Katurtut. - They are gathered.
Winter is the Alutiiq social season. Each year as the land freezes and darkness creeps across the sky, people set aside their subsistence gear to focus on household chores and socializing. In classical Alutiiq society, people gathered to sew parkas, mend tools, play games, and prepare for festivals inside houses warmed by blazing wood fires.
In addition to informal family gatherings, Alutiiqs hosted large winter celebrations. Guests were invited from neighboring communities to feast, dance, sing, and socialize. Preparations included creating gifts for each guest, preparing enormous amounts of food, and decorating the community men’s house where the festivities were held. On the day of the festival, members of the host community would don their finest clothing and wait on the beach for guests to arrive. As the kayaks approached, they would sing greeting songs and then rush into the water to help the boats ashore. The festivities lasted several days. When all the food was gone and participants were exhausted, the host’s gifts were distributed.
As you gather with your family and friends to celebrate the holidays, remember that you are participating in an ancient tradition. Winter feasting, worshipping, and fellowship are cross-cultural customs shared by people around the world.
Photo: Patty Gugle's Birthday Party, Ouzinkie ca. 1960. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Pikiyutat amlertaartut uqgwim acaani. - There’s always a lot of presents under the [Christmas] tree.
In traditional Alutiiq society, gifts were given to show respect, form alliances, and display leadership. Guests arrived in Alutiiq communities with gifts of food and were given refreshments to carry home. Gifts were also used to formalize marriages. Prospective in-laws exchanged items to symbolize their acceptance of a union. The most obvious form of giving happened at winter festivals. After several days of dancing and feasting, chiefs would distribute their wealth, giving away valuable trade goods and clothing. The ultimate sign of prestige was to provide a squirrel-skin parka for each visitor. This lavish gift illustrated the host’s leadership ability: his power to obtain resources and organize labor.
To ensure harmony with ancestors and continued economic prosperity, gifts were also given to the spirit world. People who harvested berries might leave a small gift to thank the plant. Similarly, gifts were offered when picking medicinal herbs to ensure that their properties would work effectively. And gifts of food were left on the graves of the recently deceased to provide sustenance in the spirit world.
Photo: Family opening Christmas gifts, courtesy the Knagin Collection.
Arya’aq qecenguq. - The girl is running.
The life of an Alutiiq girl began in a small hut. Here, her mother labored with the help of a midwife and then rested with her baby for five to ten days before introducing the infant to the household. During this seclusion, the baby might have a hole pierced below her lip to hold a labret. As an infant a baby girl would be carried on a cradleboard and carefully tended to, never allowed to cry for lengthy periods.
By age six, girls helped with simple chores, like making thread from sinew and braiding line. To learn adult skills, they played with replicas of their mother’s tools: tiny stone lamps, wooden water scoops, bentwood cooking boxes, and dolls. Carved from wood and clothed, a girl’s dolls were thought to represent the souls of ancestors waiting to be reborn when the girl became a mother. Girls learned about spiritual life by participating in festivals, dancing with adult women in performances that honored ancestors.
At her first menstruation, a girl passed from childhood into adult life. As at birth, she was secluded in a special hut. This isolation lasted up to several weeks, marking her new ability to bear children and to produce spiritually powerful blood. Following seclusion, a young woman took a cleansing steam bath and had her chin tattooed to publicly display her new social status. Sometimes a festival was held to celebrate her initiation. Menstrual seclusions continued in the Kodiak region well into the twentieth century. Elder women recall being secluded in their bedrooms and forbidden to look out a window for fear they would invite bad weather.
Photo: Girl with crowberries. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
KRaasnaat ag’inartut - Godparents should be respected.
Russian colonists introduced godparenting, a relationship between adults and children that has become second in importance only to parent-child bonds in Alutiiq communities. KRaasnaaq comes from a Russian word meaning “godparent.” Some Alutiiq speakers further differentiate between godmother and godfather with the alutiicized terms maamasinaq (“great mother”), and taatasinaq (“great father”), symbolizing the lifelong importance of godparents.
Today, parents choose both a godfather and a godmother for their child at the time of baptism. If the child is a boy, it is the father’s duty to choose the godparents. If the child is a girl, it is the mother’s duty. Godparents are typically not close relatives, but family friends or distant kin. Moreover, a child’s godmother and godfather are usually not related to each other. The practice strengthens social ties across unrelated or distantly related families. These ties are so strong that a kRaasnaaq’s children are considered a godchild’s siblings, and they are forbidden to date or marry.
The duties of a godparent begin at baptism and continue throughout life. Godparents are responsible for purchasing the blanket and clothing an Alutiiq baby needs for baptism, and the same-sex godparent provides the cross the baby will wear throughout life. The godparents also hold candles during the baptism and the confirmation of baptism that follows. During childhood, godparents take their godchildren to church and help to celebrate birthdays, name days, and Christmas.
Photo: Baptism of Rosemary Rogers, Rogers Collection.
Tang’rciqamken camiku. - I will see you again sometime.
For example, saying goodbye in Alutiiq is a lot harder than saying hello. Cama’i, the Alutiiq greeting, is a simple one word, a two-syllable welcome that people remember easily. To say farewell, however, you must use a full Alutiiq phrase. The common leave-taking salutation is tang’rciqamken, which literally means, “I’ll see you.” Fluent speakers often add a variety of endings to this phrase, like camiku, which means “sometime.”
Because the Alutiiq goodbye is hard for many English speakers to master, people sometimes Anglicize the phrase for fun. Around Kodiak you might hear someone say, “drop your pumpkin,” as they wave goodbye.
The difficulty English speakers have in learning Alutiiq reflects both differences between the Alutiiq and English alphabet and the complexity of the language. Alutiiq words contain a number of sounds not found in English, and Alutiiq is one of the more intricate Eskimoan languages. For example, linguists recognize that within the Yupik language family, to which Alutiiq belongs, the rules for accenting words become more complicated from west to east, with the most rules in Alutiiq at the far eastern extent of the Yupik-speaking world.
Photo: People on the dock in Ouzinkie wave goodbye. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Kasnaam sua taikutartuq. - A government person is coming.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kodiak’s rural villages maintained local governments led by a community chief. The chief was chosen from the adult male residents of each village by a traditional council that included a second chief, a church warden, a lay reader, and community Elders. Although the position was not inherited, and no one was forced to serve as chief, chiefs were often succeeded by a family member.
The chief controlled activities in and around the village, wherever its residents were working. He was responsible for overseeing the community’s economic welfare, managing public safety, and acting as a court system. The chief held meetings to discuss issues that affected the community. This included a meeting before each subsistence season to organize harvesting activities. The chief decided where each family would fish or trap, what camps they would use, and how long they would be gone. This coordination fostered cooperation, ensured that all families were provided for, and helped the chief keep track of the people in his care.
Meetings began at the chief ’s house, where he consulted with his council and formed an agenda. Then the chief called a public meeting, which was often held in the local school. The second chief told residents about the meeting, or it was announced at church. Everyone was invited to come and share their opinion, but the chief made the final decision. This included designing punishments for people who broke community rules.
This system continued into the late 1950s, when Alaska became a state and communities began electing a city mayor and participating in the statewide judicial system. In the 1970s, Alutiiq villages also established tribal councils to meet the requirements of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Today, each tribal council has seven members elected by the villagers for a designated term.
Photo: Karl Armstrong on the steps of the US Capital. Armstrong Collection.
Allenertakinga akgua'aq. - A stranger came to see me yesterday.
Hosting guests was a sign of power and prosperity in Alutiiq communities. Each winter, as the sun sank below the horizon, wealthy families initiated festivals, inviting friends from their own community and neighboring villages to participate in feasting, dancing, singing, visiting, and gift-giving. Guests were anxiously awaited. As skin boats loaded with visitors appeared, members of the host community waded into the water to carry both the boats and their occupants ashore. In the ceremonial house, guests were seated and fed according to their social standing. The most important people sat by the door and were the first to be offered freshwater and food served in ornately carved wooden bowls. All festival guests received gifts, and an elaborately embroidered parka was the ultimate present.
These lavish festivals were just one form of hospitality. Throughout the year, Alutiiqs took pride in providing guests with hearty meals. People served visitors dried fish and meats alongside bentwood bowls filled with oil, and guests often left with refreshments for the trip home.
Welcoming guests with food remains an Alutiiq tradition. A cup of tea, a bit of smoked salmon, or a sweet are common offerings in Native homes and a sign of both respect and hospitality.
Photo: A visitor signed the guestbook at the Alutiiq Museum, May, 2008.
Cama’i, Sun’amek taimaunga. - Hello, I come from Kodiak.
Cama’i, a traditional Alutiiq greeting, is a friendly, welcoming word used much like the English term “Hi.” “Cama’i,” you might say as you meet a friend on the street or enter a room full of people. Alutiiq people continue to greet each other with this familiar word. To many it symbolizes pride in Native culture and a continuing respect for Alutiiq, the traditional language of the Alutiiq world.
Alutiiq is one of six Eskimo languages spoken in Alaska and Siberia. It is most closely related to Central Alaskan Yup’ik, the traditional language of the Bering Sea Coast, and speakers of Alutiiq and Yup’ik can converse easily. Within Alutiiq there are two distinct dialects and many smaller regional variations in vocabulary and word pronunciation. Residents of the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound speak Chugach Alutiiq, while residents of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Archipelago speak Koniag Alutiiq.
Today there are less than 150 fluent Alutiiq speakers, although many more can understand the language. Alutiiq communities are working hard to preserve their language. Speakers are helping to write dictionaries, develop teaching resources, and lead language classes, and many consider language preservation the most important goal of the heritage movement.
Photo: April Counceller teaches a group of young people the Cama'i song.