Sukunuut guangkuta mik’tangraata aliktaapet! - We are always scared of daddy longlegs, even when they’re small!
Daddy longlegs is a common term used to refer to a variety of spider-like creatures: bugs with exceptionally long, thin legs. Among this group are harvestmen, eight-legged arachnids with a two-sectioned body and just two eyes. There are just thirteen species of harvestmen in Alaska, out of several thousand recognized worldwide. These creatures typically live outdoors, frequenting dark, damp places where they hide during the day. Harvestmen are omnivorous. They eat small insects and plant material. Unlike spiders, however, harvestmen have no venom.
The Alutiiq word for a daddy longlegs, sukunuuk, literally means “ thing that likes damp places.” John Pestrikoff of Port Lions knows this to be true. He remembers a day when he was traveling along the coast of Kodiak. He and a friend had been rowing for many hours when they stopped at an old barabara to spend the night. The sod house had a small banya, a steam bath in a separate building to the side. The men decided to heat up the banya for a relaxing wash. It was an old-fashioned banya, where rocks had to be warmed outside. So the two men built a fire near the banya door and heated a pile of rocks to carry in.
Pestrikoff took the first turn. He carried some hot rocks into the very small banya. It was dark. A heavy piece of canvas covered the low door and there was just enough room for him, the rocks, and a basin of water. He splashed the hot rocks to get the room steaming and started to wash his face. But he couldn’t get clean. His face felt rough and dirty. So Pestrikoff kept dipping his hands into the basin and splashing his face. But he wasn’t getting clean. Finally, he opened the door and stepped outside. In the basin were hundreds of daddy longlegs that had crawled into the cool water to escape the heat. They had been living in the dark, damp banya and had fallen into his basin due to the hot steam!
Photo: Elder John Pestrikof on Afognak Island. Courtesy Sven Haakanson Jr.
Agnguart'skuk! - Let's dance!
Dancing was a favorite activity at Alutiiq winter festivals. Moving to the rhythmic beat of skin drums, Alutiiq men reenacted hunting scenes and women danced in praise of ancestors. Performances were held in the men’s house, a large single-roomed structure built and maintained by a wealthy chief. Here men also met to discuss politics, repair their tools, and prepare for war. In the winter, Alutiiqs transformed this building into a ceremonial center. Here families gathered to celebrate the events of the year and give thanks to animal spirits for sustenance. In preparation for dancing, people decorated the men’s house elaborately with hunting gear and animal skins. Paddles, harpoons, sea otter pelts, and even kayaks were tied together and suspended from the ceiling. Guests arrived in their finest clothing and sat according to their social position along the walls. Men sat on benches and women and children on the floor. As masked dancers appeared, the audience swayed and a person in the corner pulled on a rope to rock the gear hanging from the ceiling. This mimicked the movement of the ocean, adding ambiance to the dance.
Today Alutiiq dancing groups continue the performing tradition. Dressed in ceremonial regalia, they celebrate and perpetuate the traditions of their ancestors with joyous songs and movement inspired by the wind, waves, animals, and history of Kodiak.
Photo: The Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers perform. Dancing Forwards workshop, Kodiak.
TRaapat allrani uluranartaartut. - Ladders are sometimes dangerous.
Augca’arciqut. - They are going to play the dart game.
Gaming has long been a favorite recreational activity in Alutiiq communities. For centuries, people have gathered in each other’s homes to test their skills and make bets. Traditional throwing games, where people tossed darts or discs at a target, emphasized hand-eye coordination, mimicked skills needed for hunting, and provided hours of fun.
In augca’aq, a game based on marine mammal hunting, players took turns throwing darts at a wooden porpoise dangling from a string. Teams of players knelt on the floor, as if sitting in a kayak, and threw their darts at the swinging model. The object was to score twelve points, which were awarded for the location of each strike. Elders recall that people would bet quantities of food, clothing, and even valuable items like firearms, outboard motors, and houses on the outcome of matches.
Gaming remains part of the seasonal rhythm of life in Alutiiq communities. Although new forms of gambling, like bingo and pull tabs, are popular today, many people remember the old games. Old Harbor men compete at augca’aq during the six weeks of Russian Orthodox Lent, when both hunting and bingo are prohibited.
Photo: Dart set by Speridon Simeonoff, purchased for the Alutiiq Museum's collections with support from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Tanqigyaturtuq. - It is starting to dawn
Dawn is the period of early morning twilight that begins as the sun nears the horizon, lifting its leading edge into the sky. The appearance of first morning light around Kodiak changes with the seasons. In summer dawn comes early and rapidly, as the sun rises high above the horizon filling the sky with strong, direct light for many hours. By contrast, dawn seems to linger in the midst of winter, as the sun remains low on the horizon and casts long shadows. Some areas of Kodiak receive little direct sunlight between November and January. The tall mountains lining narrow waterways can block the low-lying rays of the sun even on cloud-free days. Alutiiqs prepared for winter darkness by choosing village sites in open, coastal locations beyond the reach of persistent winter shadows. Place with names like Sunny Cove on Spruce Island record the locations of such spots.
An Alutiiq legend suggests that the sun and the moon are twins, born from the union of a brother and sister who fell in love. The human-like qualities of the sun are also expressed in an Alutiiq story from Prince William Sound. In this tale, the sun is a man who fights with a family of alders. Although the sun could not defeat the alders, and eventually became their friend, his arrows scarred their bark, causing dark spots, and his heat burnt their leaves. This is why alder leaves become brown each fall.
Photo: Sunrise over Mill Bay.
Erneret taklliyut. - The days are getting long.
Spring in the Kodiak Archipelago brings lengthening days and warmer temperatures. As the sun reaches farther above the horizon, warming ocean waters stimulate plankton blooms that attract fish, birds, and sea mammals back to coastal environments. This yearly increase in daylight was once greatly anticipated by Alutiiq people. Longer days meant the renewed availability of fresh foods and more time for outdoor activities. Comparisons of seasonal daylight patterns illustrate the dramatic annual changes that influenced Alutiiq life. At the height of summer Kodiak experiences eighteen hours of daylight and the sun reaches a maximum angle of fifty-seven degrees above the horizon. In contrast, there are only six and a half hours of daylight separating sunrise and sunset in late December, and the angle of the sun dwindles to eight degrees.
Spring days were busy in Alutiiq communities. A typical day might have passed like this. A large family awakes in the cozy planked side rooms of their sod house. Crawling out of their heavy bearskin bedding, parents and children join aunts, uncles, and cousins for a meal of shellfish collected the previous afternoon. In a warm breeze, the family packs their kayaks with freshwater and a modest supply of the remaining dried fish and seal oil from the previous summer’s harvest. Children crawl into the bow of their parent’s boats, where they lie and watch the water ripple past as their parents paddle. The family arrives at a small rocky island noisy with the screeches of nesting birds. Women and children collect from the easily accessible nests, looking for freshly laid eggs and leaving those with growing chicks. The men hike to the top of a nearby cliff. They rappel down the cliff face on tough sealion-skin ropes anchored by weighty rocks. They collect both eggs and birds, which are placed in baskets tied to their sides. After a snack of dried fish and oil, the women collect fresh greens growing along the beach edge, while the men watch for signs of migrating whales. Tired, the family returns to their community for a dinner of fresh vegetables, eggs, and bird meat. Community members visit on the beach where children play with toys that were stored over the long winter.
Photo: Sunny day at Cape Alitak, May 2011
Iqallut tuqumaut. - The fish are dead.
Death in traditional Alutiiq society was followed by a set of rituals that moved the deceased from daily life to the afterlife. In the Alutiiq universe, people were reincarnated five times. After their fifth and final death, the human soul ascended to the fifth of the five sky worlds, an earth-like place where their spirit could look back down to earth. The Alutiiq say that stars in the night sky are the eyes of ancestors.
A person might learn of their impending death in a dream, and shamans could foresee death. Dead people were dressed in their best clothing and jewelry, wrapped in sea mammal skins, and buried in rock or plank-lined graves. Others were laid to rest in the collapsed side room of a sod house or their remains mummified and hidden in a secluded cave. Tools and personal items were often placed in or on top of graves, which were marked with decorated poles. Wealthy people received the most elaborate treatment. They were buried in sea otter furs and their slaves were sometimes sacrificed. After a forty-day mourning period, when family members limited their activities, cut their hair, painted their faces black, and sang sad songs, the dead were memorialized with a feast.
In Prince William Sound, Alutiiq communities hosted a regional Feast of the Dead every August. Wealthy villages invited members of surrounding communities to a ceremony designed to provide for the needs of all ancestors. Guests participated in comical dancing and singing to console the grief-stricken, while musicians played large drums. The festival ended with a large feast. Here, hosts gave food and furs in remembrance of the dead. Other gifts were burned, sending them directly to the sky world to feed and clothe ancestors.
Photo: Ouzinkie cemetery. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Tuntut piturnirtaartut. - Deer (always) tastes good.
Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis) are a popular and important subsistence resource for Kodiak Islanders. Once found only in northern coastal British Columbia and southeast Alaska, the animal’s range now includes Yakutat Bay, Prince William Sound, and the Kodiak region. Sitka deer were first introduced to Kodiak in 1924, with the release of fourteen animals on Long Island. An additional nine deer were released on Kodiak Island in 1934. From these small herds, a large population grew and gradually spread throughout the archipelago.
Sitka deer are small and stocky with a short face. Adults range from 80 to 120 pounds in the fall. They eat leafy green shrub vegetation in summer and evergreen forbs, woody browse, and lichens in the winter.
On Kodiak, deer-hunting season begins in August and runs into early winter. Hunting is most common in the fall, particularly in November and December. At this time of year, snow forces the animals out of the mountains into lower elevation. Deer can even be found on beaches, where people hunt them by boat.
Subsistence studies indicate that the deer are now Kodiak’s third most important wild food, after salmon and sea mammals, and the most important terrestrial resource. People harvest deer in all of Kodiak’s communities, although reliance on these animals is greatest in rural villages. Here, Alutiiq families harvest an average of three to five deer per year, obtaining several hundred pounds of meat.
Alutiiqs prepare deer meat into steaks, roasts, burgers, and stews, and deer antlers are gaining popularity as a raw material. Artists fashion deer antler into jewelry as well as handles for ulu knives and woven baskets.
Photo: Sitka Black Tail deer on a Kodiak mountain side.