Caayuryugtuten? - Do you want tea?
The practice of steeping herbs in hot water to create soothing teas is an ancient art. For centuries, Alutiiq healers have been distilling the essence of plants for medicinal purposes. Remedies for colds and coughs are particularly plentiful. Cranberry leaves, spruce cones, rose hips, nettle leaves, Labrador tea leaves, and even the inner bark of the devil’s club root can be boiled to treat congestion. However, the new green growth of spruce trees—the tips collected in spring— are thought to be especially powerful. If your cold is accompanied by a sore throat, a tea made by boiling alder cones may help, and if you have a fever a tea made from the flowers, berries, or cambium of the red elderberry can induce a rejuvenating sweat. Alder cone tea is also used to treat diarrhea, but it should never be confused with pineapple weed tea, which has a laxative effect.
European tea, or black tea, came to Alutiiq communities with Russian traders, as did the word chai. This is the origin of the Alutiiq word for tea, caayuq.
Tea became a favorite beverage in Alutiiq communities and is still widely consumed. For a unique flavor, some people add rose petals to this popular drink. Others add cranberry jelly to treat a sore throat. People also mix tea leaves into a snuff made of wood ash and tobacco for an extra kick. Most often, however, tea is shared for refreshment and socializing. Neighbors may gather for conversation and tea as they take turns using the steam bath. And visitors are often offered a cup of hot tea as a sign of hospitality.
Photo: Dora Aga, Larsen Bay, makes tea from rose petals. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Uciitilat litnauwitaartut. - The school teachers always teach.
Children in Alutiiq communities learned traditional skills by playing and working with adults. Children’s toys were miniature replicas of adult tools that helped youth practice the essential activities of a subsistence lifestyle. By age six, girls were weaving mats and assisting their mothers with household tasks. They learned to process fish with tiny ulus and practiced parka making with miniature skin-working boards. Boys began instruction in hunting at about eleven, playing with miniature bows and arrows. They also worked wood with toy wedges and adzes and fought mock battles with replica war clubs and shields.
Games of skill helped to teach hunting skills, promote teamwork, and foster friendly competition. Young and old enjoyed throwing darts at a swinging porpoise model or tossing discs at a target on a seal’s skin. Lessons in Alutiiq history and values were taught with stories. Stories recounted the pursuits of famous ancestors, discussed the dangers of wandering far from home, and gave examples of model behavior. And each community had at least one ritual specialist, a person with expert knowledge of songs, dances, and legends who helped to teach children about the origins of the Alutiiq universe.
Western-style schooling began in the Russian era with the founding of both secular and parish schools. Some Alutiiq people even traveled to Siberia to advance their education.
These schools embraced bilingualism and helped to create the first texts written in Alutiiq. In contrast, American schools, introduced to most communities by the early twentieth century, sought to assimilate Native children. Teachers imposed a strict English-only policy, physically punishing those who spoke in Alutiiq.
Today, schools are more sensitive to the educational needs of Native children. Each of Kodiak’s Alutiiq villages has a public school that provides classes and acts as a community gathering place. Administrators, teachers, and parents work hard to include Alutiiq traditions in lessons and provide experiences that transmit Native culture and values to the next generation.
Photo: Ouzinkie school in the 1930s. Hender Toms collection, courtesy Melinda Lamp
Litnauwistarpet asirtuq. - Our teacher is good.
Western-style teachers became part of the Kodiak landscape in the late eighteenth century, soon after the arrival of Russian fur traders. Although Alutiiq adults taught their children the skills they needed for life in the Alutiiq world, a small number of boys began to study the Russian language, mathematics, and navigation at a secular school founded by Gregorii Shelikof in 1786. In 1794, when the first Orthodox mission arrived in Kodiak, clergy members took over the school, acting as its teachers and administrators.
The number of Kodiak schools and teachers proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, after the purchase of Alaska by the United States. In the American era, missionaries set up orphanages with schools in places like Woody Island and Ouzinkie, and the Bureau of Education began establishing community schools.
These government schools were the precursors of modern public schools, although most did not offer high school classes. Students who wanted to earn a diploma had to leave home for boarding schools in places like Sitka, Alaska, and Salem, Oregon. Boarding schools were damaging to many students. They were far from home, forcing years of isolation from family members, separation from community events and cultural practices, and increasing dropout rates. One Alutiiq Elder recalls how his father died while he was at boarding school and the pain of not being able to return home.
In 1972, twenty-seven Alaska Native students sued the State of Alaska for failing to provide high schools in their communities. They argued that the state was denying them fair access to an education, as guaranteed by Alaska’s constitution, and that this failure was in violation of the United States Constitution’s prohibition against discrimination. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed. This decision began a period of school building in rural communities and created the schools that children in Alutiiq villages attend today. Although some students still opt for boarding school, most are educated in their own communities where their families can also be their teachers.
Photo: Old Harbor students with their teacher, ca. 1950. Violet Able Collection, Courtesy the City of Old Harbor.
Ulutegwik ikirsgu. - Turn the television on.
Television began reaching rural Alaska communities in the1970s, as communication systems evolved following World War II. Alutiiq villages began to receive radio signals in the 1960sand public television a decade later. Satellite television followed in the 1990s, and now many rural communities have Internet access. The recently coined Alutiiq term for television, ulutegwik, literally means “place where you look.” Other Alutiiq speakers simply change the English acronym TV to TViq.
One indirect and unexpected result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was the expansion of television viewing. Restoration funds designated to purchase private lands for addition to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge provided Alutiiqs with opportunities to sell land. Some used the resulting income to purchase luxury items, including satellite dishes that could access hundreds of TV channels. This has made the home shopping network and Hollywood movies part of daily life. It has also created a few jobs installing and servicing television systems.
To some, greater rural access to the media indicates progress. To others, it represents the continued erosion of Native culture and values. The western images and messages that flood Alutiiq homes have profoundly impacted young people. In addition to promoting consumerism and glamorizing high-risk behaviors, these images marginalize and suppress traditional practices. As television became popular in Alutiiq villages, for example, weekly community dances featuring local musicians disappeared.
Photo: Marie Hensen and Nick Alokli. Alokli Collection.
Angaaqa. - My uncle.
Alutiiq people reckon descent bilaterally. This means that children trace their ancestry equally through their mother’s and father’s lineages. A child is recognized as belonging to both sides of his or her family. While Alutiiqs share this practice with the Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, and Inuit societies of northern Alaska and Canada, they are unique in the Gulf of Alaska. Neighboring Tlingit, Athabaskan, and Aleut societies practiced matrilineal kinship. In this system of identifying relatives, children inherit family ties through their biological relationships with women. They are members of their mother’s family.
Kinship systems are often reflected in the words people use to identify family members. For example, among societies with bilateral kinship systems like the Alutiiq people, the word for uncle, angaaq, can be used for any uncle: your mother’s brother or your father’s brother. However, in matrilineal societies, there are often separate terms for mother’s brother and father’s brother.
In Alutiiq communities, extended family members—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—are an important part of many children’s lives. Older relatives like uncles often act like parents, teaching, guiding, and caring for children as they learn adult skills. In the modern era, it is not unusual for an Alutiiq boy to be raised by his uncle or to act as crewmember on his uncle’s boat.
Photo: Man and boys in Old Harbor.
Guangkuta nunarpet. - This is our land.
When Russian traders arrived in the Kodiak Archipelago, there were more than sixty Alutiiq villages. Rows of sod houses formed coastal communities that were home to as many as three hundred people. Chiefs governed villages, acting as political and economic leaders. Russian accounts suggest there were also regional chiefs, powerful people who administered several villages.
With the loss of lives and political autonomy that accompanied western colonization, the number of Alutiiq communities dwindled. Following the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1838, the Russians resettled Alutiiq survivors into seven major villages. St. Paul, Woody Island, Afognak, Eagle Harbor, Old Harbor, Karluk, and Chirikof were the central Alutiiq communities during the final decades of Russian rule, although not the only communities. Many of the old villages were soon reestablished, although in some cases in shifted locations.
Today, the Kodiak Archipelago is home to six distinct Alutiiq villages, accessible only by air or boat. Akhiok and Karluk lie in the windswept meadows of southwestern Kodiak, nestled among the island’s rich salmon streams. Larsen Bay is tucked into shores of Uyak Bay, a protected glacial fjord, while Old Harbor faces eastward toward the broad expanse of the North Pacific Ocean. And spruce trees and sphagnum moss provide the setting for Port Lions and Ouzinkie, Kodiak’s northernmost Alutiiq communities.
Photo: Village of Old Harbor before the 1964 earthquake and tsunami. Smith Collection, courtesy Tm and Norman Smith.
Anguyartut. - They are having war.
In classical Alutiiq society, where social positions were inherited and a small class of wealthy individuals acted as community leaders, warfare was a means of enhancing wealth. In addition to avenging wrongs, elite men led raids on other communities to acquire plunder and slaves, and increase their affluence. Neighboring Alutiiq communities were attacked, as well as more distant Aleut, Dena’ina and Tlingit villages.
In battle, warriors carried short wooden clubs, spears, bows, and specially fashioned arrows. The arrows were tipped with bone points that had thin, splintery barbs. Craftsmen designed these barbs to cause extensive internal damage by breaking off inside their victims. In addition to weaponry, warriors carried large shields made from thick planks of hardwood and wore protective vests of wooden armor. Fashioned from small pieces of wood and tied together with sinew, these sturdy yet flexible shirts protected a warrior’s chest from enemy arrows.
Warfare is a common topic in Alutiiq stories, where incidents leading to conflict often unfold in predictable ways. In many stories, visitors from a distant place ridicule and embarrass a community member—particularly a chief or a child. After the incident, community members secretly follow the offenders to their homes and take revenge, sometimes with the assistance of neighbors. These stories illustrate the types of events that led to conflict and probably reminded people about the consequences of cruel behavior. They also illustrate that the goal of conflict was not simply to punish the offender, as this could be done anywhere, but to separate the offenders from their possessions. By taking revenge in the offender’s home, raiders could acquire plunder.
Photo: War sheild and club made by Andrew Abyo. Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum's collections with support from the Rasmuson Foundation's Art Acquisition Initiative.
Qangiq, anguyartaasqat agellriit Swaacit nuniinun. - Long ago, warriors went to the Tlingits’ lands.
In the Gulf of Alaska, Native people traditionally raided each other’s communities to avenge a wrong, secure hostages, and obtain wealth. Members of the elite class led raids. These were wealthy individuals who maintained their status by accumulating goods and slaves. On Kodiak, such individuals mobilized adult men to attack villages both at home and afar. Historic accounts tell of battles waged in the Aleutian Islands, Cook Inlet, and Prince William Sound.
Before embarking on a raid, warriors met in the community men’s house. Here they received food, water, and gifts from the family of the man leading the raid. Warriors then took turns dancing and recounting their ancestors’ successes in war. Then the host offered each a gift as a token of the riches they were soon to obtain.
Early the following morning, the warriors departed in large, open skin boats. Historic accounts indicate they painted their faces, wore vests of wooden armor, and armed themselves with bone-tipped spears, bows and arrows, wooden clubs, and large wooden shields. The object of a raid was to kill adult men, take women and teenagers as slaves, and gather large quantities of plunder. However, with the help of mediation, hostages might be freed and returned to their homes.
Photo: Daniel Harmon, Alutiiq man from Woody Island, serving in the Viet Nam war. Harmon Collection.