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.
Qikarllut tuknirtaartut. - The sinew is strong.
Sinew is a general term for the tough, fibrous, connective tissue found throughout an animal’s body. Tendons and ligaments are both sources of sinew. Tendons connect bones to muscle, while ligaments connect bone to bone.
Sinew is a valuable raw material. In addition to being very strong, it is durable. Moreover, when moistened, sinew creates its own natural glue. Then, when the material dries, it shrinks. As such, it is excellent for creating tight lashings.
Alutiiq people used sinew for many tasks. Seamstresses created sinew thread for stitching garments, tied strips of sinew together to make nets, and braided sinew into thick cords. Carvers used sinew to lash together the pieces of multi-part tools, including everything from harpoons and arrows to vest of armor.
One of the most important uses of sinew was in stringing and reinforcing bows. Many Alutiiq long bows and recurve bows feature a thick bundle of braided sinew strands running down the back of the bow, from nock to nock. This band strengthened the bow, preventing it from breaking during use. Some bows even had a carved channel to help hold the sinew band in place. Caribou sinew, from along the animal’s spine, was particularly valued for backing bows.
Photo: A sheet of sinew and sinew strips created for sewing, courtsey of Coral Chernoff.
Allrani aigaqa cukirtaartuq. - Sometimes I get a sliver on my hand.
The Alutiiq word for thorn, cukiq, can be used to mean sliver, thorn, barb, quill, or even spruce needle, and the word for the prickly devil’s club, cukilanarpak, means “plant with big thorns.”
When northern European peoples immigrated to Kodiak in the late 1800s, it is likely they introduced a unique woodworking style known as crown of thorns. This carving technique uses notched and uniformly sized sticks to create objects that have a thorny appearance. Artists snap the individual sticks together at their notches, using thousands of pieces to assemble an object without glue or tacks. Puzzlework is another term for this construction technique.
Common examples of crown of thorns objects include bowls and wreath-shaped picture frames that look similar to the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Crown of thorns carving is considered a type of folk art, where artists use small pieces of notched or layered materials to create or cover objects. The materials are often scrounged. In the early nineteenth century, for example, cigar boxes were a favorite raw material for this type of art.
On Kodiak, Alutiiq carvers probably learned the crown of thorns technique from Swedish and Norwegian fishermen who married into their families, as the technique is thought to originate in Germany and Scandinavia. Craftsmen used pocketknives to whittle bits of driftwood into the small sticks needed to build objects, especially picture frames. Today, crown of thorns frames can be found holding icons in community churches or fitted with family pictures in Alutiiq homes. Red cedar is the favored material for this detailed, time-consuming work, which a few Kodiak artists continue to practice.
Photo: Crown of thorns style ornaments and icon frame, by Carol Gronn.
Qaniq qatertuq. (N); Qaniq qat’rtuq. (S) - The snow is white.
Societies around the world recognize and name colors in distinct ways. Among Alutiiqs, there are just four basic color terms: red, white, black, and green. Alutiiq people recognized a broader range of colors, but most were described in reference to these four terms. For example, blue was considered a shade of green. The Alutiiq word for blue translates as “greenish.” Other colors were noted by their resemblance to common things. In describing an object with a yellowish tint, an Alutiiq person might say that it was the color of oil.
The color white was used for both personal adornment and decorating objects. Alutiiqs made a white pigment from limestone obtained in trade with the Alaska mainland. They ground this soft rock to a powder and then mixed it with oil to create paint. At winter hunting festivals, the faces of the first two dance performers were often painted white and red, and masks were often decorated with white. In an analysis of mask design, anthropologist Dominque Desson observed that white was commonly used as a background color, to paint the nose and upper portions of the face, and to outline facial features.
Photo: Payulik - Bringer of Food, painted mask, Pinart Collection, Châteaux-Musée, France, 988-2-169.
Kaganat yaksigtut maaken. - The wolves are far from here.
Wolves (Canis lupus) occur throughout mainland Alaska, from the rainforests of Southeast to Unimak Island in the Aleutians and as far north as the arctic coast of the Beaufort Sea. This huge range, nearly eighty-five percent of Alaska, illustrates the animals’ great adaptability. Like people, wolves can exist in many different habitats.
Although wolves are not indigenous to Kodiak Island, they are a part of the mainland Alutiiq world. Alutiiqs once trapped wolves for fur. Although large furbearers like bears, wolves, wolverine, and lynx were sought less frequently than smaller fox, mink, marten, and fisher, Prince William Sound hunters devised special snares for these larger animals. When an unsuspecting animal got its head stuck in the noose, it struggled to get free. This motion caused a log to drop, hoisting the animal into the air and strangling it.
Wolves also appear in Alutiiq rock art. An ancient rock painting from Kachemak Bay seems to illustrate the transformation of wolves into killer whales. This image may indicate that Alutiiqs believed in a “killer-whale-wolf ” creature, similar to that from Yup’ik mythology. This creature was a powerful predator, taking the form of a killer whale to hunt at sea and a wolf to hunt on land.
Image: Black wolf in Alaska. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Archives.
Tumasurtaallriakut kaugyanek. - We used to track foxes.
Alutiiq hunters stalk animals with great knowledge of both animal behavior and the Kodiak environment, using their knowledge to intercept animals, improve the success of their hunts, and protect themselves.
Historic sources indicate that Alutiiq men in search of a bear did not usually begin by tracking animals through the dense tangle of brush that backs Kodiak’s shores. Instead, they paddled along the coast looking for bears foraging on the beach or fishing at the mouths of salmon streams. The bear was then shot at. If wounded, the hunter would then track the animal inland to complete the kill, following blood trails, broken brush, and tracks.
Another common way to stalk a bear was to learn its habits. Alutiiq men are renown for spending hours watching a hillside to locate a den, observe an animal’s daily habits, or identify a bear trail. Once a hunter knew when and where a particular bear was likely to go, he could pick the perfect spot to ambush his prey. Careful observation and patience brought the animal to the hunter saving a tough slog through the brush and preventing dangerous surprises.
Although animal tracks are not a common in Alutiiq art, a prehistoric wooden labret from Karluk features a track that may be a bear print. An artist carved the track into the surface of the labret, which is also decorated with salmon teeth.
Photo: Wooden labret with bear track carving. Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Una luuskaaq cirunemk canamauq. - This spoon is made from horn.
In the Alutiiq language the words for horn and antler are the same–ciruneq. Like antler, horn is a hard but flexible material that grows from an animal’s heads. Typically found in pairs, horns feature a core of bone covered with a hard layer of keratinized skin. The quality of the material depends on the type of animal and its condition. Healthy animals produce strong, elastic horn that can be made into beautiful objects.
In Prince William Sound and on the Kenai Peninsula, Alutiiq people harvested the horns of mountain goats. Both male and female goats have horns that grow continuously, laying down new rings of keratin each year. These horns are short–just 8 to 12 inches long, sharply pointed, and gently curved. From this material, craftsmen fashioned elegant spoons.
The first step in working horn is to clean out the spongy, blood rich, inner corn, a messy job that can be accomplished with a combination of soaking, scraping, or aging the horn. With a clean piece of material, carvers can season the material and work it dry, or soften the horn by soaking. Alutiiq methods of working horn are not recorded. However, they were probably similar to those of the neighboring Tlingit people, who also manufactured horn spoons. Tlingit carvers spit mountain goat horns in half, boil the pieces, soak them in oil, and then mold them to a desired shape. When it was time to carve, craftsman use warm water to soften the material. The final step was to buff the carving to create a shinny surface.
However they were made, Alutiiq horn spoons are works of art. Known in Alutiiq as alungun, from the root word for licking, theses spoons featured intricately carved handles with stacks of human and animal figures. On the wide shallow bowl, artists incised geometric designs and added inlays. Historic examples features tiny white glass beads set into the bowl. These elaborate decorations suggest that horn spoons were used in ceremonies, perhaps in combination with decorated wooden feast bowls.
Photo: Chugach Alutiiq spoon handle of mountain goat horn, ca. 1834. Courtesy the Etholen Collection, National Musuem of Finland.
Inartat kag'it'ruamek pilitaallriit. - They used to make baskets out of baleen.
For centuries Native Alaskans have used baleen to make containers, scoops, sled runners, line, nets and other useful objects. In the early 20th century, Inupiaq men in communities from Barrow to Point Hope began weaving baleen into baskets for the tourist trade. They followed traditional patterns for willow root baskets and often embellished their containers with small ivory carvings. Weaving baleen is difficult, as the material is flexible but stiff and plastic-like, and Inupiaq baleen baskets were thought to be the earliest examples. However, studies of archaeological materials from Karluk One indicate that baleen weaving was once an Alutiiq tradition.
The Karluk One site contains the remains of an Alutiiq village dating from about 600 years ago to the historic period. Baleen is common throughout the site’s prehistoric layers, both as raw material and as a part of finished objects. Karluk residents used thin strands of baleen to lash handles to tools, stitch the ends of bentwood vessel rims together, tie suits of wooden armor, join the pieces of model kayaks, braid cords, and weave baskets. There are pieces of three, open weave baleen baskets from the site. Thick vertical strands of baleen spaced about 1 cm apart were secured with thin horizontal bands of twining. One of the baskets is quite large, suggesting that it was used for collecting or storing items.
Photo: Baleen basket fragment, Karluk One site, ca. AD 400, Koniag, Inc. Collection.