In the eighteenth century, Russian entrepreneurs spread eastward into Alaska, settling the Pacific coast of North America to claim land and harvest the region’s rich resources. Although the number of Russian colonists was very small, they established communities from western Alaska to northern California. By the mid 1800s, strained by the financial impact of the Crimean War, the Russian crown could no longer defend its far eastern colonies. Afraid of losing the valuable territory to another power, Russia offered to sell Alaska to both the United States and Great Britain in 1859. Neither accepted.
However, in the spring of 1867, Russia proposed the sale again. Under the guidance of Secretary of State William Seward, the U.S. Senate approved a treaty of purchase signed by President Andrew Johnson. Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18th, 1867. The purchase added over half a million square miles to the U.S. and a gave the country a strong strategic position in the Pacific. Alutiiq people, and other Alaska Native residents, were not consulted about the sale.
Although, 2017 marks the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the Alaska Purchase, many Alaska Natives see this as a time for contemplation not celebration. The purchase brought American military rule and many new cultural and economic challenges for Native people. Moreover, western powers assumed the authority to control lands used by Native people for millennia. This issue was exacerbated by the Alaska Statehood Act of 1958, which disclaimed all Native rights to traditional lands. More than a century after the purchase, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 acknowledged indigenous title and returned some Alaska lands and resources to Native peoples.
Photo: Kodiak in 1889, 22 years after the American Purchase. Albatross Collection, National Archives.
Cuumillat lisngataallit. - The ancestors were very learned.
Concepts of time differ between societies. Western cultures think of time as linear and progressive: species evolve, investments grow, technologies develop, and the past is often seen as outdated or quaint. To many Native people, including Alutiiqs, time is more circular and fluid. From this perspective, the past is part of the present and events from distant times influence daily life. This view is particularly evident in Alutiiq beliefs about ancestors, forbearers whose lives are beyond the reach of living memory.
Importantly, Alutiiq people view distant ancestors as revered family members. Ancestors may be separated from the living by hundreds or even thousands of years, but they remain aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. This reverence for ancestors is evident in the respect Alutiiqs feel for ancestral knowledge.Hunting expertise, artistic skill, environmental knowledge, stories, songs, and dance are all gifts bestowed to the living from previous generations.
Image: Afogank Man, water color painting by Helen J. Simeonof, Alutiiq Museum Collection AM459
Kicarwigmen agkutartua ernerpak. - I am going to Anchorage today.
Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, lies 250 miles north of the Kodiak Archipelago, at the far northern end of Cook Inlet. In many ways, Anchorage is a gateway to the Alutiiq world. Airline flights to Homer, Cordova, Kodiak, and King Salmon, the major hubs in the Alutiiq homeland, originate in Anchorage. To enter or leave the Alutiiq world, one usually travels through Anchorage.
The word Kicarwik is a recently coined term that literally means “place to anchor.” For Alutiiqs, Anchorage is a fun place to visit and shop. People travel north to buy cars, purchase clothing, enjoy restaurants, and attend cultural events like the annual Alaska Federation of Native convention or the Native Youth Olympics. Others go to Anchorage for medical attention, seeking treatment at the Alaska Native Medical Center.
Although Kicarwik lies beyond the limit of the Alutiiq nation in Athabaskan Indian territory, it is home to many Alutiiq people, and you can get a taste of Alutiiq heritage there. The Afognak Native Corporation’s Anchorage offices feature a gallery with displays of Alutiiq art and artifacts. The Alaska Native Heritage center has a reproduction of an Alutiiq sod house as well as exhibits, presentations, and performances on Alutiiq culture. You can visit the Anchorage Museum at
Rasmuson Center to view Alutiiq artifacts and contemporary works of Alutiiq art, or you can purchase pieces of Alutiiq artwork at the Alaska Native Medical Center gift shop or the Alaska Native Arts Foundation gallery.
Photo: Waiting for the plane to Anchorage. Nekeferof Collection.
Uriisat tak’ut. - The angelica are tall.
Angelica (Agelica lucida) is a large, leafy herb with a stout fleshy stem and small, greenish-white flowers that form a large head. This aromatic plant, which grows in Kodiak’s coastal meadows, on beaches, and along streambanks, is prized for its healing qualities. However, be careful not to mistake angelica for its extremely poisonous cousin, the deadly water hemlock. Both are members of the parsley family. Angelica can only be picked and used during the warm summer months, because it does not preserve well.
In Alutiiq communities, people value angelica as a steam bath switch and medicinal herb. Alutiiqs may also put angelica leaves on the floor of their steam baths to perfume the warm air and open the sinuses. Others wave the plant’s leafy stem in the heat of a steam bath and rub it on their bodies to relieve aches and pains. The plant is also said to contain oils that heal and revitalize the skin. In some villages, people rub the fleshy, inner part of the stem and leaves on their skin to heal skin irritations. Similarly, rheumatism was once treated with wet, heated angelica leaves.
Angelica is also useful outdoors. Hikers use the plant’s stems to switch away bugs, and hunters rub their hands with angelica leaves before touching animal traps to hide their human scent.
Photo: Elder Lucille Davis demonstrates the application of angelica as bug repellent. Photo by Priscilla Russell, courtesy the KANA collection.
Unguwallriat amlertut maani. - The animals are plentiful here.
According to Alutiiq lore, Kas’arpak, a powerful being who resided in the third of five sky worlds, created all of the animals and birds in the universe. He formed the earth’s creatures from a little man, giving them the ability to shift between animal and human form and endowing each with a soul.
Although everything in the Alutiiq universe is believed to have a sua—a person inside that gives it consciousness—only humans and animals are thought to have souls. When an animal dies, its sua dies as well. However, if the animal is properly treated, its soul survives and can be reincarnated in another animal. As such, respectful human action is critical to regeneration of game. The Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound believed that an animal’s soul rested in a particular part of its body and hunters had to be careful to release this part to the environment. Honoring the animal’s inner person, or sua, was also an important part of regeneration. Many of the masked dances performed at winter festivals were dedicated to this task.
The unguwallriat were cared for by two powerful female beings. Imam Sua, who lived at the bottom of the ocean, ruled over marine creatures. Hunters asked her to provide them with game and for protection from the wind and waves when they were caught in a storm. Nunam Sua, the ruler of creatures that lived on the land, lived in mountain forests. She wore a knee-length coat covered with small animals and was surrounded by a bright light that made her difficult to see. Some people believed that she could read hunters’ thoughts.
Image: Sea mammal petroglyph, Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
K’liaqa ciruneq. - I am carving the antler.
Although antler-bearing mammals are not indigenous to the Kodiak Archipelago, antler has long been a favored material of Alutiiq craftsmen. Antler is a compact form of bone grown and shed annually by animals of the deer family. Unlike horn, which is made of keratin, antler is formed from ash, calcium, and phosphorous. This porous, resilient material is excellent for making tools.
Archaeological data illustrate that craftsmen employed antler regularly in the manufacture of objects designed to withstand an impact. Harpoons, fish spears, arrows, and wedges for splitting wood are some examples.
Where did Kodiak’s Alutiiq people obtain antler? Most of it was probably caribou antler traded, collected, or obtained through hunting on the Alaska mainland. Although small quantities of moose antler may have made it into artists’ hands, moose were rare on the Alaska Peninsula until the twentieth century, making the peninsula’s caribou herds a more likely source.
Today Alutiiq people collect the antlers of the Sitka black-tailed deer, a species introduced to Kodiak in the early twentieth century. Artists generally prefer the hardened tines of fully grown deer to the spongier tines of immature animals. Craftsmen fashion this material into strong, attractive handles for a variety of knives and baskets. Small pieces are also skillfully polished, painted, or engraved to make jewelry.
Photo: Moose anter collected on the Alaska Peninsula. Nekeferof Collection.
Ipigka awa tukniya’utuk. - My arms now are getting weak.
In classical Alutiiq society, people wore long, hoodless robes stitched from bird or animal skins. These garments had loose, heavy sleeves that could make completing daily chores difficult. To facilitate work, seamstresses created slits in the sides of these robes, long narrow vents that ran from under the arm to the hip. When a person wished to work with their arms, they simply pulled them out of their sleeves and extended them through the vents in their robe. This freed the arms while keeping the torso covered and warm.
Prehistoric Alutiiq skeletal remains indicate that men worked extensively with their arms. Bones and muscles thicken with strenuous physical activity, and larger muscles etch a larger pattern on the underlying bone. From looking at the marks left by muscles on adult male arm bones, particularly the humerus or upper arm bone, anthropologists believe that Alutiiq men developed massive arm muscles. This strength reflects a lifetime of carrying wood and water, building structures, throwing spears, casting darts, and paddling boats.
Photo: Boys carrying wood, Ouzinkie. Courtsey Tim and Norman Smith.
Over the front of their vest, warriors sometimes attached a breastplate. They made this extra layer of protection by lashing narrow rods of wood together. A collar of tightly woven sinew provided protection for the neck, and warriors wore hats of wood or thick animal skin.
In addition to protective vests, Alutiiq warriors carried shields and shield walls in combat. Historic accounts describe large groups of men advancing with a wooden shield wall, a set of heavy, connected, wooden planks that could stop a musket ball. These portable walls were large. Russian observers note that they could shield 30 to 40 men each and were made of three layers of cedar boards tied together with kelp and sinew.