The black-capped chickadee is a bold little bird that may eat out of your hand. These chickadees have a round black head and black bib, white cheeks, and a tan belly. They are only about five inches long and weigh less than half an ounce. A thick layer of down covers their tiny bodies and allows them to winter in Alaska, even in the bitterly cold interior.
In winter, chickadees can eat up to eight percent of their body weight in bugs and seeds during the day. At night, they retreat to snug roosts, often a hole in a tree, where they burn off the day’s calories to keep warm. The Alutiiq word for the black-capped chickadee–Uksullaq–reflects the bird’s remarkable adaptation to the far north. It means, “winter one.” Some Alutiiq speakers also use this word to refer to the Pacific wren (Troglodytes pacificus helleri), another songbird that winters on Kodiak.
Image: Chickadees, by Lena Amason. Purchased with support from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Tuyuq ap'sgu. - Ask the chief.
Classical Alutiiq society had three social classes: wealthy people, commoners, and slaves. Social positions were inherited and permanent. One’s status did not usually change during life. Alutiiq chiefs were members of the elite. They were individuals born to rich families who demonstrated their leadership abilities through generosity, bravery, and the ability to acquire wealth. Many communities also had a second chief, a person from another wealthy family who functioned as the chief ’s assistant.
Chiefs were responsible for political and spiritual leadership at the village level. They built and maintained a men’s house where men discussed civic matters. They led war parties to avenge wrongs and obtain slaves. They hosted winter gatherings to acknowledge animal spirits, thank ancestors, and ensure future prosperity. According to Russian accounts, some powerful chiefs exerted influence over several communities, acting both as local and regional leaders.
Chiefs and their relatives displayed their social status through elaborate dress. Parkas made from rare furs, hats decorated with dentalium shells and amber, elaborate jewelry, and tattoos on the face and shoulders all expressed the power and authority of a community leader.
Tuyuqis a relatively recent addition to the Alutiiq language. According to anthropologist Lydia Black, it comes from the word toyon of the Yakut language of Siberia. Russia traders applied this term to the individuals they selected to make Alutiiq communities follow Russian orders.
Photo: Chief of Uganik Village with his sons, ca. 1917. Photo by Dennis Winn. McCubrey Collection.
Cirnimen aglita. - Let’s go to Chignik.
The salmon-rich Chignik region of the southern Alaska Peninsula is home to three Alutiiq communities, each named for the body of water it overlooks: Chignik Bay, Chignik Lagoon, and Chignik Lake. Foot trails link these small villages, winding through a lush, rolling, treeless landscape that has been home to Alutiiqs for millennia.
Although archaeological sites dot the shores of the region’s waterways, and travelers have long followed the Chignik River into the interior of the Alaska Peninsula, Chignik’s contemporary communities are relatively recent. Chignik Bay and Chignik Lagoon were established in the late 1800s as fishing communities, attracting Alutiiqs from other villages as well as people of Russian, Scandinavian, and Aleut descent. Chignik Lake grew into a community in the 1950s as families moved to the area to hunt, fish, and trap.
Today, the Chignik area is home to about three hundred people, with roughly one hundred permanent residents in each community. The region’s population doubles in the summer, as people return from Kodiak, Anchorage, and even Seattle. People make their living on fishing boats or by working in the two plants that process salmon, cod, pollock, and crab throughout the year. Subsistence activities are also important. In addition to salmon, residents harvest marine fish, crab, clams, caribou, and moose to feed their families.
Photo: Chignik community 1990. Photo by Rick Knecht.
Cingiyaq yaqsigtuq Sun’amek kaarakun. – Chiniak is far from Kodiak by car.
Follow the highway forty-five miles southeast of the city of Kodiak and you will arrive in Chiniak, a small, unincorporated community with a population of about fifty. Although people have lived in the Chiniak area for millennia, the current town developed after the Second World War.
The Army Corps of Engineers built the road to Chiniak in 1942, and the Navy and Air Force both built intelligence-gathering stations here into the 1950s. Starting in the early 1970s, services developed to support the increasing number of residents: a gas station, a school, a library, a post office, and eventually in 1982 the Road’s End restaurant.
Despite the recent origin of today’s community, Chiniak has strong connections to the Alutiiq past. The word Chiniak comes from the Alutiiq word cing’iyaq, which means cape, and it refers to the rocky promontories that define this easternmost point of Kodiak Island. Many localities bear the name Chiniak.
Archaeological data confirm the presence of Alutiiq people in the Chiniak region. At the Rice Ridge site, a settlement repeatedly occupied between 7,100 and 4,000 years ago, residents harvested cod and sea otter from the waters off Cape Chiniak.
Historic sources indicate that Russian administrators granted a family of Alutiiq and Russian descent permission to settle the area in 1846. This small settlement is listed in the 1880 census. However, it should not be confused with the larger village of Chiniak. This community was located on Woody Island and was occupied from prehistoric times well into the twentieth century. It is also known as Tangirnaq.
Photo: A sunny day in Chiniak Bay, view southeast.
Ukamuk yaqsigtuq. - Chirikof Island is far away.
Chirikof is an isolated, windy island at the far southern end of the Kodiak Archipelago. This eleven-mile-long, pear-shaped piece of land lies about one hundred miles southwest of Kodiak Island. Archaeological data indicate that the island has long been a crossroads, a place that both Alutiiq and Aleut people occupied for over four thousand years. An Alutiiq legend indicates that the chief of Aiaktalik village once owned the island and that he became wealthy trading resources harvested here.
Westerners sighted the island in 1741. A Russian naval expedition led by Vitus Bering and Alexi Chirikov sailed by, naming it Tumannoi: Foggy Island. Nearly sixty years later, Captain Vancouver renamed the island Chirikof, in honor of Alexi Chirkiov. Chrikof has a rolling, treeless terrain. Although the region provides prime habitat for seabirds and marine mammals, the island has two small streams and one terrestrial mammal, the ground squirrel. Archaeologists believe that people introduced these animals in the prehistoric era. Without predators, other than eagles, the squirrel population thrived.
In the historic era, Alutiiq and Tlingit people worked on Chirikof under Russian supervision. They initially came as seasonal parties, and later lived in the established Ukamuk village. Men hunted sea lions, sea birds, and squirrels. Women fashioned squirrel and bird skins into parkas, which the Russians traded to other Alutiiqs for sea otter pelts. Blue foxes and cattle were introduced later, during the American period.
Kasukuagmen agkuma, uriitarsurciqua. - When I go to Akhiok I am going to go get some bidarkies (chitons).
Kodiak’s intertidal fauna include a variety of chitons, a mollusk related to clams, snails, and limpets. Chitons have eight symmetrical, overlapping shell plates that cover a soft body and a large oval foot. Chitons are commonly found in the lower intertidal zone, where they can roll themselves into a ball for protection. Around Kodiak, these slow-moving herbivores are known as bidarkies, after the Russian word for the Alutiiq kayak, because they are curved on one side and flat on the other like a boat. Most common species in the archipelago grow to about 10 cm long, but the large gumboot (Cryptochiton stelleri) can reach over 30 cm in length and live up to twenty years.
Chitons can be collected during a minus tide in any month, although like other shellfish, people harvest them most intensely in the late winter and early spring months when other sources of fresh food are limited. Today, Alutiiq children pick chitons for a quick snack, eating the foot raw. To clean chitons, people immerse them in hot water to loosen their black skin and then remove the underlying shells and innards. Then they are eaten with seal oil or added to chowder. Old stories say that chitons were once mice that floated across the water and became stuck to rocks, eventually becoming uriitat.
Photo: Large chiton on the shore near Old Harbor.
Guangkuta ARusistuartaartukut January-mi.- We always celebrate Christmas in January.
Many of Kodiak’s Alutiiq families celebrate Christmas twice each year: American Christmas on December 25 and Russian Orthodox Christmas on January 7. Although both events commemorate the birth of Christ, they are quite different.
American Christmas features decorations, feasting, gift-giving, and a visit from Santa Claus. For many years, the U.S. Coast Guard Officer’s Spouses Association has collected donations of toys and money from across the United States to sponsor a Santa to the Villages program. With help from the Coast Guard, theys end Santa to each of Kodiak’s rural communities to deliver gifts. Santa’s visit is a beloved event that children look forward to each year. In the 1960s, children watched with excitement as a low-flying plane dropped bags full of toys with the aid of parachutes. In the 1980s, the Firebush, a 180-foot buoy tender, transported Santa around the island. In recent years, Santa and a group of his elves have traveled by HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter, stopping for a visit in each community school.
On January 7, Christmas by the Julian calendar that tracks the Orthodox year, Alutiiq families participate in a spiritual celebration of Christmas. For three nights, carolers travel from house to house carrying a large, brightly decorated, twirling star, “starring”, which symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem. They announce the birth of Jesus with songs in English, Slavonic, and Alutiiq and are offered snacks and warm drinks in return. Each caroling visit ends with a rendition of “Many Years,” the Orthodox hymn for blessings and long life. At this season, villagers also participate in “masking” a merging of European folklore and Alutiiq practices.
Photo: Icon corner with Christmas Tree, Afognak Village, Courtesy the Knagin Family.
Agayutaartukut agayuwigmi. - We always pray at the church.
The introduction of Christian religious practices to Kodiak by eighteenth-century Russian Orthodox priests and missionaries led to the development of churches and chapels in Alutiiq communities. Scholars believe that the first village chapels in the Kodiak parish were constructed in the 1830s and ’40s. Following a major smallpox epidemic, the Russian American Company built chapels in each of the major community where they resettled Alutiiq people.
Early chapels included one dedicated to the Dormition of the All Holy Theotokos at Little Afognak built by the Seleznev family in 1832, and two built by the Russian American company in 1843: the Chapel of the Ascension of Our Lord in Karluk and the Chapel of the Nativity of the Theotokos in Afognak village. When Afogank and Kodiak were divided into two separate parishes just before the turn of the twentieth century, the Afognak chapel was reconsecrated as a church.
Historic records indicate that it was difficult to build places of worship in remote Alaska communities, far from supplies and knowledgeable builders. In 1822, when Kodiak’s original Church of the Resurrection was rebuilt, it took two years to stockpile the necessary supplies, and the Russian American Company sent carpenters from Siberia to assist. It took an additional three years to build the church, and within a decade the building had rotted so badly that plans for a new church were underway.
Villagers also had to rebuild their chapels. The present chapel in Karluk was designed and built in 1888 by Charles Hupp Smith with assistance from the Alaska Packers Company, a cannery in the community. Villagers paid for the structure, and the cannery transported the building materials to Karluk.
Today, each Alutiiq community has a chapel that is actively used by the Orthodox faithful. Full time clergy do not staff most of these chapels. Typically, priests periodically from Kodiak, and in their absence, a member of the community acts as a church reader, caring for the facilities and performing some liturgical duties. Many of these chapels are recognized as important historic sites and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Photo: Russian Orthodox Church at Afognak Village. Chadwick collection.