Ikuk’gka nunam kalikami. - I found it on the map.
The Alutiiq word for map, nunam kalikaa, literally means “the land’s paper.” Although maps and marine charts are important to modern hunters and fishermen, they are recent navigational tools. For thousands of years, Alutiiq people stored information about the landscape in place names and stories.
Eighteenth-century Russian fur traders made the first maps of Alaska. Sailing eastward from Siberian ports, they charted portions of the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska coasts, weaving together their observations and geographic details gleaned from Alaska Natives. Early hand-drawn maps show details for portions of the coast, with gaps for regions yet to be investigated. By the early 1800s, however, extensive exploration allowed Russian cartographers to produce a relatively accurate map of the North American coastline between the areas now known as western Alaska and southern British Columbia.
Russian traders first learned of the Kodiak Archipelago in about 1760. Residents of the eastern Aleutian Islands, including a Kodiak man taken captive by the Unangan, reported a distant island off the southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula that was rich in foxes and sea lions. Based on their information, Petr Shiskin, a crewmember aboard the Sv. Iulian, created the first known map showing Kodiak.
Photo: Archaeologists mapping an ancient vilalge site, Kodiak Island, 2010.
TRaapat allrani uluranartaartut. - Ladders are sometimes dangerous.
Angyakun aiwikutartukut. - We are going (away) by open boat.
The Alutiiq angyaq is a large open boat much like the umiak of northern Alaska. These twenty- to thirty-five-foot vessels were used for traveling and trading and could hold up to twenty people. They had a sturdy driftwood frame covered with sea lion skins that was well designed for carrying cargo and landing in the surf. Resting on their knees, paddlers propelled angyat with the same beautifully decorated, single-bladed paddles used for kayaking.
In the early years of western colonization, Russian traders confiscated and destroyed angyat in an effort to disable Alutiiq communities. Without large boats it was difficult for villagers to gather, flee subjugation, or mobilize attacks. However, the Russians recognized the great value of these vessels and adapted some for their own transportation needs. In Russian, these were known as baidara.
The art of angyaq construction has faded from living memory, but museum collections preserve a few boat models. With the help of these models and boat parts recovered from archaeological sites, Alutiiq carvers are exploring the angyaq and relearning this boat-building tradition.
Photo: Angyaq parts for the Karluk One village site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Anguaq taisgu. - Give me the paddle.
Alutiiq hunters propelled their skin-covered kayaks through coastal waters with narrow wooden paddles. Unlike the double-bladed paddles of neighboring peoples, these paddles had a long, spear-shaped, single blade and a short T-shaped handle, much like a modern canoe paddle. Craftsmen carved these paddles from hard woods collected on local beaches.
Kayakers, in a kneeling position, alternated strokes on either side of their boat. The narrow blade, with its diamond-shaped cross-section, allowed them to make quick stabilizing movements in rough water. Paddles were traditionally stored on the deck of the kayak and a spare was carried for emergencies. In rough water, a group of kayakers might ride out a storm by rafting their boats together with their paddles. In winter, paddles were also used to scrape ice from the deck of the kayak. Men also used their paddles to find sea mammals by placing the handle against their teeth to feel vibrations in the water.
Historic images of paddles, and those preserved in museum collections, illustrate that many were brightly decorated. Hunting scenes and geometric designs embellished the slender wooden implement with black, red, and blue paint. Today, Alutiiq artists are reawakening the art of paddle carving, combining traditional forms with their own designs to create both functional and decorative pieces inspired by the past.
Photo: Wooden paddle. Koniag, Inc. Collection, Karluk One site.
MiskiiRat qar'usiq pingaktaantait. - Spiders don't like red cedar.
Two varieties of cedar are indigenous to coastal Alaska, the yellow cedar or Alaska cypress (Camaecyparis nootkatensis) and the western red cedar (Thuja plicata). Both are large evergreen trees with fibrous bark and a straight-grained, rot-resistant wood. Named for the color of their heartwood, in western North America, cedar trees grow primarily in the forests of southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Cedar has long been an essential resource to the Native societies of these regions. Although cedar does not grow around Kodiak, it was widely used by Alutiiqs, who collected it as driftwood.
Today, Alutiiq people use cedar primarily for firewood, because it burns cleanly. In the past, however, cedar was a coveted building and carving material. Cedar resists water more readily than spruce, so it was used to create objects that came in contact with moisture: houses, boats, hats, paddles and oars, hunting equipment, cooking utensils, and grave markers. Builders preferred to use cedar as the foundation logs and roof posts for sod houses, and in the historic era, they split roofing shingles from cedar.
Alutiiq people also used cedar in boat construction. Although red cedar is not a strong wood, it could be employed in any part of the kayak frame. It was a common choice for bow pieces. Where possible, craftsmen cut the curved prow of the kayak from a cedar stump, using the natural arc of wood formed by the tree trunk and its roots. To create kayak ribs and stringers, they soaked strips of cedar in hot water and bent them to shape.
Photo: Spitting a red cedar log on the beach at Cape Alitak.
Ernerpak pilallriit. - They sawed (wood) today.
Saws are a relatively recent introduction to Kodiak. Russian traders brought the first metal saws in the late eighteenth century. Before the introduction of European tools, however, Alutiiqs devised a variety of manufacturing techniques to complete jobs that employ saws today.
Bone and wood objects that needed to be cut in half were whittled around their girth, the way a beaver gnaws a standing tree. Then, the craftsman snapped the two halves of the object apart manually. Alutiiq people shaped sheets of slate into spears and knives in a similar way. A sharp-edged chip of stone from a beach cobble was used to saw grooves into thin sheets of slate, forming the outline of a tool. Excess slate was then snapped away following these grooves. Archaeological data indicate this technique is more than five thousand years old.
In the twentieth century, as dories replaced kayaks, metal saws became important for boat building. In gathering materials for handcrafted boats, Alutiiq carpenters cut natural knees—arched boat ribs—from living trees. They removed long, L-shaped sections of wood from the lower trunk of a standing tree and its associated roots. This produced a strong, naturally bent piece of lumber that could be cut into sturdy boat ribs. This technique did not kill the tree, but it left a distinctive scar. Evidence of this practice is preserved in the spruce forests of Kodiak and Afognak islands. You can still see dory-knee trees as you walk through the woods, particularly in stands of large trees near shore. The oldest scars bear the marks of saw teeth and axes. More recent scars reflect the adoption of chain saws.
Photo: Men sawing lumber in Ouzinkie. Marie Heinrichs Collection.
Mingqun kakiwigmi et’uq. - The needle is in the sewing bag.
Alutiiq women are known for their sewing skill. In ancient times, they used delicate ivory and bird bone needles, bird bone awls, and wooden spools of animal sinew to stitch fine clothing. Their tools were stored in sewing bags with scraps of fur and gut. Each bag was uniquely decorated with animal-hair embroidery and appliqué of dyed gut. When not in use, sewing bags were rolled up and tied closed.
In classical Alutiiq society, both men and women carried sewing tools, particularly when traveling. Men kept sewing kits in their kayaks to repair tears in the boat’s skin covering. Sewing tools were also used to fasten wooden slats into protective vests or armor, to stitch waterproof containers from birch bark, and to create tattoos. A soot-blackened length of sinew attached to a needle was passed under the skin to make permanent designs on the face, chest, or arms.
Sewing was often a social activity. Women enjoyed each other’s company as they produced clothing and covers for skin boats. Girls began participating at the age of six, making thread and braiding line. In some communities, Alutiiqs recognized a young woman’s coming of age with a public festival where her parents gave away their hunting and sewing tools. This act symbolized a family’s preparation for their daughter’s new adult life.
Photo: Decorated sewing bag, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Skuunaq tang'rk’gka. - I saw the ship.
Sailing ships were a common sight in Kodiak waters in the historic era. Russian traders traveled to Alaska aboard wooden vessels that carried men, provisions, weapons, and smaller boats for coastal exploration. The Alutiiq word for ship, skuunaq, comes from the word “schooner,” as does the Alutiiq name for the city of Kodiak, Sun’aq, because Kodiak was a port with many sailing ships and a place where ships were built. Russian entrepreneurs had a small shipyard on Woody Island where they built sailing ships to transport goods both in Alaska and back to Russia.
What did Alutiiqs make of the first ships to sail Kodiak waters? Johann Heinrich Holmberg, a Finnish naturalist who visited Kodiak in the summer of 1851, learned of an early encounter from Elder Arsenti Aminak. Aminak was a boy of about ten when a Russian ship wintered around Alitak Bay. He recalled that the boat confused the Alutiiq people. At first they thought it was some type of odd whale and paddled out to see it. Upon closer inspection, however, they decided it was a monster, with a very bad smell and strange occupants who blew smoke from their mouths: sailors smoking pipes.
An Alutiiq song passed down through generations also recalls early interactions with sailing ships and the sadness women felt when ships transported Alutiiq men far from home. The song says, “These schooners are making me cry . . . because of my boyfriend. What am I going to do afterwards? They’re taking my boyfriend away.”
Photo: Sailing ships at the dock in Kodiak, ca. 1940. Smith Collection. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.