Nick kaRmauniartaartuq. - Nick (habitually) plays the accordion.
In the mid-twentieth century, dances were popular events in Alutiiq communities, and many villages held weekly dances. Fridays were sock hop nights, because Saturday evenings were reserved for religious services. Other dances might be scheduled around community events. During the Second World War, for example, Old Harbor organized dances when the service men stationed on Sitkalidak Island came to town for supplies. Dancing was particularly popular with young people, and some communities operated dance halls from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Music was a central part of community dances. Young men enjoyed playing instruments. Entertaining others and putting on a show was also a good way to meet young women! The most famous Alutiiq musicians were accordion players, who used either small round accordions or larger twelve-key instruments. Historic accounts suggest that accordion playing became popular in the 1890s, when the typical instrument cost about $3.50. Alutiiq men also taught themselves how to play the mandolin, ukulele, banjo, guitar, and harmonica. They learned songs from records or other musicians, playing everything from Hank Williams tunes to square dances, polkas, and schottisches.
Live entertainment faded after Word War II as television became more widely available. A few musicians continued to play accordions and guitars, performing at special events like weddings.
Photo: Accordion player and family. Nekeferoff Collection.
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
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.
Unuaqu Benny Benson-rem ernera. - Tomorrow is Benny Benson’s Day.
Many countries in the New World celebrate the second Monday in October as Columbus Day, honoring the European discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. For indigenous people, however, Columbus Day represents the beginning of European colonization and the cruel treatment of indigenous people that often followed.
Although Columbus Day is a federal holiday, some Alaska residents prefer to think of this day as Benny Benson day, a day honoring the Alutiiq boy who designed Alaska’s iconic flag. He was born in Chignik to Swedish fisherman John Ben Benson and Tatiana Schebolein, a woman of Alutiiq and Russian ancestry. When he was just three, Benny’s mother died of pneumonia. Not able to care for his children, John Benson sent Benny and his younger brother Carl to the Jesse Lee Mission Home in Unalaska. For the next seventeen years, Benny lived in orphanages.
Benny’s childhood coincided with a tumultuous period in Alaska history. Neglected by the federal government, the region’s economy was suffering. In the 1920s, territorial politicians argued that statehood would bring both financial support to Alaskans. Territorial Governor George A. Parks recognized that Alaska needed an emblem: a flag that would represent its lands and people during the statehood battle. In 1927, he asked the Alaska Department of the American Legion to sponsor a flag design contest for Alaska students.
Benny’s submission showed the Big Dipper and the North Star on a deep blue background. He wrote, “The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is the future State of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear—symbolizing strength.” It was unanimously selected as the winning design from 142 entries. Benson received $1,000.
Benson’s accomplishments went beyond designing the state flag. He was also a widely revered Alaskan who helped to break down the racial barriers that plagued Native people. In the early 1960s, he was admitted to the Kodiak Elks club. He became the first Alaska Native to join a fraternal organization, despite attempts by Elks clubs outside of Alaska to bar his acceptance.
Image: The Alaska flag, designed by Benny Benson.
Tuyum llangcaraa. - The chief is lecturing him.
Historic sources agree that there was little crime in Alutiiq villages before the 1950s. Detailed rules managed both the ownership and inheritance of personal property and the use of prime fishing and hunting locations. Similarly, customs governing the distribution of food ensured that anyone who needed meat or fish could share in the catch or take food from another’s stores. A needy person was not even required to pay for or replace the food they borrowed. Under this system, people rarely stole or trespassed.
Despite a social system that provided for community needs, interactions between villagers were occasionally antagonistic. Russian traders report that murder and wife stealing occurred and that Alutiiqs avenged such insults by killing the offender. Less serious crimes like fighting or carousing carried less serious punishments. The Alutiiq word for discipline, llangcarluku, literally means to “bring him to his senses,” and the term can be used to describe a stern talking to or lecture. This word also refers to the point in childhood when one gains awareness—when children accumulate enough knowledge to become capable of thoughtful, intentional action.
Before the establishment of Alaska’s statewide judicial system in 1959, Alutiiq communities dealt with misbehavior internally. The village chief and his council acted as both the local police and court system. They watched the community carefully, rounding up those who misbehaved. First, the council met privately to discuss the situation and design a punishment. Then they convened a community meeting to announce their decision. A first-time offender might be required to make a public apology, a tactic designed to embarrass the person into better behavior. People who made repeated or more serious mistakes might be made to kneel on rock salt at church, do chores for the elderly, or labor in the community. They could even be banished. This system encouraged people to respect their Elders, because the Elders not only kept order in the village but determined disciplinary actions.
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.
Kulunguaqa kataigiiyaqa. - I dropped my earring.
Earrings are one of the many items of personal adornment that Alutiiqs once used to express social identity. Like labrets, nose pins, necklaces, belts, and decorated clothing, earrings were worn by men and women and incorporated valuable materials to illustrate the wearer’s status. Historic paintings from the early nineteenth century show Alutiiq people with earrings tied in their earlobes and around the rims of their ears, with up to eight piercings per ear. These earrings were fashioned from strings of European glass trade beads. Other common materials included handmade beads of shell, coal, amber, and ivory and slender dentalium shells from southeast Alaska.
How long have Alutiiqs worn earrings? Archaeological data suggest that this practice may be more than 2,000 years old. Beads and other jewelry begin appearing in Kodiak’s archaeological record about 2,700 years ago and coincide with a period of population growth, extensive long-distance exchange, and increased warfare. It appears that people began wearing jewelry at this time as a way to express their affiliation with particular social groups. Earrings may have been part of this expression.
People wearing earrings are also depicted on incised pebbles, small pieces of engraved slate that appear in archaeological sites about six hundred years old. Although the function of these pebbles is unknown, they show people in ceremonial dress, and some are wearing vertically dangling strings of beads that appear to be earrings.
Photo: Child making dentalium shell earrings.
Ilat naata allringumi ell'uteng. - Families should always stay together.
Families are the basic unit of human societies, and as the structure of societies changes, the organization of families changes as well. In the Kodiak region, archaeological data illustrate that nuclear families—parents and their children— lived together in one-room houses for several thousands of years. Small camps across the landscape suggest that one or two families hunted and fished together, moving in and out of larger winter villages with changes in the seasons.
By about AD 1200, Alutiiqs began to build much bigger houses. Each dwelling had a variety of small sleeping chambers attached to large central room. Historic accounts indicate that large extended families—parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—lived in these structures, with up to eighteen people per household. What caused this reorganization of families? Archaeologists believe that as the Native population grew and competition for natural resources increased, families coalesced to harvest, process, and store large quantities of foods and materials.
Today, families continue to be the primary work unit in Alutiiq communities, particularly for subsistence activities. Although groups of people may help each other with subsistence tasks like splitting fish or hauling wood, family members working together conduct most subsistence activities, and some families even maintain specific harvesting areas recognized and avoided by others. Berry patches, for example, are often family owned. Within the family, there is a division of labor by gender. Men and women tend to different tasks. Men are the primary hunters, wood collectors, and builders. In contrast, women typically gather plants and herbal medicines and process foods.
In addition to the family ties created by blood and marriage, Alutiiqs also build family connections through the Russian Orthodox Church. Every Orthodox child has a krasnaq: a family friend who acts as a godparent and assists that person through life. The bonds between godparent and child are so strong that marriage to the child of one’s godparents is strictly prohibited.
Photo: Erickson Family beside their Chignik home. Erickson Collection.