Aatama qungua Nuniami et’uq. - My father’s grave is in Old Harbor.
Death in classical Alutiiq society was a forty-day process of passing into the spirit world. When a person died, their body was washed by relatives and wrapped in skins. These were often old boat covers, or for wealthy individuals, sea otter pelts. The corpse was not considered evil or frightening, because the person’s spirit helpers were believed to leave their body at death. However, the deceased could reappear and communicate with others during the mourning period.
The body of the deceased was laid at home for several days while mourners sang, wept, and cut or singed their hair. Residents of the house didn’t work during this period. Burial was usually in or around the person’s community. Graves were simple pits dug into the ground and lined with wooden planks or slate slabs. Personal belongings might be included in the grave or placed on top. For the next forty days, water and food were brought to the grave, and then a memorial feast was held to honor the deceased.
Although there is limited historical information on other burial customs, archaeological data show that Alutiiqs practiced both mummification and cremation. The bodies of powerful whalers were often eviscerated, stuffed with grass, wrapped in skins, and placed in remote caves. Here other whalers would visit to harvest parts of the corpse to enhance their own hunting magic.
Today, burial practices closely follow the tenants of western religions. People are interred in formal cemeteries in graves marked with headstones or the white wooden crosses, picket fences, and spirit houses of Russian Orthodoxy.
Photo: Graves in the Old Harbor community cemetery.
Suk uksurtuwiqami nuyai qat'ritaartut. - When a person gets to be an Elder their hair turns gray (white).
Before the adoption of western hairstyles in the mid-nineteenthcentury, Alutiiq men and women wore their hair long. Men typically cut their hair at the shoulders and braided it. Women cut bangs across their foreheads but let their hair grow down their backs. A woman’s long hair was typically braided, or folded and tied at the back of her head. Like clothing and jewelry, special hairstyles were worn for different occasions. For winter festivals, people greased their hair with seal oil and adorned it with ochre and white feathers. And at the death of a close family member, mourners blackened their faces with soot and cut their hair short.
Hair also had economic and spiritual functions. Human hair was used to suture wounds. Animal hairs were used in embroidery, particularly the white chest hairs of caribou. Kodiak Alutiiq people obtained these hairs in trade with the Alaska Peninsula. The hairs were dyed and then used to decorate garments, caps, skin bags, and even boots.
According to traditional beliefs, the hair was a resting place for the soul. For this reason, shamans often used human hair on their dolls. Such dolls represent people who were waiting to be reincarnated, or they might reflect living people the shaman wished to harm. A shaman would carve a wooden replica of a person, attach a piece of the person’s hair or clothing, and then harm the doll by cuttingit, burning it, or sticking it with pins. The doll was then left for the person to find. This practice was believed to cause illness.
Photo: Pastor Chadwick receives a hair cut, Aognak village, ca. 1961. Chadwick Collection.
Aigartuugu. - Shake his hand.
Traditional Alutiiq artwork rarely depicts human hands. Most dolls were fashioned without arms, and hand carvings were not commonly attached to masks, as they were in some areas of Alaska. However, when hands are depicted in Alutiiq art, they are often pierced, shown with a hole in the center.
For example, a scraping tool from a prehistoric village in Karluk shows a hand, or perhaps a seal flipper, with a hole in its palm. Look closely at the central figure in the Alutiiq Museum’s petroglyph logo: it depicts a person holding up his or her hands. In the center of each hand is an open circle.
What do these circular holes mean? Among the Yup’ik people, the western neighbors and close relatives of the Alutiiq people, pierced hand motifs symbolize a willingness for spirits to allow animals to slip through their hands and ensure an abundance of game on earth. Holes and circles represent a passageway between the multiple layers of the universe.
Some circles suggest passage into the spirit world. The circular designs decorating prehistoric harpoons likely reflect the releaseof an animal’s spirit that occurs at its death. If properly treated, this spirit will return to the spirit world to await reincarnation. Other circles suggest movement out of the spirit world. Traditional masks, used to invite spirits to festivals, were often surrounded by one or more circular hoops.
Image: Alutiiq Museum logo from the Cape Alitak petroglyphs, Kodiak Island.
Agayuwigmi pausinkaaq amlertaartut. - There are many icons in the church.
An icon is a religious image. It may be a painting, a carving, or a statue that depicts a spiritually important figure such as Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, or angels. The veneration of icons is a central part of Russian Orthodox worship. Each image is thought to reflect the wondrous work of God spoken through the beauty of art. In Alutiiq, one variant for icon, agayuwim patriitaa, literally mean “the church’s picture.” The words pausinkaaq or puusinkaaq are related to the Russian word for “god”.
In Alutiiq communities, icons are found both in churches and in people’s houses. Although icons may be displayed in any room, many orthodox homes have an icon corner in the living room. Family members begin their days by facing this corner to say prayers. The presence of icons also ensures that positive images surround a family during daily activities.
In Alutiiq homes, icons of Saint Herman, a beloved Orthodox priest, are especially common. An oil lamp often hangs with the icons. It is suspended from the ceiling on a chain and lit for special occasions. And during the Christmas holidays, the icon corner may be decorated with colorful paper and ornaments.
Icons have been part of Alutiiq homes for over a hundred years. In sod houses of the early twentieth century, icons hung from a corner of the main room, lit by a candle on a filigree chain. The endurance of this prominent religious display illustrates the importance of orthodoxy to Alutiiq families.
Photo: Replica icon corner, Alutiiq Musem exhibit gallery.
Agayuwigmi laatanamek aturtaartut. - They use incense at the church.
Incense is an integral part of Russian Orthodox Church services. Attend worship in a Kodiak church and you will see the priest swinging an ornate metal censer. As he venerates the four sides of the altar, smoke wafts from the censer, filling the room with a pleasant smell. The censer hangs from three chains, representing the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The incense represents the sweetness of the saint’s prayers rising up to God.
The traditional base for incense is the resin from the Boswellia thurifera tree, a leafy plant found in northeast Africa and the Middle East. When harvested, the tree’s milky sap hardens into a fragrant resin known also as frankincense. Incense can also be made from the resin of fur trees. To these resins, people add a variety of essences, producing a material that burns with a sweet or fruity smell. Popular varieties include rose, honeysuckle, jasmine, and even one called Spruce Island. Named in honor of Saint Herman’s beloved Kodiak Archipelago home, this incense produces an evergreen smell.
The use of incense in the Russian Orthodox Church mirrors Alutiiq practices of cleansing with smoke. Historic sources indicate that Alutiiq men fumigated their ceremonial houses before winter festivals, using bundles of burning grass and spruce cones to cleanse the space before it was decorated with hunting gear. This set the stage for masked dancing performances, where Alutiiqs interacted with the powerful spirit world and asked for future hunting success.
Photo: Incense being burned at a Russian Orthodox service. Rostad Collection.
Laam’paaq kuarsgu. - Light the lamp.
From Kodiak to Greenland, Native people used stone oil lamps to heat and light their homes. On Kodiak, artisans formed lamps from beach cobbles of sandstone, granite, or a greenish-gray igneous stone called tonalite. Craftsmen formed lamps by sanding and pecking—banging one cobble against another. Although time-consuming, this technique produced many beautiful pieces. Some artists decorated their lamps with elaborate figurines and geometric designs. Sea mammals and human faces are some of the three-dimensional carvings that decorated Alutiiq lamps.
Alutiiq oil lamps come in many sizes. Household lamps were large, heavy pieces designed for stability. Travelers squatted over smaller, more portable lamps to warm themselves, and children played with tiny lamp replicas. Alutiiq Elders recall that lamps were filled with sea mammal oil and lit with wicks of twisted moss or cotton grass. Each lamp had a spirit, and when not in use, it was stored upside down to keep the spirit from escaping. Archaeologists often find upside down lamps in old houses. Today a burning oil lamp is a sign of prosperity and cultural endurance. The light of Alutiiq culture shines brightly as Elders and youth gather around a glowing lamp.
Photo: Ancient oil lamp lit for a modern gathering, 1997
Pustaartaartut Paas’karpailata. - They always have Lent before Easter.
In Alutiiq communities, the Lenten season covers the forty days preceding Orthodox Easter. The two or three weeks before Lent are often a time of celebration, in preparation for the fasting and quiet lifestyle expected in the days leading up to Easter. Before Lent, Alutiiqs eat lots of good food, hold dances, and play games that will be forbidden until after the holiday. Some people call this time “crazy week.”
Lent is a time of sacrifice and reflection, when the faithful are forbidden to hunt or eat meat. Elders describe Lent as a time when families work on their homes or join to clean up the community, repair buildings, and fix the church. It is also a time for quiet visiting. Akhiok’s Alutiiq Week, a community celebration of Native culture with arts activities, language lessons, and traditional foods, is often held during Lent.
During Lent, children are expected to play indoors. Akhiok Elders remember playing a game where they would cover themselves with blankets while a child tried to guess who was hiding under each one. These restrictions mirror those in classical Alutiiq society, where children were not allowed to play outdoors until the migratory birds returned, signaling the rebirth of the year.
Men also play games during lent, particularly augca’aq, a dart game, where kneeling adults throw spears at a swinging whale model, acting out hunts not allowed during the season. Although Lenten restrictions have eased in recent decades, gambling is still considered inappropriate, and a number of villages halt community bingo during the season.
Photo: Augca’aq, an Alutiiq dart set. Carved by Speridon Simeonoff, purchased for the Alutiiq Museum collections with assistance from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Ilait asiiritaartut. - Some people are always lucky.
Luck was an essential part of hunting in classical Alutiiq society. In addition to promoting hunting success through large public ceremonies that honored the spirit world, Alutiiq hunters collected amulets. Men typically carried these small charms for personal protection and assistance. They could be collected or manufactured but were usually something small and rare.
Historic sources report that hunters collected small, brown, floating rocks, which may have been the seeds of tropical plants transported north by ocean currents. Alutiiq considered these stones powerful good luck charms. Some were worn around the neck, others were kept in a box lined with eagle down and fed with food and red paint. Similarly, hummingbirds, their nests and their eggs, were considered lucky. These rare birds were dried and carried in a bag to promote hunting success.
Other talismans included eagle feathers, raven’s feet, loon skins, bear’s hair, and certain roots, berries, and old archaeological artifacts. Some talismans were lashed to the inside of a hunter’s kayak, near the cockpit where they could be seen. Aleut hunters tied small, ivory sea otter carvings to their boats. Alutiiq hunters lashed parts of animal skulls filled with eagle down and red paint to their vessels. These amulets were said to illuminate the water and attract sea otters. Talismans were also secured to hunting hats.
The tie between talismans and birds was particularly strong, because birds were the personal spirit helpers of many hunters.
Photo: Humingbird in a Kodiak garden. Photo courtesy Richard MacIntosh.