Aturtuq inqumek carliani. - She’s singing a baby song to her baby.
In the Alutiiq language, inqeluni means to amuse a young child by rocking or playing or to sing to a loved one, particularly a baby. Nouns derived from this verb include inqun, inquq, and inequteq, which refer to baby songs. These are special tunes sung to a baby by a loved one. Alutiiq baby songs are not like American lullabies, widely known and sung by many people. Among Alutiiqs,each song is a unique composition, written for a specific child by someone who loves or favors that child. Parents, grandparents, and godparents often author these private tunes, which commonly include nonsense words. A person whosings such a song is said to be sweet-talking a child.
One Elder recalls a baby song that belonged to a little girl who loved tea and soup. Her simple song went, “Suupama-ho-hoooo . . . Sarsanga-ho-hoooo!,” which means “Soup-ho-hoooo . . . have tea ho-hoooo!” When they were older, he would tease the girl by singing the song to her.
Songs for babies are common throughout Native Alaska. Many cradle songs and lullabies are found among the Indian societies of southeast Alaska. Some of these are individually composed for specific children, while others are family-owned songs sung to all the infants in a particular household.
Photo: LaRita Laktonen with her baby daughter at the Alutiiq Museum.
Nick kaRmauniartaartuq. - Nick (habitually) plays the accordion.
In the mid-twentieth century, dances were popular events in Alutiiq communities, and many villages held weekly dances. Fridays were sock hop nights, because Saturday evenings were reserved for religious services. Other dances might be scheduled around community events. During the Second World War, for example, Old Harbor organized dances when the service men stationed on Sitkalidak Island came to town for supplies. Dancing was particularly popular with young people, and some communities operated dance halls from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Music was a central part of community dances. Young men enjoyed playing instruments. Entertaining others and putting on a show was also a good way to meet young women! The most famous Alutiiq musicians were accordion players, who used either small round accordions or larger twelve-key instruments. Historic accounts suggest that accordion playing became popular in the 1890s, when the typical instrument cost about $3.50. Alutiiq men also taught themselves how to play the mandolin, ukulele, banjo, guitar, and harmonica. They learned songs from records or other musicians, playing everything from Hank Williams tunes to square dances, polkas, and schottisches.
Live entertainment faded after Word War II as television became more widely available. A few musicians continued to play accordions and guitars, performing at special events like weddings.
Photo: Accordion player and family. Nekeferoff Collection.
Agnguart'skuk! - Let's dance!
Dancing was a favorite activity at Alutiiq winter festivals. Moving to the rhythmic beat of skin drums, Alutiiq men reenacted hunting scenes and women danced in praise of ancestors. Performances were held in the men’s house, a large single-roomed structure built and maintained by a wealthy chief. Here men also met to discuss politics, repair their tools, and prepare for war. In the winter, Alutiiqs transformed this building into a ceremonial center. Here families gathered to celebrate the events of the year and give thanks to animal spirits for sustenance. In preparation for dancing, people decorated the men’s house elaborately with hunting gear and animal skins. Paddles, harpoons, sea otter pelts, and even kayaks were tied together and suspended from the ceiling. Guests arrived in their finest clothing and sat according to their social position along the walls. Men sat on benches and women and children on the floor. As masked dancers appeared, the audience swayed and a person in the corner pulled on a rope to rock the gear hanging from the ceiling. This mimicked the movement of the ocean, adding ambiance to the dance.
Today Alutiiq dancing groups continue the performing tradition. Dressed in ceremonial regalia, they celebrate and perpetuate the traditions of their ancestors with joyous songs and movement inspired by the wind, waves, animals, and history of Kodiak.
Photo: The Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers perform. Dancing Forwards workshop, Kodiak.
Cauyaq nitniqgu. - Listen to the drum.
In the traditional Alutiiq language, the word for drum and music are the same: cauyaq. This duality illustrates the importance of drums to traditional Alutiiq music. Although Alutiiqs also perform with rattles and whistles, the drum, with its penetrating beat, is their main instrument.
Drumming is an ancient practice. Prehistoric petroglyphs from both Afognak and Kodiak islands show people holding drums and archaeological sites with well-preserved wooden artifacts include drum handles and drum rims many hundreds of years old.
In the past, craftsmen made drums by stretching a dehaired seal hide, a seal bladder, or a halibut stomach over a wooden frame. The frame was carved from a single piece of wood, bent into a circle with steam, and lashed together. To the frame, artists attached cross braces and a sturdy handle. Like other ceremonial objects, drums were often decorated. A drum’s skin might be painted with images of spirit helpers or its handle painted and adorned with carvings. Some drum handles displayed tiny masks attached so they faced the audience as the drummer played. A drum handle from an archaeological site in Karluk shows a human face inset with two tiny animal teeth.
Today, artists continue to fashion drums from local wood, carving and bending frame parts to shape. In addition to skin covers, some artisans use a resilient airplane fabric, treated with resin. This fabric is durable but still reverberates with deep resonant tones.
Photo: Youth drummer with the Akhiok Alutiiq dancers at the opening of the Like a Face exhibit, May 2008.
Aikut nerestangq'rtut. - The dogs have lice.
Historic accounts indicate that lice were a constant plague in Native communities. These small, rapidly reproducing parasites were hard to eradicate, as people lived in tight quarters where they passed easily from one person to the next. Moreover, people wore heavy fur and bird skin clothing where vermin could hide, and some communities had limited water for washing. Many loads of furs harvested in Alaska arrived in Europe infested with lice.
Lice are tiny wingless parasite that feed off small amounts of blood. Their bites can be very itchy, and itching louse bites often leads to skin infections. The journals of Russian traders in Alaska report that itch and skin ulcers were common maladies, found on almost everyone.
To get relief from lice, Alaska Natives washed, picked them off, and sometimes turned their clothing inside out. In the coldest regions of Alaska–people took their clothes off at night and left them outside to freeze–which killed the lice. A good shake in the morning and one’s clothes were vermin free.
A traditional Alutiiq song, sung by many dancer groups today, pokes fun at lice and reminds people hard it can be to kill them–even with water and steam. The song describes a louse taking a steam bath, showing of in the heat and singing his own little song!
Photo: Alutiiq dancers singing the louse song, August, 2011.
Cauyat pingaqtaanka, asqignasqat. - I like music that has a good beat.
Music is a cultural universal. Every human society has a musical tradition. Although these traditions vary greatly, with unique styles, sounds, and ways of performing, music is an essential part of the artistic expression of all people.
Despite the universal presence of music in human life, many societies don’t have a unique word for music. This is true of the Alutiiq people. In the Alutiiq language, the word for drum and music are same: cauyaq. This situation probably reflects the fact that drums were the primary type of musical instrument in traditional performance. Alutiiqs also used rattles and whistles in musical presentations.
Like other forms of art, music encodes information on language, social practices, cultural values, and history. A recent compilation of Alutiiq music illustrates the evolution of Alutiiq music. Generations, a professionally produced anthology of Alutiiq language songs, includes traditional stories used to preserve and share history, church hymns that reflect the adoption and practice of Christianity, translations of contemporary songs, and new compositions that illustrate efforts to preserve and reawaken Alutiiq traditions.
Photo: Puffinbeak rattle. Etholén Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Tunngat manigtut p’hnami. - The puffins are laying eggs on the cliff.
Puffins, also known as sea parrots, are members of the auk family. The Kodiak Archipelago is home to two varieties of this bird, the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) and the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata). Both have large, brightly colored, yellow and orange beaks, with white breast feathers and black back feathers. In summer, they live in nearshore ocean waters where they nest on cliffs, between boulders, and in burrows. In winter, they move out to sea. Although puffins are small, weighing just one to two pounds, Alutiiqs captured them for both food and raw material. The meat of the puffin is said to taste like tuna fish.
Puffin skins were one of the most common materials used for parkas and were typically worn by the poor. It took up sixty puffin skins, complete with their white breast feathers, to make such a garment. Puffin beaks also adorned a variety of objects. They decorated clothing, were tied to drums, and in Prince William Sound, they were worn on the aprons of shamans performing at festivals. However, their best-known use was on dance rattles. One of three traditional musical instruments, these rattles were about twelve inches wide and had as many as five concentric wooden hoops. Craftsmen painted the hoops red and black and lashed them to a cross-shaped handle. Then, they drilled each ring with small holes so that clusters of puffin beaks could be attached.
Photo: Carved ivory puffin, Settlement Point site, Afognak Island. Afognak Native Corporation collection.
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.