Maani tang'rtaan'itukut sungcunek. - We never see any (magical) dwarves around here.
The Alutiiq world is full of magical beings—giants who transform themselves by spitting, people who live on the smell of meat, wily sea monsters, enormous man-worms, evil shaman’s helpers with pointed heads, and dwarves. All of these creatures were thought to inhabit the earth and interact with people. Dwarves, or “little people,” are the best known. These tiny, hairy, knee-high men with loud voices were said to be exceptionally strong. They could kill animals by pointing at them and lived in their own small villages with miniature houses and boats.
Dwarves were often helpful to people in trouble and brought luck to hunters who treated them kindly. Elders remember leaving scraps of food for little people to eat and note that if you met a dwarf, you would be lucky for life.
A legend recorded by French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart tells of two men who secured their hunting luck by caring for two dwarves. The hunters went on a kayak trip and were overtaken by fog. They heard two loud voices and came upon a tiny kayak with two little men. They took these men into their kayak, which caused the fog to disappear. They took the dwarves home and cared for them and had good luck in hunting thereafter.
Because Alutiiqs believe that every object in the universe has a human-like spirit—an actual person inside of it—some people conclude that dwarves are spirits awaiting reincarnation.
Photo: Model kayak with miniature paddlers, gift of Perry Eaton.
Nuna aulakan alingnartuq. - It is scary when the land shakes.
The Kodiak Archipelago lies at the juncture of two major tectonic plates, enormous pieces of the earth’s crust that are continually colliding. Here rock formed on the ocean floor is scraped off the Pacific plate as it slides beneath the more stationary North American Plate. As the Pacific plate adjusts to this pressure, sections occasionally slip, creating earthquakes.
Alutiiq legends provide several explanations for earthquakes. Some say that invisible men who lived inside the earth created quakes and made volcanoes steam and smoke when they fought, cooked meals, or heated a steam bath. Others suggest that earthquakes are caused by a powerful shaman grieving the loss of his son, and some believed that they were the result of a mythical being giving birth: the favorite animal of the Alutiiq supreme being Llam Sua.
Whatever their source, earthquakes have repeatedly shaped the lives of Alutiiq people. The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, one of the largest in recorded history, created a tsunami that leveled the communities of Kaguyak and Old Harbor, forced residents to vacate Afognak village, and generated dramatic changes in the distribution and availability of subsistence resources. Geologists believe that quakes of this size happen every four to five hundred years—more than fifteen times in the past 7,500 years of Kodiak’s human history.
Photo: Downtown Kodiak, Summer 1964, showing damage from the 1964 quake. Photo by Bill Workman. Workman Collection.
Cuumi niugtaallriit, “Iraluq tuqu’uq.” - Before they always used to say “The moon died.”
An eclipse occurs when one celestial object moves into the shadow of another. This term is often used to describe a solar eclipse, when the moon’s shadow crosses the earth’s surface. However, there are also lunar eclipses, when the moon moves into the shadow of the earth. Each year, the earth experiences two to five eclipses of the sun and two to three eclipses of the moon.
There are two ways to say eclipse in Alutiiq. The first, “iraluq tuqu’uq,” means the sun or moon has died. The second, “macaq, iraluq pairutuk,” is a way to say, “The sun and moon passed each other.”
According to local folklore, the moon is brighter after an eclipse. 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, which darkens his face. When the eclipse fades, he has cleaned himself, creating the brighter moon that follows.
Cuumi nukallpiaq aaquyanek pisurtaallriit. - Men before used to always go hunting for land otter.
Kodiak is home to two varieties of otters, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) that inhabits nearshore coastal waters, and the land otter (Lutra canadensis) that lives primarily in freshwater lakes and streams but ventures into saltwater to hunt. Land otters are opportunistic feeders that eat everything from fish to waterfowl, insects, rodents, and plants. Land otters live in family groups, inhabiting the same den for many years. Like the sea otter, land otters have a soft, warm pelt that Alutiiqs fashion into clothing. Land otters were once captured in deadfall traps weighted with a large rock or in snares made of flexible sticks.
An Alutiiq legend from Prince William Sound explains the land otter’s use of both the sea and the land. When the spirits of the land and sea divided the animals between them, the land otter was left behind. At that time the otter had a short tail. The two spirits quarreled over the otter, tugging on its tail until it stretched. The otter cried, “Please let me go! I will stay with both of you.”
Photo: Land Otters. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Cuumi unigkuarngutaallriit. - Before they always used to tell (legends) fairy tale stories.
The Alutiiq word lisngasqaq is a respectful term, used in reference to someone who is considered wise. You might use this word to talk about a teacher, a mentor, or an Elder with the ability to share valuable knowledge. For example, young adults who are currently learning the Alutiiq language by apprenticing to fluent Elder speakers call their teachers lisngasqaq.
The association of this term with efforts to revive the Alutiiq language illustrates its deeper meaning. A learned person is not simply an instructor but someone whose breadth of knowledge is to be respected. Through current language projects, community members are learning about Alutiiq history and traditions while they learn to pronounce Alutiiq words, memorize vocabulary, and build sentences. They are absorbing the wisdom of Elders. In addition to master-apprentice arrangements, learners also meet with Elders in the weekly Alutiiq language club, consult with speakers on the creation of learning materials, and practice conversations with Elders using immersion methods. Through these connected efforts, today’s students of Alutiiq hope to become learned in their ancestral language.
Photo: Painted box panel from Karluk One Site, Koniag, Inc. Collection, possibly showing the layers of the universe.
Qiugyat asingcugtut unugpak. - The northern lights are beautiful/nice tonight.
The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are shimmering curtains of light that illuminate the night sky across the north. Similar lights seen in southern polar regions are known as the aurora australis. Interaction between the Sun and the Earth creates these lights. The aurora is powered by an electrical discharge that occurs when magnetism from solar winds collides with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Glowing molecules created by this collision form dancing bands of multicolored light that extend from forty to six hundred miles above the Earth.
The aurora can cast a dramatic glow that illuminates the landscape. Athabaskan and Iñupiat people took advantage of this light to travel and hunt at night, even on moonless evenings. The Iñupiat also used the aurora for navigation, because the most cohesive bands of light trend from east to west before bending north.
Most northern cultures have legends about the aurora that connected these eerie lights with life after death. The Iñupiat believed that the aurora could kill people, and they brandished knives at the lights to keep them at bay.
The Tlingit Indians of southeast Alaska believed that the spirits of people who died during warfare traveled to a world in the sky. When these spirits came out to play, people on earth saw them as the aurora. These displays were a sign of impending war and bloodshed.
In Alutiiq cosmology, the northern lights are also believed to be the spirits of dead warriors. These spirits live in the first of five sky worlds, closest to earth, with the spirits of the stars and the moon. And like the Yup’ik, Alutiiqs once believed that whistling would bring the lights closer.
Arllut kuimartut imarmi. - Orcas are swimming in the ocean.
The orca or killer whale (Orcinus orca) is the largest member of the dolphin family. These large, toothed sea mammals are aggressive hunters known for their feeding habits. In addition to fish and squid, killer whales will eat other whales, sea lions, seals, and even birds. Adult orcas grow to between twenty-three and twenty-seven feet long and weigh up to ten tons. They are easily identified by their prominent dorsal fin and distinctive black and white markings, with a white spot behind each eye, a white lower jaw, and a white stomach.
Killer whales live in all the world’s oceans. In Alaska, they frequent waters over the continental shelf from southeast Alaska to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, moving northward in the spring as sea ice retreats and south in the fall as the ice advances. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that there are about one hundred killer whales living in the area encompassing the Kodiak Archipelago and the Shumigan Islands.
According to Alutiiq legend, killer whales are people who have turned into spirits. A story from the Alaska Peninsula tells of a group of mountain people who became killer whales by putting on whale skins. To go hunting, the whale people dove into a smoking, bubbling, mountain lake to reach the ocean. On the coast, there was a village where the residents were lazy and played kaataq all day. One day, dressed as people, the killer whales entered the men’s house and challenged the villagers to a game of kaataq. When the villagers lost the match, the whale people took them to the mountains, killing everyone but two old couples whom they left to tell the story.
Photo: Orca swims in the channel between Kodiak and Near Island.
Kiwiksat maniigtaartut qutmi. - Oystercatchers always lay their eggs on the beach.
With a world population of about ten thousand birds, the American black oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) is a large, jet-black shorebird with a long orange beak and orange-encircled eye. It inhabits the western coast of North America, ranging from the Aleutian Islands to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. It is most common at the northern end of this range, where it thrives along rocky coasts. Over half of all black oystercatchers live in Alaska, with the largest concentrations in Prince William Sound and the Kodiak Archipelago.
The oystercatcher’s diet reflects its environment. Around Kodiak, oystercatchers are present year-round, eating limpets, mussels, gastropods, and chitons as well as fish and crab from the rich intertidal zone. Oystercatchers are monogamous and territorial.
They mate with one partner and defend their nesting territories. In spring, females lay small clutches of eggs in simple nests on the beach. Scraped into the ground, these nests can be hard to see. Oystercatcher eggs are grey and spotted, like stones, blending into the beach. People and foxes are the biggest threat to oystercatchers, because the beaches the birds use can attract people and animals that disturb their nests.
According to an Alutiiq legend, God punished the oystercatcher for laying its eggs too early one year. The birds were not supposed to reproduce until May, but they did not wait. Now, they must lay their eggs right on the beach as they have been banished from the land.
Photo: Black Oystercatcher in the Shumigan Islands. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.