Rausistuami slaawirtaartukut. - At Russian Christmas time we go starring.
Each January, the Russian Orthodox faithful in Alutiiq communities honor the birth of Christ with starring, a caroling celebration. Carolers travel from house to house carrying a large, brightly decorated, twirling star that symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem. They announce the birth of Jesus with songs and receive refreshments in return. This custom combines Christian symbols with Alutiiq winter traditions of visiting, feasting, singing, and dancing.
In Akhiok, starring traditionally lasts for four nights. For the first three, children with plastic bags collect candy as they carol from house to house. The festivities begin in the evening and may last into the small hours of the morning. Some families feed the carolers a meal, others offer a hot drink or a snack.
On the fourth night masked adults masquerade from house to house, dancing and singing until they are recognized by their hosts and must quit for the night. Many wear pillowcases over their heads, stuff their clothing, cover themselves with black wool blankets, and disguise their voices to hide their identities.
Masking carries with it the dangerous possibility that a spirit will join the group. One local story tells of a masking group that discovered a stranger in their midst. When the men removed the stranger’s mask, there was no one behind it and a flash of light flew into the sky!
Kodiak’s annual masquerade ball, held each January 14 in honor of Russian New Year, is descended from the masking tradition.
Photo: Children starring in Old Harbor.
Cuumi kaatartaallriit. - They used to play the stick game before.
Competitions were a common activity at social gatherings in classical Alutiiq society. Both men and women enjoyed participating in everything from swimming, boating, and running races to tests of strength and a variety of team sports. Competitions were a way to demonstrate one’s stamina and dexterity, and they allowed rivals to compete in a friendly arena. For example, the Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound invited neighboring Eyak and Tlingit peoples to compete in games.
In addition to their recreational qualities, some games had a spiritual component. Certain games were limited to a specific time of year because they were believed to affect the natural environment. Guessing games, like kaataq, were popular in the summer, because they were thought to slow the movement of the sun.
Kaataqis a favorite game of Alutiiq men, because it involves lots of singing and joking as well as careful slights of hand. In the past, men played this game in the two weeks before Lent, staying up all night to bet on the outcome of games. Old sod houses were an excellent place to play, because they were warm and private. Men never played kaataq around children; it was considered appropriate only for adults.
This simple guessing game requires two inch-long pieces of wood or bone. Men sometimes carve these gaming sticks from cedar. Although the sticks in a pair are the same size, each has different markings. One might be painted and the other not, or one might have grooves carved into it and the other not. The marked stick is the “wee” and the unmarked stick the “dip.”
To play kaataq, two men stand facing each other. One man holds the sticks behind his back, chanting at and taunting his opponent. The holder arranges the sticks in his fist, then brings one hand to his chest and leaves the other against his back. When he says, “pick,” the challenger must guess which stick rests in the fist on the holder’s chest.
If the challenger guesses correctly, he scores one point. If the challenger guesses incorrectly, the holder receives the point. The holder can change the game by putting both sticks in the hand behind his back. When the challenger guesses an empty hand, the holder wins the point. However, if an observer catches the holder’s slight of hand, the observer shouts “change,” and the holder must put the hand with both sticks on his chest for the challenger to select. In this case, the challenger wins the point. The first player to accumulate sixteen points wins.
Photo: Women playing the stick guessing game in Akhiol, Rostad Collection.
Quyawim ernera pingaktaaraa. - He likes Thanksgiving.
The origins of the Thanksgiving holiday are as complex as the history of America. Although many people consider the harvest feast held in Plymouth colony in 1621 as the first Thanksgiving, the tradition of giving thanks over a harvest meal is not confined to European settlers, nor did it begin in Plymouth. For millennia, Native American communities have recognized nature’s bounty and given thanks at fall gatherings. Alutiiqs, for example, have long shared stores of foods harvested in the summer during fall and early winter gatherings. Today, the festivals of the past have changed to modern potlucks and potlatches, but they reflect a tradition of honoring ancestors and the spirit world for the gifts of food that sustain human life.
Thanksgiving became a United States holiday during the Civil War. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November a national day of thanks. Many Alutiiq families have adopted this holiday, celebrating as other Americans do with a day of feasting and relaxation. Although Kodiak’s Thanksgiving tables may feature turkey and pumpkin pie, they are also likely to include local foods from the past year’s harvest. The seal and deer meat, salmon, crab, and wild duck served in Alutiiq homes mirror the feast shared by the Plymouth colonists and their Wampanoag Indian neighbors, who celebrated the bounty of their world with local venison, cod, lobsters, seals, and a variety of game birds.
Photo: Ouzinkie children dressed for a Thanksgiving play and celebration, 1960s. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Maqineq nangkan, tang’rciqamci. - After the week is over, I’ll see you guys.
All human societies have systems of reckoning time, ways of accounting for the sequence and duration of events. However, concepts of time vary greatly with cultural and environmental factors. The places people live, the technologies they use, the structure of their economies, their social organization, and even their ritual systems influence their perceptions of time.
The strict divisions of clock and calendar time are western constructs, originating in the Judeo-Christian worldview and becoming widespread in the nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution. To Westerners, time is linear and nonrepetitive. It progresses from the past into the future and provides daily structure for the complicated world in which people live.
In contrast, life in farming societies and among high-latitude hunting and gathering peoples is often closely tied to the passage of seasons. Here people tend to see time as repetitive and circular, part of an ever-renewing cycle. This was true in classical Alutiiq society, where people recognized the phases of the moon, seasonal changes in weather, and the cyclical availability of plants and animals.
Alutiiqs began to chart the passage of days and weeks when they became members of the Russian Orthodox faith, using peg calendars to track important events in the church year. Although an historic construct, the word maqineq, for week, seems to be derived from the word for “day before a holiday.” For example, in the Alutiiq language, Christmas Eve is ARusistuam Maqinera. The use of the root maqi- in relation to holidays may also be related to maqiwik, the Alutiiq word for steam bathhouse. In Alutiiq society, people once took steam baths to cleanse themselves before special events.
Photo: Alutiiq Museum calendar page.
Paapuma niutaakiikut, “Kukuumyarkunaci, Iiyaq taiciqniluku.” - My grandmother told us, “Don’t whistle; you are calling for the Devil.”
Whistling is a fun, light-hearted activity in contemporary Alutiiq communities. Children make whistles from willow branches, hunters call animals with whistles carved from green alder, and comically masked carolers travel from house to house during Russian Christmas whistling and playing instruments. But in classical Alutiiq society, whistling was a dangerous and tightly controlled practice connected with the spirit world. Dancers at winter festivals called spirits from the sky and beneath the sea by whistling, which was said to mimic spirit voices. Some ceremonial masks even had a circular mouth to represent whistling.
Whistling was also associated with evil and sickness. In a house with a sick child, residents who heard whistling noises knew that evil spirits were to blame. Similarly, shamans used whistles to conjure the spirit world when curing the sick or cursing rivals. Many Elders learned that spirits spoke first with whistles and then with words. Children were taught never to whistle for fear they would be harmed. So, next time you find yourself whistling, remember, you may be summoning Kodiak’s powerful spirit world.
Photo: Whistling mask, Pinart Collection, Châteaux-Musée, France.
Uksuq asillria. - The year was good.
Russian New Year is one of the beloved holidays observed by Alutiiq families that practice Russian Orthodoxy. This celebration of renewal is held annually on January 14, which is New Years Day on the Julian calendar that tracks the Orthodox year. Around Kodiak, Russian New Year is celebrated with social events that include feasting and dancing. Holiday parties include a diversity of elements reflecting the cultures that have contributed to contemporary Alutiiq life: the joyous dancing and visiting of Alutiiq winter festivals, Russian dishes made with traditional subsistence foods, and the polkas, Rhinelanders, schottisches, and waltzes introduced by Scandinavian fishermen.
In the Kenai Peninsula villages of Nanwalek and Port Graham, Alutiiqs celebrate Russian New Year with a special pageant. In this dramatic performance, costumed participants act out the triumph of the New Year over the old. A squad of armed guards accompanies the New Year, who is dressed in white and followed by twelve finely gowned women representing the months to come. The old year arrives in black, heavily masked and attended by clowns. Throughout the performance the two groups dance, spar, and joke. The pageant ends at midnight, as the old year is vanquished. This is followed by recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and late night dancing for everyone. Elders recall that similar pageants were once held on Kodiak.
Illustration: A year of Alutiiq activities. Alutiiq Museum gallery.
Stuulumi nertaartukut. - We eat at the table.
Western-style furnishings are fairly recent additions to Alutiiq houses. In prehistoric times, Alutiiq builders fitted their homes with earthen benches. Woven mats and bear hides covered these benches, providing dry, comfortable places to sit and sleep. Household rafters, and pits and boxes built into the floor, provided places to store belongings.
Historic descriptions suggest that Alutiiqs began using Western furniture in the late 1800s, as European-style houses became common. Most houses were modestly furnished with a table, a few chairs, and small beds, although wealthier families might also have a sofa, a rocking chair, a sewing machine, or a piano.
Today, a special stuuluq can be found in many Alutiiq homes. Families who practice the Russian Orthodox faith keep a small shrine in a corner of their living room where they display icons and an oil lamp – or lampada. This corner is a reminder of the presence of God and a place where family members pray. Below the shrine there is often a table. As priests are not always available to lead services in rural Alutiiq communities, local church readers use such tables to hold their religious books. Families also store oil, water, wicks, and their Easter kulich, a sweet bread, on their corner tables.
Photo: Children in Larsen Bay around a table, 1950s. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Maaninguall'raq macamek tang'rpakartaan'itukut. - Around here (pitifully) we do not see the sun.
Sunshine is an important ingredient in Alutiiq subsistence activities. To preserve the quantities of meat, fish, and even plants harvested during the productive summer months, families need dry weather. Without it, foods do not desiccate and can spoil rapidly in the damp Kodiak environment. Even the best hunter can experience a lean winter if a wet summer makes processing his catch difficult. With luck, families had some sunshine and a little wind to speed the process.
Sunshine was also important for drying the plant fibers used in weaving many common objects - baskets for carrying, cooking and storing foods, mats for household use, woven clothing, and cordage. The Alutiiq also used the sun to soften spruce pitch, used to waterproof kayak seams and patch dories. To coax the sun from behind the clouds, and to hasten its return during the dark days of winter, Alutiiq children played a sunrise game with a wooden bead on a string.
According to Alutiiq lore, the sun is a spirit who lives in the fifth sky world - the one that is closest to earth. A number of legends explain the origin of the sun. In one, a man fell in love with his beautiful sister and they had twins. One twin became the moon, the other the sun. Another legend says that the sun is a man from Cook Inlet who fled to the sky after killing his brother. One side of him shines during the day as the sun, the other at night as the moon. And in a story from Kodiak, Raven brought daylight to his community by capturing the sun, moon, and stars from a stingy chief and releasing them from their boxes into the sky.
Photo: A Kodiak Sunset