Kiagmi nunaqutaartukut alagnanek. - In the summer we go berry picking for salmonberries.
Collecting from the land remains a popular activity in Alutiiq communities. Spring greens, berries, shellfish, medicinal herbs, and driftwood are among the resources that Alutiiqs gather from the mountains, meadows, and shores of Kodiak Island. The Alutiiq language reflects the importance of this activity. In Alutiiq, the suffix –sur means “to get that thing.” Add this suffix to a noun like alagnaq, or salmonberry, and you get alagnarsur-, a root word that means “to get salmonberries.” This same suffix can be applied to almost anything you wish to gather.
However, the word for berry picking, nunaquq, is different. This verb appears to be related to the Alutiiq word for land, nuna, andmay once have referred to collecting more generally: to go outon the land. Today, speakers use nunaquq to refer only to berrypicking, although it can be applied to gathering berries of any kind.
Kodiak Alutiiqs harvest wild berries more than any other plant,collecting seventeen different varieties from mid summer to earlyfall. The most popular are plump watery salmonberries; shiny,tart crowberries; tiny, sweet alpine blueberries; and bright redlowbush cranberries. Some people freeze their berries for winteror preserve them in jams and jellies. Others eat their berries fresh.Some Alutiiqs boil berries with sugar to make a hot drink or mixin some cornstarch and allow the mixture to cool into a pudding.One popular dish is ciiitaq, a combination of crushed berries and milk. The word ciitaq comes from the Alutiiq verb ciilluku, meaning to smash it flat, and translates as “something mashed.”
Photo: Boys picking berries near Karluk, Clyda Christensen Collection.
Arula’at tang'rngutaakait cuumi. - They used to often see bigfoot before.
Stories of Bigfoot creatures—hairy, man-like beings that live in the wilderness—are common in the Kodiak Archipelago and Prince William Sound. Alutiiq people call these beings aula’aq or arula’aq, which means to run away. Some say these creatures are half human and half beast; others believe that they are small people that can turn themselves into animals. Whatever their form, southcentral Alaska’s Bigfoots have extra-human powers. People who have tracked strange footprints find that the impressions simply disappear, as if the creature vanished into the air. Those who try to touch a Bigfoot reach out to find nothing. And one man who shot at a strange man with a long white beard returned later to discover a dead weasel.
Although Bigfoot-like creatures have never been photographed, clues suggest their existence. Some people have seen odd human-like tracks, others have lost food from wilderness cabins, heard strange whistling noises that made them dizzy, experienced thumping on the sides of their house at night, or been visited by peculiar people they believe to be arula’at. People hunting and trapping from remote cabins typically encounter these creatures. Some arula’at are thought to be shy, stealing from camps when their occupants are away or sleeping. Others are more aggressive, asking for food and shelter, helping themselves to cabins, and even following and attacking people. In Prince William Sound, Alutiiqs report carrying religious icons, holy water, or incense to ward off arula’at.
Bigfoot legends may have arisen from stories about people who committed crimes and were expelled from their villages. In classical Alutiiq society, people who lived alone in the wilderness could turn into dangerous, evil spirits who spoke through whistling. Alutiiqs are not alone in their belief in nonhuman persons. Alaska’s Yup’ik and Iñupiat people speak of encounters with similar extraordinary beings, thought to travel between this world and another.
Ikani uqgwit tak’ut. - The birch trees over there are tall.
The Kenai birch (Betula kenaica) is a deciduous tree with a grey,papery bark and pointed oval leaves. The Kenai birch grows in scattered groves around the Kodiak Archipelago. It is particularly abundant near the communities of Larsen Bay and Old Harbor and is sometimes referred to as black birch. The Alutiiq word for birch, uqgwik, is also used to mean “tree” and is sometimes applied to alder bushes. This gnarly tree is distinctly differentfrom the Alaska paper birch (Betula neoalaskana) that provides mainland Alaskans with bark for houses, canoes, and containers.
Alutiiq people use Kenai birch for firewood because it burns slowlyand generates great heat. Kenai Birch is also hard and durableand was once carved into a variety of wedges, mauls, bowls, oars, hammers, and axe handles. In addition to birch wood, Alutiiqpeople collect birch bark from both drift logs and live trees. Thebark of living trees is easiest to harvest in the spring when their sapis running. Kenai birch bark can be used to start a fire, mix up somesnuff, or make a hunting whistle or a small container.
Portions of the Kenai birch tree also have medicinal properties.Steam bathers use leafy birch branches to switch away pain andfatigue. Healers employ the bark in cleaning wounds because itcan draw pus out of an infection. Alutiiq people soak Kenai birchbark in water, place it on an injury, and then apply a bandage. Somepeople use only the loose outer bark, while others apply an entirethickness, placing the inner side of the bark on a wound.
Photo: Kenai birch tree near Karluk Lake.
Uriitat tamlertaartut. - Bidarkies (chitons) are black.
Black, white, red, and blue/green are the main colors recognized inthe Alutiiq language. It is possible to describe other colors. You can say something is yellow, for example, by comparing it to the colorof oil. But these four colors are the only ones have their own uniqueterms. They are also the most common colors in Alutiiq artwork.
Alutiiqs made black paint from a variety of raw materials. Historic sources indicate that they collected a specific stone from cliff faces to make black pigment, or produced it from a blacking copper ore and from charcoal. Artists ground these materials into fine powders on rock and stored them in small skin bags. To make paint, they mixed the colored powder with a binder of water, blood, oil, or even fish eggs.
People commonly used black paint to adorn their faces, particularly those in mourning. Historic sources indicate that the close familymembers of a deceased person cut their hair and blackened theirfaces. Black paint also adorned many masks, both as a background color and as a component of designs. It was frequently used to outline facial features and to paint brows and the eyes.
Photo: Black painted whistling mask, Pinart Collection, Chateau-Musee, France.
Mal'ugnek segnengq'rtua, kinam tenglukiinga! - I got two black eyes, somebody hit me!
There are many ways to get a black eye. Elders recall that men and boys working around swinging fishing gear were frequently bruised in the face. Others got shiners from fighting, particularly after school. Parents forbid such sparring and would punish them if they found out they were involved in a fight. Even those who were defending themselves were punished for fighting. Parents taught their children to walk away from fights. Similarly, if a woman got bruises from her husband, this behavior was whispered about and looked down upon by the whole village.
Although Alutiiqs discouraged fighting, they encouraged wrestling. Among the Chugach Alutiiq of Prince William Sound, wrestling matches occurred at community gatherings, where people tested their strength and agility. Players would grasp each other’s hands, or wrap their arms around each other’s waists, and try to knock their opponent off his feet. When a person fell, he lost. Other forms of wrestling included finger, arm, or leg wrestling, where participants hooked each other and pulled. Today, wrestling remains popular among Alutiiqs. Young men participate in competitive high school and college wrestling with support from Alutiiq corporations.
Una ulik aturnirtuq. - This blanket is comfortable.
Before the introduction of western mattresses and blankets, Alutiiq people slept on piles of soft, dry grass and covered themselves with bear hides. These warm, insulating materials provided bedding both at home and while traveling. A person who had to camp unexpectedly simply collected a pile of grass for sleeping. Elders recall that Old Harbor residents fleeing the tsunami that followed the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake wrapped them themselves in bundles of grass as they waited on the hillside for the water to recede. Campers made another type of mattress by piling grass and moss over branches and covering the pile with a woven grass mat.
In the historic era, seamstresses blended Alutiiq and western traditions by fashioning European-style blankets from traditional materials. One such blanket, collected in the Alutiiq region in the early twentieth century, is now part of the Milwaukee Public Museum’s collection. Sewn from eider skins (Somateria spp., a type of sea duck) this piece is 55 inches wide by 88 inches long. It has two separate layers of skins, one forming the front and one forming the back. On the front, the seamstress stitched more than forty-eight rusty brown, female eider skins into a rectangular panel and then created an elaborate border using the colorful throat skins of fifty-two male king eiders. The result is a beautiful bird-skin quilt.
Photos: Skin sewers examine a blanket of bird pelts, National Museum of Finland, 2013.
Sapuraanga. - I am weathered in. (literally, “It blocked me.”)
The Alutiiq verb sapuluku literally means, “to block it”: to physically obstruct something or someone. For example, you could use this word on your boat, when a very low tide kept you from traveling through a channel, or to indicate that locked doors are keeping you from getting into your car. This verb can also be used for the Alutiiq phrase sapuraanga, which means, “I am weathered in.” In other words, the weather is blocking the airplane from picking you up. This useful, descriptive verb can also be changed into a noun, saputaq, to indicate something that is a blocker. Although the precise Alutiiq word for a fence has been lost, saputaq can be used to generally indicate a fence, a dam, or even a weir.
In prehistoric times, Alutiiq communities built fish fences, or weirs, out of stone. People piled cobbles in shallow rivers to form large V-shaped traps. Fish swam into these enclosures, which opened downstream, and were blocked from moving any further. Archaeologists find remnants of these stone weirs on Kodiak’s major salmon streams. In the historic era, Russian colonists introduced heavy log dams known as zapors. Fishermen used these large barricades in some regions of the archipelago until the early twentieth century. Today weir fishing is illegal around Kodiak. Instead, weirs are part of local fish management, installed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in area streams to count salmon as they return to spawn.
Photo: A foggy day on Kodiak.
Ilait auk aliktaarait. - Some people are scared of blood.
In English, the word blood has several meanings. It can refer to the liquid that circulates oxygen and nutrients through an animal’s body, or it can denote a person’s family background— their ancestry. In the United States, the federal government uses this second meaning to identify Native people for the purposes of implementing laws and providing benefits. In this context, Native identity is determined through blood quantum, a measurement of a person’s percentage of Native ancestry. For example, if your father is a Native person and your mother is of European descent, the government considers you to have fifty percent Native blood.
This genetically focused method of determining who is Native does not take into account a person’s culture, community of residence, upbringing, or self-concept of ancestry, factors that often contribute powerfully to individual identity. This issue surfaced in the development of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, the federal law that returned land and resources to Alaska’s indigenous people and continues to guide the use of those resources. Those who wished to participate in the settlement had to prove a Native blood quantum of at least twenty-five percent. However, because people did not always know their biological ancestry or considered themselves Native regardless of their genetic past, the settlement included those regarded as an Alaska Native by their community as well as the adopted children of Native parents.
Photo: Three generations of the Knagin - Bishop family.