Alutiit’stun niuwaneq pingaktaaqa. - I like to talk the Alutiiq language.
The Alutiiq language, the indigenous language of the Kodiak Archipelago, is known as Sugt’stun, which literally means “to speak like a person.” Although there are just a few handfuls of fluent Sugt’stun speakers in the Kodiak region today, Alutiiqs know that in any language, words can impact the world around them. Speaking is a powerful act.
In classical Alutiiq society, there were many restrictions on human speech. Alutiiqs had to be very careful with their words, because everything around them—animals, objects, rocks, flowers, clouds, and even mountains—is alive and aware of human conduct. Among the Chugach Alutiiq people, it was taboo to make noise when passing a dangerous place, to laugh at the convulsions of a dying animal, or to use the name of a recently deceased person until a newborn had been named for that person. These acts could anger spirits and imperil human lives. Words were also a source of power, and certain people were said to learn special words. For example, a person who knew the secret word belonging to the fire could make a blaze burn brighter, and a person who knew the secret word for the sea swell could make the water calm.
One taboo on human speech that persists today is talking about bears. Kodiak Elders believe that bears are people who ran away from human society a long time ago and that bears remain particularly good at hearing and understanding human speech. A good hunter never talks about his preparation to kill bears or brags about his skill. This could ruin his luck and put him in danger, as a bear might be listening and become enraged. When a hunter approaches a bear, he must break his silence. He must speak to the animal, letting it know he needs its body. ”We do this because we need you, not for fun.”
Photo: Kathy Nelson talks with Elder John Pestrikoff.
Uciitilat litnauwitaartut. - The school teachers always teach.
Children in Alutiiq communities learned traditional skills by playing and working with adults. Children’s toys were miniature replicas of adult tools that helped youth practice the essential activities of a subsistence lifestyle. By age six, girls were weaving mats and assisting their mothers with household tasks. They learned to process fish with tiny ulus and practiced parka making with miniature skin-working boards. Boys began instruction in hunting at about eleven, playing with miniature bows and arrows. They also worked wood with toy wedges and adzes and fought mock battles with replica war clubs and shields.
Games of skill helped to teach hunting skills, promote teamwork, and foster friendly competition. Young and old enjoyed throwing darts at a swinging porpoise model or tossing discs at a target on a seal’s skin. Lessons in Alutiiq history and values were taught with stories. Stories recounted the pursuits of famous ancestors, discussed the dangers of wandering far from home, and gave examples of model behavior. And each community had at least one ritual specialist, a person with expert knowledge of songs, dances, and legends who helped to teach children about the origins of the Alutiiq universe.
Western-style schooling began in the Russian era with the founding of both secular and parish schools. Some Alutiiq people even traveled to Siberia to advance their education.
These schools embraced bilingualism and helped to create the first texts written in Alutiiq. In contrast, American schools, introduced to most communities by the early twentieth century, sought to assimilate Native children. Teachers imposed a strict English-only policy, physically punishing those who spoke in Alutiiq.
Today, schools are more sensitive to the educational needs of Native children. Each of Kodiak’s Alutiiq villages has a public school that provides classes and acts as a community gathering place. Administrators, teachers, and parents work hard to include Alutiiq traditions in lessons and provide experiences that transmit Native culture and values to the next generation.
Photo: Ouzinkie school in the 1930s. Hender Toms collection, courtesy Melinda Lamp
Ulutegwik ikirsgu. - Turn the television on.
Television began reaching rural Alaska communities in the1970s, as communication systems evolved following World War II. Alutiiq villages began to receive radio signals in the 1960sand public television a decade later. Satellite television followed in the 1990s, and now many rural communities have Internet access. The recently coined Alutiiq term for television, ulutegwik, literally means “place where you look.” Other Alutiiq speakers simply change the English acronym TV to TViq.
One indirect and unexpected result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was the expansion of television viewing. Restoration funds designated to purchase private lands for addition to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge provided Alutiiqs with opportunities to sell land. Some used the resulting income to purchase luxury items, including satellite dishes that could access hundreds of TV channels. This has made the home shopping network and Hollywood movies part of daily life. It has also created a few jobs installing and servicing television systems.
To some, greater rural access to the media indicates progress. To others, it represents the continued erosion of Native culture and values. The western images and messages that flood Alutiiq homes have profoundly impacted young people. In addition to promoting consumerism and glamorizing high-risk behaviors, these images marginalize and suppress traditional practices. As television became popular in Alutiiq villages, for example, weekly community dances featuring local musicians disappeared.
Photo: Marie Hensen and Nick Alokli. Alokli Collection.
Quyanaa tailuci. - Thank you all for coming.
Quyanaa is the Alutiiq word for thank you. People offer this common expression of gratitude throughout the Alutiiq nation. “Quyanaa,” you might say to your host at the end of a visit, or to a friend who gives you some smoked salmon. To many, using this word symbolizes pride in Alutiiq culture and a continued respect for Native language and traditions. Add the suffix –sinaq, meaning “large” or “great,” and you get quyanaasinaq, thank you very much.
Different pronunciations of this word illustrate regional differences in the Alutiiq language. There are two major Alutiiq dialects, Koniag Alutiiq spoken in the Kodiak Archipelago and on the Alaska Peninsula, and Chugach Alutiiq spoken in Prince William Sound and on the Kenai Peninsula. Although these dialects are mutually intelligible and use the same alphabet, some words in each dialect have unique pronunciations. For example, Koniag Alutiiq speakers say quyanaa with an emphasis on the first a, but if you live on the Kenai Peninsula you emphasize the second a. These subtle differences may not register with casual students of Alutiiq, but among fluent speakers they provide evidence of a person’s origins, much like a New York accent or a Scottish brogue to an English speaker.
The word quyanaa sounds familiar across Alaska, because it is shared with other Native languages. In the Yup’ik language, which is closely related to the Alutiiq language, people also say quyana, but spell the word with just one a at the end instead of the two used in Alutiiq. In Iñupiaq, the language of northern Alaska, thank you is quyanaq: quyana with a q at the end.
Pingayunek carliangq’rtua. - I have three children.
Counting is a skill that children around the world learn at a very young age, and although quantifying objects comes naturally to humans, the world’s societies count in many different ways. Counting systems reflect the mathematical concepts of a culture, which are influenced by language, social practices, worldviews, and even subsistence activities.
Speakers of Indo-European languages like English use the decimal system, a three-thousand-year-old way of counting based on the number ten. Although Alutiiqs adopted this system in the modern era, the traditional Alutiiq counting system is based on the number twenty: the total number of fingers and toes found on a person. This system was once shared with speakers of related Native languages from Kodiak to Greenland.
In the base-twenty system, people make numbers larger than twenty with reference to twenty. To say thirty, for example, a speaker would say “suinaq qulnek ciplluku,” a phase that translates as “ten above twenty.” Today, however, Alutiiq speakers typically follow the base ten counting system where thirty is pingayun qula, or “three tens.”
Photo: Three student carvers, culture week, Ouzinkie School.
Maqineq nangkan, tang’rciqamci. - After the week is over, I’ll see you guys.
All human societies have systems of reckoning time, ways of accounting for the sequence and duration of events. However, concepts of time vary greatly with cultural and environmental factors. The places people live, the technologies they use, the structure of their economies, their social organization, and even their ritual systems influence their perceptions of time.
The strict divisions of clock and calendar time are western constructs, originating in the Judeo-Christian worldview and becoming widespread in the nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution. To Westerners, time is linear and nonrepetitive. It progresses from the past into the future and provides daily structure for the complicated world in which people live.
In contrast, life in farming societies and among high-latitude hunting and gathering peoples is often closely tied to the passage of seasons. Here people tend to see time as repetitive and circular, part of an ever-renewing cycle. This was true in classical Alutiiq society, where people recognized the phases of the moon, seasonal changes in weather, and the cyclical availability of plants and animals.
Alutiiqs began to chart the passage of days and weeks when they became members of the Russian Orthodox faith, using peg calendars to track important events in the church year. Although an historic construct, the word maqineq, for week, seems to be derived from the word for “day before a holiday.” For example, in the Alutiiq language, Christmas Eve is ARusistuam Maqinera. The use of the root maqi- in relation to holidays may also be related to maqiwik, the Alutiiq word for steam bathhouse. In Alutiiq society, people once took steam baths to cleanse themselves before special events.
Photo: Alutiiq Museum calendar page.
Maama niugneret amlesqat nallunitai. - My mother knows a lot of words.
Anthropologists classify the Alutiiq language as part of the larger Yup'ik language family. It is one of five closely related Native languages spoken on both sides of the Bering Sea, from the Chukchi Peninsula, across Saint Lawrence Island and Western Alaska to the gulf coast of Alaska. These languages form a continuum, with each language most closely related to its nearest neighbor. Along this continuum, the languages become more complex from west to east, with Alutiiq the most elaborate.
The complexity of Alutiiq is evident in its regional variation. There are two regional dialects of the Alutiiq, one spoken in Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula, and a second spoken in the Kodiak Archipelago and on the Alaska Peninsula. Furthermore, within these dialects are at least two sub dialects. In the Kodiak region, for example, there are small but notable differences in the language spoken each end of the archipelago.
Another example of the language's breadth is the use of a special ritual language by shamans. During performances, shamans would communicate with their helping spirits in a language that the audience could not fully understand and the few surviving shaman's songs cannot be fully translated.
Photo: Cover of the Alutiiq Picture Dictionary.
Arhnam qapuwait pugtartaartut. - Sea otter's bubbles always float up.
In the Alutiiq language, the term qapuk has several meanings. It can be used to describe froth, foam, or scum–like a film of algae that forms over a pond, or the layer of scum the rises to the top of a pot when you cook meat. Karluk villagers used qapuk as the word for pumice–the pale grey, porous, floating stone created by volcanic eruptions. More commonly, however, you will hear the team used to mean bubble–a pocket of air trapped in liquid.
Understanding the way bubbles move in water was part of an Alutiiq hunter’s education. When birds and animals dive, air trapped in their fur and feathers escapes and forms a trail. Similarly as animals exhale under water, bubbles rise to the surface. Hunters who watch the water carefully can see air bubbles reaching the surface and locate their prey.
This technique was particularly important in communal sea otters hunting. Teams of men working in kayaks hurled their arrows at a sea otter each time it surfaced to breath. Watching the trail of bubbles left by the animal, they could judge the direction it was moving and anticipate where it might surface again. An ancient painting from the village of Karluk records this important piece of knowledge. A small skin working board shows a swimming otter with bubbles streaming off its coat.
Photo: Painted, miniature work board, showing a swimming sea otter. Koniag, Inc. collection, Karluk One.