Allanertakiinga akgua’aq. - An outsider came to see me yesterday.
Traveling in prehistoric times, before letters and telephone calls could publicize your arrival, was dangerous. Alutiiq stories are filled with warnings about traveling through foreign lands, trespassing, and encountering strangers. A careful reading of these tales illustrates that strangers were unpredictable: they could help you or hurt you, and they were often deceptive. While it is still considered good manners to extend hospitability to a stranger, particularly one in need, one must also be wary. Some strangers are actually spirits in disguise and their kindness may conceal treachery. The meaning of the word allanertaq expresses this duality. Alutiiqs use the term as the word for both stranger and guest.
In one Alutiiq story, two inquisitive men travel to an island in the middle of the sea to meet a legendary cod fisherman. While they are enjoying a steam bath at the fisherman’s home, he ties a line to their kayak. Each time the men try to paddle home, the crafty fisherman pulls them back to his island. Finally, the wind overturns their kayak, and the men are cast upon the shore where they become two rocky capes.
To protect against such treachery, Alutiiq families sewed highly recognizable designs into their clothing and wore distinctive styles of hats and jewelry. Thus, even if an individual was unknown, the cut of his parka, the line of his boat, or the tattoos on his face might indicate membership in a particular family or community and the individual would be treated accordingly.
Some Alutiiqs also have trading partnerships: lifelong friendships with unrelated people in distant communities. Across Alaska, trading partners provided important links to resources in different environments, allowing people to access distant food and raw materials and gain assistance in times of need. Trading partners also provided a means of safe travel outside one’s home territory. A person traveling to meet his or her trading partner was socially connected and thus respected, not feared.
Photo: A view of the Alaskan mainland from Karluk.
Maani palit’sat amlertut. - There are many policemen here.
Although police officers are a relatively new addition to Alutiiq villages, law enforcement is not. Until Alaska achieved statehood and its communities fell under a state judicial system, Alutiiq leaders acted as peacekeepers and judges. A village’s traditional council, led by a locally appointed chief, maintained order, kept track of residents, organized search-and-rescue missions, acted as a court system, and determined punishments for those who behaved inappropriately.
With the advent of statehood, state police became increasingly visible in rural villages. Today, the Alaska State Troopers serve Alutiiq villages with the help of village public safety officers or VPSOs.
The Village Public Safety Officer Program began in the late 1970s as a way to provide rural Alaska communities with public safety services. Because most state troopers are stationed in population centers far from rural villages, rural towns needed local people trained to manage emergencies.
With state funds and administrative assistance from regional Native organizations, small rural communities now train and hire their own public safety officers. VPSOs complete a training course at the Alaska Public Safety Academy in Sitka and then return home to help with law enforcement, fire fighting, search and rescue, water safety, and emergency medical services. Each VPSO works with an Alaska state trooper stationed in their region. Today there are more than eighty VPSOs serving Alaska communities, including five VPSOs in Alutiiq villages whose positions are administered with help from the Kodiak Area Native Association.
Photo: VPSO Jim Cedeno, photo courtesy the Kodiak Area Native Association.
Uswiillraraat cecengtaartut. - Kids are always running around.
In classical Alutiiq society, runners passed important news from one village to the next. Elders recall young men running along the beach to carry messages to neighboring communities. When they arrived, a fresh runner would take the message to the next village, and in this way information would travel up the coast from community to community. Some villages had two or three swift boys who were designated runners. To send messages quickly across water, Alutiiq people used signal fires. These often warned of warfare, and different numbers of blazes provided different details. Runners watched for these fires to carry the news overland.
Running was also a popular sport in Alutiiq communities. At gatherings, young people participated in activities designed to test their strength and endurance. These included boat races, swimming and diving contests, wrestling matches, rope-jumping competitions, and running races. Races remain popular in Alutiiq villages, particularly at Fourth of July celebrations, where villagers hold sack races, buoy races, and even mountain marathons.
Photo: Fourth of July sack race in Old Harbor. Courtesy the Rostad Collection.
Allrani suu’ut caqainek pukugtaartut. - Sometimes people salvage some stuff.
Pukuk is an Alutiiq word that has made its way into English conversation in the Kodiak area, like the Yiddish word schlep or the French word café. There is no exact English translation. Generally speaking, this Alutiiq verb means to salvage, although its more nuanced meanings include borrowing something without any intent of returning it or obtaining something you need at no expense. For example, if you are building a banya and need an oil barrel for the stove, you might pukuk one you’ve seen sitting behind your auntie’s house for a while. Being able to pukuk things is a positive quality, a sign of resourcefulness valued in Alutiiq communities.
A story from Akhiok tells of a young man who pukuk-ed a bicycle. The bike’s original owner left it in a ditch. For months, the young man walked by the bike, watching the weeds grow around it and the rain pour down on it. Eventually the tires deflated and the bike started to rust. The young man knew that there was a good bicycle under the sad exterior. So he finally pulled the bike out of the brush and cleaned it up. He even added new tires. While the young man was pedaling the bike around town, its original owner recognized his old ride and wanted it back. Too late: the bicycle had been legitimately pukuk-ed.
Photo: Karluk boys on bicylces. Courtesy the Rostad Collection.
Mingqun kakiwigmi et’uq. - The needle is in the sewing bag.
Alutiiq women are known for their sewing skill. In ancient times, they used delicate ivory and bird bone needles, bird bone awls, and wooden spools of animal sinew to stitch fine clothing. Their tools were stored in sewing bags with scraps of fur and gut. Each bag was uniquely decorated with animal-hair embroidery and appliqué of dyed gut. When not in use, sewing bags were rolled up and tied closed.
In classical Alutiiq society, both men and women carried sewing tools, particularly when traveling. Men kept sewing kits in their kayaks to repair tears in the boat’s skin covering. Sewing tools were also used to fasten wooden slats into protective vests or armor, to stitch waterproof containers from birch bark, and to create tattoos. A soot-blackened length of sinew attached to a needle was passed under the skin to make permanent designs on the face, chest, or arms.
Sewing was often a social activity. Women enjoyed each other’s company as they produced clothing and covers for skin boats. Girls began participating at the age of six, making thread and braiding line. In some communities, Alutiiqs recognized a young woman’s coming of age with a public festival where her parents gave away their hunting and sewing tools. This act symbolized a family’s preparation for their daughter’s new adult life.
Photo: Decorated sewing bag, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Awaqutan cip’ausngauq. - Your son is a smart aleck.
In the Alutiiq language, the word cip’ausngasqaq translates literally as a “know it all” or a “smart aleck,” and people use the term to refer to someone who thinks of himself as a big shot. Among Alutiiqs, behaving like a big shot can be dangerous. Boasting is not only bad manners, it can poison your luck. A boastful hunter may offend the animals his family depends on and cause them to avoid his arrows. In the case of a bear, boasting can cause the animal to become enraged. A braggart can bring starvation on his family or get himself killed.
Despite warnings about boastful behavior, Alutiiq stories feature the raucous, boastful Raven, an obnoxious bird that does great deeds. In these stories, Raven lives in Alutiiq communities and can speak in Alutiiq, but he is arrogant, dirty, and impolite to his Elders. Yet despite his poor behavior, Raven is smart and keeps his promises, and he ends up succeeding where others fail.
In one legend, Raven lives with his elderly grandmother at the edge of a large village. Here, he is so disliked that he must live off refuse from the beach. One harsh winter, when hunting was impossible, the villagers began to starve. Raven, who was always able to scavenge enough food for himself and his grandmother, asked the village chief what he would give him if he were able to bring the chief food. The chief offered Raven his oldest daughter in marriage. Pleased with the offer, Raven ordered his grandmother to clean their house and pecked her until she complied. Then he scavenged a bundle of dried fish and won the chief ’s daughter. But the Raven smelled so bad that the girl refused to stay with him and went home to her father. The next winter, famine struck the community again. Raven sent his grandmother to the home of another young woman and offered her food to marry him. She agreed, and despite the Raven’s stench, she stayed in his home. Raven then captured a giant whale and brought it to the starving village to share with all those who had treated him poorly. They gorged themselves on blubber, eating so much that they soon died. Only Raven, his grandmother, and his faithful wife lived.
Amlesqanek metqangq’rtuq. - He has a lot of slaves.
Like their Tlingit and Aleut neighbors, Alutiiqs lived in a ranked society. Individuals were born into one of three classes: elite, common, or slave. These social distinctions ordered much of daily life. From dividing subsistence foods to sharing a meal, giving gifts, or seating guests at a festival, activities were structured by social position. People of higher status always received the best treatment. A person’s clothes were even a measure of their rank. The wealthy wore embroidered garments of plush otter and fox furs. Slaves, at the other end of the social spectrum, wore simple robes stitched from seal and bird skins.
Slavery was an important component of the Alutiiq social system. By owning slaves, members of the elite class were able to maintain and enhance their prestige. War captives and orphans, usually women and children, became the property of the wealthy. They were obliged to work at subsistence and household tasks to generate wealth. As such, they were both a source and a symbol of wealth. Slaves could be traded for goods, exchanged for hostages, given as gifts, and even sacrificed at their owner’s death. According to historic accounts, the treatment of slaves depended on their owner. Some owners were kind. Others were not. Whatever their treatment, the enslaved were allowed to marry and have children. Slaves could even marry non-slaves. These individuals remained in service, but their children were considered free.
Photo: Puffin skin parka, the type of garments worn by slaves. Ethnolen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Gui nengauwangq’rtua. - I have a son–in-law.
Alutiiqs use the term nengau’aq in a variety of ways. In some communities, it specifically means a son-in-law: the man who married your daughter. In others, the word is a general term for any man related by marriage. Whatever they are called, Alutiiq men know that when they marry an Alutiiq woman, they marry her family.
The extended family is extremely important in Alutiiq communities, where grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and godparents form an extensive support network. These family members are expected to share what they have and provide assistance when it is needed. Also, family members work together. For example, groups of related men often form the crews of fishing boats or hunt together.
Until recently, when newly married couples began establishing households of their own, Alutiiq newlyweds lived with the bride’s family. This practice has ancient roots. Historic accounts indicate that a young man spent the first few years of married life working for his father-in-law, until he had the resources to build and maintain a home for his wife.
Today, it can be hard to find a spouse in an Alutiiq community. Alutiiq villages are small. For young people there are few unrelated people to date, and the church further limits potential partners by prohibiting marriage between church relatives. You may not marry a godparent’s child. Thus, many young people marry beyond their community. This reshuffles village populations, introducing men and women from other communities or creating communities where many of the young people have left.
Photo: Opheim Anderson Wedding. Smith Collection, Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.