Iqallut tuqumaut. - The fish are dead.
Death in traditional Alutiiq society was followed by a set of rituals that moved the deceased from daily life to the afterlife. In the Alutiiq universe, people were reincarnated five times. After their fifth and final death, the human soul ascended to the fifth of the five sky worlds, an earth-like place where their spirit could look back down to earth. The Alutiiq say that stars in the night sky are the eyes of ancestors.
A person might learn of their impending death in a dream, and shamans could foresee death. Dead people were dressed in their best clothing and jewelry, wrapped in sea mammal skins, and buried in rock or plank-lined graves. Others were laid to rest in the collapsed side room of a sod house or their remains mummified and hidden in a secluded cave. Tools and personal items were often placed in or on top of graves, which were marked with decorated poles. Wealthy people received the most elaborate treatment. They were buried in sea otter furs and their slaves were sometimes sacrificed. After a forty-day mourning period, when family members limited their activities, cut their hair, painted their faces black, and sang sad songs, the dead were memorialized with a feast.
In Prince William Sound, Alutiiq communities hosted a regional Feast of the Dead every August. Wealthy villages invited members of surrounding communities to a ceremony designed to provide for the needs of all ancestors. Guests participated in comical dancing and singing to console the grief-stricken, while musicians played large drums. The festival ended with a large feast. Here, hosts gave food and furs in remembrance of the dead. Other gifts were burned, sending them directly to the sky world to feed and clothe ancestors.
Photo: Ouzinkie cemetery. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Qawangurtuataartut. - They always dream.
For Alutiiqs, dreaming is a magical state, one that draws people closer to the spirit world. Encounters between people and spirits often take place in dreams or as a person awakes from sleep. Shamans, people who interact closely with spirits,their apprentices through dreams, and dreams are thought to foretell the future. A person’s death might be predicted while dreaming, or a lucky amulet envisioned before it is found. Sleep is also the realm of the human soul. Shaped like a miniature person and stored in its owner’s breath, the soul was thought to travel during sleep, leaving the body to talk with other souls. Elders believe that this is why people sometimes feel tired when they awake from sleeping.
A legend recorded on Kodiak in 1872 tells of a hunter’s dream. A man was unable to hunt successfully and he pleaded for help. In his sleep, he dreamed of masks and heard an unknown voice singing songs. When he awoke, he began to repeat the songs. The next time he went hunting, his luck improved and he killed many animals. Other hunters asked about his good fortune. The lucky hunter taught them his songs and made the masks from his dream.
Photo: Woman asleep in a skiff, Ouzinkie 1940s. Smith Collections, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Cauyaq nitniqgu. - Listen to the drum.
In the traditional Alutiiq language, the word for drum and music are the same: cauyaq. This duality illustrates the importance of drums to traditional Alutiiq music. Although Alutiiqs also perform with rattles and whistles, the drum, with its penetrating beat, is their main instrument.
Drumming is an ancient practice. Prehistoric petroglyphs from both Afognak and Kodiak islands show people holding drums and archaeological sites with well-preserved wooden artifacts include drum handles and drum rims many hundreds of years old.
In the past, craftsmen made drums by stretching a dehaired seal hide, a seal bladder, or a halibut stomach over a wooden frame. The frame was carved from a single piece of wood, bent into a circle with steam, and lashed together. To the frame, artists attached cross braces and a sturdy handle. Like other ceremonial objects, drums were often decorated. A drum’s skin might be painted with images of spirit helpers or its handle painted and adorned with carvings. Some drum handles displayed tiny masks attached so they faced the audience as the drummer played. A drum handle from an archaeological site in Karluk shows a human face inset with two tiny animal teeth.
Today, artists continue to fashion drums from local wood, carving and bending frame parts to shape. In addition to skin covers, some artisans use a resilient airplane fabric, treated with resin. This fabric is durable but still reverberates with deep resonant tones.
Photo: Youth drummer with the Akhiok Alutiiq dancers at the opening of the Like a Face exhibit, May 2008.
Ugnerkami Paas’kaartaartukut. - We have Easter in the spring.
Orthodox Easter is a central holiday in Alutiiq communities. Like Russian Christmas, it combines cultural traditions. Forty days of Lent precede Easter, creating a period of reflection and sacrifice. The Alutiiq faithful live simply, eating fish and vegetables, as no animal products are allowed. This period of fasting mirrors spring in classical Alutiiq society, when people lived on dried foods and shellfish as they waited for sea mammals, fish, and birds to return to coastal waters.
Religious services mark the days leading up to Easter. In Akhiok, Easter Sunday begins in church, as worshippers circle the building with lit candles. In Old Harbor, an egg hunt in the village cemetery follows the liturgy. Children search for eggs then visit neighbors to announce the resurrection of Christ and trade their finds. The eggs have Christian and Alutiiq significance. They symbolize both the rebirth of Christ and of the land—the return of migratory birds that foreshadows the coming wealth of summer. In the days that follow Easter, men ready their gear for fishing.
Photo: Easter at the Afognak Bible Church, ca. 1961, Chadwick Collection.
Tallimanek una iqallugnek pit'llia. - This guy got five fish.
Five is a divine number in the Alutiiq world. The Alutiiq universe has five sky worlds and five underworlds. Layered on top of each other, these worlds contains a hierarchy of spirit beings. Llam Sua, the Alutiiq supreme being, resides in the fifth and most pure sky world. Other powerful spirits that guide human life live in the successive sky worlds. The first sky world, closest to earth, contained an earth-like landscape and the spirits of celestial bodies. Kodiak Alutiiqs believed that this world was the final resting place of the human soul. It was land where souls traveled after their fifth and final death and became the star people whose bright eyes looked back at earth through holes in the ground. Although little is known about the five underworlds, they were located beneath the sea and may have been the home of animal spirits. Fish, sea mammals, and even birds were thought to have homes under the ocean.
A reverence for the number five is expressed in the traditional female seclusion practices that surrounded major rites of passage in Alutiiq society-birth, menstruation, and death. Women giving birth were secluded in special huts for multiples of five days. Postpartum seclusion lasted five days, ten days, or occasionally longer, depending on the health and status of the mother. Additionally, young women were secluded for ten days at the onset of their first menstrual period. A similar seclusion occurred after the death of a child.
Photo: Coal labrets with a series of concentric circles likely representing the five layers of the Alutiiq Universe. Uyak Site, Larsen Bay Tribe Collection.
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.
Tanrat alingnartaartut. - Ghosts are always scary.
In the Alutiiq universe, ghosts are the physical manifestation of human and animal souls, and they are associated with death and reincarnation. When a person or an animal dies, their soul is released from their body to return to life. A person’s soul is in their breath and can be reincarnated five times before reaching eternal rest in the sky world.
In contrast, the reincarnation of animal souls perpetuates the supply of game and depends upon respectful treatment of the animal’s body after death. Animal souls look like small animals and reside in specific places in their owners’ bodies. The soul of a bear, for example, looks like a small bear and lives in its owner’s head. Before reincarnation, some souls may turn into ghosts.
According to traditional beliefs, a human soul that wants to be reborn pulls a boat up onto the shore. The soul then enters a pregnant mother’s womb and waits. The womb is thought to act like a house, protecting the soul as its new owner grows. When an expecting woman gets sick to her stomach, it is said that the soul inside her did not like something she ate. When a soul is ready to die, its owner dreams of taking a boat trip. When the fire cracks, it means the souls of the dead are hungry, and a piece of meat should be thrown into the flames.
Ghosts—the souls of the dead—should not be confused with spirits. Spirits are a type of evil being who live in the wilderness. Although people who live in solitude can turn into such beings, they are visible only to shamans, who recognize them by their pointy heads.
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.