April-rem puyurnit pingaktaarai. - April always likes raspberries.
The American red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is a recent introduction to Kodiak, brought to the island in the past century. This fast-growing, fruit producing plant thrives in thickets, clearings, and along the edge of wooded areas. It is now a local favorite. Bushes can be found around many villages. As with other types of berries, families have their own patches. The late Elder Julia Pestrikof planted a patch of raspberries on the hill by her home when she moved to Port Lions, following the 1964 tidal wave. This patch flourished, taking over the hillside.
Despite the raspberry’s recent arrival on Kodiak, historic records refer to raspberries as one of the foods eaten by Alutiiq people, and a bay on the western coast of Afognak Island bears the Russian name for raspberry, Malina. These references may reflect confusion with indigenous plants: the salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), the nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus), or the moss berry (Rubus pedatus), which produce a sweet, red, segmented, raspberry-like fruit.
The Alutiiq word for raspberry, puyurniq, is also distinct from that used for other berries. It comes from the word puyuq, meaning smoke. This may be because raspberries have pale grey fuzz around them, like a cloud of smoke.
Photo: Lip balm made by Susan Short with raspberries.
ARatukamek tang'rakameng suut nata agayuliteng. - When you see a rainbow, you're to make a sign of the cross.
Combine sunshine and raindrops and the result is a luminous arc of colors commonly known as a rainbow. This vivid display of light has a prominent place in the beliefs of many cultures. Some people see the rainbow as lucky, or as a sign of an important, upcoming event. In some spiritual traditions, the rainbow signals the birth of a baby and the reincarnation of a recently passed soul. Others consider rainbows to be divine. The Norse believed that rainbows were a bridge to the world of the gods. Among Australian Aborigines the rainbow is a serpent that battles the sun to replenish Earth’s essential water.
Alutiiqs use several words for rainbow. ARatukaq, a word derived from Russian, comes from the northern subdialect of the Alutiiq language. Puwisaq comes from the southern subdialect and also means belt.
The word puwisaq also refers to the strip of cloth or ribbon that Orthodox godparents once gave to babies at baptism. This piece of fabric was usually white with an embroidered cross, and was worn over the chest – between a person’s shirt and undershirt. For Easter, people wore a brightly colored versions on the outside of their clothing. These puwisat were worn across the body like a sash and knotted around the waist. One Elder remembered that when an honored person died, their death shroud would be torn into strips to use as puwisat for the community’s next generation of babies. Historically, people wore puwisat all the time, but only a few Elders still have their baptismal band stored away.
Elders report that rainbows are sometimes called, Puwisiim Maman lintaa - literally the Virgin Mary's puwisaq cloth. When the faithful see a rainbow, they make the sign of the cross, as a sign of respect and remembrance for the Virgin Mary.
Photo: A rainbow over the King Salmon River, western Alaska Peninsula, 2011.
Arya’aq naaqiuq. - The girl is reading.
Like other Native American languages, the Alutiiq language, known also as Sugt’stun, is a spoken language that has only existed in written form since the arrival of Westerners in Alaska. In the early 1800s, Russian Orthodox monks created the first written records of Sugt’stun. They compiled vocabulary, studied Sugt’stun grammar, and translated church texts into Sugt’stun using church Slavonic/Cyrillic characters. Their efforts promoted bilingualism and created a valuable linguistic record.
With the sale to Alaska to the United States in 1867, however, the use of Sugt’stun diminished. Schools forbade children to speak the language, transmission from one generation to the next slowed, and literacy faded. Over succeeding decades, as English became the dominant language in the Alutiiq world, the number of Sugt’stun speakers dropped significantly. Today, there are fewer than 500 speakers of the language and many fewer who can read and write in Sugt’stun. In past three decades linguists have worked with speakers to document and reawaken the language. Sugt’stun is still not widely spoken, but words are reappearing around Kodiak and opportunities to learn the language are growing.
Written Sugt’stun uses letters from English to recreate Sugt’stun sounds. There are twenty-six letters in the Koniag Dialect of the Sugt’stun alphabet. Although written with roman characters, many of these letters represent sounds that are different from those in English. For example, the Sugt’stun letter q is pronounced something like the English letter k, but the sound is made farther back in the mouth.
Photo: Woman reading a magazine. Smith Collection. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Guangkuta “Sugpianek” ap’rtaakiikut cuumi, nutaan ap’rtaaraakut Alutiit.- They used to call us Sugpiaq before, but now we are called Alutiiqs.
Who are Kodiak’s Native people? This a common question. Russian fur traders called them the Aleut, a word derived from a Siberian Native language that means coastal dweller. The Russian’s applied this term to all of the indigenous people they encountered, from the Aleutian Islands to Prince William Sound, regardless of their unique cultural heritages. On Kodiak, Sugpiaq (pluralized Sugpiat) was the traditional name for the people. Derived from the word suk, which means person, and -piat a suffix meaning real or genuine, Sugpiat translates as the real people. Many indigenous societies use similar terms. Yup’ik, the preferred designation of the Native people of western Alaska, also means “real people,” and Unangan, the preferred designation of Aleutian Islanders, translate as “we the people.”
Today many of Kodiak’s Native people refer to themselves as Alutiiq, which is the Sugpiat way of saying Aleut. Alutiiq remains popular as it highlights unique cultural qualities while retaining part of the word Aleut. However, there are still many people who prefer to be called Aleut, or who use the terms Aleut, Alutiiq, and Sugpiaq interchangeably. It is important to note, however, that most of Kodiak’s Native people recognize that the Aleut people of the Aleutian Island and those of Kodiak are cultural distinct.
Photo: Boy's party, Karluk. Clyda Christiansen Collection.
Ugnerkami miskiiRiat amleritaartut. - In the spring there are many spiders.
There at least 350 species of spiders in Alaska, belonging to seventeen families. Spiders are not insects. They are close relatives of ticks and mites and belong to a group called arachnids. Insects have three body parts, six legs, and a pair of antennae. In contrast, arachnids have two body parts, eight legs, and no antennae.
Alaska spiders are typically small, especially when compared with varieties found in warmer climates. Many don’t build webs but hide in flowers to catch insects or hunt along the ground. Common Alaska spiders include crab spiders with a long second set of legs, shy hairy wolf spiders, and cobweb spiders with an orb-like body.
In the Alutiiq language, miskiiRaqis the general word for spider. However, there are many other spider words, indicating that Alutiiqs recognized different types and had unique names for unique varieties. For example sukunuuk, the Alutiiq word for daddy longlegs, a spider-like arachnid, literally means “one who likes damp places.”
Spiders seek warm places when the weather gets cold and may crawl into houses or be transported inside with materials like firewood. So it is quite likely that spiders were regular residents of Alutiiq sod houses, living among the rafters and grass thatching that covered these warm dwellings.
Photo: Kodiak spider carrying baby spiders.
Allrani suu’ut caqainek pukugtaartut. - Sometimes people salvage some stuff.
Pukuk is an Alutiiq word that has made its way into English conversation in the Kodiak area, like the Yiddish word schlep or the French word café. There is no exact English translation. Generally speaking, this Alutiiq verb means to salvage, although its more nuanced meanings include borrowing something without any intent of returning it or obtaining something you need at no expense. For example, if you are building a banya and need an oil barrel for the stove, you might pukuk one you’ve seen sitting behind your auntie’s house for a while. Being able to pukuk things is a positive quality, a sign of resourcefulness valued in Alutiiq communities.
A story from Akhiok tells of a young man who pukuk-ed a bicycle. The bike’s original owner left it in a ditch. For months, the young man walked by the bike, watching the weeds grow around it and the rain pour down on it. Eventually the tires deflated and the bike started to rust. The young man knew that there was a good bicycle under the sad exterior. So he finally pulled the bike out of the brush and cleaned it up. He even added new tires. While the young man was pedaling the bike around town, its original owner recognized his old ride and wanted it back. Too late: the bicycle had been legitimately pukuk-ed.
Photo: Karluk boys on bicylces. Courtesy the Rostad Collection.
Taaringa wainiimek. - Switch me with the steam batch switch.
Switching is a common practice in Alutiiq steam baths. In the soothing, wet heat, people slap themselves with flexible branches to promote good health. This practice improves circulation, relieves aches and pains, and can be used to treat illness and prepare a pregnant woman for delivery. Pneumonia, difficulty urinating, and cramps are all ailments that Alutiiqs report treating with the help of switching. Banya switches can also be laid on a person to provide a medicinal effect, or used like a fan to cool the body.
Alutiiqs make switches from a great variety of plant materials. Alder and willow branches are the most common sources, although birch and red elderberry branches, and the stems of angelica, fireweed, fleabane, goldenrod, and large-leaf avens also provide switch material. Many people use leafy switches, particularly those who use alder branches. Alutiiqs often gather alder branches in the middle of the summer, as the young leafy branches of spring tend to be sticky with plant resins. Some tie harvested branches together and dry them. Others leave the branches in a damp place or put them in a freezer to keep the leaves from falling off.
People sometimes confuse the word for steam bath switch—wainiik—with the word for steam batch scrubber— taariq—a bundle of roots used like a loofa. This is because taariq is both a noun and a verb. It means scrubber and to switch with a wainiik.
Photo: An Alder bush on the shore of Olga Lake, Spring, 2005.
Litnauryugtuci-qaa? - Do you all want to study?
The study of Alutiiq heritage has changed dramatically in the past three centuries. In classical Alutiiq society, children learned the skills of adult life by working with and listening to family members. People with special gifts—artists, healers, shamans, tradition bearers, and politicians—apprenticed to accomplished community members to study a trade. An aspiring midwife would assist an established healer, or a rising leader might work as a member of the chief ’s council or a community’s second chief to enhance his knowledge of diplomacy.
This intergenerational transmission of traditions eroded in the historic era as European practices and values collided with Alutiiq culture. Some Alutiiq traditions disappeared due to social pressure. For example, Alutiiq people stopped wearing labrets within decades of conquest, because facial piercing horrified European colonists. Other traditions were systematically suppressed with western instruction. In American-era schools, children were forbidden to speak Alutiiq and received instruction in English. On Woody Island, missionaries teaching Alutiiq boys to play baseball made them speak in English. When they used Alutiiq or Russian they had to sit out the game. More serious discipline included physical punishment and humiliation.
Today, the formal study of Alutiiq heritage is returning to Kodiak. Many of the islands’ schools recognize and celebrate Native heritage by including Alutiiq cultural exploration in classroom curricula and by hosting programs that teach Alutiiq heritage in Alutiiq ways. Other education programs are thriving through local organizations. The Alutiiq Museum’s language program pairs fluent Alutiiq speakers with apprentices to reawaken Kodiak’s Native language. This work is helping to revitalize the transfer of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.
Photo: Skin sewer Hanna Palmer Sholl studies an embroidered cap from the Etholen Collection at the National Museum of Finland.