Nutaan Alutiit aapit liitapet. - Now we are learning the Alutiiq alphabet.
An alphabet is a system of characters used to represent the sounds in a language. By seeing a character, a reader can reproduce a sound without hearing it. In essence, alphabets store sounds. There are different kinds of alphabets. English speakers use the Latin alphabet, a phonemic alphabet that represents sounds with twenty-six letters written with characters from A to Z. This same alphabet has been used to represent the sounds of many other languages, including a number of Native American languages with no traditional written language. Apache, Cheyenne, Kwakiutl, Navaho, Seminole, Sioux, Tlingit, Yup’ik, and Alutiiq all use the Latin alphabet as a base.
Linguists modeled the modern Alutiiq alphabet after the Yup’ik alphabet, which was developed by Moravian missionaries from a Greenlandic system. Like English, the Alutiiq alphabet uses twenty-six letters. Some of the Alutiiq letters sound the same as English ones, but others have their own unique sounds. The Alutiiq alphabet runs from A to Y and includes just four vowels: a, i, u, and e. There is no o in Alutiiq, and y is always a consonant. In addition to some familiar consonants, the Alutiiq alphabet includes some consonants formed by two characters: kw, ng, gw, or ll. The ll sound is often the most difficult for English speakers to make. To pronounce this letter, hold your tongue against the front roof of your mouth. Then force air out so that it escapes out from the sides of your tongue through your teeth.
Photo: Kodiak Alutiiq Alphabet poster, produced by the Alutiiq Museum.
Tang’rciqamken camiku. - I will see you again sometime.
For example, saying goodbye in Alutiiq is a lot harder than saying hello. Cama’i, the Alutiiq greeting, is a simple one word, a two-syllable welcome that people remember easily. To say farewell, however, you must use a full Alutiiq phrase. The common leave-taking salutation is tang’rciqamken, which literally means, “I’ll see you.” Fluent speakers often add a variety of endings to this phrase, like camiku, which means “sometime.”
Because the Alutiiq goodbye is hard for many English speakers to master, people sometimes Anglicize the phrase for fun. Around Kodiak you might hear someone say, “drop your pumpkin,” as they wave goodbye.
The difficulty English speakers have in learning Alutiiq reflects both differences between the Alutiiq and English alphabet and the complexity of the language. Alutiiq words contain a number of sounds not found in English, and Alutiiq is one of the more intricate Eskimoan languages. For example, linguists recognize that within the Yupik language family, to which Alutiiq belongs, the rules for accenting words become more complicated from west to east, with the most rules in Alutiiq at the far eastern extent of the Yupik-speaking world.
Photo: People on the dock in Ouzinkie wave goodbye. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Cama’i, Sun’amek taimaunga. - Hello, I come from Kodiak.
Cama’i, a traditional Alutiiq greeting, is a friendly, welcoming word used much like the English term “Hi.” “Cama’i,” you might say as you meet a friend on the street or enter a room full of people. Alutiiq people continue to greet each other with this familiar word. To many it symbolizes pride in Native culture and a continuing respect for Alutiiq, the traditional language of the Alutiiq world.
Alutiiq is one of six Eskimo languages spoken in Alaska and Siberia. It is most closely related to Central Alaskan Yup’ik, the traditional language of the Bering Sea Coast, and speakers of Alutiiq and Yup’ik can converse easily. Within Alutiiq there are two distinct dialects and many smaller regional variations in vocabulary and word pronunciation. Residents of the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound speak Chugach Alutiiq, while residents of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Archipelago speak Koniag Alutiiq.
Today there are less than 150 fluent Alutiiq speakers, although many more can understand the language. Alutiiq communities are working hard to preserve their language. Speakers are helping to write dictionaries, develop teaching resources, and lead language classes, and many consider language preservation the most important goal of the heritage movement.
Photo: April Counceller teaches a group of young people the Cama'i song.
Quangkuta qik’rtarmiu’at. - We are island people.
The Alutiiq word qik’rtaq, meaning island, is the likely source of the name Kodiak. Stephen Glotov, a Russian explorer who wintered near Cape Alitak in 1763, recorded the Native term for the island as Kikhtak. Later colonists altered the word to “Kadiak,” which was the archipelago’s official name until the turn of the twentieth century. In 1901, Kadiak became Kodiak to reflect the more common local pronunciation. Add the suffix -miut, meaning “people of,” to qik’rtaq and you get Qik’rtarmiut: “people of the island.” This is the term the Alaska Peninsula Alutiiq people once used in referring to Kodiak Islanders.
The mountainous, fjorded islands of the Kodiak Archipelago have been home to Native peoples for more than 7,500 years. Although Kodiak may feel like a remote, isolated island today, it was a cultural crossroads in ancient times. A seafaring people, Alutiiqs traveled long distances to trade and socialize with their mainland neighbors, and Tlingit and Aleut people ventured to Kodiak. In oral tradition, the formidable Shelikof Strait is referred to as a river, and paddlers in skin boats crossed it regularly.
Image: Map of the Kodiak Archipelago
Elltuwaqa aa’icagamek ap’rtaaqa. - I call my granddaughter “little cute one.”
The Alutiiq word aa’icagaq is a common term of endearment that means “little cute one”—similar to “sweetie” or “cutie pie” in English. People use this word when speaking to or describing children. You might say, “Come here aa’icagaq” to your sister’s chubby toddler, or tell a friend “Oh! Your baby is such an aa’icagaq.” And in Alutiiq communities, where people often acquire nicknames as children, there are those who are called Aa’icagaq throughout their lives.
Although most frequently used to refer to children, the word aa’icagaq can be applied to anything you might call cute in English, from baby seals to stuffed animals or even a good-looking woman. With a twinkle in his eye, one Elder calls almost every woman he meets aa’icagaq!Similarly, because this term refers to small, attractive things, and it is a word that many students of the Alutiiq language learn, it is also used as a name for objects. For example, the rowboat used at Dig Afognak, a local culture camp, is called the Aa’icagaq.
Photo: Two examples of Aa’icagaq an Old Harbor boy and his puppy.
Taugna piugcinitaqa, iqallungcuk mikpakartuq! - I don't want that (one), the fish is too small.
In the Alutiiq language there is a distinction between fish of different sizes. If you want to speak of fish generally, you use the word iqalluk, but if you are referring to smaller fish like smelt, capelin, needlefish, or Pacific sand lance, you say iqallungcuk, or little fish. Herring fall somewhere in the middle and are called iqalluarpak. This term for herring comes from the word for smelt, iqalluaq. It is used by Yup’ik people and Alaska Peninsula Alutiiq people, and literally means, “big smelt.”
Little fish have many functions in the Alutiiq world. Small fish provide plentiful food for the animals Alutiiqs depend on. Where little fish congregate, Alutiiq people know they can also find halibut, salmon, seals, ducks, and other valued species.
Some little fish are eaten. Alutiiq families continue to fish for smelt in the springtime, catching them with poles or nets near the mouths of rivers. Smelt fishing is popular in near shore waters, around river mouths. Smelt can be eaten fresh or processed for later use. Some families roll the entire fish in flour and fry them. Others squeeze the guts out, then soak the fish in brine, lay them on trays, and smoke them like salmon. Smelt may also be kippered: partially smoked and canned or preserved in salt.
Photo: Little fish on the beach at Cape Alitak, 2010.
Amlertut nuumiRat kalikami. - There are a lot of numbers on the paper.
Societies throughout the world count and measure objects in distinct ways. For example, Americans use the English measurement system, which features feet, gallons, and miles, while Europeans use the metric system, which divides the world into meters, liters, and kilometers. Among societies without a written language, quantification systems are usually relative, made in comparison to a known amount. Among Alutiiqs, for example, the distance to a neighboring community might be measured in days of travel, or the length of a kayak relative to the size of its owner. Historic sources also suggest that Alutiiq people counted on their fingers and toes—a practice common among societies without written numeral systems. Similarly, an Alutiiq person might run their fingers through their hair to indicate many objects.
One distinctive feature of Alutiiq counting is the way words are pluralized. English speakers differentiate between a single object and many objects by adding an s to a word. For example, the word seal becomes seals. However, Alutiiq speakers pluralized nouns in one of two ways, depending on the number of objects. Many Alutiiq nouns end in q. For example, the word for berry is alagnaq. To say berries, however, a person can either change the q to a k to indicate two berries—alagnak—or to a t to indicate many berries—alagnat. While peculiar to English speakers, this is a natural way of enumerating objects in the Alutiiq world.
Photo: Kodiak Alutiiq numbers poster, available from the Alutiiq Museum.
Ungalarmiut yaksigtut. - People of Prince William Sound are far from here.
Prince William Sound lies at the center of the Gulf of Alaska, between the Copper River delta and the Kenai Peninsula. Steep, glaciated mountains rim this wide, forested embayment, filled with fjords and islands. Like Kodiak, Prince William Sound is known for its plentiful marine resources, but furbearers, sheep, and goats also abound. And like Kodiak, the sound is home to Alutiiq communities.
Archaeological data indicate people first colonized Prince William about 4,400 years ago and that they shared many traditions with Kodiak islanders. It is not clear whether the sound’s earliest inhabitants came from Kodiak or the nearby Kenai Peninsula, but they used tools and structures similar to those in neighboring areas, suggesting ancestral connections. Moreover, through time, changes in the archaeological record of Prince William Sound mirror changes on Kodiak, suggesting that residents of both regions were closely related.
Although the Native population of Prince William Sound appears to have always been relatively low, historic accounts reveal that eight distinct Alutiiq groups lived in the sound. Collectively, the members of these groups called themselves Chugach, and they spoke a regional dialect of the Alutiiq language. Although part of the same culture, each Chugach group was independent, with its own political leader and central village. Today, the principal Chugach villages of the region are Chenega Bay, Eyak, and Tatitlek in Prince William Sound, and Port Graham and Nanwalek on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Chugach people also live in the Prince William Sound communities of Cordova, Seward, Valdez, and Whittier.
The Kodiak Alutiiq word for the people of Prince William Sound, Ungalarmiut, literally means “people of the east or northeast.” It is derived from ungalaq, the word for an east or northeast wind.
Illustration: Man of Prince William Sound by engraving by John Webber, 1784.