Qapilaat cungartut. - The mussels are blue.
In the Alutiiq language, the colors green and blue are not differentiated. A single term describes both colors, reflecting the fact that Alutiiqs traditionally interpreted blue as a shade of green.
Despite the use of a single color term, recent research suggests that Alutiiq artists used blue and green paints differently in decorating masks. Green paint was widely used. It was a common background shade and the only color used to paint eyeballs. In contrast, artists used blue paint more sparingly to color facial features and create designs.
To Alutiiqs, cungaq is a powerful color. It is associated with the supernatural, particularly the worlds below the sea. Green pigment was never used in body painting. However, green paint adorned hunting hats, and hunting amulets were green. Whalers, the spiritually potent hunters of giant sea mammals, carried blue or green stones. These were said to be illuminating. A story from Afognak tells of a whaler who found such a stone, which glowed in the dark. He killed many whales while he kept the stone. Then he fell in love, got married, and lost the stone. His ability to kill vanished, and he and his wife died shortly afterward.
Image: Koniag Mask, painting by Helen J. Simeonoff, 1995. Alutiiq Museum Collection AM459.
Qapilat piturnirtaartut. - Blue mussels are always tasty.
Blue mussels (Mylitus edulis) are one of the most common intertidal invertebrates in the Kodiak Archipelago. These purple-shelled bivalves inhabit most of Kodiak’s rocky shorelines, forming dense clusters in the upper intertidal zone. Like other shellfish, blue mussels are a great source of fresh spring food. They are widely abundant, easily accessed, and can be harvested by anyone.
The widespread presence of mussel shells in ancient garbage piles illustrates the popularity of mussels as a food source. Archaeologists find huge quantities of mussel remains in middens dating to the past 2,500 years, suggesting that people harvested and consumed many thousands of them. Mussel shells even occur in the village sites site far from the ocean. On the shores of Karluk Lake, for example, archaeologists find sites with the purple shells, indicating that people carried mussels into the interior.
Mussel shells may also indicate the other types of material preserved inside an archaeological site. Shells are rich in calcium carbonate, an alkaline substance that neutralizes acid soils and creates an environment suitable for organic preservation. Where people left shellfish remains, archaeologists are likely to find well-preserved animal remains and bone tools.
Photo: Crushed blue mussel shells give a deposit of ancient garbage a purple tint.
Cuawat piturnirtaartut. - The blueberries are always delicious.
The Kodiak Archipelago is home to two species of blueberries, the early blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium), also known the blue huckleberry, and the alpine blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum). The early blueberry is a spreading shrub that grows in moist forests and bogs at lower elevations. In contrast, the alpine blueberry thrives on mountain slopes and in coastal tundra. Both species produce large annual berry crops that ripen in late summer. Alutiiqs typically gather blueberries in August and September. Blueberries are primarily harvested for food, although their juice can also be used as a dye.
Today, fresh blueberries are eaten with meat and fish or added to Eskimo ice cream—akutaq—with a variety of other ingredients. Seal oil, lard, dried fish, fish eggs, sugar, and mashed potatoes are all potential additions to this traditional dish. Blueberries are also made into a variety of jams, jellies, and luscious deserts. In the past, blueberries were harvested in quantity and preserved for use throughout the winter. In the Kodiak region, Alutiiqs once stored blueberries in seal stomach containers filled with water or oil. In Prince William Sound, they dried blueberries on special wooden grates over an open fire, stored the berries in containers, and rehydrated them as needed. The Chugach Alutiiq people also mashed fresh berries into a paste and spread them on skunk cabbage leaves. The paste was allowed to dry and then stored on the leaves for later use.
Photo: Early blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium).
Kugyasigtaangama naRaciyutaallianga. - When I was fishing (seining) I used to be a boat captain.
The Alutiiq word for boat captain, naRiaciikor naRaciik, comes from Russian. It includes a small capital R to indicate an “r“ sound, as in the English word run. While this sound is common in English and Russian words, it is absent in Alutiiq. Despite the recent origins of the word naRaciq, boat captains have a long history in Alutiiq communities.
In classical Alutiiq society, political leaders and successful hunters owned angyat: large, open skin boats. Used for long distance travel, trade, transport, and warfare, these boats were up to forty feet long and could carry twenty paddlers, as well as passengers and great quantities of supplies. Therefore, angyat were a sign of both affluence and leadership. They required support from community members to build and paddle, and they represented the ability to acquire wealth. Angyaq owners were the first boat captains.
Today’s boat captains own seiners and lead family members in commercial fishing. Often a father acts as the skipper and his sons, sons-in-law, nephews, or grandsons act as crew, although any combination of relatives may fish together. The strong family ties around captains and their boats are also expressed in boat names. Many are named for the captain’s daughter. The boat becomes her aalukaq, or namesake.
In addition to acting as family leaders, skippers are considered community leaders. Boat ownership is one of the most visible signs of wealth and status in Alutiiq villages, and with status comes the responsibility to help others. For example, many skippers donate time and resources during the busy fishing season to ferry people from Kodiak to Monk’s Lagoon for the annual pilgrimage to St. Herman’s grave.
Photo: Young boy at the helm of a fishing boat. Ouzinkie area, ca. 1940. Courtsey Tim and Norman Smith.
ARapagka nag'art'lliik mararmi. – I lost my (2) boots in the bog.
The Alutiiq word maraq can be used to talk about any low lying, wet piece of land–a swamp, bog, marsh, or even a muddy meadow. The rainy Kodiak Archipelago is unofficially full of such places, but if you consult a map of Kodiak habitats, maraq is particularly common on the south end of Kodiak Island. The Ayakulik river flats are a good example. Here, numerous shallow ponds are surrounded by grasses, sedges, and small shrubs, forming a habitat classified as wet tundra.
Kodiak’s bogs contain a multitude useful plants harvested by Alutiiq people. These include a variety of berries collected for food, a coarse ‘swamp grass’ once woven into mats, and the medicinal plant narrow-leaf Labrador tea (Rhododendron tomentosum Harmaja).
Known in Alutiiq as atsaqutarpak, or by the newer word nunallaq caayuq (wild tea), Labrador tea is a low-growing, evergreen shrub with narrow, leathery leaves. It is commonly used to treat lung and throat ailments–from coughs, colds, and fevers to asthma and tuberculosis. Alutiiq families brew tea from the plants aromatic leaves. They boil the leaves in water, steep them in hot water, or even chew the raw leaves and swallow the juice. People use the plant fresh and dried, but are careful to consume it in moderation. Large quantities of Labrador tea can be toxic.
Photo: Wet lowlands of southern Kodiak Island.
Iqsak una nenermek pilimauq. - This fishhook is made of bone.
Like stone, wood, and hide, bone was a primary manufacturing material for prehistoric Alutiiq people, and the skeletal remains of animals were carefully butchered to preserve bone for raw material. Bone was processed into pieces much like wood. People split large elements, like whale and sea lion ribs, with the aid of wedges and mauls. Then they cut lengths of bone to size by sawing a fragment until it could be snapped into two segments. Tools were then shaped with a stone knife and sanded to a smooth finish with abrasive pieces of stone and pumice.
Due to its flexibility, bone was the preferred material for subsistence implements. Bone points, hooks, and digging sticks gave with the forces of use rather than breaking. Porous, lightweight whalebone was used for harpoons, bird arrows, fish spears, fishing hooks, and war arrows. Bone was also used for a variety of household objects. People hollowed whale vertebrae into vessels for grinding plants and fashioned compact, lightweight bird bone into needles and awls.
In addition to their technological value, some bones had spiritual significance. Alutiiqs believe that every animal has a spirit: a tiny replica of itself that rests in a special part of its body. Prince William Sound Alutiiqs held that the spirit of the sea otter rested in its bones. So the skeletons of captured animals were returned to the water to ensure their rebirth.
Photo: Leslie Watson holds a bone harpoon point found at the Mitks'qaaq Angayuq site.
Naaqisuut'ka terlellruma. - Somebody must have stolen my book.
Alaska’s gold rush was followed by wave of scientific inquiry. As the state’s infrastructure grew and travel became easier, researchers made their way north to study everything from geology to wildlife biology. Anthropologists were among the researchers. In the early decades of the twentieth century, men and women interested in recording cultural traditions visited Native communities across the territory. Their research resulted in a series of ethnographies—books that systematically described the economy, social organization, and spiritual practices of Alaska cultures.
Although there are a number of explorer’s accounts that describe Alutiiq culture, there is only one formal ethnography. In 1933, Kaj Birket-Smith, a Danish anthropologist, traveled to Prince William Sound, where he spent three months studying Chugach traditions with the help of American scholar Frederica de Laguna. His study was published in 1953 under the title The Chugach Eskimo, and remains one of the most detailed written records of Alutiiq traditions.
Why weren’t there more studies of Alutiiq culture? By the time anthropologists arrived in the Kodiak region, Alutiiqs had been participating in a western economic system for over a century. Many traditional practices had changed or were hidden from view. This contrasted strikingly with the societies in interior Alaska, where contact with Europeans was much more recent. Most researchers choose to conduct studies in places where western influence was less evident. However, in recent decades, anthropologists have recognized the wealth of cultural information in Alutiiq communities, and written recent studies of Alutiiq traditions.
Photo: Primer written in the Alutiiq language, 1848. Autiiq Museum collections.