Qetegmek canamauq. - This is made out of coal.
Coal is a black or dark brown sedimentary rock formed from decomposed and compressed plant material. There are a number of minor coal occurrences in the Kodiak region. Lignite, a soft coal, occurs along the southeastern coast of the archipelago, in Kiliuda Bay, around Sitkalidak Island, and on the Aliulik Peninsula. Also, scientists report the presence of a higher grade, bituminous coal on Sitkinak Island. The coal seams are thin, thus none of these sources have been commercially mined. However, prehistoric residents may have used them.
Although archaeological data indicate that the prehistoric residents of Kachemak Bay burned locally available coal for fuel, coal was more commonly used to manufacture jewelry. Beginning about 2,700 years ago, Alutiiq people carved beads, pendants, nose rings, and labrets from coal. Craftsmen broke, sawed, and carved chunks of the material into desirable shapes with stone tools, then polished them to a lustrous sheen.
Some people refered to this material as jet, a term used by Western craftsmen for a type coal used to make jewelry. However, mineralogical studies suggest that the coal used by Kodiak craftsmen was probably a harder coal mined at tidewater on the Alaska Peninsula. Studies of the coal available in the Kodiak region suggest that it is either too soft or too brittle to be worked into jewelry. In contrast, a more pliable material can be found in the Ugashik and Chignik areas. These observations suggest that coal was one of the many materials Alutiiq people obtained from the Alaska mainland. Like antler, volcanic stone, and beaver incisors, Alutiiqs imported coal to Kodiak in quantity.
Photo: Coal artifacts from the Uyak Site, Larsen Bay Tribe collection.
Atkut makut maqartut. - These coats are warm.
Before the introduction of western clothing, Alutiiq men and women wore a long, hoodless robe made of fur and bird skin. Puffins, cormorants, and other sea birds provided the primary raw materials for elaborately decorated parkas. Bird hides were not formally tanned like sealskins, but were scraped and cleaned to soften the pelts. The number of pelts needed for each parka varied by species and garment design. One historic source reports that it took 150 cormorant neck skins to create a snow-falling parka, the style of garment worn by many Alutiiq dancers today. Cormorant neck feathers are a beautiful shimmering black color and very smooth.
The large number of bird hides needed for clothing each year illustrates the importance of bird hunting to the Alutiiq economy. If the majority of Alutiiq people had one bird skin coat per year, and Kodiak’s late prehistoric population was about 10,000 people, Alutiiq communities must have harvested tens of thousands of sea birds annually.
By the mid-nineteenth century, imported, easy to maintain fabric clothing began to replace skin garments. Fabric clothes were often worn indoors and traditional parkas donned as coats. Today, skin sewers are reawakening the parka tradition, replicating garments preserved in museum collections and creating traditionally styled clothing for use in cultural celebrations.
Photo: Squirrel sking parka. Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Qahmaquryugtua. - I want some cockles.
Kodiak’s shores are encrusted with a wealth of intertidal organisms. Clams, cockles, whelks, mussels, sea urchins, chitons, limpets, and periwinkles are all available in quantities. Alutiiq people harvested these resources throughout the year, but they were particularly important in the late winter and early spring. This was a time when food stores were exhausted and fresh foods were hard to find. Shellfish were an accessible, abundant food that could be collected by anyone. A digging stick, an open weave basket, and a leisurely walk on the beach were the only harvesting requirements. Today, some communities take advantage of low winter tides, harvesting shellfish in the dark by the light of kerosene lamps. According to Alutiiq Elders, “when the tide is out, the dinner table is set.”
Alutiiq people continue to enjoy shellfish, although they are wary of the red tide. Algae that carry a deadly nerve toxin can easily contaminate clams and other filter feeders. These algae can be present at any time of year and are difficult to detect. How did coastal peoples avoid the red tide? It wasn’t by shunning shellfish. Village sites from Attu to Ketchikan contain abundant evidence of clam dinners. Perhaps villagers took their clues from the birds and fish that are also affected by the poison or avoided clams from areas known to produce illness. Native place names like Poison Cove warn of beaches with deadly shellfish. Whatever the answer, their technique remains a mystery.
Photo: Christina Lukin openning clams. Afognak Village, ca. 1960. Chadwick Collection.
Amutarsuqutartuq. - They are going to get some cod.
Pacific cod or grey cod (Gadus marcocephalus) is an abundant, bottom-dwelling, round fish found widely in the Gulf of Alaska. These fast-growing, schooling fish are highly mobile. Cod winter in deep waters along the upper slope of the continental shelf, where they spawn. In spring they migrate to shallower nearshore waters, where they feed through the summer. Alutiiq fishermen have long taken advantage of the spring cod migration to harvest fresh food for their families.
At an ancient settlement on outer Uganik Island, archaeologists found evidence of a cod processing camp between 3,000 and 3,800 years old. Here, people harvested, split, and smoked cod in quantities over many years. The site holds a huge accumulation of cod bones as well as numerous cutting tools and quantities of burned rock and charcoal. These finds suggest that people were drying cod to eat later in the year.
In the historic era, traders forced Alutiiqs to fish for spring cod for the Russian American Company. Elderly men, those who could no longer hunt effectively, were assigned this task. Each man had to procure a quota of fish, but he was not allowed to keep any of the food. Many Alutiiq families went hungry due to such practices. Men, women, and children were required to harvest a variety of resources for the company, and they were paid meagerly for their work. This left little time to procure food or to accumulate winter stores.
Today, Alutiiqs help to supply the United States with cod as part of commercial fisheries. The vast majority of cod eaten across America comes from Alaska waters, where it is caught with pots, long lines, jigs, and trawlers.
Photo: Freshly caught cod.
Uksumi pat’snartaartuq. - It is always cold in the winter.
The Kodiak Archipelago lies in a maritime environment. Despite the region’s northern latitude, encircling ocean waters and prevailing weather keep air temperatures mild by Alaska standards. At sea level, Kodiak’s temperatures typically range from 40° to 60° Fahrenheit (4.4°–15.6° Celsius) in summer and hover around freezing (32° Fahrenheit, 0° Celsius) in winter. Moreover, the average temperature in the warmest month, August, is only 38° Fahrenheit (3.3° Celsius) higher than the average temperature in the coldest month, January. And while extremely cold temperatures can occur, they are rare and do not last for long.
Despite these relatively mild air temperatures, the Kodiak environment is highly seasonal, with a distinct period of warm weather and resource abundance followed by period of colder weather and resource scarcity. Like all northern peoples, therefore, Kodiak Islanders have always had to adapt to the cold.
In classical Alutiiq society, people combated cold weather with well-insulated sod houses, interior fires, warm fur clothing and bedding, gut rain gear, and a diet rich in nutritious, high calorie, sea mammal fat. They paired these technological and dietary choices with social and economic practices. Storage and exchange were the most important. By harvesting and processing large quantities of summer’s foods, people stockpiled proteins, fats, and carbohydrates for winter use and created stores that could be exchanged with neighbors.
In addition to preparing for the cold, Alutiiqs took advantage of the preservative qualities of cold weather. Elders recall storing foods, particularly garden produce and eggs, in cellars and pits dug into the ground. Others put subsistence foods like clams and berries in oil-filled containers and left them in a cold place to keep throughout the winter.
Photo: Children play on the ice in Old Harbor at recess, February, 1962. Violet Able Collection, courtesy the Old Harbor Native Corporation.
The Alutiiq language suggests that people recognized different types of combs. Kacagsuuteq is the Kodiak Alutiiq term for a hair comb. However, Prince William Sound Alutiiq speakers differentiate between wide-tooth and fine-toothed comb, implying that these tools had different functions. We know that lice were once common, household pests. Perhaps smaller toothed combs were used in the tedious job of removing nits from people’s hair, a remedy employed around the world. It is also possible that Alutiiq people used combs to work grass. Among the neighboring Yup’ik people, women straightened course grass with special combs before braiding the grass into rope.
Archaeological data indicate that Alutiiq people have been using combs for about 2,000 years. A comb from the Uyak Site is carved from antler. It has a tall, gently curved body and widely spaced teeth. This specimen is undecorated, but others from the same era are made of ivory and decorated with geometric patterns and animal carvings. Interestingly these tools appear in the archaeological record at a time when jewelry became popular. As such, these ancient combs were items of personal adornment.
Photo: Ancient Ivory comb, gift of Clyda Christiansen.
Umiartusqaq masiinaq stuulumi et'uq. - The computer is on the table.
Nulima keniyaskiinga akgua’aq sitiin’kamek. - My wife cooked me pork chops last night.
Food traditions are central aspect of a society’s cultural identity. The foods that people eat, and the dishes they make from these foods, are some of the most deeply held social customs. People who immigrate to new lands or whose societies are impacted by colonization typically maintain their traditional cuisines. Alutiiqs are no exception. The rich seafoods of the traditional diet are a cherished part of modern meals, and many favorite subsistence foods are incorporated into dishes introduced by Russian, Scandinavian, American, and Asian settlers.
Cooking subsistence foods is a joyful act. Alutiiq people are proud to feed their families fresh, local foods, which are seen as cleaner and healthier than the groceries available in stores. Moreover, social gathering are not complete without an array of dishes made from Kodiak resources: herring eggs on eelgrass, smoked salmon, fish pie, baked halibut, seal soup, and for desert, salmonberry tarts and berries mixed with fat, sugar, and milk.
Before the availability of stoves and metal pots, Alutiiqs cooked over open fires with tools crafted from cedar driftwood. Because cedar naturally repels water, its fragrant wood was an excellent choice for cooking tubs, bowls, dishes, and spoons. Chefs boiled water and heated soups and stews by dropping hot stones into wooden dishes, tightly woven grass baskets, or by setting large clay pot directly in the fire. Wooden containers from archaeological sites bear burn marks from red-hot rocks. People also cooked by roasting foods over the fire, placing food on hot slabs of stone, baking items in pits filled with hot coals, or fermenting foods in leaf-lined pits.
Photo: Cooking over a campfire on the beach. Nekeferof Collection.