Tamamta ruuwartaallriakut Paaskaami. - We used to all play bow and arrow at Easter time.
In the Alutiiq language, the word for “arrow”—ruuwaq—has a variety of meanings. It can be used as a noun to refer to the wooden-shafted, feather-fletched projectiles fired from hunters’ bows. Alternatively, this word can be used as a verb to mean the action of shooting with a bow. For example, the Alutiiq dancers sing a paddling song that says, “We are coming by kayak, paddling—arrow, arrow, arrow!” This sentence makes little sense if you interpret the word “arrow” as a noun. However, if you think of the word “arrow” as a verb, the singers are urging the hunter to shoot.
Ruuwarluni refers to a target shooting game traditionally played in the spring and fall. To play this game, archers took turns aiming arrows at a kelp bulb suspended from a stick in front of a sod backstop. Each archer had one arrow with his mark. In each round, a player earned two points for hitting the kelp bulb. If no one hit the kelp bulb, the player whose arrow was closest earned
one point. The object of the game was to accumulate sixteen points. Scores were kept with the aid of small wooden sticks, or in more recent times, empty evaporated milk cans!
Photo: Boys learn to shoot a bow and arrow, Akhiok Petroglyphy Camp, Cape Alitak.
Kiagmi laptuugtaartukut. - We play baseball in the summertime.
In classical Alutiiq society, community gatherings were an opportunity for games, particularly those played outdoors. Both men and women enjoyed participating in athletic challenges, including everything from swimming, boating, and running races to wrestling, high jumping, target throwing, and team sports. Competitions were a way to show off one’s strength and endurance and to compete in a friendly arena.
Outdoor games continue to be popular in Alutiiq communities, particularly during the long, warmer days of summer. Children play a variety of games, from familiar Western favorites like hide and seek to Alutiiq games like laptuuk, a type of baseball.
Laptuuk, derived from a Russian batting game, resembles American baseball with some interesting differences. Alutiiqs typically play this game on the beach, using a soft rubber ball, two bases, and any number of people. Just divide your group in half and get ready for lots of laughter. To start, one team takes the field while the other bats. The pitcher tosses the ball gently, allowing the batter to hit. When the ball is hit, everyone on the batter’s team runs to the opposite base, and if they can, back to home plate to score a run. Each batter has three chances to hit before it’s a teammate’s turn at bat. However, there are no strikeouts. A player can only be out if a fielder catches the ball he hit or if a fielder holding the ball tags him. A fielder can also throw the ball directly at the runner. Hit a runner with the ball and he is out! Just one out retires the side, and the opposing team is up to bat. With many people running the bases at once, laptuuk is full of both confusion and excitement. Often people are having too much fun to keep score.
Photo: Children playing Laptuuk outside Ouzinkie School, 1965. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith
Augca’arciqut. - They are going to play the dart game.
Gaming has long been a favorite recreational activity in Alutiiq communities. For centuries, people have gathered in each other’s homes to test their skills and make bets. Traditional throwing games, where people tossed darts or discs at a target, emphasized hand-eye coordination, mimicked skills needed for hunting, and provided hours of fun.
In augca’aq, a game based on marine mammal hunting, players took turns throwing darts at a wooden porpoise dangling from a string. Teams of players knelt on the floor, as if sitting in a kayak, and threw their darts at the swinging model. The object was to score twelve points, which were awarded for the location of each strike. Elders recall that people would bet quantities of food, clothing, and even valuable items like firearms, outboard motors, and houses on the outcome of matches.
Gaming remains part of the seasonal rhythm of life in Alutiiq communities. Although new forms of gambling, like bingo and pull tabs, are popular today, many people remember the old games. Old Harbor men compete at augca’aq during the six weeks of Russian Orthodox Lent, when both hunting and bingo are prohibited.
Photo: Dart set by Speridon Simeonoff, purchased for the Alutiiq Museum's collections with support from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Kita, Maqarlinuk. - Come on, Let’s (two of us) play dice.
Dice games are very common across North America. Native societies from New England to the Pacific Northwest enjoy tossing small objects in games of chance.
Russian traders recorded an Alutiiq dice game they called stopka, where players tossed a small figurine carved of bone and scored points based on how it landed. Archaeological finds illustrate that these die were about an inch long and roughly bullet-shaped with a flat bottom. Some were also decorated. A die carved from fossilized ivory features rows of drilled holes. A wooden die features the head of a bear.
In Alutiiq, this dice game is known as maqaq. Today, players use a five-sided piece of wood or bone to play. Each side has a different point value. The largest side has a value of one point. The next largest side is worth two points, and so on, with the smallest side worth the most: five points.
Players sit in a circle and toss the die, adding up points based on how the piece falls. The goal is to make the die land on the smallest side to earn the most points. Players keep score with small, wooden tally sticks, which they place in the center of their circle. Players take a tally stick for each point they earn, putting the sticks in a pile in front of them. Once players have taken all the tally sticks from the center pile, they can take points from their opponents. The first player to collect sixteen points twice consecutively wins the game.
Photo: Dice from the Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Kakangat wamqutaqtaakai Larry Matfay-m. - Larry Matfay used to play disc games.
In the Alutiiq gambling game kakangaq, players throw disks at a small wooden target placed on a sealskin ten or twelve feet away. The object is to cover the target with a disk. This game can be played by two people, or by four players working in teams of two. Players take turns throwing their disks, trying to cover their opponent’s pieces or knock them away from the target. Two points are scored for covering the target, or one point for being the player who lands a disk closest to the target. Twelve points wins the game and two games make a match.
Kakangaqdisks are typically made of wood, bark, bone, or ivory. Sets were once carved with different symbols in the top to distinguish the pieces tossed by different players. A crescent, a dot, an X, a notch, or even a carved human face might indicate a set of pieces. Disks were carved in a variety of shapes and ranged from very large pieces the size of a dinner plate to palm-sized tokens. Some were weighted with pebbles, and miniature sets were carved for children.
This popular game is centuries old. Russian fur traders who visited Alutiiq communities described kakangaq in their journals, and archaeologists find gaming disks in sites up to five hundred years old. In classical Alutiiq society, throwing games were part of annual hunting ceremonies held each winter to honor animal spirits and ensure future prosperity. Men played vigorously, often betting valuable equipment on their matches. Today the game is enjoyed by people of all ages.
Photo: Boys playing kakangaq. Rostad collection.
Nutaan suarualitaartut ineqsunasqanek. - Nowadays they make beautiful dolls.
Dolls were once signs of spring in Alutiiq communities. Elders recall that most toys were stored through the dead of winter, beginning at Russian Christmas, and could only be removed from storage when signs of spring signaled the rebirth of the year. The sounds of migratory birds told children that it was time to play on the beach. Elders fondly recall playing outdoors around Easter time.
Dolls are a common find in Alutiiq village sites. Made of wood, bark, bone, or ivory, most have carefully crafted faces, torsos, and legs, but lack arms. Arms may have been represented with the doll’s clothing. At Karluk One, a well-preserved Alutiiq village at the mouth of the Karluk River, archaeologists identified at least three types of human figurines. Male and female dolls appear to be children’s toys, as do tiny model hunters designed to sit in the hatch of toy kayaks. Shamans may have used a third type of doll. Shamans were believed to put spirits into human carvings that could help people or cause great harm. Some of these dolls have human hair and may represent ancestors, because hair was a resting place for the human soul.
Photo: Old Harbor children with doll. Violet Able Collection, courtesy Old Harbor Native Corporation.
Ikauwitiit nitnirtaartut. - Golden-crowned Sparrows always sound beautiful.
Sparrows are among the best-known birds in North America. There are many species and subspecies of sparrows, particularly west of the Rockies. Eleven species of these small, shy songbirds frequent Alaska, summering in brushy habitats from the coastal meadows of western Alaska to the rainforests of the Panhandle.
Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) are one of several species that summer on Kodiak. These larger sparrows have a long tail, a grey breast, and a crown of distinctive yellow-and-black striped plumage on their heads. When they are excited or about to fly, they may lift the feathers on their crown. Golden-crowned Sparrows feed in flocks, eating seeds and insects. Although they build grass-lined nests on the ground, they spend much of their time perched in alder and willow thickets singing, preening, and twittering. Males make a distinctive, whistling call, singing three descending notes that sound like the children’s song “Three Blind Mice.”
In the Alutiiq world, the Golden-crowned Sparrow is a harbinger of spring. Elders remember watching for sparrows and geese to return to Kodiak in the days following Easter, so they could play games on the beach and take their toys out of storage. It was considered unlucky for children to play outdoors or with certain toys before spring returned. While they waited for the ikauwiitii, however, children could play string games to hasten the rising sun.
Photo: Golden-crowned sparrow in summer. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library
Uswillraraat quuq’rtut. - The children are playing hide and seek.
Hide and seek is one of many popular outdoor children’s games long played in Alutiiq communities. According to anthropologist Kaj Birket-Smith, who visited the Chugach Alutiiq people in the 1930s, children played quuq in Prince William Sound’s tall summer grass. They also juggled with pebbles while singing special songs and imitated circling birds in a game similar to ring around the rosie. Women and girls played this game in the fall, as birds migrated south. Participants skipped in a circle, moving in the direction of the sun. As they skipped they chanted, “Circle around, stretch your arms,” then they squatted down and sang, “How do we get up there? Like a waterfall.”
Kodiak Elders also remember playing palutsqaq, a game similar to the American favorite kick the can. A five-gallon can served as a base. One person was picked to be “it” and the rest would run and hide. When the seeker found a hider, both would race back to the can. Whoever reached the can first got to go and hide, and the other person became the seeker.
Photo: Boys playing on the beach, Karluk Spit, ca. 1960. Courtesy Clyda Christiansen