Nukallpiam canakii qitguyaq. - The man made the bow.
Before the introduction of firearms, bows and arrows were an essential Alutiiq hunting tool. Craftsmen carved bows from hard, flexible woods. Yellow cedar was preferred, although red cedar and western yew were also used. Before carving, people dried the wood, although they might soak a finished bow in water to improve its flexibility. The typical bow had a narrow grip and flattened wings. Hunters often added a backing of sinew to strengthen the tool as it aged.
In Prince William Sound, hunters held their bows parallel to the ground. An archer gripped the bow in his outstretched arm, palm up. He then used the middle finger of his other hand to pull the bowstring, while his thumb and forefinger held the notch end of an arrow. Arrows were carved of cedar and other straight-grained woods and held in cylindrical quivers decorated with painted designs. Bows and arrows were used primarily to target waterfowl and land mammals. Hunters continued to pursue ducks with this weaponry well into the 1930s, because these quiet tools did not startle birds like a shotgun. However, at sea, hunters had difficulty keeping their bowstring dry, and often preferred to use a spear thrower.
Photo: Sinew backing on an Alutiiq bow.
Caqinka yaasiimen lliitaanka. - I put my stuff in boxes.
In classical Alutiiq society, craftsmen fashioned wooden boxes in many shapes and sizes to hold food, water, and objects. Hunters carried small rectangular boxes packed with supplies in their kayaks. Women cooked traditional dishes by dropping hot stones into oval wooden containers filled with food, and left large bentwood buckets by the household doorway to collect urine for processing skins.
All of these vessels were made by bending wood with steam, a technique perfected by Native artists from the Northwest Coast to the high Arctic. Carvers began by creating the vessel’s rim. They cut a thin wooden plank to shape and carefully smoothed it. Then they gradually bent the prepared plank with steam, a process that could take several days. The Alutiiq method for bending is not recorded. However, Tlingit artists steamed wood in pits packed with hot rocks and seaweed. People poured hot water into these pits to create steam. Once shaped, a craftsman lashed the ends of his rim together with spruce root or baleen, or pegged it closed with small wooden dowels. To the rim, the carver fitted a flat wooden base, which was also pegged into place. Some vessels were finished with a wooden lid or a woven handle and then brightly painted.
Photo: Bentwood box, Karluk One Collection, courtesy Koniag, Inc. Photo by Chris Arend.
Tayarnerutamek nuliqa pikisk’gka. - I gave my wife a bracelet.
The Alutiiq word tayarnerutaq literally means “something for your wrist.” In classical Alutiiq society, a number of objects fell into this category. Some items worn on the wrist were jewelry, bracelets created for adornment. In the nineteenth century, Alutiiq women wore bracelets fashioned from glass beads. Worn at winter festivals, these beautiful ornaments symbolized wealth and were part of a cultural emphasis on beauty.
Traditional shaman’s gear also included bracelets. William Fisher, a collector for the Smithsonian Institution, obtained a pair of such bracelets from the community of Ugashik in about 1885. Each was made from the snouts of river otters and embellished with bone pins and a smooth river pebble.
Alutiiq men wore another type of wristband: functional baleen clips that fastened around the cuffs of waterproof gut parkas. Shaped like a bracelet, these clips kept ocean and rainwater from running up one’s sleeve when the arms were raised. An archaeological example from Karluk is bent from a thin piece of wood and features a thin groove around its center. The clip slipped over the wearer’s hand. Then it was tied around his wrist and cuff with a piece of line that rested in the encircling groove.
Photo: Wrist clip of baleen, Karluk One Collection, Koniag, Inc.
Taugkut qiluryat ekllinartut. - Those braided seal gut look delicious.
Visitors to Kodiak often ask how Alutiiq people can hunt protected species like sea otters and sea lions. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibited the harvesting of all marine mammals to preserve their populations. However, this law recognizes the importance of sea mammals to Alaska Native life and includes a Native exception. Under the law, Eskimo, Indian, and Aleut hunters living along Alaska’s coast may harvest marine mammals for food and the production of clothing and crafts.
In the Kodiak area, Alutiiqs continue to harvest marine mammals for both food and raw material. Seal meat and oil are widely enjoyed, as are the animal’s internal organs. One Alutiiq delicacy is braided seal gut, a Native version of sausage. Women prepare this dish from fresh intestines. They begin by washing long pink tubes of gut, using fresh or saltwater to thoroughly remove the contents. This is a time-consuming job. Alutiiqs often stuff the seal gut with heart, liver, and fat. Then the guts are braided. Women work with three or more strands at a time to create a loaf three to four feet long and about three inches thick. Some braid long strips of seal fat with the gut. The final step is to cook the braid, which may be fried, baked, or boiled and shrinks in the process. The resulting savory dish tastes of the intestine’s stuffing and seasoning.
Photo: Ronnie Lind holds some braided seal gut. Photograph by Sven Haakanson.
Gelipalikutartua. - I am going to make bread.
Bread came to Kodiak with Russian traders, who imported flour and knowledge of baking. Yet baked goods appear to have been a luxury item in the early historic era. Historic accounts suggest that bread was in short supply, due to limited quantities of flour. Russian attempts to grow wheat and rye in Kodiak’s wet climate were unsuccessful, although oats and barley thrived. At Fort Ross, a Russian settlement in Northern California, colonists worked to grow and mill grain to supply flour to Alaska settlements. Even this proved difficult. Weeds, fog, and limited knowledge of farming techniques resulted in poor yields.
Bread seems to have become a staple of the Alutiiq diet in the late nineteenth century, and bread baking became a common household task. Alutiiq Elders remember baking all of the bread used by their families, a job that took many hours. One Elder reports that her large family ate eight to ten loaves a week, and baking was a large part of two days every week. Because houses were unheated, women worried about keeping the yeast in their rising dough from dying overnight. One Elder reports that she commonly wrapped the dough bowl with blankets to protect it from the chilly air. Some families baked their bread in coffee cans or butter tins; others used bread pans or employed large cake pans to make three loaves at once.
A favorite way to eat bread was with sweet gravy. To a roux of butter and flour, women added milk and sugar. This made a thick, sweet sauce, which people spooned over slices of fresh-baked bread. However, people rarely made sandwiches, because it was considered a waste of bread.
Photo: Boys in Karluk eating fresh baked bread. Clyda Christensen Collection.
TRipiitsaalitaallriit qikumek. - They used to make bricks out of clay.
There were nine brick kilns in Russian America, including two in the Kodiak area–one on Long Island and another in Middle Bay. Here thousands for bricks were made for both local use and shipment to places like Sitka. In the 1820s, Russian colonists and Alutiiq laborers produced about 30,000 bricks annually on Kodiak. They made the bricks from local clay and lime produced by burning shells. Unfortunately, the resulting bricks were of poor quality. Seawater made the bricks porous and many crumbled. As such, Kodiak bricks were only used where they were badly needed.
In 1964, a local rancher found the Middle Bay brick kiln and reported it to archaeologist Don Clark. Erosion and road construction had exposed a part of the kiln, originally manufactured in August of 1828. Archaeological excavations show that the feature had a post and beam structure around it for protection and a storage barn, clay mixing pit, and workers quarters nearby. The kiln was about 16 feet square and of Roman design. Arches supported the floor of the kiln and provided a place beneath it for the fire. Vents allowed the heat to flow into the kiln and around the baking bricks to promote an even firing.
Photo: Historic brick from Long Island kiln, gift of Perry Eaton.
Kaiwik angituq arwiryaa'akun. - The old woman is coming back via the bridge.
The Alutiiq word arwiryaa'aq means crossing place or ford, and it has come to mean bridge in modern usage. This word is distinct from the term niraq – which refers to a temporary bridge, like a log used to cross a creek or gulley.
While small nirat were probably common in Alutiiq communities, the distribution of ancient settlements suggests that people relied on boats to cross waterways. Along the Karluk River, archaeologists find many old villages where the remains of houses appear on opposite banks. In places, people may have crossed back and forth by wading. Parts of the river are very shallow. But in other places, it would have been easier to paddle. The historic village of Karluk was this way too. Families lived on both shores of Karluk Lagoon. People traveled by boat to go to the store and the post office, attend church, and visit. Historic photos show Karluk children from the north side of the river riding to school on the south side in a skiff. In the coldest weather, when the lagoon froze solidly, people could also walk or ice skate across the mile separating the parts of the community.
In 1940, options for crossing Karluk Lagoon expanded when a suspension bridge was built over the river. This narrow footbridge connected the southern side of the village with Karluk Spit, the gravel beach separating Karluk Lagoon from the ocean waters of Shelikof Straight. From the spit, people could walk to the northern part of the village. The bridge was about and four feet wide, enough for two people to walk side by side when crossing. It features a board-lined walkway and sides of netting.
This bridge functioned until January of 1978, when it was damaged by severe winter storm. An usually high tide and a storm with intense winds created a new river mouth. Waves washed away the community’s fuel tanks, damaged the bridge and people’s homes, and initiated dramatic erosion. Alaska Governor Jay Hammond declared a disaster and plans to assist the village began. With approval of the Village Council, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development built 23 new homes for villagers in a more protect location of the lagoon shore.
Photo: Suspension Bridge over the Karluk River, ca. 1960. Courtesy Koniag, Inc.
Arhnam qapuwait pugtartaartut. - Sea otter's bubbles always float up.
In the Alutiiq language, the term qapuk has several meanings. It can be used to describe froth, foam, or scum–like a film of algae that forms over a pond, or the layer of scum the rises to the top of a pot when you cook meat. Karluk villagers used qapuk as the word for pumice–the pale grey, porous, floating stone created by volcanic eruptions. More commonly, however, you will hear the team used to mean bubble–a pocket of air trapped in liquid.
Understanding the way bubbles move in water was part of an Alutiiq hunter’s education. When birds and animals dive, air trapped in their fur and feathers escapes and forms a trail. Similarly as animals exhale under water, bubbles rise to the surface. Hunters who watch the water carefully can see air bubbles reaching the surface and locate their prey.
This technique was particularly important in communal sea otters hunting. Teams of men working in kayaks hurled their arrows at a sea otter each time it surfaced to breath. Watching the trail of bubbles left by the animal, they could judge the direction it was moving and anticipate where it might surface again. An ancient painting from the village of Karluk records this important piece of knowledge. A small skin working board shows a swimming otter with bubbles streaming off its coat.
Photo: Painted, miniature work board, showing a swimming sea otter. Koniag, Inc. collection, Karluk One.