Yaamat ciqiki. - Splash the rocks.
It’s Saturday evening and curls of smoke drift from the small shed next to an Alutiiq home. It is banya night and a family has lit the woodstove in their bathhouse to heat rocks and water for washing. Inside, smooth, water-worn beach cobbles cover a stove fashioned from an oil drum and surrounded by tubs of freshwater. When the rocks are hot, family members take turns washing, splashing the rocks to create refreshing steam.
Extended family, neighbors, and visitors of all ages may participate. The oldest married couple usually washes first, followed by other married couples, then groups of single men, single women, and finally young people and guests. Washing is a leisurely activity, filled with visiting. It can take many hours.
The heat of the banya is always a subject of conversation and personal preference. Some people like a steamy banya. Others prefer it dry. People who enjoy a lot of steam might choose to banya together, or to banya later in the evening when the steam bath has had a longer time to build heat. Splashing the rocks creates a more humid banya, but if you splash the rocks too much, they will eventually cool down. This is thought to be inconsiderate, as it can cause the banya to cool uncomfortably. The next bathers may not have enough heat.
For banya rocks, Alutiiqs commonly choose rounded cobbles. Water-worn rocks are easy to carry and stack and they are less likely to explore. Elders warn against using layered rocks like shale or slate in the banya, because water can seep between the rock’s layers and cause the stone to shatter as it expands in the heat. This can send dangerous fragments of hot stone flying through the air. Elders also advise that rocks should be free of salt, because salt can also cause them explode. They teach that it is better to collect banya rocks from a riverbank than the beach.
Photo: A wood stove set up for banya, 2010. King Salmon River camp, Alaska Peninsula.
Ilait teglengartaartut. - Some people like to steal.
Stealing was not a common problem in classical Alutiiq society. Although powerful people organized raiding parties to ransack other villages for food, goods, and even slaves, theft within a community was rare. As in many northern societies where families shared their possessions and assisted those in need, there was little need to steal. Alutiiq people abhorred thievery and exacted stiff social penalties of those caught pilfering from friends or neighbors.
Among Alutiiqs, thefts were avenged with shaming and shunning. If the stolen property could be identified, the victim of a theft could retrieve it. This was usually done in a public place, so that the culprit could be shamed in front of the community. The village chief might be consulted for advice on how to treat the crime, particularly for a repeat offender. Remedies included public denouncement, an embarrassing nickname, or a shameful song about the stealer. In extreme cases, the thief might be forcibly stripped of his or her parka. Because each parka was made to reflect an individual’s social status, family, and achievements, removing a thief ’s parka symbolically stripped him of his place in Alutiiq society.
Photo: Cormorant skin parkas. Etholen Collection. National Museum of Findland.
Ilait Alatartaartut. - Some of them are always stingy.
Among the world’s hunting and gathering societies, sharing is a highly esteemed behavior. People who are fortunate enough to obtain food and raw materials are expected to share their luck with others. This practice helps to redistribute resources among a group of interdependent people and insures that those with different abilities have the necessities of life. In such communities, stinginess and greed are unacceptable. A person who refuses to share, who steals from others, or who doesn’t work hard is often ostracized.
The evils of stinginess are clearly expressed in the Alutiiq legends. Traditional tales frequently feature unfortunate, hungry people who are fed and cared for by others. In one story, two mean men capture and starve a young woman. A kindly old woman learns of her situation, feeds her secretly and then helps her to escape. The girl then marries a caring husband who generously gives her a set of new clothes. In another story, a lazy young man and his family are forced to rely on game caught by others. Cannibals then catch the young man and try to eat him. However, he escapes, and with a talisman taken from his journey, becomes a good provider. These stories remind listeners of the value of benevolence and hard work.
Generosity is also emphasized in contemporary stories. Alutiiq Elders speak fondly of simpler days when Alutiiq communities were like one big family, and everyone helped their friends and neighbors.
Photo: Children with Christmas packages at the Ouzinkie Mission. Smith Collection. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Cuumi kaatartaallriit. - They used to play the stick game before.
Competitions were a common activity at social gatherings in classical Alutiiq society. Both men and women enjoyed participating in everything from swimming, boating, and running races to tests of strength and a variety of team sports. Competitions were a way to demonstrate one’s stamina and dexterity, and they allowed rivals to compete in a friendly arena. For example, the Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound invited neighboring Eyak and Tlingit peoples to compete in games.
In addition to their recreational qualities, some games had a spiritual component. Certain games were limited to a specific time of year because they were believed to affect the natural environment. Guessing games, like kaataq, were popular in the summer, because they were thought to slow the movement of the sun.
Kaataqis a favorite game of Alutiiq men, because it involves lots of singing and joking as well as careful slights of hand. In the past, men played this game in the two weeks before Lent, staying up all night to bet on the outcome of games. Old sod houses were an excellent place to play, because they were warm and private. Men never played kaataq around children; it was considered appropriate only for adults.
This simple guessing game requires two inch-long pieces of wood or bone. Men sometimes carve these gaming sticks from cedar. Although the sticks in a pair are the same size, each has different markings. One might be painted and the other not, or one might have grooves carved into it and the other not. The marked stick is the “wee” and the unmarked stick the “dip.”
To play kaataq, two men stand facing each other. One man holds the sticks behind his back, chanting at and taunting his opponent. The holder arranges the sticks in his fist, then brings one hand to his chest and leaves the other against his back. When he says, “pick,” the challenger must guess which stick rests in the fist on the holder’s chest.
If the challenger guesses correctly, he scores one point. If the challenger guesses incorrectly, the holder receives the point. The holder can change the game by putting both sticks in the hand behind his back. When the challenger guesses an empty hand, the holder wins the point. However, if an observer catches the holder’s slight of hand, the observer shouts “change,” and the holder must put the hand with both sticks on his chest for the challenger to select. In this case, the challenger wins the point. The first player to accumulate sixteen points wins.
Photo: Women playing the stick guessing game in Akhiol, Rostad Collection.
Quliyangua’uciikamken. - I will tell you a story.
Among societies without a written language, storytelling is one way to record history. People pass family accomplishments, survival techniques, and social values from generation to generation through each other rather than books. Alutiiq people often embellished stories with drawings or transformed them into songs to help people remember their content and reinforce their messages.
Stories held a great deal of information about daily life in the Alutiiq world. They warned travelers of the treachery of strangers, urged community cooperation, and explained unusual events. The man of winter, a story told to noisy children, warns that those who misbehave may cause bad weather. Through this story, children learn that poor behavior can have consequences for an entire community. Other stories probably helped to preserve information about infrequent events like catastrophic volcanic ash falls or tsunamis. Because these events occurred hundreds of years apart, they were not experienced by every generation. Stories helped communities remember environmental disasters, record their effects, and preserve information about the ways people coped.
Storytelling remains a popular form of Alutiiq expression. A good speaker is encouraged to share his or her knowledge, teaching others through personal tales and a good dose of humor.
Photo: Ouzinkie children listening to a story. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Litnauryugtuci-qaa? - Do you all want to study?
The study of Alutiiq heritage has changed dramatically in the past three centuries. In classical Alutiiq society, children learned the skills of adult life by working with and listening to family members. People with special gifts—artists, healers, shamans, tradition bearers, and politicians—apprenticed to accomplished community members to study a trade. An aspiring midwife would assist an established healer, or a rising leader might work as a member of the chief ’s council or a community’s second chief to enhance his knowledge of diplomacy.
This intergenerational transmission of traditions eroded in the historic era as European practices and values collided with Alutiiq culture. Some Alutiiq traditions disappeared due to social pressure. For example, Alutiiq people stopped wearing labrets within decades of conquest, because facial piercing horrified European colonists. Other traditions were systematically suppressed with western instruction. In American-era schools, children were forbidden to speak Alutiiq and received instruction in English. On Woody Island, missionaries teaching Alutiiq boys to play baseball made them speak in English. When they used Alutiiq or Russian they had to sit out the game. More serious discipline included physical punishment and humiliation.
Today, the formal study of Alutiiq heritage is returning to Kodiak. Many of the islands’ schools recognize and celebrate Native heritage by including Alutiiq cultural exploration in classroom curricula and by hosting programs that teach Alutiiq heritage in Alutiiq ways. Other education programs are thriving through local organizations. The Alutiiq Museum’s language program pairs fluent Alutiiq speakers with apprentices to reawaken Kodiak’s Native language. This work is helping to revitalize the transfer of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.
Photo: Skin sewer Hanna Palmer Sholl studies an embroidered cap from the Etholen Collection at the National Museum of Finland.
Piugta imarmi kuimartuq. - The dog is swimming in the ocean.
Surrounded by sparkling ocean waters and fantastic scenery, Kodiak may seem like an ideal place for a summer swim, but consider the water temperature. Although the archipelago lies in the path of the Alaska current, a flow of warm water that streams out of the central Pacific and circulates along the gulf coast, water temperatures are always chilly. Close to shore, surface temperatures rarely hit fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and they are often lower due to cold water runoff from rainfall and melting mountain snows.
In classical Alutiiq society, swimming was thought to build character. Children were encouraged to swim in all seasons to increase their tolerance to the cold. Russian explorers noted that Alutiiq men often refreshed themselves with a swim after steam bathing, a practice that some continue today. Today, youngsters enjoy a swim on sunny summer days, taking dips while picnicking and playing on local beaches. One trick for more comfortable swimming is to wait for the sun to warm shallow waters left by a falling tide. Swimmers who brave the flood that accompanies a rising tide encounter much colder ocean water.
Photo: Boys swimming near Ouzinkie, ca. 1940. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Ipimni kRaasiruangq’rtua. - I have a tattoo on my arm.
Tatooing was once a widespread practice among Alaska’s Native societies. Anthropologists believe that arctic peoples have been tattooing themselves for at least 3,500 years, based on tattoo-like designs found on ancient depictions of the human body. Like clothing and jewelry, tattoos carried messages. They transform the skin into a palette that provides social information, spiritual protection, and medicinal assistance.
Early historic descriptions of Alutiiq people record two methods of decorating the body. One method was to break the skin with a fine bone needle and then rub the resulting cut with a mixture of spruce charcoal and blood. This created a dark blue tattoo. A second method was to run a blackened sinew thread beneath the skin with the aid of a needle. Because women were the principal sewers in Alutiiq society, and famous for their intricate embroidery, it is likely that women were also tattoo artists.
Both men and women wore tattoos. At puberty, young women tattooed their chins with fine vertical lines. These lines were a sign of adult status, marriageability, and probably fertility. Other facial tattoos included lines running from the ears to the chin, lines across the cheeks, or small round dots on the cheeks. At marriage, an Alutiiq woman might also tattoo her chest or arms as a sign of love for her husband. Other common tattoos were bands of designs that originated at the shoulders or under the arms and crossed the chest. These tattoos were signs of wealth and high social standing.
Like the practice of wearing labrets, tattooing disappeared with western contact. At least one observer noted that body decoration was becoming less common in the Kodiak region by the early 1800s. This change probably reflects western disdain for a practice that was believed to be disfiguring. Today, however, some young Native people are choosing tattoos as a way to express their heritage. A woman from Unalaska recently tattooed her cheeks in the style of her ancestors, and in the Kodiak region, petroglyph tattoos connect people with their past.
Image: Drawing of an Alutiiq woman with face tattoos.