KaanaRiimi suullianga - I was born in a cannery.
In the late nineteenth century, Kodiak’s economy shifted from fur trading to fishing. With sea otter stocks declining, entrepreneurs turned their attention to salmon. Salteries, where people salted fish and packed them in barrels for shipment south, began appearing in the 1870s. The first commercial canneries followed in the 1880s. The Karluk Fishing and Packing Company established a cannery on Karluk spit in 1882. Over the next ten years, entrepreneurs established many similar operations from Afognak Island to Alitak. This booming new industry attracted immigrants from Scandinavia and Asia seeking jobs. Many were single men who married into Alutiiq families. Although Alutiiq people worked as laborers in the early salteries and canneries, it was not until the early twentieth century that they began selling their catches to processors.
Canneries drew the Alutiiq further into the western cash economy. As Native people began working for wages, or for credit at the company store, their dependence on western goods increased. It is during this time that people began to construct western-style houses, to wear more European clothing, and to purchase tools and household items. Many of these purchases were made on credit, which forced Native people to keep working for the cannery to pay their debts. Over the years, the variety of salted and canned foods increased, and Alutiiq people assisted in processing herring, crab, cod, clams, and other seafoods. Cannery work continues to be a source of income for some Alutiiq people, providing opportunities for seasonal employment.
Photo: Historic cannery in Uganik Bay. Courtesy the Myrick Family.
KaanaRiim laugkaa'a patumataartuq uksumi. - The cannery store is always closed in the winter time.
Alutiiq families living in rural communities supplement their catches of fish and game with groceries purchased from privately run community stores or shipped by air from big chain supermarkets in Kodiak. In the past, however, groceries were harder to obtain. Some supplies were shipped by boat, a process that could take weeks. Others could be purchased seasonally at rural canneries. During the summer, cannery stores offered food, fuel, and dry goods in areas where boat arrivals from town were infrequent and airplane service was even more rare. Elders remember their parents buying flour, sugar, tea, rice, lard, salt, cloth, and shotgun shells at cannery stores, supplies that often had to last until the store opened again the following summer.
In the early nineteenth century, some canneries created exchange systems. Alutiiq workers received credit at the store against their wages. While convenient, such arrangements were often unfair. Canneries enticed their workers to purchase goods at a premium price, ensuring a profit for themselves. In some cases, stores purposefully over-extended credit, creating debts that people had to pay off through future employment. This ensured the cannery a workforce in the coming season and often placed families in increasingly serious debt.
Photo: Sven Haakanson, Jr. purchases snacks at the Ocean Beauty Seafoods cannery store, Lazy Bay. Photo by Mark Rusk, Cape Alitak Collection.
Tuntumek piturlita. - Let's (al) eat some reindeer.
Today, caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are only present in substantialnumbers in a part of the Alutiiq homeland—the northernAlaska Peninsula. Here communities take advantage of seasonalmigrations, harvesting animals as they move south to calvinggrounds in the spring and north to winter range in the fall. Inthis area, hunters stalk caribou with guns, but in the past, theyworked in teams to scare animals toward men armed with bows and arrows. Although caribou are not indigenous to Kodiak,Alutiiqs obtained their meat, hides, hair, bone, antler, and eventeeth in trade. Caribou hair, used by seamstresses to embroiderclothing, was especially prized.
The federal government introduced domestic caribou, or reindeer, to southern Kodiak Island in 1924. As part of an economic development project, thirty-two animals were shipped to the Akhiok area from Bristol Bay. Simeon Agnot of Akhiok traveled to Cantwell to learn herding skills from Laplanders brought to Alaska to teach Native herders. He became the reindeer chief, organizing and training other Akhiok men to care for the animals. The herders worked in two-week shifts, watching over the reindeer in their pastures. In spring, the men drove the pregnant females to Cape Alitak for fawning, and they herded them back to winter forage later in the year. In return for their care, the herders could harvest animals as needed. Some were taken for food. Others were traded to canneries in return for goods. Herding continued until 1948 when a fire burned thousands of acres of reindeer forage. The herd escaped during the fire and more than 1,200 animals became feral. A few animals survive today in scattered herds found predominately in the Ayakulik River drainage.
Image: Caribou petroglyph, Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
Qupuraq k’liaqa. - I am carving the wood.
Carving was once a daily act in Alutiiq communities. Native craftsmen made weapons: shafts, arrows and harpoons, split timbers to build houses and boats, and chiseled images into wood. Through woodworking, Alutiiq people produced many of the tools essential for daily life and recorded their beliefs in masks, amulets, and figurines.
Archaeological finds reveal traditional carving techniques. Woodworkers split driftwood logs open with the help of resilient bone and wooden wedges, pounded with weighty granite mauls lashed to sturdy wooden handles. The resulting planks were cut to length and shaped with a variety of stone adzes tied to handles made of flexible alder branches. Hand-held carving implements, particularly rodent incisors hafted in the sides of small wooden handles, were used for finer carving. The narrow bits of these tools left gouges that artists sanded away with gritty abraders of pumice and sandstone. Finishing touches were applied with a burnishing stone, a water-worn pebble rubbed over the carving to create a polished, splinter-free surface.
Today artists search Kodiak’s forests and commercial lumberyards for the perfect grain, but in the old days, before spruce trees colonized Kodiak, craftsmen collected most wood from the beach. Carvers gathered Pacific yew, cedar, and spruce from Kodiak’s shores and collected alder and cottonwood.
In addition to wood, carvers collected feathers, fur, animal hair, and pigments to enhance their carvings. Decoration is an essential part of all Alutiiq arts, as finely made objects show respect for the spirit world.
Talatangq'rtuq. - He has cataracts.
Legtaq tamlertuq. - The cave is dark.
Caves are natural shelters that attract both people and animals. Archaeological data from Prince William Sound illustrate that the prehistoric Alutiiq people camped in caves. Although similar settlements are poorly known from the Kodiak region, oral histories and historical accounts indicate that caves were religious sites: whaling shrines. In these secret places, the spiritually potent men who killed giant sea mammals secluded themselves from daily life to prepare for the hunt.
Like the position of whaler, caves were inherited, passed down through elite families. Each successive owner added to his cave’s contents. Particularly prized were mummified corpses. Whalers stole the physical remains of powerful people, which they mummified and stored in their caves with other talismans: eagle feathers, bear’s hair, green stones, and berries. They also kept hunting gear, whaling poisons, and special clothing in these private locations.
French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart, who visited Kodiak in 1872, provides an account of contents of a whaler’s cave. This cave had mummies seated behind curtains of sea lion skin. Each mummy, male and female, was positioned as if it were producing tools: grinding slate spears, carving arrow shafts, or sewing gut. With these mummies, the whaler symbolically enlisted the help of powerful ancestor to produce his tools. In return, he fed them pieces of sea-mammal meat. The center of the cave featured a small pond with a model boat. In the boat sat a replica of a man holding a whaling spear aimed at a model whale. With these miniatures, the whaler enacted the hunt. Other activities that took place in and around whaling caves included processing human corpses to make mummies and producing whaling poison from human fat and the roots of the monkshood plant.
All of these activities perpetuated life by providing food. Alutiiqs believe that animals choose to give themselves to people. A well-prepared whaler who demonstrates reverence for an animal’s spirit will be successful. In preparation, whalers called upon the power of previous generations. Mummies represented people who had succeeded in life, who had maintained a proper spiritual balance. The use of their corporeal remains in whaling poisons imbued the hunter with their power. Life, therefore, depended on careful action, proper spiritual alignment, and a reverence for the past. These same elements are evident in Alutiiq winter festivals, the major annual religious ceremonies.
Photo: Afognak Island Cave, Short Family Collection.
Kianimek plit’aami aturtaartut. - They use charcoal in the stove.
Charcoal, wood that has been reduced by a fire, is a widely used resource. In the Alutiiq world, charcoal in important for cooking. Pits filled with burning coals were once used for slow-roasting foods. Elders report cooking fish wrapped in beach loveage and aluminum foil in hot coals, and at late prehistoric archaeological sites, large charcoal- and rock-filled pits are a common find in house floors. Elders suggest that people used these features for roasting meat. They recall digging pits in the beach, filling these pits with hot coals and heated rock, then covering the pits with gravel to slowly bake the food inside.
Alutiiqs also recognize charcoal for its medicinal qualities. People use charcoal scraped from burned devil’s club root to create a fine powder. When mixed with milk this powder can be used as a poultice for treating eye inflammations. And in the past, ground charcoal was mixed with oil or blood to make black paint.
Today, charcoal has another important use: it can help archaeologists date ancient Alutiiq settlements. Because all organic matter contains a predictable amount of the radioactive isotope carbon 14, and because carbon 14 begins to decay with the death of an organism, scientists can measure the amount of the carbon 14 remaining in an object to determine its age at death. Carbon dates, however, are not equivalent to calendar dates. Because the amount of cosmic radiation responsible for producing carbon 14 varies over time, carbon dates must be calibrated to reflect these changes and determine their correspondence with calendar dates.
Photo: A hearth in a 700 year old Alutiiq house, Horseshoe cove site, 2004.
This warning is evident in an Alutiiq tale of a husband who betrays his wife. A mother and father with two sons lived a happy peaceful life. The father left daily to hunt and fish, always returning with an abundance of food. One day, he was very late and brought little to eat. From that day forward, the father departed for longer and longer stretches and his family suffered hunger. Eventually, he stopped returning. Fearing for her husband's safety, the mother put on an eagle skin and flew off to search for him. She found him in a large village, living with a young woman. Grabbing her unfaithful husband with her talons, she dropped him in the ocean where he drowned. The woman returned to her home and armed her oldest son with tools to help him evade the trickery of others. The boy used these implement well, defeating evil beings and improving life in his community.