ARatukamek tang'rakameng suut nata agayuliteng. - When you see a rainbow, you're to make a sign of the cross.
Combine sunshine and raindrops and the result is a luminous arc of colors commonly known as a rainbow. This vivid display of light has a prominent place in the beliefs of many cultures. Some people see the rainbow as lucky, or as a sign of an important, upcoming event. In some spiritual traditions, the rainbow signals the birth of a baby and the reincarnation of a recently passed soul. Others consider rainbows to be divine. The Norse believed that rainbows were a bridge to the world of the gods. Among Australian Aborigines the rainbow is a serpent that battles the sun to replenish Earth’s essential water.
Alutiiqs use several words for rainbow. ARatukaq, a word derived from Russian, comes from the northern subdialect of the Alutiiq language. Puwisaq comes from the southern subdialect and also means belt.
The word puwisaq also refers to the strip of cloth or ribbon that Orthodox godparents once gave to babies at baptism. This piece of fabric was usually white with an embroidered cross, and was worn over the chest – between a person’s shirt and undershirt. For Easter, people wore a brightly colored versions on the outside of their clothing. These puwisat were worn across the body like a sash and knotted around the waist. One Elder remembered that when an honored person died, their death shroud would be torn into strips to use as puwisat for the community’s next generation of babies. Historically, people wore puwisat all the time, but only a few Elders still have their baptismal band stored away.
Elders report that rainbows are sometimes called, Puwisiim Maman lintaa - literally the Virgin Mary's puwisaq cloth. When the faithful see a rainbow, they make the sign of the cross, as a sign of respect and remembrance for the Virgin Mary.
Photo: A rainbow over the King Salmon River, western Alaska Peninsula, 2011.
Asuq atunkirciiqaqa. - I'm going to reuse the pot.
Salvaging, recycling, and reusing are essential components of Alutiiq spirituality. In the Alutiiq world, animals are smarter than people. Seals, ducks, and salmon give themselves to people who must in turn demonstrate their respect. Thrift is an essential component of this relationship. By utilizing resources carefully, including every part of an animal, people show their appreciation and help to ensure a future supply of game.
This sense of thrift includes recycling. Alutiiq people are well known for reusing objects and materials. Archaeologists note this in ancient tool collections. Alutiiqs ground broken slate ulu fragments into lances and arrows, created fire starters from old kayak parts, and used the broken bases of wooden containers as cutting boards. In more recent times, Elders recall stitching underwear and slips from the pretty flowered sacks that held cooking flour, and fashioning stoves for their banyas from empty 55-gallon fuel drums.
Modern Alutiiq artists also demonstrate the value of thrift in their work. Look closely at contemporary works and you will find strips of a plastic crab pot buoy framing a painting, or pieces of polar fleece garments cut into decorative designs to adorn a scarf. Like their ancestors, artists transform leftover materials into objects with lasting beauty.
Photo: A rock paddle mended and then resused as a cutting board. Koniag, Inc. Collection, Karluk One.
Atan ling’agiu. - Respect your father.
To Alutiiq people the world is alive. It is a place where all things are aware of and sensitive to human action. Caring for this world requires respect: a reverence for natural resources, recognition of the accomplishments of ancestors, and a modest view of one’s place on earth. Alutiiq people do not see themselves as conquerors of the land but as one component of a complexly integrated, life-giving system based on mutual respect.
In this system, the resources necessary for life give themselves to people, who must prove their worth through responsible acts. A hunter’s ability to show respect for the animals he seeks determines his success, not his skills. To Alutiiqs, seals, bears, fish, and birds are much smarter than people and can easily avoid being captured. But when a hunter demonstrates his humility, game will give itself to him. In this world carelessness, arrogance, and waste are signs of disrespect. They unsettle the natural balance and poison a person’s luck.
How do people show respect? Hunters dress neatly and keep their gear in good repair to show respect for previous gifts. They butcher animals carefully, returning a portion of the animal’s body to the land or the sea. This shows concern for the animal’s spirit, which will live on to create more game if treated properly. Families use materials from the land judiciously, wasting little, sharing with others, and creating beautiful objects.
Photo: An elaborately decorated parka produced for the Looking Both Way exhibit by Susan Malutin, Grace Harrod and community members, with funding from the Alaska State Museum.
Mayaciik akagngauq. - The ball is round.
In the Alutiiq language the suffix -sqaq, meaning “thing,” can be added to an intransitive verb to create a noun. For example, add -sqaq to akagngaluni, a verb meaning “to be round,” and you get akagngasqaq, “a thing that is round.”
To Alutiiq people the circle is a meaningful shape. Like their neighbors the Yup’ik people, Alutiiqs believe the universe is round, with distinct circular layers. The circle may also represent the annual movement of a community around a central village to which they returned each winter. Within this world, circles, or holes, formed passageways from one layer of the world into the next.
Archaeological data suggest that this circular concept of the universe is ancient. Artifacts with concentric circle designs appear in sites up to about 2,700 years old. More than two thousand years ago, Kodiak sea mammal hunters decorated their harpoons with a circular motif common from the western Gulf of Alaska to the Bering Sea. They also carved sets of concentric circles in some coal labrets, pieces of jewelry that were worn in the face. In later times, circular designs appear as bands of embroidery on baskets and clothing, in paintings on wooden implements, and as the hoops that surround ceremonial masks.
Photo: Round faced mask, Pinart Collection, Kodiak Island ca. 1872, Courtesy the Châteaux-Musée, France.
Kalla’alek alingnartuq. - The shaman is scary.
Alutiiq shamans healed the sick, foretold the future, controlled the weather, and recounted events in far-off places. They acted as intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds, fulfilling the dangerous task of communicating with animals, ancestors, and supernatural beings. Shamans could turn themselves into animals or send their souls to find lost people.
Contact with the spirit world was achieved through trances and with the use of special gear, including shamanic masks and dolls. Dolls could be sent away to perform tasks, or carved in the likeness of an individual to cause harm or manipulate a person’s behavior.
Both men and women could become shamans, and shamanic powers often ran in families. An aspiring shaman acquired his or her spirit by walking for many days. The spirit entered a novice’s body and taught him the secrets of the trade. Once the spirit was obtained, the shaman might hear its voice in the cry of a bird or be approached during his or her daily life. However, not all people who anted to be shamans got called. Shamans often performed in the evening, dancing and singing as they communicated with the spirit world.
Shamanic practices continued well into the twentieth century. Elders recall their fear of powerful individuals who could heal the sick or cause great harm. People protected themselves with prayer. In the late twentieth century, however, shamanism faded from practice.
Shaman is a Siberian word incorporated into both English and Alutiiq. One of the common Alutiiq words for shaman— samanaq—reflects this derivation.
Photo: This pregnant doll may represent a fertility figurine used by a shaman. Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Mecuusqanek kenerqat puyurnartuu’ut. - Wet firewood is very smoky.
In Alutiiq communities, wood smoke is best known for its ability to flavor and preserve fish. Each family has its own special recipe for creating savory smoked salmon. Some rely on cottonwood, as both the bark and the wood of this widely available tree create lots of smoke and impart a wonderful flavor. Others prefer alder branches with the bark removed, or birch wood. In the past, smoke was also used to process hides and fumigate houses. Burning branches will drive bugs from your home, and the smoke of seabeach sandwort will keep mosquitoes at bay.
Smoke was also used for medicinal and spiritual purposes. In Akhiok and Old Harbor, the leafy stems of crowberry shrubs were once burned in homes to prevent and cure illness. Visitors to these communities were asked to jump over burning plants and stand in their smoke. This destroyed diseases and chased away evil spirits.
Alutiiqs also used smoke to ritually clean contaminated objects. If a baby was accidentally born in a house or if a menstruating woman touched her husband’s hunting gear, it was fumigated with smoke to restore its potency. Similarly, winter hunting ceremonies began by purifying the air with the smoke of burning grass, and to clear the air, a smoking torch preceded a corpse as it was carried outdoors for burial.
Photo: A smokey camp fire, Cape Alitak.
Kas’aq amlesqanek atuutet nallunituq. - The priest knows many songs.
Singing is a favorite pastime in Alutiiq communities. People of all ages enjoy sharing a tune or learning an Elder’s favorite melody. In addition to expressing joy and companionship, songs are a form of storytelling. They record community history, express values, and once helped people to communicate with the spirit world.
There are many different types of songs. Today people join in favorite Orthodox hymns, but they also remember traditional verses sung for hunting, curing illness, praising ancestors, dancing, and visiting. Many of these traditional songs helped Alutiiqs obtain assistance from spirits. Powerful Alutiiq whalers sang songs to control the movement of an injured whale. Hunters learned animal songs to attract game. Shamans used songs to drive away illness caused by evil.
Singing was also a central activity at winter festivals. The host of such a gathering hired a spiritual leader, a member of the community well versed in traditional songs and ceremonial etiquette, to lead the festivities. Here, songs helped to move participants from the everyday world into a magical realm. Singing invited spirits to the gathering and appealed to them for aid. People also sang songs in honor of ancestors. An ancestor might be memorialized with a mask and a specially written tune. Masks and songs were also paired to tell stories: to remember a great hunt, to recount a battle, or to share a family legend.
Photo: Alutiiq speakers record a traditional song.
Caqiq tamarmi suangq’rtuq. - Something all around has a spirit.
The Alutiiq concept of a spirit is complex. Alutiiq people traditionally believe that everything in the universe—living things, objects, places, and natural phenomenon like the northern lights—has a spirit or essence. This essence is characterized by its human conscience. The word sua literally means “its person,” illustrating the sentient, human dimension of all things. To have a spirit is to have a person inside, and this spirit can take human shape. For example, the spirits of animals can show themselves, peering out from their animal bodies or removing their skins to uncover their human form. This is why animals can often look like people and why people sometimes become animals by putting on skins.
In addition to the spirits of earthly things, the Alutiiq universe has great spirits, some of whom inhabit the sky worlds. Llam Sua, the spirit of all things, lives in the fifth and purest sky world. This spirit can see and hear everything but is invisible to people. Kas’arpak, the spirit who created all birds and animals, lives in the third sky world. This spirit assists shamans, relaying the wishes of Llam Sua to earth. There are also two female spirits, Imam Sua, ruler of the sea, and Nunam Sua, ruler of the forest, who live on earth. These spirits control the creatures in their domains and Alutiiqs called upon them for hunting luck.
Photo: Historic ceremonial mask, ca. 1872, Pinart Collection, Châteaux Musée, France. Masks were worn during dances that called spirits to the human world.