Taaringa wainiimek. - Switch me with the steam batch switch.
Switching is a common practice in Alutiiq steam baths. In the soothing, wet heat, people slap themselves with flexible branches to promote good health. This practice improves circulation, relieves aches and pains, and can be used to treat illness and prepare a pregnant woman for delivery. Pneumonia, difficulty urinating, and cramps are all ailments that Alutiiqs report treating with the help of switching. Banya switches can also be laid on a person to provide a medicinal effect, or used like a fan to cool the body.
Alutiiqs make switches from a great variety of plant materials. Alder and willow branches are the most common sources, although birch and red elderberry branches, and the stems of angelica, fireweed, fleabane, goldenrod, and large-leaf avens also provide switch material. Many people use leafy switches, particularly those who use alder branches. Alutiiqs often gather alder branches in the middle of the summer, as the young leafy branches of spring tend to be sticky with plant resins. Some tie harvested branches together and dry them. Others leave the branches in a damp place or put them in a freezer to keep the leaves from falling off.
People sometimes confuse the word for steam bath switch—wainiik—with the word for steam batch scrubber— taariq—a bundle of roots used like a loofa. This is because taariq is both a noun and a verb. It means scrubber and to switch with a wainiik.
Photo: An Alder bush on the shore of Olga Lake, Spring, 2005.
Caayuryugtuten? - Do you want tea?
The practice of steeping herbs in hot water to create soothing teas is an ancient art. For centuries, Alutiiq healers have been distilling the essence of plants for medicinal purposes. Remedies for colds and coughs are particularly plentiful. Cranberry leaves, spruce cones, rose hips, nettle leaves, Labrador tea leaves, and even the inner bark of the devil’s club root can be boiled to treat congestion. However, the new green growth of spruce trees—the tips collected in spring— are thought to be especially powerful. If your cold is accompanied by a sore throat, a tea made by boiling alder cones may help, and if you have a fever a tea made from the flowers, berries, or cambium of the red elderberry can induce a rejuvenating sweat. Alder cone tea is also used to treat diarrhea, but it should never be confused with pineapple weed tea, which has a laxative effect.
European tea, or black tea, came to Alutiiq communities with Russian traders, as did the word chai. This is the origin of the Alutiiq word for tea, caayuq.
Tea became a favorite beverage in Alutiiq communities and is still widely consumed. For a unique flavor, some people add rose petals to this popular drink. Others add cranberry jelly to treat a sore throat. People also mix tea leaves into a snuff made of wood ash and tobacco for an extra kick. Most often, however, tea is shared for refreshment and socializing. Neighbors may gather for conversation and tea as they take turns using the steam bath. And visitors are often offered a cup of hot tea as a sign of hospitality.
Photo: Dora Aga, Larsen Bay, makes tea from rose petals. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Guutaiyataallianga mikcama. - I used to have tooth aches all the time when I was small.
You can tell a lot about a person from their teeth. Genetic factors like race and environmental conditions like diet influence the shape and condition of people’s dentition.
For example, anthropologists note that people of Native American descent, including Alutiiqs, frequently have shovel-shaped upper incisors. Their front cutting teeth have curved inner edges that form a unique shovel-like depression in the back of each tooth. This is distinct from the blade-shaped incisors found in European and African populations and suggests ancestral ties to Asian peoples who share the shoveling trait.
Enamel, the hard outer coating on teeth, can record a person’s health during childhood. Periods of malnutrition or severe illness can retard the development of tooth enamel, creating striations around teeth. Enamel defects occur in prehistoric teeth from Kodiak, suggesting that children occasionally suffered physiological stress. Anthropologists suspect that spring food shortages caused by bad weather and exhausted stores were the source.
A person’s age is also reflected in their teeth. As you chew, your teeth rub together, flattening the cusps, or ridges, crowning your molars. As people age, therefore, their teeth show more wear. The rate of tooth wear also depends on a person’s diet. Today, teeth wear relatively slowly. In prehistoric times, however, when food was prepared without the many conveniences of modern kitchens, there was more grit in the diet and teeth wore more rapidly. Plant foods and shellfish are among the foods that likely introduced grit to the prehistoric Alutiiq diet and caused tool tooth wear. As well, people often used their jaws and teeth as tools, causing wear and damage.
Image: Drawing of a shovel-shaped incisor.
Ciguut'kaarluku tuqullria. - She died of tuberculosis.
Known as TB or consumption, tuberculosis once ranked among the most deadly diseases in the world. Caused by the tubercle bacilli bacteria, tuberculosis often infects the lungs and spreads to other parts of the body. People typically get the disease by breathing in the bacteria. After the initial infection, TB can lie dormant for years. The first symptom of tuberculosis is a persistent cough. TB can lead to rapid death, but it often progresses slowly, causing chest pain, fever, night sweats, fatigue, and weight loss.
Although tuberculosis may have been present in Alaska before the arrival of Westerners, it spread rapidly to the Native population wherever settlers established colonies. Historic sources indicate that many early explorers had the disease. In the early nineteenth century, tuberculosis was one of the most common illnesses on Kodiak. By 1846, nearly forty percent of Kodiak’s population was infected. There were no rapid outbreaks of the disease. Instead, it smoldered in the population, increasing susceptibility to other infectious diseases, disabling the sick, and eventually causing death. In Alutiiq communities, tuberculosis spread through families living together in the close quarters of traditional houses.
The spread of TB in Alaska reached devastating levels in the 1940s and 1950s. Victims of the disease were transported to public sanitaria and many died in distant hospitals, far from home. In rural communities, people with TB simply disappeared forever, as hospitals had no funds to send the dead home for burial. Three Alutiiq men were among the victims of TB who died at the Mt. Edgecombe Indian Health Service Hospital in Sitka. Their remains, originally entombed in a World War II era ammunition bunker, were returned to Kodiak for burial in 2000.
Image: Mircoscopic view of Tuberculosis causing bacteria
Cuumi tan’urat etquat aturtaakait. - They used to use boys’ urine before.
Across Alaska, Native people used human urine for processing hides. In Alutiiq communities, urine was collected in wooden tubs stationed outside people’s houses. Hides were soaked in these tubs, where the ammonia acted as soap, breaking down fatty deposits clinging to the skin. According to Russian observers, animal gut for waterproof clothing was prepared by turning the gut inside out, scraping it clean with a shell, and washing it repeatedly in urine. Urine was also used to remove the hair from hides. Hides were soaked in urine and then rolled and left in a warm place to sit for several days until the hair could be easily scraped away. Urine was even used to help set dyes. In Prince William Sound, people soaked spruce roots dyed for basket weaving in urine to fix the color.
Alaskans also once used urine for washing, because of its grease-cutting properties. From southeast Alaska to the North Slope, Native peoples cleaned their hair, clothes, and bodies with sterile, freshly passed urine. Urine was also noted for its medicinal properties. In the Kodiak area, Alutiiqs used urine to clean sores and dislodge devil’s club needles from the skin. The urine caused the skin to swell, making the spines easier to remove. To relieve arthritis, people diced the leaves of the licorice fern, mixed them with urine, and heated the mixture to form a comforting poultice.
Photo: Larsen Bay student scraping bear gut, Alutiiq Week, 2013.
Cuumi uspaq’rtaaqait. - They used to give us vaccinations.
Vaccinations may seem like a feat of twentieth-century bioengineering, but they have a long history in Europe and even Alaska. The world’s first vaccines became available after 1796, when British physician Edward Jenner used cowpox to develop an immunization for smallpox. Russian authorities recognized the importance of Jenner’s invention, and by the early decades of the nineteenth century they widely vaccinated their citizens against smallpox. Vaccination spread east with the Russian fur trade, arriving in Alaska by at least 1805.
Russian Orthodox priests were often trained to give vaccinations, and vaccinations were routinely given to Alaska Natives sent to Russia to study. Other Native people, particularly those living close to Russian posts, received vaccinations from Russian American Company officials as part of local health care efforts.
Despite efforts to protect people from smallpox, early vaccination programs were not always successful. Vaccines were in short supply and not always reliable. They had to be shipped great distances to reach Alaska and sometimes lost their potency during travel. Additionally, Native people were often reluctant to be vaccinated. To ease their concerns, the Russians trained Native people to give vaccinations. In the fall of 1828, an Alutiiq man traveled to Kodiak’s rural communities providing inoculations. Tragically, however, vaccination did not reach far enough into the Kodiak Alutiiq population, and the 1837 smallpox epidemic had a devastating impact. Nearly five hundred people died in just six months.
Photo: The openning of a new health clinic in Old Harbor.
Naama uqgwingcut? - Where are the willows?
There are more than fifty species of willow (Salix spp.) in Alaska. One botanist estimates that seventeen of these species can be found in the Kodiak region. Although most Alaska willows are shrub-sized plants, northern species can range in size from dwarf bushes to full-sized tress. Willows thrive in moist soils, particularly along streambanks. Their edible parts include leaves, buds, new sprouts, and inner bark, which are excellent sources of vitamin C.
The most common use of willows among Kodiak Alutiiqs is as a spring vegetable. Tender young shoots and leaves can be collected throughout the archipelago in May and June and eaten raw or added to salads and side dishes. Some Alutiiq people serve willow shoots with sea seal oil or preserve the shoots in oil for later use. Others enjoy eating the leaves and shoots with milk and sugar, much like akutaq, or Alutiiq ice cream.
Willow wood is soft, so it is not considered a good source of fuel. Willow is only used to warm houses or smoke fish if other woods are not available. The plant’s soft wood, however, is a favorite material for Alutiiq children, who fashion whistles and slingshots from willow branches.
Photo: Large willow bush in a coastal meadow.
Qanganangua’itukut Kasukuagni. - We don’t have yarrow in Akhiok.
Northern yarrow (Achillea borealis), also known as squirrel’s tail, is a hardy, medium-sized herb that thrives in open habitats throughout the Kodiak Archipelago. This member of the sunflower family has frilly grey-green leaves that are slightly hairy. In late summer, the plant produces clumps of small, white or pale pink flowerets.
Yarrow has many medicinal applications. Alutiiq people commonly use it as a steam bath switch or add it to poultices to relieve aches and pains. Warmed, wet leaves or crushed roots can be applied directly to an afflicted area or wrapped in a moistened cloth. Northern yarrow can also help to cure external infections such as sores, cuts, or in some cases toothaches. Tea can also be made from either fresh or dried yarrow leaves, steeped or boiled. The tea is said to relieve cramps and gas, increase appetite, and alleviate the symptoms of a cold. You can also repel mosquitoes by rubbing the plant on your skin or clothing.
Photo: Yarrow growing on a Kodiak beach. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.