Kaugya’at ugna’anek nertaartut.- Foxes eat voles.
The northern vole (Microtus oeconomus), also known as the tundra vole or root vole, is one of Kodiak’s original residents. This small rodent feeds primarily on the bark and roots of plants, particularly sedges and cotton grass. In search of food, it will dig long underground tunnels. Biologists believe that the vole may have been the first mammal to colonize Kodiak after the last ice age. Because voles are the major prey of small carnivores like red fox and short-tailed weasel, they speculate that the vole population must have been well established before other terrestrial mammals could thrive. It is also possible that voles arrived in the Kodiak Archipelago with people, inadvertently hitching rides with unsuspecting kayakers.
However they arrived, archaeological sites indicate that voles were common pests in ancient villages. Vole tunnels, vole skeletons, and garbage chewed by voles are regular finds. Moreover, traditional stories talk about the vole as a mischievous thief, rooting in people’s stores and stealing food. Although voles were not eaten, people did occasionally collect the rice-like roots of the chocolate lily from vole caches. According to one legend, if a person takes lily bulbs from a vole, he should not take all of them and should leave fish or some other food in their place.
Photo: A northern vole. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Tamiinek taangaq aturtapet. - We use water in everything.
Freshwater is a plentiful resource in the Kodiak Archipelago. Although the region contains few large rivers, more than eighty inches of precipitation fall each year, and many small streams funnel rainwater and snow melt down steep mountainsides to the coast.
Alutiiq villages were often built near a reliable source of freshwater, a pond or a stream where water could be collected for drinking, cooking, bathing, healing, and manufacturing. Residents hauled water to their houses in bentwood buckets and tightly woven baskets, where it was stockpiled in containers fashioned from seal stomachs. Families drank water from woven cups or sucked it out of gut containers using straws made from the dried stems of cow parsnip plants. Vessels used for hauling water were also used for cooking. People added fire-heated rocks to boxes filled with foods and water to cook their contents. Water was also a preservative. Berries, for example, could be kept fresh for months in cool or frozen water.
An Alutiiq legend recorded at the turn of the nineteenth century tells of the origins of water, both fresh and salt. According to this legend, a man and a woman descended from the sky in a seal bladder. The man scattered his hair on the mountains, creating trees and forests, while the woman produced the ocean by urinating and the rivers and lakes by spitting into ditches. Yup’ik and Iñupiat peoples tell a very similar story, illustrating the deep ancestral ties among Alaska’s coastal societies.
Photo: Boy in Larsen Bay carries water buckets with the help of a wooden yolk. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Kuicaaq qus'igtuq. - The waterfall is high.
Kodiak’s rugged topography and its wet weather combine to create many small waterfalls. Heavy rains saturate the ground, providing runoff for streams that spill down mountainsides and plummet over cliffs. Some waterfalls are seasonal, fed by spring rains and melting snow, while others drain steep slopes year-round. The Alutiiq word for waterfall, kuicaaq, comes from the word for creek, kuik.
Waterfalls are a prominent feature in Alutiiq legends and are often associated with the supernatural. In some stories, waterfalls act as passageways into distant and dangerous lands. In one tale, a woman in search of her lost lover paddles over a waterfall that traps her in a world filled with cannibals. When she succeeds in killing the cannibals, the waterfall disappears and she is able to paddle home.
In other tales, waterfall and animal spirits are associated. In these legends, waterfalls provide freshwater for thirsty sea creatures. According to one tale, an Alutiiq boy saw a whale swim toward shore. As he watched, the whale shoved its head onto the beach and opened its mouth. A little man, the whale’s spirit, came out carrying a leather bucket in each hand. The little man went up to the waterfall and filled his buckets, and then climbed back into the whale’s mouth. Refreshed, the whale closed its mouth and swam back out to sea.
Photo: An Afognak Island waterfall.
Yaatiini, akgua’aq, ernerpak cali aqllangenguartuq. - The last few days have been windy.
Wind is a persistent environmental feature of Alaska’s gulf coast. Steep mountains funnel sudden gusts down coastal valleys, and winter storms bring blustery weather that generates high seas and cold temperatures. For Kodiak residents, the wind is both a friend and an enemy. In summer, it keeps the bugs away and helps dry food for winter use. But in winter, wind can make travel and subsistence activities difficult, encouraging boaters to stay ashore. Weather is always a major topic of conversation. People learn to read the winds in their communities, to help predict everything from salmon runs to the return of the mail plane.
An Alutiiq legend tells of a community where the wind always blew fiercely, stranding villagers in their homes. A brave man paddled his kayak into the wind to find its source. He came to a cliff where a man sat blowing violently. He shot the man, who retreated but did not die. Over many months, the kayaker traveled to distant places, searching out other winds and stuffing their mouths with moss. His noble actions calmed the winds but did not tame them permanently.
Tawa kingugturningaitua! - No, I won’t eat this worm!
Earthworms are relatively rare in Alaska. Despite the abundance and notoriety of their cousin the ice worm, earthworms do not thrive in acidic forest soils or in areas with extensively frozen ground. Of the 1,800 known species of earthworms, the only naturally occurring Alaska species is Bismastos tenuis, one of the world’s smaller earthworms.
If Kodiak was largely ice-covered during the last glacial epoch, how did worms get to the archipelago? It is likely they were unintentionally introduced in postglacial times by people and animals. Earthworms lay their eggs in small cocoon-like capsules. Scientists speculate that worm eggs were transported to places like Kodiak in dirt clinging to feathers, fur, or feet. Redeposited in good soil, the eggs hatched, and the resulting worms thrived. Today, Kodiak has a variety of earthworms, some of which have been intentionally imported by gardeners.
Although earthworms may have been less common in the past, they were known. An Alutiiq story from Afognak Island tells of a giant, rainbow-colored man-worm. This ravenous creature had the face of a man, the body of a worm, many human feet, and toward its tail, an eagle’s talons. The worm ate continuously, devouring everything it encountered. Only a whaler, one of Kodiak’s most spiritually powerful hunters, was able to kill the beast. Similar man-worm stories are found among the Yup’ik people.
Qatayaq qayam cuungani misngauq. - The seagull is landed on the bow of the kayak.
From the Arctic Ocean to Prince William Sound, Alaska’s Native people crafted swift, seaworthy qayaqs from wood and animal skins. Each culture had a distinct style of boat with unique qualities designed for their environment.
Yup’ik qayaqs were short and broad, designed for stability in the ice-filled waters of the Bering Sea. Alutiiq qayaqs were long and slender, built to withstand the rough, windy waters of the North Pacific Ocean.
One of the most distinctive elements of the Alutiiq qayaq is its split, upturned prow. Like the boats size and shape, this part of the qayaq helps with navigation. The lower curved part of the prow slightly hollow on the sides, helping the boat cut through the water. The tall upper part provides buoyancy, helping the boat to float as it encounters waves.
The Alutiiq qayaq prow also helped paddlers identify each other. See a paddler in a split prow qayaq heading towards you and chances are that you are about to encounter another Alutiiq person, someone who speaks your language and may even be a relative.
An Alutiiq legend tells of the origins of the split qayaq prow. According to this story, the first man and women 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 still characterizes Alutiiq qayaqs.
Photo: Larry Matfay holds the prow of the kayak in which he rode as a child. Photo taken in Old Harbor, outside Matfay's home. Photo courtesy Florence Pestrikoff and family.
Maaninguall'raq macamek tang'rpakartaan'itukut. - Around here (pitifully) we do not see the sun.
Sunshine is an important ingredient in Alutiiq subsistence activities. To preserve the quantities of meat, fish, and even plants harvested during the productive summer months, families need dry weather. Without it, foods do not desiccate and can spoil rapidly in the damp Kodiak environment. Even the best hunter can experience a lean winter if a wet summer makes processing his catch difficult. With luck, families had some sunshine and a little wind to speed the process.
Sunshine was also important for drying the plant fibers used in weaving many common objects - baskets for carrying, cooking and storing foods, mats for household use, woven clothing, and cordage. The Alutiiq also used the sun to soften spruce pitch, used to waterproof kayak seams and patch dories. To coax the sun from behind the clouds, and to hasten its return during the dark days of winter, Alutiiq children played a sunrise game with a wooden bead on a string.
According to Alutiiq lore, the sun is a spirit who lives in the fifth sky world - the one that is closest to earth. A number of legends explain the origin of the sun. In one, a man fell in love with his beautiful sister and they had twins. One twin became the moon, the other the sun. Another legend says that the sun is a man from Cook Inlet who fled to the sky after killing his brother. One side of him shines during the day as the sun, the other at night as the moon. And in a story from Kodiak, Raven brought daylight to his community by capturing the sun, moon, and stars from a stingy chief and releasing them from their boxes into the sky.
Photo: A Kodiak Sunset
Kallikan alingnartaartut. - When it is thundering it is scary.
Although storms are common in Kodiak, thunder and lightning are relatively rare. This is because thunder storms occur when cold and warm weather fronts collide, and warm air masses pass over Kodiak infrequently. However, electrical storms do occur, creating dangerous conditions in both summer and winter.
Alutiiq people have long feared thunder and lightning, for their power and connection to the unseen world. In January 1801, a Russian naval office recorded an eerie event during an electrical storm. Residents of an Alutiiq settlement were hosting a winter festival. During the storm, many people observed a rock jumping up and down, making its way up a hillside. No one could explain this phenomenon, but villagers suspected it was caused by thunder.
Similarly, an Alutiiq legend suggests that thunder and lightning were once two, poor, hungry girls whose community tired of caring for them and sent them away. This mistreatment led the girls to wander for many days, until they flew into the sky and became the angry and powerful thunder and lightning. The story reminds people of the importance of generosity.
Photo: Cumulus clouds over a Kodiak peak.