Guangkuta Alas’kaarmiu’at. - We are all Alaskans.
Unangan, the Native language of the Aleutian Island chain, is the source of the name Alaska. In Unangan, Alayeksa means “great land” or “mainland.” Before western conquest, Aleutian Islanders used this word to refer to the western end of the Alaska Peninsula. From their island perspective, the peninsula was an enormous land.
Early western explorers followed Unangan tradition, using the term Alaska for the Alaska Peninsula. Early cartographers recorded many versions of the word, including Alakshak, Alaksu, Alaxsa, and Aliaska. Alaska was not adopted as the name for what is now the forty-ninth state until 1867. Secretary of the Interior William H. Seward and his colleagues Charles Sumner and H. W. Hallek proposed the name when the region passed from Russian to American rule and became a territory of the United States.
The term Alaska is also distinctively Native in other ways. Alaska Native place names often start with the letters a, i, and k and refer to local features of the landscape. Alutiiq people, for example, might name a cove for a particular plant found along its shores, or a headland for its dominant wind. In contrast, European peoples tend to name large geographic features or to use place names to commemorate others: Chirikof Island, Mt. Glotov, and Shelikof Strait are some local examples
Map: Native peoples and languages of Alaska, courtsey the Alaska Native Language Center, UAF.
Aluuwirmiu’at yaqsisinartut. - People of the Alaska Peninsula are far away.
The Alaska Peninsula is a cultural crossroads, a place where the peoples of the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska have long interacted. Archaeological data suggest that Alutiiq people spread west across the peninsula about 750 years ago, settling the low, wet, tundra floodplain of the northwestern peninsula. One of the largest Alutiiq communities in this area was Ugashik.
Ugashik village lies on the bank of the Ugashik River, about sixteen miles above Ugashik Bay. Early travel accounts suggest that people in Ugashik spoke a unique dialect of Alutiiq that included many elements of the Yup’ik language spoken to the north. This unique mix of the Alutiiq and Yup’ik languages likely reflects the mobility of Alaska Peninsula peoples and their contact with neighboring groups. Ugashik residents harvested widely from Bristol Bay waters, peninsula environments, and the Pacific coast. In the late nineteenth century, Ugashik families traded in Nushagak to the northwest but also traveled across the Alaska Peninsula to trade at Katmai.
Ugashik village flourished as a center of trapping activity in the Russian era. However, as commercial canneries developed in Ugashik Bay, many residents moved to participate in wage labor, establishing the adjacent coastal village of Agishik, or Pilot Point. Similarly, in the 1890s, a substantial number of villagers moved to the Pacific coast to the new community of Kanatak. This settlement lay in Portage Bay, at the end of the portage trail at the head of the Ugashik River. In 1918, many remaining villagers died from a devastating flu pandemic. Ugashik never regained a substantial population.
Map: Alutiiq communities of the western Alaska Peninsula.
Uqgwit kua'akameng cillkataartut. - When alders burn they make a crackling sound.
Sitka alder (Alnus crispa) is a large shrub that grows up to twenty feet tall. Found commonly across the Kodiak Archipelago, this plant thrives in a wide range of environments, from mountain slopes to coastal meadows and the banks of freshwater streams. Sitka alder often forms dense thickets in disturbed areas. You can identify this shrub by its dark green, oval, toothed leaves, which the plant sheds in the fall. Sitka alder produces two types of flower clusters of catkins: long, narrow, drooping male catkins and smaller, brown, cone-like female catkins. Another distinguishing feature is its smooth, gray bark.
Alutiiq people used flexible alder branches to construct kayaks and snowshoes. The leafy branches are also employed as switches for steam bathing, where they relieved aches and pains and promoted good health. Some people use alder for smoking fish, although the outer bark may be peeled and removed to prevent an unpleasant aftertaste. Alder is also a source of firewood, particularly in bad weather. This plentiful plant provides fuel when it is difficult to collect other types of wood.
Photo: Alder brush. KANA collection. Courtesy Priscilla Russell.
Ikna suk taya’uq. - That person is an Aleut.
The word Aleut has a colorful history. Introduced to Alaska by Russian fur traders in the eighteenth century, it originated in eastern Siberia. Aleut comes from a Siberian Native language, and it means coastal dweller: a person who makes a living from the sea. Although Russian explorers recognized differences between the groups of Alaska Natives they encountered, they used this one term to describe all Native peoples. Russian traders called people with different languages, social practices, beliefs, and histories Aleut. In the modern era, this has caused confusion, because people of different heritages are known by the same term.
Despite this situation, the word Aleut remains a popular self-designator both in the Aleutian Islands and in southcentral Alaska. Many people prefer this familiar term because they were raised using it. Others have chosen to use traditional terms for their people: Unangan in the Aleutians and Sugpiaq in the central Gulf. The word Alutiiq is itself derived from Aleut and became common usage in the 1970s. It is the way that the Native residents of Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, and the Alaska Peninsula say Aleut in their traditional language.
Map: Distribution of EskAleut speakers.
All’itami et’ukut. - We are at Alitak.
In the early nineteenth century, Russian traders established a community at the entrance to Olga Creek in southern Olga Bay, known as Alitak. Built on a terrace above the creek’s lagoon, the settlement was a fish processing station, where Alutiiqs worked to preserve salmon under Russian supervision. Historians believe that Alitak was economically attached to the community of Akhiok. Records indicate that operations focused on Olga Creek in the salmon season then moved to Akhiok for the remainder of the year. Following the smallpox epidemic of 1837, thirteen residents of Alitak relocated to the community of Aiaktalik on Aiaktalik Island to the southeast, and it appears that Alitak was never reoccupied.
Today Alitak is best known as the large bay at the southern end of Kodiak Island and the home of Alaska’s largest known assemblage of rock art. At Cape Alitak, Alutiiq ancestors pecked over a thousand images of people, animals, and geometric shapes into shoreline boulders and rock outcrops. These petroglyphs, and prehistoric settlements associated with them, indicate that Alutiiqs hunted and fished from this remote corner of the archipelago for over 3,000 years.
When were the petroglyphs carved and what do they mean? Archaeologists believe that the prehistoric images probably date to the last thousand years of Alutiiq history, based on stylistic similarities between the petroglyphs and other types of Alutiiq art. Their exact function is unknown, but they may have been territorial markers, a form of hunting magic, or a combination of both. Historic sources indicate that whalers made pictures in secluded areas in preparation for the hunt. A number of the petroglyphs show whales, and whalebone is common in some of the nearby settlements. This suggests a tie between the artwork and whale hunting at Cape Alitak.
Photo: Aerial view of Cape Alitak, looking south.
Nutaan Alutiit aapit liitapet. - Now we are learning the Alutiiq alphabet.
An alphabet is a system of characters used to represent the sounds in a language. By seeing a character, a reader can reproduce a sound without hearing it. In essence, alphabets store sounds. There are different kinds of alphabets. English speakers use the Latin alphabet, a phonemic alphabet that represents sounds with twenty-six letters written with characters from A to Z. This same alphabet has been used to represent the sounds of many other languages, including a number of Native American languages with no traditional written language. Apache, Cheyenne, Kwakiutl, Navaho, Seminole, Sioux, Tlingit, Yup’ik, and Alutiiq all use the Latin alphabet as a base.
Linguists modeled the modern Alutiiq alphabet after the Yup’ik alphabet, which was developed by Moravian missionaries from a Greenlandic system. Like English, the Alutiiq alphabet uses twenty-six letters. Some of the Alutiiq letters sound the same as English ones, but others have their own unique sounds. The Alutiiq alphabet runs from A to Y and includes just four vowels: a, i, u, and e. There is no o in Alutiiq, and y is always a consonant. In addition to some familiar consonants, the Alutiiq alphabet includes some consonants formed by two characters: kw, ng, gw, or ll. The ll sound is often the most difficult for English speakers to make. To pronounce this letter, hold your tongue against the front roof of your mouth. Then force air out so that it escapes out from the sides of your tongue through your teeth.
Photo: Kodiak Alutiiq Alphabet poster, produced by the Alutiiq Museum.
Englaryumataartuq. – He is always smiling.
By adding a postbase to a root word, Alutiiq speaks can convey location, quantity, characteristics, actions, and much more. Some postbases act like adjectives. For example, you can add the postbase -ngcuk to the stem word for dog aikur- to create aikungcuk, a small dog. Other postbases transform nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns.
A number of words that occur as independent terms in English appear as post bases in Alutiiq. For example, the Alutiiq language has no standalone word for always. Instead, Alutiiq speakers add -taar- to words, to suggest continual activity or a state of being. Englaryumataartuq. He is always smiling.
This type of word construction reflects the agglutinative character of the Alutiiq language. In Alutiiq, parts of words are added together to form a larger word. Once you know this structure, it is relatively easy to decipher Alutiiq words by identifying the meaning of each word part. Many other Alaska Native languages share this form of construction including Inupiaq, Yup’ik, and Unangan, languages related to Alutiiq, and the Athapaskan languages.
Photo: Boy playing in pail, Woody Island lower lake, Goudie Collection, Woody Island Tribal Council.
Amat ineqsunartut. - Amber is pretty.
Amber is the fossilized resin of ancient trees, particularly pine trees. This hard, yellowish-brown substance forms when a tree’s gummy oils oxidize. Contact with air solidifies the resin, creating hard lumps. Across the globe, people prize amber for its warm lustrous color as well as the prehistoric plants and insects often trapped inside. Alutiiq people are no exception.
Historical accounts of Alutiiq society repeatedly mention amber as a highly valued material. Pieces of amber were more precious than even sea otter furs or the slender white dentalium shells used to decorate the garments of the wealthy. These precious stones were often incorporated into jewelry, including earrings, pendants, armbands, and necklaces. They were also strewn on graves or given to young men preparing for warfare. Amber is said to wash up on beaches, particularly on Chirikof Island, and to be particularly common after an earthquake.
Amber is also one of the materials Alutiiq people traded for with communities on the Alaska Peninsula. Historic accounts indicate that Kodiak Islanders exported finished parkas, sinew thread, and sea otter skins, in exchange for antler, caribou hair, amber, and caribou hide clothing manufactured by their neighbors.
Photo: Basket decorated with Amber beads, by Cleo Chernoff. Courtesy Cleo Chernoff.