Kasaakat kanuyamek tait'llriit. - The Russians brought copper.
Copper is one of the few metals that Alutiiq people used prehistorically. Artists ground copper oxide, a mineral available on southeastern Kodiak Island, to make pigment. However, they obtained copper suitable for tool manufacture in trade with the Alaska mainland, particularly the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound. Historic sources indicate that the Ahtna Athabaskan Indians mined copper in the Copper River basin, which they traded annually to the Dena’ina Indians, who in turn traded with Alutiiq societies. By the time copper reached Kodiak, it had passed through many hands. Most copper use dates to after AD 1000.
From copper Alutiiqs fashioned arrowheads, which were used in warfare, as well as spears and knives. Craftsmen worked the metal raw, shaping it into tool forms by cold hammering.
In historic times, Russian traders also brought copper items. Among their imports to Kodiak were copper kettles, copper rings, and thimbles made with a copper alloy.
Alutiiq stories suggest that copper tools were both prized and powerful. A tale from Prince William Sound describes how Raven, the wily hero of many Alutiiq stories, bribed a blue crane with the gift of a copper spear to help him retrieve his kidnapped wife. Another story relates how an evil spirit killed people with a copper spear.
Photo: Copper Kettle. Alutiiq Museum collections, gift of Larry Matfay.
Agasuut maani cali amlertaartut. - There are always a lot of cormorants around here.
Four varieties of cormorants (Phalacrocorax spp.) live in Alaska, three in the Kodiak Archipelago. These are the double-crested cormorant, the pelagic cormorant, and the red-faced cormorant. These birds gather in coastal colonies where they feed on fish and crustaceans captured by diving. Cormorants are often found nesting on precipitous cliffs. Although the location of their colonies changes from year to year, cormorants are widely available.
Alutiiqs once captured cormorants with nets braided from sinew or bull kelp. Like a gill net, people stretched these nets and left them near nesting locales to entangle birds as they moved to and from feeding areas. Alutiiqs also hunted cormorants at night with clubs. Cormorants were a source of food, and their feathered hides were valued for clothing, headdresses, and blankets. Alutiiqs prized the smooth throat skin of the cormorant, which has a green iridescent sheen, for ceremonial parkas.
In Prince William Sound, people believe that cormorants chatter at night when they return to their nests to tell each other where they have been. Another saying holds that a bald-headed person is someone who has had a cormorant vomit on his head!
Photo: Detail of cormorant skin parka. Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Akilingnaq’sqat angsinartut akilingnaqlluteng. – Some corporations are big and they are trying to make money.
Forty years ago, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act returned forty-four million acres of lands and 962.5 million dollars to Alaska’s Native people. Known by its acronym ANCSA, this historic piece of federal legislation represented a turning point in the social history of Alaska. ANCSA symbolized the reassertion of Native control over Native affairs. The decades following the act have been marked by increasing involvement of Native people in Alaska business and government as well as a resurgence of pride in Native ancestry.
ANCSA divided Alaska into twelve regions and established a thirteenth region to represent Alaska Natives living outside the state. These regions were meant to broadly mirror the state’s cultural areas, although creating boundaries was not easy. For example, ANCSA divided the Alutiiq people into four different regions: Kodiak, Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, and Bristol Bay.
To receive shares of the settlement, the people of each region had to form regional for-profit corporations. These corporations were given four major tasks. First, they were to receive cash settlements to manage and invest for their enrollees. Second, they were to become owners of the lands conveyed under ANCSA. Third, they were to assist communities in their region with the formation of village corporations. These smaller corporations were to receive and manage cash and lands from the settlement and further distribute it to individual shareholders. Finally, each regional corporation had to run at least one additional for-profit business.
The Kodiak Alutiiq word for corporation—akisuangnaq’sqat in the northern way of speaking or akilngnaq’sqat in the southern way of speaking—reflects one of the central roles that ANCSA assigned to Alaska Native corporations. These words literally mean “ones that try to make money.”
Photo: Koniag, Inc. Board of Directors, Armstrong Collection.
Ciqumek aturtaartut paal’kaaliyakameng. - They use cottonwood when they make smoked salmon.
The black cottonwood, or balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), is a common deciduous tree in coastal Alaska. It thrives at lower elevations in moist soil and typically occurs in large stands on floodplains, riverbanks, and disturbed ground. Kodiak is home to two very similar varieties of this tree. Cottonwoods have oval leaves; thick, deeply furrowed gray bark; and a soft wood. The term cottonwood refers to the many small cottony seeds released by the trees’ flowers each summer. These fluffy seeds float through the air like snow.
Cottonwood has many uses. Alutiiq people favor cottonwood for smoking fish, because it burns slowly and at low temperatures. People prefer to use dead wood and bark for this task, because green cottonwood imparts a stronger, less desirable flavor. Cottonwood is not typically used to heat homes, although shavings of the wood make excellent tinder.
The Alutiiq word for cottonwood, ciquq, can also be used to mean “dish” in the Chugach Alutiiq dialect, because the soft wood of this tree was once carved into kitchen utensils. Before carving, craftsmen sometimes burned their stock with hot rocks to aid in shaping the wood. In addition to plates, ladles, and spoons, people carved cottonwood into fishing floats and toys. Planks of green cottonwood are valuable for construction because they resist water better than spruce, and cottonwood poles make good supports for fish-drying racks.
Cottonwood also has healing properties. Alutiiq steam bathers use its leafy branches to switch away aches and pains, particularly those associated with arthritis. Arthritis can also be eased by soaking your feet in hot water infused with cottonwood branches.
Photo: Stand of cottonwood trees on the shore of Karluk Lake.
KaRauwaq quiliuq. - The cow is fat.
Russian fur traders introduced the first cattle to Kodiak. When Gregori Shelikov arrived in the archipelago in 1784, he noted the abundance of local grasses and sent orders to Russia to import cattle from Siberia. According to a report by Billings, there were cattle at the Three Saints Bay colony by 1790, just six years later. Cattle fared well and became a staple resource.
Russians traders gave some of the imported cattle to Native communities to supply milk and meat and promote herding. Because Alutiiq people were not used to eating dairy products and had little interest in raising cows, the number of cattle dwindled. By the late 1800s, however, some Alutiiq families maintained milk cows, and cattle were among the animals raised at the Baptist Mission Orphanage on Woody Island. Here, Alutiiq children helped to care for the stock, milking cows and cutting hay for winter feed from the meadows in Kalsin Bay.
By the early 1900s, cattle ranching began in earnest. The herds were hard to care for. Animals were difficult to feed in winter and many fell off cliffs or were killed by bears. However, ranching took hold.
Photo: Cows in Ouzinkie.
Ugyuutet piturnirtaartut. - Pushki (cow parsnip) always tastes good.
Cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum), known locally by its Russian name puchki, is an herbaceous plant that can grow up to eight feet tall. It has a fleshy stalk topped by large clusters of small white flowers. Cow parsnip thrives in open environments: forests, mountain meadows, and along the coast. It can be found in northern habitats from the Canadian Maritimes all the way to Japan. It prefers sunny locations and flourishes in the rich organic soil that forms over archaeological sites.
Alutiiq people traditionally harvested young, tender, cow parsnip stems from mid-May through early July. Be careful when picking this plant, however. Hairs on the plant’s stems and leaves can irritate your skin, causing rashes, itching, and blistering. Early morning or late evening are the best times to pick cow parsnip, because light can enhance its irritating qualities.
Today, people peel away the stem’s outer skin and eat the underlying flesh either raw or mixed with oil. Fresh cow parsnip leaves are also used to wipe away the slime on raw fish and to flavor fish when baking. However, people consider the leaves to be poisonous and they are never eaten. A poultice of hot, mashed cow parsnip roots is said to ease many common aches and pains.
Photo: Philip McCormick in a patch of cow parsnip, Uyak Bay, 1987.
Aa’i, maani sakuut amlertaallrit. - Yeah, there used to be a lot of crab around here.
Today, Alutiiq people enjoy eating dungeness, tanner, and king crab. But in the past, Kodiak’s Native people avoided these ocean scavengers. Crab live on the ocean floor where they eat carrion, including the corpses of the drowned. For this reason, crab were not a regular part of the traditional diet. This historically observed avoidance appears to be quite ancient. Although delicate, crab remains are not found in even the most exceptionally preserved archaeological sites.
The association between crab and death is reflected in the traditional practices of Alutiiq whalers, who harvested fat from human corpses to make spiritually potent whaling poisons. An historic account of this practice describes a whaler dressed as a crab removing a corpse from its grave. Like the crab that feeds on the dead, the whaler is using the corpse to secure a whale to feed his community. A mask with crab claws in place of a mouth, collected on Afognak Island by French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart, may be part of such a whaler’s costume.
Photo: Fisherman with king crab. Nekeferof Collection.
Urnamen carliaq lliiluku. - Put the baby in the cradle.
Finding a safe place for a baby to rest is always a concern. In classical Alutiiq society, mothers solved this problem by using cradleboards. Babies were tightly swaddled to cradleboards, which could be laid on the floor, stood in a corner, or carried like a pack. A cradleboard collected from the village of Nuchek in Prince William Sound features a wooden frame lashed together with spruce root and covered with dehaired sealskin. Oval rings of flexible wood form handles on either end.
Although Alutiiqs adopted different styles of cradles in the historic era, many continued to transport babies on boards. Elders recall siblings being tied to mom or dad with a shawl, or being carried on front boards, which rested against a parent’s chest. And toddlers were hoisted onto an adult’s shoulders for traveling.
When did the practice of cradle-boarding start? Studies of Alutiiq crania suggested that this practice began in the late prehistoric era. Repeated use of a cradleboard can cause a baby’s soft head to flatten and elongate, creating a distinctive shape to the head. Physical anthropologists note this elongation starting about seven hundred years, but not before. This suggests that cradleboards were part of late prehistoric Alutiiq culture.
The word urnaq refers to a different type of cradle. These wood and canvas baby beds hung from by ropes from the ceiling forming a type of hammock. Parents sometimes suspended such a cradle near the foot of their own bed. This allowed a mother to swing the cradle with her foot, soothing a fussy baby at nighttime.
Photo: Baby in highchair, Ouzinkie. Henders Toms Collection, courtesy Melinda Lamp.