ALUTIIQ MUSEUM  215 Mission Road, Kodiak, Alaska 99615   |  844-425-8844  |  view calendar > | search >
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Word in Alutiiq: Tan’erluni (N); Tamlerluni (S)
In a sentence:

Uriitat tamlertaartut. - Bidarkies (chitons) are black.

MP3 File: black

Black, white, red, and blue/green are the main colors recognized inthe Alutiiq language. It is possible to describe other colors. You can say something is yellow, for example, by comparing it to the colorof oil. But these four colors are the only ones have their own uniqueterms. They are also the most common colors in Alutiiq artwork.

Alutiiqs made black paint from a variety of raw materials. Historic sources indicate that they collected a specific stone from cliff faces to make black pigment, or produced it from a blacking copper ore and from charcoal. Artists ground these materials into fine powders on rock and stored them in small skin bags. To make paint, they mixed the colored powder with a binder of water, blood, oil, or even fish eggs.

People commonly used black paint to adorn their faces, particularly those in mourning. Historic sources indicate that the close familymembers of a deceased person cut their hair and blackened theirfaces. Black paint also adorned many masks, both as a background color and as a component of designs. It was frequently used to outline facial features and to paint brows and the eyes.

Photo:  Black painted whistling mask, Pinart Collection, Chateau-Musee, France. 

Word in Alutiiq: Cungaq; Cungasqaq
In a sentence:

Qapilaat cungartut. - The mussels are blue.

MP3 File: blue

In the Alutiiq language, the colors green and blue are not differentiated. A single term describes both colors, reflecting the fact that Alutiiqs traditionally interpreted blue as a shade of green.

Despite the use of a single color term, recent research suggests that Alutiiq artists used blue and green paints differently in decorating masks. Green paint was widely used. It was a common background shade and the only color used to paint eyeballs. In contrast, artists used blue paint more sparingly to color facial features and create designs.

To Alutiiqs, cungaq is a powerful color. It is associated with the supernatural, particularly the worlds below the sea. Green pigment was never used in body painting. However, green paint adorned hunting hats, and hunting amulets were green. Whalers, the spiritually potent hunters of giant sea mammals, carried blue or green stones. These were said to be illuminating. A story from Afognak tells of a whaler who found such a stone, which glowed in the dark. He killed many whales while he kept the stone. Then he fell in love, got married, and lost the stone. His ability to kill vanished, and he and his wife died shortly afterward.

Image:  Koniag Mask, painting by Helen J. Simeonoff, 1995.  Alutiiq Museum Collection AM459.

Podcast Available: Blue
Word in Alutiiq: Qaneq
In a sentence:

Kayulut qanertutaartut. - Bullheads always have big mouths.

MP3 File: mouth

In Alutiiq art, portrayals of the human mouth carry a great deal of symbolism. This is particularly true with masks and dolls. According to anthropologist Dominique Desson, very few Alutiiq masks present strictly human features. Many seem to convey an “otherness” by mixing animal and human characteristics. This mix of features suggests the presence of spirits who have only partially revealed their human form.

Like the artwork on Alutiiq bentwood hunting hats, masks and dolls often incorporate bird imagery, particularly a beak-like mouth. A beak may be represented in many ways, from naturalistically to highly stylized. Similarly, the mouths of dolls are often portrayed as a narrow triangle, pointing downward toward the chin. This may symbolize a beak, the deformation of the mouth created by a pair of labrets (lip plugs), or both. Some anthropologists believe that labrets symbolically transformed the mouth into a beak.

Other portrayals of the human face feature circular mouths, representing an individual who is whistling. Like beak-shaped mouths, these mouths represent a tie to the spirit world. Whistling was the way that a spirit talked.

Image:  Petroglyh face with an open mouth.  Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.

Paint; Color
Word in Alutiiq: KRaasirluni
In a sentence:

KRaasiyaqa maaskaaqa. - I am painting my mask.

MP3 File: paint

Painted designs are the final artistic touch on many Alutiiq objects. Artisans continue to decorate everything from masks, hunting hats, and paddles to household implements withcolorful geometric designs, animal shapes, and human figurines. In classical Alutiiq society, paint was also applied to the body. People reddened their faces before traveling or receiving guests, and warriors painted their faces before a raid. At winter festivals, dancers adorned their faces and chests with painted lines, and shamans performed naked, wearing only body paint. To show their grief, mourners covered their faces with black paint, and like travelers, the faces of the dead were painted red.

Before the availability of commercially manufactured pigments, Alutiiq people created paints from plants and minerals. Artists extracted colors from barks, grasses, and berries or created colorful powders by crushing red shale, iron oxide, copper oxide, and other minerals with a mortar and pestle. They mixed these pigments with a binder of oil or blood. Historic sources indicate that artists often cut their noses with shells to obtain blood for paint. Paint mixed with blood lasted longer than paint mixed with oil, and therefore it was used to decorate objects, like paddles, that were used in the water.

Artists applied paint to objects with their fingers, a small stick, or possibly a paintbrush made with animal hair. Archaeologists studying late prehistoric village sites have found small, decorated handles with a tiny knob on one end. They speculate that bristles were tied to these delicate knobs for fine painting. Native artists in southeast Alaska once used similar tools.

Photo: Objects associated with painting, Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection. Top row from left - Pumice grinder covered in red pigment, wooden bowl stained with red ochre, piece of red ochre, possible paint brush handle, piece of copper oxide; Bottom row from left - miniature skin sewing board painted with a sea otter, painted mask bangles (decorative attachments).

Podcast Available: Paint; Color
Photograph; Picture
Word in Alutiiq: PatReitaq (N); PatRiitaq (S)
In a sentence:

PatRiitairng. - Take a photograph of me.

MP3 File: photo

The world’s first photographs were taken in the 1830s, when French scientist Louis Daguerre captured images on copperplates treated with silver and mercury. Twenty years later, in the1850s, photography became popular in the United States with the invention of a less-expensive process that fixed images to glass or tin.

As Americans spread west, so did photography, recording picturesque landscapes and Native American communities. For those interested in history, these images are a valuable source of information. They illustrate traditional life and document the effects of western culture on Native societies. Photographs often preserve small details about the past that are not present in written accounts.

Scientists studying Alaska’s Native peoples and natural resources took some of the first photographs of Kodiak Alutiiq people. In 1872, French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart took a small number of shots of Afognak and Kodiak. These may be the earliest photographs from the Kodiak archipelago. In 1889, Tarleton H. Bean, a fisheries biologist, took photos of Karluk as part of his study of Alaska salmon, and in the 1890s, the staff of the steamer Albatross, a vessel studying river systems, took photographs of Old Harbor.

These invaluable images demonstrate that although Alutiiqs had adopted western clothing, most families continued to live in traditional-style sod houses and travel by kayak at the onset of the twentieth century. However, these sod houses were not exactly like their prehistoric counterparts. Photographs show that Alutiiqs entered their homes through western-style hinged doors, rather than crawling in through the once-traditional entrance tunnel.

Photo:  Old Harbor residents with kayak, ca. 1890.  Albatross Collection, National Archives.

Picture; Photograph
Word in Alutiiq: PatReitaq (N); PatRiitaq (S)
In a sentence:

Caqiq una patRiitami? - What is this in the picture?

MP3 File: Picture

Picture2Art is often a means of storing information, particularly among people without a written language. In addition to expressing cultural values, songs, dances, carvings, paintings, and even clothing can record family stories, historical events, and legends. Pictures are particularly important in preserving history. Like books, they create a physical record that reminds viewers of events, and helps storytellers to pass details forward-beyond the living memory of a community. Graphics arts are one way of keeping cultural information alive in the present.

In classical Alutiiq society, there were at least three forms of graphic art. People painted images on wooden objects. These included hats, paddles, boxes, masks, and many other implements. They pecked pictures into stationary boulders creating petroglyphs. They incised designs into stone and bone hunting implements.

Some of these images became family symbols. If a hunter killed two seals with one harpoon strike, this very lucky event might be symbolized in paintings on his household implements. When people saw the implements they were reminded of the story, recalled the hunter’s skill and good fortune, and knew that the objects belong to his family. The picture preserved a story, celebrated the hunter’s talent, and expressed ownership.

Today, Alutiiq artists create pictures with modern mediums — watercolors, acrylic paints, inks and pastels — to illustrate the people and places they love. Like ancestral pictures, these images are both aesthetic and historical. They express personal experiences and passes forward knowledge of the Alutiiq world.

Photo: Box panel from Karluk One with a painting of people traveling in boats.  Koniag, Inc. Collection.

Podcast Available: Picture
Word in Alutiiq: Atunkirlluku
In a sentence:

Asuq atunkirciiqaqa. - I'm going to reuse the pot.

MP3 File: reuse

Reuse2Salvaging, 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.


Podcast Available: Reuse
Word in Alutiiq: Kawisqaq
In a sentence:

Giinan kawirtuq. - Your face is red.

MP3 File: red

In prehistoric times, Alutiiqs manufactured red pigment from naturally occurring ochre, a locally available iron oxide. Historic sources suggest that this soft mineral was ground to a powder and then mixed with seal oil and blood to produce paint. Several thousand years ago, ochre may have been used to tan and clean hides. Ochre grinding tools and layers of bright red, ochre-smeared earth occur throughout the archipelago’s ancient campsites. In more recent times, ochre was used as body paint. Dancers painted red lines on their bodies, and the faces of hunters, travelers, and the dead were adorned with red paint.

Craftsmen also made red pigments from a variety of local plants to color grass, spruce root, gut, hide, sinew, and wooden objects. On Kodiak, people produced a reddish-brown dye by boiling alder bark. In Prince William Sound, boiled hemlock bark or a mixture of cranberry and blueberry juices produced a dark red dye.

The symbolic meaning of the color red has been obscured by time, but among the Yup’ik people, who are closely related to Alutiiqs, it represents ancestral blood.

Photo: Decorated bag, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland, Helsinki. 

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