Unugpak iraluq tatartuq. - Tonight the moon is full.
In classical Alutiiq cosmology, there are five sky worlds, layered one on top of the other. The fifth sky world, farthest from earth, is the most pure. This is the home of Llam Sua, the Alutiiq supreme being. The first sky world, closest to earth, contains the moon, the stars, and the northern lights. Alutiiq tradition holds that the moon is a man who wears a different mask each night. At dusk, he enters a cave, changes his clothes, and puts on the mask for that evening. When the moon is eclipsed, the man is said to be wearing grease that darkens his face. When the eclipse fades, he has cleaned himself.
Legend tells how the moon met a girl and carried her to his sky world. They were married and he took good care of her. She became angered, however, when he would not tell her where he went each night. One night, she set off on her own to explore the sky world. She came to a house with a curtain and looked behind it. Here she found masks representing the different phases of the moon. She put a nearly full moon up to her face and it stuck. From then on, she became her husband’s assistant, sharing the work of the moon with him.
Photo: Moon mask by Perry Eaton. Alutiiq Museum collections.
Uyaqurtulit ikegtaartut. - There's not many loons.
Alaska is home to all five of the world’s species of loons (Gavia spp.). Three of these species—the common loon, the red-throated loon, and the Pacific loon—are frequent visitors to Kodiak. This can make it difficult to differentiate between types of loons. Although each species has distinctive plumage in the summer, all loons fade to a similar plumage in the winter, sporting a dark brown back and a white breast. Loons are large diving birds with webbed feet and sharply pointed bills. They feed mostly on fish and aquatic plants in shallow waters, both fresh and marine. They have a number of calls, but are known for their haunting cry: an eerie, laughing sound.
Loons are considered lucky in the Arctic, where they are admired for their speed and sharp vision. To foster these qualities in their children, Alaska Natives often placed newborn babies on loon skins. A Chugach Alutiiq legend illustrates this tie to keen vision and explains how the loon got its white breast. A blind boy sitting by a lake heard a loon’s call. The boy shouted to the loon to approach him. When the bird arrived, the boy asked him to restore his eyesight. The loon agreed and took the boy for a ride on his back, diving under the water and circling the lake five times. When they surfaced, the boy could see again. To thank the loon, the boy returned to the lake with an apron of white dentalium shells: a gift that gave the bird its white breast.
Photo: Red Throated Loon, Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Nerciquq aarimek. - He is going to eat liver.
People around the world enjoy eating liver. From liverwurst to fried chicken livers people savor its flavor and texture. Alutiiqs are no exception. Elders report enjoying a variety of wild game liver. They consider seal liver the best, followed by deer liver. Bird livers and fish livers are also delicious and long ago people ate bear liver, often raw. Today, most Alutiiqs panfry liver, serving it with onions. To insure a pleasant flavor, some soak the organ meat before cooking. A water bath can remove any gamey taste.
Be careful, however, eating too much liver in the Arctic can be risky. Sea mammals store high levels of vitamin A in their livers, a nutrient that can be toxic when consumed in large quantities. Small overdoses of vitamin A make people sleepy, queasy, and irritable. Large overdoses can cause painful pealing skin, coma, and even death. How do Alutiiqs avoid over consumption? People often share liver, so one person seldom eats very much of this rich food. Traditional stories also remind people to be careful of what they eat.
A legend from Prince William Sound tells of a woman who liked to eat liver. When her husband gave her an odd looking liver, she refused to eat it. She later discovered that he had killed her sister and harvested the girl’s liver! To repay him for his treachery, the woman tricked her husband into falling asleep by a fire. She sang him a dead person’s song till he was no longer able to move, and then killed him by throwing his body on the fire!
Photo: Seals off of Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
Unguwallriat amlertut maani. - The animals are plentiful here.
According to Alutiiq lore, Kas’arpak, a powerful being who resided in the third of five sky worlds, created all of the animals and birds in the universe. He formed the earth’s creatures from a little man, giving them the ability to shift between animal and human form and endowing each with a soul.
Although everything in the Alutiiq universe is believed to have a sua—a person inside that gives it consciousness—only humans and animals are thought to have souls. When an animal dies, its sua dies as well. However, if the animal is properly treated, its soul survives and can be reincarnated in another animal. As such, respectful human action is critical to regeneration of game. The Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound believed that an animal’s soul rested in a particular part of its body and hunters had to be careful to release this part to the environment. Honoring the animal’s inner person, or sua, was also an important part of regeneration. Many of the masked dances performed at winter festivals were dedicated to this task.
The unguwallriat were cared for by two powerful female beings. Imam Sua, who lived at the bottom of the ocean, ruled over marine creatures. Hunters asked her to provide them with game and for protection from the wind and waves when they were caught in a storm. Nunam Sua, the ruler of creatures that lived on the land, lived in mountain forests. She wore a knee-length coat covered with small animals and was surrounded by a bright light that made her difficult to see. Some people believed that she could read hunters’ thoughts.
Image: Sea mammal petroglyph, Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
Arula’at tang'rngutaakait cuumi. - They used to often see bigfoot before.
Stories of Bigfoot creatures—hairy, man-like beings that live in the wilderness—are common in the Kodiak Archipelago and Prince William Sound. Alutiiq people call these beings aula’aq or arula’aq, which means to run away. Some say these creatures are half human and half beast; others believe that they are small people that can turn themselves into animals. Whatever their form, southcentral Alaska’s Bigfoots have extra-human powers. People who have tracked strange footprints find that the impressions simply disappear, as if the creature vanished into the air. Those who try to touch a Bigfoot reach out to find nothing. And one man who shot at a strange man with a long white beard returned later to discover a dead weasel.
Although Bigfoot-like creatures have never been photographed, clues suggest their existence. Some people have seen odd human-like tracks, others have lost food from wilderness cabins, heard strange whistling noises that made them dizzy, experienced thumping on the sides of their house at night, or been visited by peculiar people they believe to be arula’at. People hunting and trapping from remote cabins typically encounter these creatures. Some arula’at are thought to be shy, stealing from camps when their occupants are away or sleeping. Others are more aggressive, asking for food and shelter, helping themselves to cabins, and even following and attacking people. In Prince William Sound, Alutiiqs report carrying religious icons, holy water, or incense to ward off arula’at.
Bigfoot legends may have arisen from stories about people who committed crimes and were expelled from their villages. In classical Alutiiq society, people who lived alone in the wilderness could turn into dangerous, evil spirits who spoke through whistling. Alutiiqs are not alone in their belief in nonhuman persons. Alaska’s Yup’ik and Iñupiat people speak of encounters with similar extraordinary beings, thought to travel between this world and another.
Naken taimallrianga penat qus'igtut. - In place where I came from, the cliffs are high up.
Over the past hundred thousand years there have been three distinct periods of glaciation in the Kodiak Archipelago. Streams of ice from Cook Inlet and from Kodiak’s own mountains carved deep, narrow valleys into the region’s bedrock. As the ice retreated and sea level rose about twelve thousand years ago, the sea inundated these ice-carved valleys, forming the archipelago’s irregular coastline with its fjords, inlets, straits, estuaries, rocky headlands, and dramatic cliffs.
Alutiiqs took advantage of Kodiak’s rough topography, even its precipitous cliffs. Hunters scaled rock walls with thick ropes of sea mammal hide to collect birds and eggs from nests on cliff faces. People gathering brush for firewood and fish smoking tied bundles of sticks together and dropped them over cliffs to the beach, where they could be collected by boat. And in late prehistoric times, entire communities retreated to villages built behind sheer cliffs to protect themselves from invaders. Here people perched logs secured with kelp lines on the cliff edge, ready to release on top of enemy invaders.
Alutiiq legends also mention cliffs. According to one tale, the first man and woman who entered the world paddled between two cliffs. When the cliffs closed in on their boat, they broke one end, creating the curved prow that has since characterized Alutiiq kayaks.
Photo: Kodiak Island ocean side cliff.
April mal’ugnek piugtengq’rtuq. - April has two dogs.
Archaeological sites in Alaska illustrate that dogs (Canis familiaris) have been a part of Native communities for at least two thousand years, although the presence of dogs in Siberia eleven thousand years ago suggests that it may be much longer. On Kodiak, dog bones illustrate that Alutiiq people kept two varieties of dogs: a large, wolf-like breed similar in size to the working dogs used by northern Alaskans and a smaller, lighter dog. These animals probably guarded communities against bears and acted as companions, but apparently they were not used for transportation, for carrying loads or pulling sleds.
A legend collected in the early nineteenth century tells of the colonization of Kodiak Island by the children of a woman and her lover, a dog. The daughter of a chief, who lived on the AlaskaPeninsula, was banished by her father after having five children with her lover. The lover tried to find his family but was drowned in the search. When the children grew up and learned of their grandfather’s harsh treatment, they tore him to pieces and fled to distant areas. Some of the children went north, while others came to Kodiak and started their own families, creating the island’s population.
There are many ways to interpret this dog-husband story. It may be about banishment. Elders say that long ago, incestuous people were called dogs and were sometimes forced to leave a community. It may also be a story that an unfriendly neighbor told to explorers to make fun of Kodiak Islanders. People from different areas often traded insults. Or maybe this is a story about a sua, the human spirit that lives in all things. This spirit looks like a person. It can leave its owner’s body at any time and live on its own. Whatever the answer, this story illustrates the deep ancestral ties between Alutiiqs and their coastal neighbors. Similar dog-husband stories are found across the Eskimo-Aleut world.
Photo: Dogs watching beach seiners in Karluk. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Qawangurtuataartut. - They always dream.
For Alutiiqs, dreaming is a magical state, one that draws people closer to the spirit world. Encounters between people and spirits often take place in dreams or as a person awakes from sleep. Shamans, people who interact closely with spirits,their apprentices through dreams, and dreams are thought to foretell the future. A person’s death might be predicted while dreaming, or a lucky amulet envisioned before it is found. Sleep is also the realm of the human soul. Shaped like a miniature person and stored in its owner’s breath, the soul was thought to travel during sleep, leaving the body to talk with other souls. Elders believe that this is why people sometimes feel tired when they awake from sleeping.
A legend recorded on Kodiak in 1872 tells of a hunter’s dream. A man was unable to hunt successfully and he pleaded for help. In his sleep, he dreamed of masks and heard an unknown voice singing songs. When he awoke, he began to repeat the songs. The next time he went hunting, his luck improved and he killed many animals. Other hunters asked about his good fortune. The lucky hunter taught them his songs and made the masks from his dream.
Photo: Woman asleep in a skiff, Ouzinkie 1940s. Smith Collections, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.