to the shape of the fruit, which looks like a small purse with drawstrings.
Alutiiq people collect both rose petals and rose hips. They flavor tea with the aromatic petals and use the nutritious hips for food and medicine. The hips are typically gathered from September to November, when they have been sweetened and softened by frost. Alutiiq chefs add the fruit to jellies and syrups and occasionally desserts. They also create medicinal teas by steeping the hips in hot water. This tea is said to cleanse the system and can be used to treat a cold, a cough, or a case of bronchitis. Elders recall that sitting on rose hips soaked in hot water helps a laboring mother deliver her placenta.
Photo: Dora Aga and grandchild collecting rose petals. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.