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Talisman
Word in Alutiiq: Nakernaq
In a sentence:

Carliarluki nakernaten. - Nakciquten. Take care of your talisman. You will be lucky.

 

MP3 File: Talisman
TallismanA rabbit's foot, a four-leaf clover, a horseshoe–these are all widely recognized symbols of luck in modern American life. They are talismans, objects believed to provide good fortune or personal protection. People in all cultures use talismans, often carrying or wearing amulets, or displaying them in their homes.
 
Talismans have been essential to the personal spirituality of Alutiiq people. Children wore pouches with special charms to provide comfort and security. Hunters carried amulets to draw animals near, and shaman called for spiritual assistance with talismans. Historic accounts suggest that small, rare objects functioned as talismans. These items showed themselves to individuals. A person who encountered a talisman added it to his or her collection and was considered very lucky. The Alutiiq word from talisman comes from the root naker- – to be fortunate.
 
Talismans included exotic plant materials like chestnuts and beans carried to Kodiak's shores on coastal currents. People also collected eagle feathers, bear hair, stones, and roots. Charms stored inside an historic shaman's rattle from the Alaska Peninsula include clippings of red and black hair, a piece of mica, a quartz crystal, and a sliver of wood.
 
Alutiiq Elders recall that red, tan, and black stones functioned as nakernat. Some of these stones glowed with spiritual power. Others were alive. These stones required feeding and could reproduce. Elder John Pestrikoff remembered that black stones were especially powerful. Some were smooth and shaped like a clamshell. Others were wrinkled and had tiny, sharp teeth.
 
Caring for one's talisman was important. Hunters kept their charms in small boxes they could carry their kayaks or store safely away from family members. John Pestrikoff's father carried his amulets in a small, metal cigar box, tied closed with string. An older wooden box, from an ancient village in Karluk, may also have been for holding talismans. Shaped like a fish, this container has a small rectangular hole in its base with a carefully recessed lip for securing a cover.
 
Photo: Wooden box carved in the shape of a fish, perhaps to hold talismans. Karluk One Site, ca. 400 years old, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
 
Podcast Available: Talisman
Devil
Word in Alutiiq: Iraq
In a sentence: Iraq asillpiarluni asiituq. - The Devil is very bad.

MP3 File: devil
1819DevilIn Alutiiq society, the word iraq translates as demon or devil, and once referred to the soul of an evil person. According to Alutiiq cosmology, instead of ascending to the sky world after death, like the souls of kind people, the souls of the evil stay in the human world. Here they become malevolent spirits. They live in caves or the woods, and are said to have long pointed heads. Alutiiq carvers crafted long, narrow-headed masks to represent these powerful spirits.

Oral tradition suggests that irat were dangerous as they were hungry for human flesh. A story from Prince William Sound tells of a woman who ran away from her village. A year later a hunter and his wife traveling nearby encountered the woman. She had tattered clothing and said she was hungry. They recognized her, but realized she had become an evil spirit because her head was pointed. While his wife cooked some food for the woman, the man carefully snuck his boat back into the water. While the woman ate, husband and wife escaped. They paddled away quickly, evading the spirit as she yelled, “I want you two. I will eat you up”. For many years the people of the village would not travel past this spot, till a shaman sought the spirit and killed her.

Other stories suggest a link between irat and Alutiiq shamans. Elders recall that shaman took advantage of the power of evil spirits to travel to other worlds, see distant events, and send messages. One elder remembers a shaman who could communicate with other villages by sending a fire devil–a message that traveled with an evil spirit in a ball of fire.

Photo: Long-headed, whistling mask, 988-2-182, Pinart Collection, Château-Musée, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France
Podcast Available: Devil
Hummingbird
Word in Alutiiq: Kumlurngaq
In a sentence: Kumlurngam manait nakertut. - Hummingbird eggs are lucky.

MP3 File: hummingbird
1841HummingbirdSmRufous hummingbirds (Latin: Selasphorus rufus) are the world’s northernmost hummers. These tiny birds are about three inches long, with a dark, straight bill, and bright orange and green plumage. Males have a shimmering splash of red or purple feathers on their throats–a swatch of color known as a gorget. Like a dragonfly, these hummingbirds beat their wings very fast–up to 60 beats per second. This allows them to hover over nectar rich flowers. They also eat bugs, which they captured as they fly. The birds return to feed at the same places each year, and will even visit the same plants. Though tiny, they are spunky and territorial, and will attack larger birds.

The rufous hummingbird has the longest migration of all hummers in the United States. These solitary fliers arrive in Alaska by early May. They spend just three months in the north laying eggs and raising their young. In the fall, they return south, flying thousands of miles to warmer climates. Some travel to Mexico. Others head for places like Florida, an annual round trip of roughly 8,000 miles!

Kodiak lies at the far western limit of the rufous hummingbird’s range, but birds are known to visit in the fall. Local birders believe that many of these individuals are immature birds, inexperience migrators who stray accidentally into the archipelago. Perhaps due to their rarity, Alutiiq hunters prized hummingbirds, and their tiny nest and eggs, as amulets. Dead birds were dried kept in hunting bags for luck, beside bits of bear hear, colorful stones, and other personal talismans.

Kodiak Alutiiq speakers refer to humming birds as kumlurngaq. However, in other parts of the Alutiiq world speakers may use the term megtarpak–from the word megtaq for bumblebee. This word reflects the tiny, buzzing-like characteristics of the hummingbird.

Photo: Rufous Humingbird, courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Podcast Available: Hummingbird
Face
Word in Alutiiq: Giinaq
In a sentence:

Giinan tang'raqa! – I see your face!

 

MP3 File: face
FaceThe human face is the most frequently portrayed image on Alutiiq masks. Although many masks have animal elements–a beak shaped mouth or encircling feathers for example–very few actually show complete animal faces. A rare example is an owl mask collected from an archaeological site in the village of Karluk. This unique piece may have belonged to a shaman, as the spirit helpers of shaman often appeared as owls or cranes. However, it is the human characteristics that are most evident in most masks. This pattern may reflect the Alutiiq belief that all things have a human consciousness, a person inside that could show itself and required respectful treatment. Even when animal elements are present, their use with stylized human features–a heavy brow and a long nose–suggest the underlying humanness of every being.

Like masks, the human face was also a canvas. Here, identity, emotion, and social circumstance were symbolized in classical Alutiiq society. Face paint, tattoos and jewelry were more than just decorations, they transformed a person’s image into a social statement. Mourners cut their hair and blackened their faces. Participants at winter festivals wore headdress and face paint to symbolize their home village. Girls tattooed their chins to symbolize readiness for marriage. Warriors painted their faces in preparation for a raid.

Photo: Ivory fastener with a carved face, Karluk One site, ca. AD 400, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Podcast Available: Face
Lake Person/Mermaid
Word in Alutiiq: Nanwam Suugii
In a sentence:

Suuget ilait niu'uqurtaarait Nanwam suugi ell'uni.–Some people always talk about there being a 'lake person.'

MP3 File: lakeperson

LakePersonSmStories of unusual creatures associated with water are ancient and found in many cultures. Greek myths talk of the sirens, birds with women’s faces whose sweet songs lure sailors to their death. The Scottish tell tales of the beautiful Selkie, gentle beings who swim the oceans as seals and shed their skins to walk on land as people.

In Alutiiq legends, creatures move between the human and animal worlds by putting on and taking off skins that retain animal characteristics. A boy escapes harm by wrapping himself in an otter skin and swimming away. A swan removes her feathers to become a woman. Bears are descended from people. These tales highlight the Alutiiq belief that all creatures have an inner, human-like consciousness. Inside animals are fundamentally human. It is not surprising, therefore, that Alutiiq Elders tell stories about human-like sea creatures.

Clyda Christiansen remembered Elders speaking of mermaids and relating that people would be turned into beings that were half human and half fish at the end of the world. This legend combines Bible stories with Alutiiq concepts of the universe where the boundaries between people and animals are fluid.

Lucile Davis recalled a creature that lived in Karluk Lake and was associated with sightings of dead people. The creature would appear in the lake, or in the river or swap below the lake. These were the places where the dead showed themselves to the living, so they would not be forgotten. Here, Lucille’s youngest brother Moses saw the spirit of Phillip Vasili, a man who drowned in nearby Larsen Bay. To protect themselves, people said blessings and sprinkled holy water across the area.

Photo: View across Karluk Lake in spring. Karluk Lake Survey Colleciton, AM620.

Podcast Available: Lake Person
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