Makut pinguat cucunartut. - These beads are beautiful.
In classical Alutiiq society, wealthy people displayed their social position through elaborate personal ornamentation. In addition to jewelry, members of the Alutiiq elite wore tattoos and ornate garments to symbolize prestige. Before the availability of European goods, clothing and jewelry were embellished with a variety of hand-carved beads. People fashioned shell, bone, ivory, amber, coal, slate, and even halibut vertebrae into decorations for parkas, rain gear, headdresses, bags, and labrets. In Prince William Sound, Alutiiqs made shiny beads of unbaked clay mixed with seal oil, and on the Kenai Peninsula, people carved beads and nose rings from a distinctive red shale.
With the arrival of Russian fur traders, glass beads replaced those made locally and became an important commodity. Manufactured in distant Asian and European factories, these colorful trinkets were inexpensive, easy to ship, and coveted by Native peoples. In return for their labor, the Russians paid Alutiiqs with beads and other cheap baubles, ensuring a large profit for themselves. For Alutiiqs, new varieties of brightly colored beads fit well into the prestige-based economy and were widely incorporated into ancestral arts. The Cornaline d’Aleppo, a dark red bead made in Venice, was particularly prized, perhaps because its color resembled traditional red pigments.
Photo: Detail of a beaded headdress collected on Kodiak ca. 1972 by Alphonse Pinart. Courrtsey the Château-Musée. Photograph by Will Anderson.
Arya'aq nacartumauq. - The girl is wearing a beaded headdress.
Alaska Natives in communities from interior Alaska to the southeast coast once wore beaded headdresses. Among the Alutiiq people, headdresses were an important item of ceremonial regalia, worn at festivals for dancing, feasting, and visiting. Women’s headdresses were typically made from hundreds of glass beads strung on sinew and embellished with feathers colored with cranberry or blueberry juice. Strands of small beads were tied into a tight-fitting cap with many dangling lengths attached to the sides and the back. These attachments often featured larger, heavier beads that swayed, glittered, and jingled as the wearer moved. In Prince William Sound, the daughters of Alutiiq chiefs wore headdresses of beads and dentalium shell that extended far down their bodies, sometimes reaching their heels. Such lavish garments were a symbol of wealth. Teenage girls and young women typically wore beaded headdresses, perhaps to symbolize their passage into adulthood.
Men also wore headdresses. These garments were hood-shaped, and although they might include beads, they lacked the long strings associated with women’s headdresses. Some were made of ermine skins decorated with feathers, pieces of animal hair, strips of leather, and gut and embellished with embroidery. These ornate decorations symbolized social prestige, but they also indicated respect for the spirit world.
Image: Girl in fur and bead headdress. Watercolor painting, by Helen J. Simeonoff, Alutiiq Museum Collection AM459
Kum'agyam cugaa ipegtaartuq. - An eagle's beak is always sharp.
Elders recall that every Alutiiq hunter had at least two helping animal spirits, one for land hunting and one for sea hunting. These spirits provided luck and assistance and were frequently birds. The frequent use of bird imagery in Alutiiq art symbolizes this guiding relationship.
Beaks and other bird images are commonly found on Alutiiq masks and hunting hats, objects that symbolize spiritual communication and transformation. Alutiiqs believe that every being has a human consciousness, a person inside that can show itself. Many of the masks once used to ritually conjure and honor spirits had beak-like mouths on an otherwise human face. These beak features suggest that the masks were actually images of birds unveiling their human-like spirit. The feathers that surround many mask faces may also symbolize this process.
The ivory carvings attached to Alutiiq bentwood hunting hats also commonly depicted the heads, beaks, eyes, and wings of birds. Like masks, these ornate hats were a means of transformation. They helped the wearer become a magical being with the ability to kill sea mammals. The story of a boy who became an eagle illustrates this connection between birds and sea mammal hunting. The boy traveled to the land of the eagle, where he became an eagle by putting on an eagle skin. He was then able to capture whales and carry them home to feed his village.
Photo: An ivory bird carving decorated a bentwood hunting hat by Jacob Simeonoff. KANA collection.
Taquka’at yugnitaaraat, “Suk.”; Taquka’at niugnitaaraat, “Suk.” - Bears always say “Person.”
The brown or grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) is the largest terrestrial mammal in North America. The Kodiak Archipelago is home to more than three thousand of these enormous creatures, which have long been a source of food and raw materials for Alutiiq people. Bears once represented the only large land mammal available to Kodiak hunters, because Sitka deer, elk, and reindeer were introduced in this century. In addition to meat and fat, bears provided gut for waterproof clothing, bone for tools, teeth for jewelry, and hides for bedding. Inside the warmth of sod houses, people sat on bear hides to sew, make tools, and play games, and in the evening, families wrapped themselves in the plush fur for sleeping.
Bears were traditionally hunted in winter and spring, but not during the salmon season when their meat tasted strongly of fish. Before the introduction of firearms, hunters took bears with bone arrows, slate spears, snares, and deadfall traps. Some were killed in their dens. Others were taken with deadfall traps placed at streams or ambushed along a habitually used trail.
In the early twentieth century, hunters from around the world flocked to Kodiak in search of trophy brown bears, and Alutiiq men became famous for their expertise as guides. In the 1940s, however, the federal government designated much of Kodiak Island as a national wildlife refuge, and bear hunting was seriously restricted. Some of these restrictions have been lifted in recent years, allowing Alutiiqs to once again hunt bears for subsistence purposes.
Photo: Brown bear mother and cubs, Alaska Peninsula.
Pingayun paluqtat kuigmi. - There are three beavers in the creek.
Although beavers (Castor canadensis) thrive around Kodiak today, they are not part of the region’s original fauna. Beavers were introduced to the archipelago in 1925 in an effort to provide valuable game for trapping and a commodity for the fashion industry. Most beaver trapping was done in the fall and winter, after the summer fishing season. Alutiiqs cleaned and stretched the pelts and then sold them to fur buyers in Kodiak and Anchorage. However, beaver meat was not initially eaten because people were unfamiliar with it and equated the animals with cats and dogs. Alutiiqs learned to prepare beaver meat from other Native peoples who traditionally relied on the beaver for food.
Despite the absence of beavers from Kodiak’s prehistoric landscape, Alutiiq people did use beaver parts regularly. In addition to their pelts, craftsmen coveted the animal’s long, resilient incisors, which they obtained in trade from the Alaska mainland. Carvers hafted beaver incisors into small wooden handles to create tools for detailed woodworking, setting the teeth perpendicular to the long axis of the tool handle to create a gouge.
Today beaver are common in Kodiak’s wetlands. Adult animals can reach four feet in length and weigh as much as eighty pounds. In some areas, particularly southwestern Kodiak Island, beaver dams have modified the landscape, stopping up streams, creating new wetlands, and in the process, damaging some salmon streams. Hunters may trap or shoot beavers from early November through April and are allowed to harvest up to thirty animals each season.
Photo: Beaver dam near Pasagshak. Courtesy USF&WS national digital library.
Qupuraq pertaa. - He bent the wood (just now); He is bending the wood.
From arctic Alaska to the forests of Southeast, Native societies have long fashioned objects by bending wood. Wood is a naturally elastic material that can be molded into many shapes with pressure, moisture, or heat. Alaska Natives bent wood to produce boat parts, sled runners, snowshoes, hunting hats, visors, mask hoops, rattles, and household containers of every size.
This widespread use of bentwood objects illustrates the importance of bending as a manufacturing technique and the skill of craftsmen. Bending wood is not very difficult, but it takes time. A carver must pick his material carefully, work it with precision and patience, and know how the wood bends. If you rush, the piece may break. But when a thin piece of wood is successfully bent, beautiful objects can be made. From a single plank, artists create strong, useful, and exceptionally beautiful objects. To aid the bending process, carvers carefully thinned planks and sometimes cut kerfs. These small notches help the wood flex and provide space for compression along a bent edge.
How did Alutiiq people bend wood hundreds of years ago? It is possible they worked with steam in a maqiwik, or steam bathhouse, like neighboring Yup’ik people. Many late prehistoric houses had a small, low-ceilinged room devoted to bathing. People carried hot rocks into these rooms and splashed them with water to create steam for washing and perhaps wood working. Steaming can also be done in pits. In southeast Alaska, carvers softened wood in pits packed with hot rocks and seaweed and filled with water.
Photo: Bentwood box with baleen lashing, Karluk One Site, Koniag, Inc. Collection. Photo by Chris Arend, Courtesy Koniag, Inc.
Unuaqu Benny Benson-rem ernera. - Tomorrow is Benny Benson’s Day.
Many countries in the New World celebrate the second Monday in October as Columbus Day, honoring the European discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. For indigenous people, however, Columbus Day represents the beginning of European colonization and the cruel treatment of indigenous people that often followed.
Although Columbus Day is a federal holiday, some Alaska residents prefer to think of this day as Benny Benson day, a day honoring the Alutiiq boy who designed Alaska’s iconic flag. He was born in Chignik to Swedish fisherman John Ben Benson and Tatiana Schebolein, a woman of Alutiiq and Russian ancestry. When he was just three, Benny’s mother died of pneumonia. Not able to care for his children, John Benson sent Benny and his younger brother Carl to the Jesse Lee Mission Home in Unalaska. For the next seventeen years, Benny lived in orphanages.
Benny’s childhood coincided with a tumultuous period in Alaska history. Neglected by the federal government, the region’s economy was suffering. In the 1920s, territorial politicians argued that statehood would bring both financial support to Alaskans. Territorial Governor George A. Parks recognized that Alaska needed an emblem: a flag that would represent its lands and people during the statehood battle. In 1927, he asked the Alaska Department of the American Legion to sponsor a flag design contest for Alaska students.
Benny’s submission showed the Big Dipper and the North Star on a deep blue background. He wrote, “The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaskan flower. The North Star is the future State of Alaska, the most northerly in the union. The Dipper is for the Great Bear—symbolizing strength.” It was unanimously selected as the winning design from 142 entries. Benson received $1,000.
Benson’s accomplishments went beyond designing the state flag. He was also a widely revered Alaskan who helped to break down the racial barriers that plagued Native people. In the early 1960s, he was admitted to the Kodiak Elks club. He became the first Alaska Native to join a fraternal organization, despite attempts by Elks clubs outside of Alaska to bar his acceptance.
Image: The Alaska flag, designed by Benny Benson.
Pingaktaanka alagnat. - I like berries.
Kodiak’s Alutiiq people harvest seventeen varieties of berries, which are used for food, medicine, and natural dyes. Salmonberries are collected in the largest quantities, although crowberries, lowbush cranberries, and early blueberries are other favorites. Berry picking begins in late June and continues well into the fall. People often wait to pick certain varieties till October or November, when they have been sweetened by a frost.
Groups of related women and children typically work together to gather berries. Men may accompany the pickers to provide protection from bears or hunt nearby. While picking, women teach their children to respect berry patches. Over-picking, breaking branches, stepping on plants, or eating too many berries are considered poor etiquette.
In the past, families collected up to fifty pounds of berries for winter use. They preserved this fruit in seal oil and stored the mixture in dried seal stomachs. Today, some Alutiiqs continue to use oil as a berry preservative, placing their fruit in jars of cooking oil. Others freeze their berries. Traditional Alutiiq ice cream, known as akutaq, is made from berries mixed with fish eggs, seal oil, and the bulbs of the Kamchatka lily. Modern versions include sugar or mashed potatoes. To make your own, mix two cups of shortening with a cup of sugar and a quart of frozen berries. Enjoy!
Photo: Ripe salmonberries. Photo by Priscilla Russel, KANA collection.