Kas’aq amlesqanek atuutet nallunituq. - The priest knows many songs.
Singing is a favorite pastime in Alutiiq communities. People of all ages enjoy sharing a tune or learning an Elder’s favorite melody. In addition to expressing joy and companionship, songs are a form of storytelling. They record community history, express values, and once helped people to communicate with the spirit world.
There are many different types of songs. Today people join in favorite Orthodox hymns, but they also remember traditional verses sung for hunting, curing illness, praising ancestors, dancing, and visiting. Many of these traditional songs helped Alutiiqs obtain assistance from spirits. Powerful Alutiiq whalers sang songs to control the movement of an injured whale. Hunters learned animal songs to attract game. Shamans used songs to drive away illness caused by evil.
Singing was also a central activity at winter festivals. The host of such a gathering hired a spiritual leader, a member of the community well versed in traditional songs and ceremonial etiquette, to lead the festivities. Here, songs helped to move participants from the everyday world into a magical realm. Singing invited spirits to the gathering and appealed to them for aid. People also sang songs in honor of ancestors. An ancestor might be memorialized with a mask and a specially written tune. Masks and songs were also paired to tell stories: to remember a great hunt, to recount a battle, or to share a family legend.
Photo: Alutiiq speakers record a traditional song.
Paapuma niutaakiikut, “Kukuumyarkunaci, Iiyaq taiciqniluku.” - My grandmother told us, “Don’t whistle; you are calling for the Devil.”
Whistling is a fun, light-hearted activity in contemporary Alutiiq communities. Children make whistles from willow branches, hunters call animals with whistles carved from green alder, and comically masked carolers travel from house to house during Russian Christmas whistling and playing instruments. But in classical Alutiiq society, whistling was a dangerous and tightly controlled practice connected with the spirit world. Dancers at winter festivals called spirits from the sky and beneath the sea by whistling, which was said to mimic spirit voices. Some ceremonial masks even had a circular mouth to represent whistling.
Whistling was also associated with evil and sickness. In a house with a sick child, residents who heard whistling noises knew that evil spirits were to blame. Similarly, shamans used whistles to conjure the spirit world when curing the sick or cursing rivals. Many Elders learned that spirits spoke first with whistles and then with words. Children were taught never to whistle for fear they would be harmed. So, next time you find yourself whistling, remember, you may be summoning Kodiak’s powerful spirit world.
Photo: Whistling mask, Pinart Collection, Châteaux-Musée, France.