Arula’at tang'rngutaakait cuumi. - They used to often see bigfoot before.
Stories of Bigfoot creatures—hairy, man-like beings that live in the wilderness—are common in the Kodiak Archipelago and Prince William Sound. Alutiiq people call these beings aula’aq or arula’aq, which means to run away. Some say these creatures are half human and half beast; others believe that they are small people that can turn themselves into animals. Whatever their form, southcentral Alaska’s Bigfoots have extra-human powers. People who have tracked strange footprints find that the impressions simply disappear, as if the creature vanished into the air. Those who try to touch a Bigfoot reach out to find nothing. And one man who shot at a strange man with a long white beard returned later to discover a dead weasel.
Although Bigfoot-like creatures have never been photographed, clues suggest their existence. Some people have seen odd human-like tracks, others have lost food from wilderness cabins, heard strange whistling noises that made them dizzy, experienced thumping on the sides of their house at night, or been visited by peculiar people they believe to be arula’at. People hunting and trapping from remote cabins typically encounter these creatures. Some arula’at are thought to be shy, stealing from camps when their occupants are away or sleeping. Others are more aggressive, asking for food and shelter, helping themselves to cabins, and even following and attacking people. In Prince William Sound, Alutiiqs report carrying religious icons, holy water, or incense to ward off arula’at.
Bigfoot legends may have arisen from stories about people who committed crimes and were expelled from their villages. In classical Alutiiq society, people who lived alone in the wilderness could turn into dangerous, evil spirits who spoke through whistling. Alutiiqs are not alone in their belief in nonhuman persons. Alaska’s Yup’ik and Iñupiat people speak of encounters with similar extraordinary beings, thought to travel between this world and another.
Legtaq tamlertuq. - The cave is dark.
Caves are natural shelters that attract both people and animals. Archaeological data from Prince William Sound illustrate that the prehistoric Alutiiq people camped in caves. Although similar settlements are poorly known from the Kodiak region, oral histories and historical accounts indicate that caves were religious sites: whaling shrines. In these secret places, the spiritually potent men who killed giant sea mammals secluded themselves from daily life to prepare for the hunt.
Like the position of whaler, caves were inherited, passed down through elite families. Each successive owner added to his cave’s contents. Particularly prized were mummified corpses. Whalers stole the physical remains of powerful people, which they mummified and stored in their caves with other talismans: eagle feathers, bear’s hair, green stones, and berries. They also kept hunting gear, whaling poisons, and special clothing in these private locations.
French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart, who visited Kodiak in 1872, provides an account of contents of a whaler’s cave. This cave had mummies seated behind curtains of sea lion skin. Each mummy, male and female, was positioned as if it were producing tools: grinding slate spears, carving arrow shafts, or sewing gut. With these mummies, the whaler symbolically enlisted the help of powerful ancestor to produce his tools. In return, he fed them pieces of sea-mammal meat. The center of the cave featured a small pond with a model boat. In the boat sat a replica of a man holding a whaling spear aimed at a model whale. With these miniatures, the whaler enacted the hunt. Other activities that took place in and around whaling caves included processing human corpses to make mummies and producing whaling poison from human fat and the roots of the monkshood plant.
All of these activities perpetuated life by providing food. Alutiiqs believe that animals choose to give themselves to people. A well-prepared whaler who demonstrates reverence for an animal’s spirit will be successful. In preparation, whalers called upon the power of previous generations. Mummies represented people who had succeeded in life, who had maintained a proper spiritual balance. The use of their corporeal remains in whaling poisons imbued the hunter with their power. Life, therefore, depended on careful action, proper spiritual alignment, and a reverence for the past. These same elements are evident in Alutiiq winter festivals, the major annual religious ceremonies.
Photo: Afognak Island Cave, Short Family Collection.
Guangkuta ARusistuartaartukut January-mi.- We always celebrate Christmas in January.
Many of Kodiak’s Alutiiq families celebrate Christmas twice each year: American Christmas on December 25 and Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Although both events commemorate the birth of Christ, they are quite different.
American Christmas features decorations, feasting, gift-giving, and a visit from Santa Claus. For many years, the U.S. Coast Guard Officer’s Spouses Association has collected donations of toys and money from across the United States to sponsor a Santa to the Villages program. With help from the Coast Guard, theys end Santa to each of Kodiak’s rural communities to deliver gifts. Santa’s visit is a beloved event that children look forward to each year. In the 1960s, children watched with excitement as a low-flying plane dropped bags full of toys with the aid of parachutes. In the 1980s, the Firebush, a 180-foot buoy tender, transported Santa around the island. In recent years, Santa and a group of his elves have traveled by HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, stopping for a visit in each community school.
On January 7, Christmas by the Julian calendar that tracks the Orthodox year, Alutiiq families participate in a spiritual celebration of Christmas. For three nights, carolers travel from house to house carrying a large, brightly decorated, twirling star, “starring”, which symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem. They announce the birth of Jesus with songs in English, Slavonic, and Alutiiq and are offered snacks and warm drinks in return. Each caroling visit ends with a rendition of “Many Years,” the Orthodox hymn for blessings and long life. At this season, villagers also participate in “masking” a merging of European folklore and Alutiiq practices.
Photo: Icon corner with Christmas Tree, Afognak Village, Courtesy the Knagin Family.
Agayutaartukut agayuwigmi. - We always pray at the church.
The introduction of Christian religious practices to Kodiak by eighteenth-century Russian Orthodox priests and missionaries led to the development of churches and chapels in Alutiiq communities. Scholars believe that the first village chapels in the Kodiak parish were constructed in the 1830s and ’40s. Following a major smallpox epidemic, the Russian American Company built chapels in each of the major community where they resettled Alutiiq people.
Early chapels included one dedicated to the Dormition of the All Holy Theotokos at Little Afognak built by the Seleznev family in 1832, and two built by the Russian American company in 1843: the Chapel of the Ascension of Our Lord in Karluk and the Chapel of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Afognak village. When Afogank and Kodiak were divided into two separate parishes just before the turn of the twentieth century, the Afognak chapel was reconsecrated as a church.
Historic records indicate that it was difficult to build places of worship in remote Alaska communities, far from supplies and knowledgeable builders. In 1822, when Kodiak’s original Church of the Resurrection was rebuilt, it took two years to stockpile the necessary supplies, and the Russian American Company sent carpenters from Siberia to assist. It took an additional three years to build the church, and within a decade the building had rotted so badly that plans for a new church were underway.
Villagers also had to rebuild their chapels. The present chapel in Karluk was designed and built in 1888 by Charles Hupp Smith with assistance from the Alaska Packers Company, a cannery in the community. Villagers paid for the structure, and the cannery transported the building materials to Karluk.
Today, each Alutiiq community has a chapel that is actively used by the Orthodox faithful. Full time clergy do not staff most of these chapels. Typically, priests periodically from Kodiak, and in their absence, a member of the community acts as a church reader, caring for the facilities and performing some liturgical duties. Many of these chapels are recognized as important historic sites and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Photo: Russian Orthodox Church at Afognak Village. Chadwick collection.
StaaRistam agayuwik carliartaaaraa. - The church warden takes care of the church.
Many of Alaska’s Russian Orthodox communities share clergy. Clergymen typically live in the largest community in a parish and serve smaller, outlying communities periodically. In the Kodiak region, for example, clergy stationed in the city of Kodiak and in Old Harbor travel to surrounding villages several times a year. The absence of a resident village priests does not limit the life of the Orthodox Church. The faithful worship and celebrate with the help of local church officers: a lay reader and a church warden.
The lay reader, a liturgical officer, is selected by the church and trained by a predecessor or a priest. Lay readers were once responsible for teaching Slavonic to village children, and they continue to lead Sunday services with instructions from a priest. Although they cannot perform all parts of the service, they can read scripture and lead songs. In recent decades, Alutiiq women have often filled the position of lay reader.
In contrast, a community appoints a church warden to maintain records, assist the lay reader, and manage the physical care of the church building with money collected from parishioners during services. The warden lights candles before services, builds and maintains crosses in the community cemetery, cleans the church, maintains the church walkway, and records baptisms, marriages, and deaths. In the past, the warden also made sure people attended church and kept children quiet during the services.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, the lay reader and the church warden were also important political figures. They acted as part of the village council, working with a community’s chief to govern and care for residents.
Image: Three Saints Church, Odl Harbor, watercolor by Helen J. Simeonoff, AM459
Aa’i, maani sakuut amlertaallrit. - Yeah, there used to be a lot of crab around here.
Today, Alutiiq people enjoy eating dungeness, tanner, and king crab. But in the past, Kodiak’s Native people avoided these ocean scavengers. Crab live on the ocean floor where they eat carrion, including the corpses of the drowned. For this reason, crab were not a regular part of the traditional diet. This historically observed avoidance appears to be quite ancient. Although delicate, crab remains are not found in even the most exceptionally preserved archaeological sites.
The association between crab and death is reflected in the traditional practices of Alutiiq whalers, who harvested fat from human corpses to make spiritually potent whaling poisons. An historic account of this practice describes a whaler dressed as a crab removing a corpse from its grave. Like the crab that feeds on the dead, the whaler is using the corpse to secure a whale to feed his community. A mask with crab claws in place of a mouth, collected on Afognak Island by French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart, may be part of such a whaler’s costume.
Photo: Fisherman with king crab. Nekeferof Collection.
Agnguart'skuk! - Let's dance!
Dancing was a favorite activity at Alutiiq winter festivals. Moving to the rhythmic beat of skin drums, Alutiiq men reenacted hunting scenes and women danced in praise of ancestors. Performances were held in the men’s house, a large single-roomed structure built and maintained by a wealthy chief. Here men also met to discuss politics, repair their tools, and prepare for war. In the winter, Alutiiqs transformed this building into a ceremonial center. Here families gathered to celebrate the events of the year and give thanks to animal spirits for sustenance. In preparation for dancing, people decorated the men’s house elaborately with hunting gear and animal skins. Paddles, harpoons, sea otter pelts, and even kayaks were tied together and suspended from the ceiling. Guests arrived in their finest clothing and sat according to their social position along the walls. Men sat on benches and women and children on the floor. As masked dancers appeared, the audience swayed and a person in the corner pulled on a rope to rock the gear hanging from the ceiling. This mimicked the movement of the ocean, adding ambiance to the dance.
Today Alutiiq dancing groups continue the performing tradition. Dressed in ceremonial regalia, they celebrate and perpetuate the traditions of their ancestors with joyous songs and movement inspired by the wind, waves, animals, and history of Kodiak.
Photo: The Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers perform. Dancing Forwards workshop, Kodiak.
Augca’arciqut. - They are going to play the dart game.
Gaming has long been a favorite recreational activity in Alutiiq communities. For centuries, people have gathered in each other’s homes to test their skills and make bets. Traditional throwing games, where people tossed darts or discs at a target, emphasized hand-eye coordination, mimicked skills needed for hunting, and provided hours of fun.
In augca’aq, a game based on marine mammal hunting, players took turns throwing darts at a wooden porpoise dangling from a string. Teams of players knelt on the floor, as if sitting in a kayak, and threw their darts at the swinging model. The object was to score twelve points, which were awarded for the location of each strike. Elders recall that people would bet quantities of food, clothing, and even valuable items like firearms, outboard motors, and houses on the outcome of matches.
Gaming remains part of the seasonal rhythm of life in Alutiiq communities. Although new forms of gambling, like bingo and pull tabs, are popular today, many people remember the old games. Old Harbor men compete at augca’aq during the six weeks of Russian Orthodox Lent, when both hunting and bingo are prohibited.
Photo: Dart set by Speridon Simeonoff, purchased for the Alutiiq Museum's collections with support from the Rasmuson Foundation.