Qalnga’at tamarmeng teglertaartut. - All ravens steal.
The common raven (Corvus corax) is a year-round resident of Alaska that lives happily in every environment, from coastal meadows to arctic tundra and even city streets. This large member of the Corvidae family that includes crows, jays, and magpies, the raven is an all-black bird with a distinctive, wedge-shaped tail, shaggy feathers around its throat, a large bill, and a variety of hoarse calls. Ravens say “kraak” or may coo “glook.”
These quick learning birds are known for their cunning. They chatter, use tools, and have a complex social life. Alaska Natives have long admired the raven’s intelligence, and in Tlingit, Athabaskan, Yup’ik, and Alutiiq tales, Raven is a favorite character.
In Alutiiq stories the Raven is both a creator and a hero. He appears as a bird, but possesses supernatural powers that assist him in great deeds. He can speak Alutiiq, is strong enough to carry a whale, and can transform himself into other beings. One tale tells how Raven brought light to the world. By tricking a stingy chief in a distant land, he obtained two boxes, one with the moon and stars, the other with the sun. For bringing these priceless possessions home to his village, the chief rewarded Raven with marriage to the chief ’s two daughters.
Kuigmen iqallugsullriakut. - We went to the river to fish.
Despite its wet environment, Kodiak’s has few large rivers. The archipelago’s drainage systems are simple, reflecting its glacial history. Throughout the islands, short, steep, clear-water streams flow through glacially carved valleys draining small areas. Most streams are less than ten miles long and descend swiftly out of the mountains into adjacent bays. Rivers and larger streams tend to occur in bay heads and in a few valleys in southwestern Kodiak that were not completely filled with ice during the last glacial epoch.
For Alutiiq people, rivers are not only an important harvesting environment where salmon, trout, ducks, bears, and otters can be taken, but a means of travel. They provide avenues through Kodiak’s mountainous interior. The Portage River on northern Afognak Island provides an overland route to southern Afognak’s Kazakoff Bay, and from the head of Larsen Bay, it is an easy hike down the Karluk River to Karluk village at the river’s mouth. Alutiiq people once moved logs across larger lakes and rivers by tying them into rafts and paddling across. Elders remember paddling logs across Karluk Lagoon and Afognak Lake.
According to Alutiiq legend, the first woman formed rivers and lakes by spitting into ditches and holes. Like all features in the Alutiiq landscape, rivers have spirits that can be manipulated. One Alutiiq legend tells how an evil shaman captured a young woman searching for her lover. The shaman bewitched a river, which delivered him victims by sweeping them over a powerful waterfall. When the young woman succeeded in killing her captor, the shaman’s grip on the river was released. The treacherous falls disappeared, and she was able to paddle home safely.
Photo: Fall time along the Ayakulik River, Kodiak Island.
Caqit asiiyutaakameng, narlurtaapet. - When something spoils, we always smell it.
The human sense of smell pales by comparison to that of many animals, yet nature equipped people to recognize thousands of odors strong and faint. Biology isn’t the only determinant of the way we smell, however. Our cultural heritage influences everything from the scents we enjoy to how we use smells in our daily lives.
For example, historical records tell us that the early sailing ships that visited Kodiak smelled badly to Alutiiqs, as did the scent of Alutiiq villages to sailors. Each culture had different olfactory preferences.
Strong smells have long been a part of Alutiiq society. Elders remember the pungent odors of cooking bear meat, weasel skins stretched to dry, and fermenting salmon eggs. These aromas were not unpleasant, although an Alutiiq legend featuring a comical, smelly raven shunned by his wife, reminds people that smelling badly can cause problems!
Where there are strong smells, people often devise ways to eliminate them. Alutiiqs use steam bathing and deodorizing plants to manage odors. People still rub fresh pineapple weed on their hands to neutralize smells, hang alder branches in smokehouses and outhouses to refresh the air, and cover traps in grass to remove human scent. Hunters will also rub their hands with angelica before touching their traps to mask their scent.
Photo: Alutiiq Elder with yarrow, a plant whose ordor repells mosquitos. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Allringuq arnaq maani pilitaartuq arhnat amit aturluki. - There is one woman here who makes things using sea otter skins.
Hunted nearly to extinction during the historic era, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is now a common sight in Kodiak waters. These playful mammals live in nearshore colonies where they feed on a variety of fish, shellfish, and invertebrates. Although they are not traditionally hunted for food, Alutiiqs sought sea otters for their elegant fur, which was fashioned into clothing.
In classical Alutiiq society, hunters worked in teams to pursue sea otters from kayaks. They would encircle an animal, shooting at it with bone harpoon darts each time it surfaced. Air bubbles showed the hunters the way the otter was traveling. When exhausted, the animal could be captured and clubbed to death. Hunting magic was an important part of the chase. Hunters tied amulets of eagle down and red ochre to the inside of their kayaks and dressed neatly out of respect for the animal. A good hunter could attract a sea otter by learning and repeating its vocalizations.
Alutiiq legend tells that the sea otter was originally a man. While collecting chitons he was trapped by an incoming tide. To save himself, he wished to become an otter. His transformation created all otters. Because of this connection between otters and humans, hunters are required to provide otters with special treatment. Freshly killed sea otters are traditionally taken to shore, skinned, given a drink of freshwater, and their bones buried or sunk to perpetuate the animal.
Photo: Sea otter mother and baby. Painting in acrylic by Sara Squartsoff. Alutiiq Museum collections.
Awaqutan cip’ausngauq. - Your son is a smart aleck.
In the Alutiiq language, the word cip’ausngasqaq translates literally as a “know it all” or a “smart aleck,” and people use the term to refer to someone who thinks of himself as a big shot. Among Alutiiqs, behaving like a big shot can be dangerous. Boasting is not only bad manners, it can poison your luck. A boastful hunter may offend the animals his family depends on and cause them to avoid his arrows. In the case of a bear, boasting can cause the animal to become enraged. A braggart can bring starvation on his family or get himself killed.
Despite warnings about boastful behavior, Alutiiq stories feature the raucous, boastful Raven, an obnoxious bird that does great deeds. In these stories, Raven lives in Alutiiq communities and can speak in Alutiiq, but he is arrogant, dirty, and impolite to his Elders. Yet despite his poor behavior, Raven is smart and keeps his promises, and he ends up succeeding where others fail.
In one legend, Raven lives with his elderly grandmother at the edge of a large village. Here, he is so disliked that he must live off refuse from the beach. One harsh winter, when hunting was impossible, the villagers began to starve. Raven, who was always able to scavenge enough food for himself and his grandmother, asked the village chief what he would give him if he were able to bring the chief food. The chief offered Raven his oldest daughter in marriage. Pleased with the offer, Raven ordered his grandmother to clean their house and pecked her until she complied. Then he scavenged a bundle of dried fish and won the chief ’s daughter. But the Raven smelled so bad that the girl refused to stay with him and went home to her father. The next winter, famine struck the community again. Raven sent his grandmother to the home of another young woman and offered her food to marry him. She agreed, and despite the Raven’s stench, she stayed in his home. Raven then captured a giant whale and brought it to the starving village to share with all those who had treated him poorly. They gorged themselves on blubber, eating so much that they soon died. Only Raven, his grandmother, and his faithful wife lived.
Agyat unugmi antaartut. - The stars come out at night.
In the Alutiiq universe, stars live in the first of five consecutive sky worlds, closest to earth. This world is also home to the moon and northern lights, and the place where people go after dying for the fifth and final time. Like earth, this world has forests, rivers, and animals. Stars are believed to be the eyes of spirits, peering down at the earth through holes in the ground. Legend says each star is a man with one bright eye who lies face down on the ground.
An Alutiiq story tells of a girl who married a star. A chief kept his daughter in seclusion, and in her sadness, she refused to marry any of her suitors. One night, a man crawled through her window and convinced her to leave with him. She agreed, but the man mistreated her, keeping her hungry and cold. An old woman came to her aid, secretly feeding the girl and urging her to marry her son. The girl agreed and was taken by basket to the woman’s home in the sky. The old woman’s son was a star man. He had moss on his head, twigs for hair, and one bright eye in the middle of his forehead. He provided well for the girl and made her happy. In time, they had a star child. But the girl was homesick, so the old woman lowered her to earth to visit her father’s village. The villagers were scared of her, thinking that she was dead, so she returned to her home in the sky.
Photo: Whalebone carving that may represent a one-eyed star person. US Fish & Wildlife Service Colllection, AM606.
Quliyangua’uciikamken. - I will tell you a story.
Among societies without a written language, storytelling is one way to record history. People pass family accomplishments, survival techniques, and social values from generation to generation through each other rather than books. Alutiiq people often embellished stories with drawings or transformed them into songs to help people remember their content and reinforce their messages.
Stories held a great deal of information about daily life in the Alutiiq world. They warned travelers of the treachery of strangers, urged community cooperation, and explained unusual events. The man of winter, a story told to noisy children, warns that those who misbehave may cause bad weather. Through this story, children learn that poor behavior can have consequences for an entire community. Other stories probably helped to preserve information about infrequent events like catastrophic volcanic ash falls or tsunamis. Because these events occurred hundreds of years apart, they were not experienced by every generation. Stories helped communities remember environmental disasters, record their effects, and preserve information about the ways people coped.
Storytelling remains a popular form of Alutiiq expression. A good speaker is encouraged to share his or her knowledge, teaching others through personal tales and a good dose of humor.
Photo: Ouzinkie children listening to a story. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
qugyut qat’rtaarut. - The swans are (always) white.
The tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus), a common visitor to Kodiak’s coastal wetlands, is one of three species of swans found in Alaska and the largest Alaska bird. This all-white bird is distinguished by a teardrop-shaped splash of yellow on either side of its black bill. Tundra swans summer in Alaska, migrating up to four thousand miles each fall to wetlands in the eastern United States. At age two, young swans develop their white adult plumage and mate for life. In the Kodiak Archipelago, tundra swans are particularly common in the open, grassy environments of southern Kodiak Island. Here, about two dozen breeding pairs raise cygnets each year.
Alutiiqs once harvested swans for food and raw material. Hunters captured these large birds with bows and arrows as well as snares. Archaeological collections indicate that their long, sturdy, lightweight wing bones were commonly fashioned into awls: tools for punching holes in leather.
An Alutiiq story about a beautiful female swan illustrates the human-like spirit inside of every animal. In this tale, the swan removes her skin to go swimming, revealing a beautiful woman. A young man steals her skin and when she can’t flee, they marry. Later the swan-woman escapes the man’s village and takes their young son. The man begins a long quest to find his family and eventually arrives in a special bird world. Here, in the far-off place where birds migrate in the winter, he sees naked birds painting on their colorful plumage. When he begs to travel back to earth with the birds, the raven agrees to carry him. But he is too heavy for the birds and falls into the ocean, where he becomes a white whale.
Photo: Swans flying over the ocean off Cape Alitak at sun set.