Nick kaRmauniartaartuq. - Nick (habitually) plays the accordion.
In the mid-twentieth century, dances were popular events in Alutiiq communities, and many villages held weekly dances. Fridays were sock hop nights, because Saturday evenings were reserved for religious services. Other dances might be scheduled around community events. During the Second World War, for example, Old Harbor organized dances when the service men stationed on Sitkalidak Island came to town for supplies. Dancing was particularly popular with young people, and some communities operated dance halls from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Music was a central part of community dances. Young men enjoyed playing instruments. Entertaining others and putting on a show was also a good way to meet young women! The most famous Alutiiq musicians were accordion players, who used either small round accordions or larger twelve-key instruments. Historic accounts suggest that accordion playing became popular in the 1890s, when the typical instrument cost about $3.50. Alutiiq men also taught themselves how to play the mandolin, ukulele, banjo, guitar, and harmonica. They learned songs from records or other musicians, playing everything from Hank Williams tunes to square dances, polkas, and schottisches.
Live entertainment faded after Word War II as television became more widely available. A few musicians continued to play accordions and guitars, performing at special events like weddings.
Photo: Accordion player and family. Nekeferoff Collection.
Una arnaq caugnga’istaq. - This woman is an acupressurist.
Although many people think of acupressure as an Asian science, healers in societies around the world use their hands to restore health to the sick by applying gentle, carefully directed pressure. This pressure promotes blood circulation, stimulates the production of hormones, relieves tension, and reduces pain, helping the body to heal.
In Alutiiq society, acupressure was once an important form of traditional medicine practiced by village healers. Women trained in the art of bleeding, the use of plant medicines, and midwifery were also acupressurists. They used their hands to feel illness and to move it from the body with directed pressure and massage.
The Alutiiq word for an acupressurist, caugnga’istaq, comes from the word for pulse. According to Elders, there were certain points on the body where the caugnga’istaq would feel a patient’s pulse to both diagnose and treat illness. Some of the commonly manipulated pulse points included the temple, the collarbone, and the ankles. If a person’s pulse felt faint in a certain area, the acupressurist might perform a holding technique to restore blood flow or choose a blood letting or herbal treatment to promote healing.
Photo: Alutiiq Elder and traditional healer, Mary Peterson.
The Alutiiq word pilinguar translates literally as, “to make one’s own.” Alutiiq speakers use this word for adoption. It is a very specific term for adding a person to one’s family, or for fostering a child. It is not typically used for circumstances like adopting a pet or a practice. There are other words for these activities.
Adoption is a very important tradition in Alutiiq communities. Being an orphan, or lliya’aq, is dangerous, as family affiliation provides support and social standing. Orphaned children were often adopted by members of their extended family–grandparents, aunts and uncles, or even an older sibling. This safeguarded them from becoming laborers in another family’s home. Sometimes, however, a local adoption was not possible.
In the twentieth century, Alutiiq children in need of a home were sent to orphanages like the Jesse Lee Home in Unalaska and the Kodiak Baptist Mission orphanage on Woody Island. One of the lesser known homes was Baker Cottage, a Baptist Mission facility in Ouzinkie. Baker Cottage operated from 1938 to 1958 and cared for up to about 15 children at a time. It was built after a fire destroyed the facilities on Woody Island. The youngest children in the Woody Island orphanage were sent to Ouzinkie, where they lived in a large, wood-framed home supervised by house parents. The house sat among the spruce trees on a hill overlooking Ouzinkie harbor and had running water.
When the orphanage closed, it became a community mission, overseen by the Reverends Norman and Joyce Smith. Children still gravitated to the home, where the Smith’s taught Kindergarten, had a playroom, provided nursing care, hosted clubs, parties, game nights, films, and Bible study.
Photo: Reverend Goudie with children at the Kodiak Baptist Orphanage. Goudie Collection, courtesy the Tangirnaq Tribe.
Una Ag’wanermiu’aq. - This one is an Afognak person.
Afognak Island lies at the northern end of the Kodiak Archipelago, just a few miles from the tip of Kodiak Island. It is the second-largest island in the region, covering more than 780 square miles. Like much of Kodiak, Afognak is mountainous with an intricate coastline. Islets dot a shoreline broken by long narrow fjords. The island is unique, however, in that it is heavily forested. Over the last 900 years, the forest of the Kenai Peninsula spread gradually south, blanketing Afognak Island with a lush cover of spruce trees and sphagnum moss.
One of Afognak’s best-known features is the Afognak River, a productive salmon stream that empties into Afognak Bay on the southern end of the Island. The banks of this river have been occupied for millennia. Archaeological data indicate that Alutiiq people harvested resources here repeatedly over the past seven thousand years. In the historic era, Russian-American Company laborers built a dam in the river, called a zapor, to trap spawning salmon. Alutiiq people harvested and dried these fish, which were used both to feed company workers and the Native community.
By the 1830s, numerous families lived in Afognak village, a community to the west of the river mouth. The village had two distinct parts. Aleut Town, at one end, was home to Alutiiq families. Russian Town, at the other end, housed retired Russian men, their Native wives, and their Creole children. The community had vegetable gardens, a fleet of wooden rowboats, and a Russian Orthodox Church.
Afognak remained a thriving community until 1964, when tsunamis following the Great Alaska Earthquake flooded the village. Seawater washed away many buildings, damaged others, and polluted wells, forcing residents to move. The International Lions club helped to build Port Lions, a new community on the shore of nearby Kizhuyak Bay. Although Afognak village is no longer inhabited, it is not abandoned. Families continue to feel strong ties to the area. They visit the community, share it with friends and family members, and hunt and fish in the surrounding area. Afognak village remains a beloved place to many Alutiiq families.
Photo: Aerial view of the Afognak Village area, 2012.
Alap’aaq Nuniamen taillria. - An African-American person came to Old Harbor.
African Americans began living and working in Alaska in the late nineteenth century. Although their history in the Far North is poorly documented, they came to harvest natural resources and to work for government agencies like other colonists. African Americans mined gold, staffed revenue cutters, served in Alaska military posts, and helped to build the Alaska Highway.
Today, the African-American population of Alaska is quite small. About 3.5 percent of Alaska’s population is African American, as compared with 12.5 percent nationally. Rural Kodiak is home to even fewer people of African descent. Recent census statistics indicate that there are about 13,600 people living in the Kodiak Island Borough. Of these people, less than 1 percent are of African-American descent, as compared with 55 percent Caucasian, 20 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 14 percent Native American, 7 percent multiracial, and 4 percent other races.
The Alutiiq word for African American is aRap’aaq or alap’aaq, and it comes from a Russian word meaning Arab. This word is easily confused with aRapak, a similar-sounding Alutiiq word for rubber boots. Some people think that Alutiiqs called African Americans aRap’aat because their skin was black like a boot, but this is untrue.
Another clue to the Russian origins of the word aRap’aaq is its R sound. This sound is not found in the Alutiiq language but appears in words borrowed from Russian and English. In the modern Alutiiq alphabet, people write the Western R sound as a small capital letter (r) to distinguish it from the Alutiiq r sound, which is written with a lower-case r.
Photo: Visitors to Old Harbor, 1890. Albatross Collection, courtesy the National Archives.
Angyaartalek sugyataallia cuumi. - There used to be a lot of people at Aiaktalik Island.
Aiaktalik Island, one of the Trinity Islands, lies at the southern end of the Kodiak Archipelago at the tip of the Aliulik Peninsula. Surrounded by the rough waters of Sitkinak Strait, this small, triangular land mass covers just seven square miles. The island is low and rolling, with grass-covered hills no more than two hundred feet high.
Aiaktalik Island was once home to the village of Aiaktalik. One of Kodiak’s largest Alutiiq communities, this village had about four hundred residents in the late eighteenth century. The village lay on the shore of Aiaktalik Cove on the island’s north side, facing Russian Harbor on adjacent Kodiak Island.
In the Russian and American eras, Aiaktalik was a base for sea otter hunting, and in the American era it also was a center of fox farming. By the late eighteenth century, the community had an Alaska Commercial Company store where furs were traded for food and supplies. There was also a Russian Orthodox chapel named the Apostle Andrew the First Called.
With the collapse of the fur trade, and a devastating flu epidemic, Aiaktalik families suffered many hardships in the early decades of the twentieth century. Many left the community to move to Akhiok, Kaguyak, and Old Harbor. Scholars Lydia Black and Don Clark report that by 1934, there were just twenty-nine residents of Aiaktalik. The village had no school, so some families moved to allow their children to attend classes. Others left to be close to canneries with seasonal employment. The last families left Aiaktalik during World War II, when the local storekeeper, a Japanese man, was sent to an internment camp and his store closed. In 1957, a group of former residents returned to Aiaktalik, dismantled the chapel, and moved the boards to Kaguyak.
Photo: Aiaktalik Island scenery, courtesy Sea Hawk Air.
Tengausqaq mit’kutartuq. - The plane is going to land.
Today, each of Kodiak’s remote Alutiiq villages receives regular airline service. Many days, commuter flights from town carry passengers, freight, and mail across the archipelago. Wheeled planes and floatplanes are now a common, efficient way to travel, but older residents recall the days of limited air service.
Until the construction of Kodiak’s Naval Air Station and FAA Communication Station during World War II, there was no regular plane service to Kodiak. People and goods traveled by boat, taking days to reach places like Anchorage, Homer, and Karluk. Coast Guard cutters had to evacuate the seriously ill to Seward.
World War II construction encouraged commercial flights to Kodiak by creating runways and an air traffic control system. In the 1950s, the construction of gravel airstrips in Kodiak villages extended the reachof air service. Although it was expensive, villagers were drawn to the ease of air travel, and the used of mail boats ended.
The arrival of scheduled plane flights is now part of the rhythm of village life. Adults phone Kodiak air taxis to report village weather. Children scan the skies, competing to be the first to see an approaching plane, and everyone listens for the hum of aircraft engines. This sound signals that it is time to jump in a car and head for the airstrip: a gravel runway found in every community.
Photo: Kodiak Airways loads up in Old Harbor. Befu Collection ca. 1960.
Kasukuarmiu’ak taugkuk. - Those two are from Akhiok.
Surrounded by grassy hills and tundra flats, Akhiok is Kodiak’s southernmost Alutiiq village. The present location of this remote community, ninety miles from the City of Kodiak, was settled in 1881. Additional residents moved here from Kasukuak in nearby Humpy Cove. The original community was a sea otter hunting settlement established by Russian fur traders. As the sea otter industry waned, fishing gained economic importance
During World War II, the U.S. Postal Service briefly renamed the community Alitak, to avoid confusing it with Akiak, a Yup’ik village in Western Alaska. Akhiok has always been a small community. The village’s initial population was 114 people, which declined to a low of 72 in 1950. But by the 1980s, the population had climbed back to over 100 individuals. In part, this rise reflects immigration. The residents of Akhiok include the descendants of several families from Kaguyak, a village destroyed by the tsunamis that followed the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. Today, Akhiok has about 80 residents living in 25 homes.
Fishing is central to Akhiok’s economy. Strong salmon runs enter Alitak Bay, supporting both commercial harvesting and a subsistence lifestyle. Many families make a living in the fishing industry: working at the Alitak cannery five miles south of Akhiok or fishing commercially for salmon, halibut, and crab. Like all of Kodiak’s villages, Akhiok can only be reached by boat or airplane. Community facilities include a gravel airstrip, a public school, a cemetery, and the Protection of the Theotokos Chapel—a Russian Orthodox Church.
Photo: Akhiok in winter, view northwest