Maas’kaaq aturu. - Use the mask.
Masking is an ancient Alutiiq tradition. For centuries, Native artists carved images of powerful ancestors, animal spirits, and mythological beings into wood and bark. Masks were made in many sizes. Palm-sized miniatures may have been used to teach children traditional stories or carried by adults as amulets. Dancers wore full-sized portrait masks and enormous plank masks during ceremonial performances.
Masks were often brightly painted and adorned with a variety of attachments. Feathers, fur, and small wooden carvings were tied to an encircling hoop. Some masks were held in the hands or teeth, others were tied to the dancer’s head, and very large pieces may have been suspended over performance areas. A long-headed mask was a sign of power and authority. A whistling mask could conjure spirits.
Following ceremonies, masks were broken and discarded. This tradition reflects the spiritual power of the images they portrayed. Masks were part of the dangerous process of communicating with the spirit world. They were used in dances that ensured future hunting success by showing reverence to animal spirits and ancestors.
While Elders today remember the older word giinaquq, most today use the words giinaruaq (like a face) and maas’kaaq (borrowed from Russian) for mask. Today, “masking” refers to a tradition that takes place during the Christmas season, when revelers visit village households in disguise singing and dancing.
Photo: Unartulliq - Protector, Mask ca. 1872, Pinart Collection, Chateaux-Musee, France.
Apaangcuk Anwigmi et’aallria. - Father Herman lived at Monk’s Lagoon.
Monk’s Lagoon is a tiny, tree-ringed cove at the southeastern end of Spruce Island, about fifteen miles north of Kodiak harbor. It is named for Father Herman, a beloved Russian Orthodox monk who established a hermitage there in 1818. Father Herman ran a small school and an orphanage in Monk’s Lagoon, where he is believed to have performed miracles. He lived at the lagoon until his death in 1837. In 1935 another orthodox religious leader, Father Gerasim Schmaltz, moved to Monk’s Lagoon.
Today, Monk’s Lagoon is the site of an annual pilgrimage. Every August 9, the anniversary of Herman’s 1970 canonization by the Orthodox Church of America, the faithful return to the lagoon to celebrate his life. After gathering at the Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church in Kodiak, they proceed to Kodiak Harbor where fishermen provide free transportation to Spruce Island.
Participants in the pilgrimage attend mass in the small wooden chapel, visit the graves of beloved local priests Father Gerasim Schmaltz and Father Peter Kreta, explore trails, and picnic. Many people also take a handful of dirt from beneath the chapel where Father Herman was buried until his canonization or fill bottles with water from a nearby spring, because the soil and water are believed to have curative powers.
Visits to Monk’s Lagoon aren’t limited to August 9. Families from nearby Ouzinkie often celebrate the Fourth of July by picnicking in the area, many people make spiritual visits on their own, and tourists can contact the church reader in Ouzinkie to arrange a tour of this sacred place.
Photo: Small chapel at Monk's Lagoon. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Unguwallriat amlertut maani. - The animals are plentiful here.
According to Alutiiq lore, Kas’arpak, a powerful being who resided in the third of five sky worlds, created all of the animals and birds in the universe. He formed the earth’s creatures from a little man, giving them the ability to shift between animal and human form and endowing each with a soul.
Although everything in the Alutiiq universe is believed to have a sua—a person inside that gives it consciousness—only humans and animals are thought to have souls. When an animal dies, its sua dies as well. However, if the animal is properly treated, its soul survives and can be reincarnated in another animal. As such, respectful human action is critical to regeneration of game. The Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound believed that an animal’s soul rested in a particular part of its body and hunters had to be careful to release this part to the environment. Honoring the animal’s inner person, or sua, was also an important part of regeneration. Many of the masked dances performed at winter festivals were dedicated to this task.
The unguwallriat were cared for by two powerful female beings. Imam Sua, who lived at the bottom of the ocean, ruled over marine creatures. Hunters asked her to provide them with game and for protection from the wind and waves when they were caught in a storm. Nunam Sua, the ruler of creatures that lived on the land, lived in mountain forests. She wore a knee-length coat covered with small animals and was surrounded by a bright light that made her difficult to see. Some people believed that she could read hunters’ thoughts.
Image: Sea mammal petroglyph, Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
Ernerpak nuta’aq uksugkam Maqin’ra. - Today is New Year’s Eve.
A favorite Kodiak New Year’s tradition is the annual masquerade ball. This celebration of renewal occurs on January 14, New Years Day on the Julian Calendar that tracks the Orthodox year. The ball begins with a buffet dinner featuring many local foods, including dishes like perok, a fish pie. After the meal, revelers go home and return in costumes, fully masked to hide their identity. The remainder of the evening features lively dancing, comic performances, and a costume contest. At midnight, the revelers unmask themselves to reveal their identities.
While this event has links to Christian spirituality, particularly the biblical story of King Herrod’s murderous masked soldiers, its ties to Alutiiq winter festivals are also evident. Mask dancing was a central part of Alutiiq celebrations where the human-like spirits of animals were called to the dance hall and honored to ensure future prosperity. The masquerade ball also includes elements from other cultures that have contributed to contemporary Alutiiq life: Russian dishes made with traditional subsistence foods and the polkas, Rhinelanders, schottisches, and waltzes introduced by Scandinavian fishermen.
Photo: New Year Eve maskers, Ouzinkie, Melinda Lamp Collection.
Nuniamek ag'llriakut Uusenkaamen, paRaguutakun. - We went from Old Harbor to Ouzinkie by boat.
Ouzinkie lies in the forests of Spruce Island, just ten miles from the city of Kodiak. Derived from the Russian word uskiy, meaning narrows, the name Ouzinkie refers to the slender strait that separates Spruce Island from Kodiak Island. It also reflects Ouzinkie’s origin in the nineteenth century as a retirement community for Russian traders. Russians traders built ships and raised cattle on Spruce Island. Alutiiq people lived in the community, many as the spouses of traders, and in a tiny, nearby community located a Monks Lagoon known as Elovoe. Twentieth-century residents continued to raise cattle, worked for a variety of local companies, and supported efforts to protect Kodiak during World War II. In 1964, the tidal wave associated with the Great Alaska Earthquake destroyed the community store, cannery, and some homes. Today, Ouzinkie is home to about 160 people, many of whom fish for a living.
Spruce Island is also known for its connection to Father Herman. This Russian Orthodox monk is beloved for his devotion to the Alutiiq people. In 1818, Father Herman moved from Kodiak to the southeastern end of Spruce Island. He established a school, an orphanage, and a garden in a place now called Monks Lagoon. In 1970, Father Herman was recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church. In commemoration of this event, the church leads a pilgrimage to Monks Lagoon every August, an event aided by Ouzinkie residents.
Photo: Dories in the Ouzinkie harbor, ca. 1940. Photo by Hender Toms. Malinda Lamp collection.
Isiit awa’i angitut. - The owls have returned.
Three varieties of owls are common to the Kodiak Archipelago. The boreal owl (Aegolius funereus) and the northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula) frequent forested areas, and the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) lives in open country.
Kodiak’s forest-dwelling owls are year-round residents. They nest in tree trunks and tend to be reclusive. These solitary, territorial animals hunt exclusively at night and are easier to hear than see. Short-eared owls, which migrate south each winter, are more visible. These birds nest in grass-lined burrows in lowland tundra, marshes, and tidal flats, often in small colonies. They eat voles, squirrels, bats, insects, and birds, which they hunt at night and in the morning.
Throughout Alaska, Native people associate nocturnal, carnivorous owls with the supernatural. Among the Tlingit, owls are feared. They are believed to bring bad news, foretelling warfare, sickness, fire, and accidents with their hoots. Moreover, witches are said to transform themselves into owls. The Aleut believed owls were magical and dismembered captured birds to release their powerful spirits. The Yup’ik associate owls with shamanism, due to their extraordinary vision.
Like the Yup’ik, the Alutiiq believed that owls assisted shamans. A wooden mask recovered from a late prehistoric village in Karluk features the face of a short-eared owl. This rare depiction of a bird’s face on a mask suggests that the artifact was spiritually powerful.
Photo: A mask carved to represent the face of an owl. Koniag, Inc. Collection, Kalruk One site.
Paapuka gui cisllangq’rtaallia. - My grandmother had a peg calendar.
Charting the passage of time was once a relative process. Alutiiq people noted the seasons by following changes in the natural environment and in the economic and social activities that accompanied the yearly cycle. With the introduction of Russian Orthodoxy, however, the Alutiiq faithful adopted Russian-style peg calendars to track their days.
Peg calendars were typically fashioned of wood. Some were small boxes with a calendar carved in the lid. Other calendars were designed to hang on a wall. Each calendar had a flat surface with evenly divided segments representing the months of the year. Each segment had a series of holes representing the days of that month. A small peg was moved from hole to hole to signify the date. Calendars usually started on September 1, the first day of the ecclesiastical year. Special symbols adorned peg holes representing Sundays and church holidays. Each family then added markings to represent special household occasions — family member’s name days and the feast days of beloved saints.
Siberian fur traders introduced peg calendars to Alaska in the eighteenth century. Used in Orthodox communities throughout the state, they were commonly kept in the eastern corner of the house where religious icons were reverently displayed. A senior member of the household moved the peg daily to track the religious calendar. Although Elders remember using these calendars, they were gradually replaced by American-style paper calendars in the later decades of the twentieth century. Today, many examples can be seen in museum collections.
Photo: Peg Calendar by Alutiiq artist Andrew Abyo. Courtesy Andrew Abyo.
Kas’at maani, Sun’ami amlertut. - There are a lot of priests here in Kodiak.
In every Alutiiq community, there were individuals who functioned as religious leaders, or priests. These highly respected wise men were tradition bearers, trained in all aspects of ceremonial life. They were not feared like shamans, who interacted with dangerous elements of the spirit world, but revered for their cultural knowledge and ability to work with helpful spirits. This role was inherited, passed from one generation to the next, like the roles of chief or whaler in Alutiiq society. Questions that could not be answered were often referred to the community priest.
A priest had two major functions. They instructed children in traditional songs and they organized and supervised winter festivals. A family hosting a gathering hired a priest to lead the festivities, compose songs for the event, and ensure they followed proper protocols for seating guests, honoring ancestors, gift giving, and many other activities.
In recognition of their role as spiritual leaders, Alutiiqs used the word kas’aq when referring to Russian Orthodox clergy, who filled many of the same functions as traditional religious leaders.
Photo: Priest officiates at an othrodox wedding ceremony in Karluk. Clyda Christensen Collection.