Anaanarpet Ken’aayuq. - Our aunt is a Dena’ina Athabaskan.
The Dena’ina are one of eleven Athabaskan Indian groups in Alaska. Their homeland includes the shores of Cook Inlet, interior regions of the Kenai Peninsula and the northern Alaska Peninsula, and the Matanuska and Susitna river valleys. The term Dena’ina means “the people” and it is a traditional self-designator. Alutiiq people call the Dena’ina Ken’aayuq, an Alutiiq version of a Dena’ina term that means either Kenai people or Knik area.
Archaeologists believe that the Dena’ina spread into the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula about eight hundred years ago. Before this, the Kenai River and Kachemak Bay were home to people of the Kachemak tradition, the ancestors of modern Alutiiqs whose villages spread from the Kenai south across the Kodiak Archipelago. It is not clear whether Athabaskan societies displaced Kachemak tradition societies or whether these societies abandoned the Kenai Peninsula during a period of colder, harsher weather, leaving the region open for colonization. Some archaeologists think that Kodiak’s population jumped about eight hundred years ago. Perhaps ancestral Alutiiq families from the Kenai Peninsula migrated south, joining relatives in Kodiak.
Like their Alutiiq neighbors, the Dena’ina used maritime resources and had a ranked society. Those living along the coast of Cook Inlet harvested harbor seals with harpoons and fished for salmon. Rich men who amassed resources acted as community leaders and traded with neighboring societies. Historic sources indicate that Kodiak Alutiiqs traded for marmot and bear skin garments and perhaps pieces of copper with the Dena’ina. These sources also record that Kena’aayut married Russian and Alutiiq residents of Kodiak, becoming part of the island community.
Map: Natives people and langauges of Alaska, courtesy the Alaska Native Language Center
Ukut kulunguat aihmnanek canamaut - These earrings are made from dentalium shells.
There are two types of dentalium found along the Pacific coast of North America. The most common, and the only type found in Southeast Alaska and Western Canada, is the Indian money tusk (Denatlium pretiosum). These one-footed creatures burrow into sea floor sediments where they feed on microscopic organisms. They often grow beneath deep waters, but can also be found close shore.
Dentalium are particularly common around Vancouver Island, where Native people once harvested them with weighted, broom-like tools. By dragging the broom across the sea floor, fishermen trapped dentalium in its bristles.
Native Alaskans fished for dentalium shells in the Copper River area and in several locales in Southeast Alaska. G.I. Davydov, a Russian Naval Officer, reported that the Tlingit harvested dentalium near the Charlotte Islands by immersing a human corpse in the water for several days. When they retrieved the body, dentalium would be clinging to it. Trade in dentalium shells is also a well-documented, with shells traveling great distances from the Northwest Coast to places like interior Alaska, Kodiak, and the Aleutian Islands.
Empty dentalium shells are ideal for beading, as they have a hole at each end. Alutiiq people sewed dentalium shells to hats, and used them in beaded earrings, bracelets, necklaces, and headdresses, and as nose pins. The shells were considered very valuable, and their use may be hundreds of years old. Pebbles incised with drawings of people more than 500 years ago seem to show dentalium shell necklaces.
Photo: Students with dentalium shell earrings made at the Alutiiq Museum.
Guuta’istat alikanka. - I am afraid of dentists.
Photo: A chair at the KANA dental clinic.
Oral tradition suggests that irat were dangerous as they were hungry for human flesh. A story from Prince William Sound tells of a woman who ran away from her village. A year later a hunter and his wife traveling nearby encountered the woman. She had tattered clothing and said she was hungry. They recognized her, but realized she had become an evil spirit because her head was pointed. While his wife cooked some food for the woman, the man carefully snuck his boat back into the water. While the woman ate, husband and wife escaped. They paddled away quickly, evading the spirit as she yelled, “I want you two. I will eat you up”. For many years the people of the village would not travel past this spot, till a shaman sought the spirit and killed her.
Other stories suggest a link between irat and Alutiiq shamans. Elders recall that shaman took advantage of the power of evil spirits to travel to other worlds, see distant events, and send messages. One elder remembers a shaman who could communicate with other villages by sending a fire devil–a message that traveled with an evil spirit in a ball of fire.
Photo: Long-headed, whistling mask, 988-2-182, Pinart Collection, Château-Musée, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France
Cukilanarpat tak’ut. - The devil’s club are tall.
Hikers in Alaska’s coastal forests are familiar with devil’s club, known by its appropriate Latin name Echinopanax horridum. This spiny member of the ginseng family can grow up to ten feet tall and flourishes in wet ravines under the spruce canopy. It has broad leaves and bright red berries, but devil’s club is best known for its numerous sharp spines. The Alutiiq word cukilanarpak literally means “big thorn.” To dislodge the needles from a person’s skin, Alutiiqs washed the affected area with a young boy’s urine. This caused swelling and made the spines easier to remove.
Although many hikers avoid devil’s club, Native people in Alaska and Canada highly regard its many medical properties. Throughout the year, Alutiiqs harvest the cambium, or inner bark, of the devil’s club stem, which they boil to make a potent tea. Taken in small doses, this tea can provide relief from coughs, colds, aches and pains, and fever. Washing your hair in this tea is said to make it grow. Devil’s club roots are harvested in the summer and dried for later use, but the plant’s poisonous leaves and berries are avoided. The root can be mashed and heated to form a poultice that helps to relieve joint pain, or burned to create a medicinal powder. In Prince William Sound, this powder was applied to the navel of a newborn babies to promote healing.
In addition to its medicinal value, devil’s club is thought to have magical properties. On the Kenai Peninsula, Alutiiq people swing plant stalks in the air to scare away wolves. Others nail a piece of devil’s club above their doorways to ward off evil.
Photo: Devils club with berries. Photo by Priscilla Russell, courtesy the KANA collection.
Kita, Maqarlinuk. - Come on, Let’s (two of us) play dice.
Dice games are very common across North America. Native societies from New England to the Pacific Northwest enjoy tossing small objects in games of chance.
Russian traders recorded an Alutiiq dice game they called stopka, where players tossed a small figurine carved of bone and scored points based on how it landed. Archaeological finds illustrate that these die were about an inch long and roughly bullet-shaped with a flat bottom. Some were also decorated. A die carved from fossilized ivory features rows of drilled holes. A wooden die features the head of a bear.
In Alutiiq, this dice game is known as maqaq. Today, players use a five-sided piece of wood or bone to play. Each side has a different point value. The largest side has a value of one point. The next largest side is worth two points, and so on, with the smallest side worth the most: five points.
Players sit in a circle and toss the die, adding up points based on how the piece falls. The goal is to make the die land on the smallest side to earn the most points. Players keep score with small, wooden tally sticks, which they place in the center of their circle. Players take a tally stick for each point they earn, putting the sticks in a pile in front of them. Once players have taken all the tally sticks from the center pile, they can take points from their opponents. The first player to collect sixteen points twice consecutively wins the game.
Photo: Dice from the Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Maqiwigmi qalutat aturtaapet. - We use dippers in the banya.
Enter an Alutiiq steam bath and you will find an assortment of tools for bathing. Adjacent to a wood-burning stove fashioned from a fifty-five-gallon oil drum are large metal tubs for storing, heating, and mixing water; tongs for loading the stove and tending the fire; and water dippers made by nailing a coffee can to a slender wooden pole. Archaeologists note that many of these tools have ancient equivalents. Alutiiqs carried hot rocks into the steam bath with specially carved wooden tongs or rock paddles and stored water for bathing in large bentwood boxes where it was retrieved with carved wooden dippers. Water dippers from Karluk One, an ancient village site, are large, finely made pieces, about the size of a small coffee can.
In addition to water dippers, Alutiiqs used a variety of other spoons and scoops. A small spoon carved from bone or antler functioned as a gut scraper. Women used these implements to remove membranes from bear and sea mammal intestine as they processed the material to make clothing; rain gear especially. People also used simple wooden scoops to remove hot rocks from the fire for cooking and steam bathing and served food with large, elaborately decorated spoons made of mountain goat horn. These beautiful spoons had animal and bird carvings on the handle, and many were painted.
Photo: Wooden dippers from the Karluk One site. Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Tan’urat waamut iqami. - The boys are playing in the dirt.
The soils in the Kodiak region are relatively young, formed since the end of the last ice age less than twelve thousand years ago. Deposits of volcanic ash brought to the archipelago by the wind and the weathering of bedrock and glacial deposits are the main sources of local soil. Although there are a variety of different soils, reflecting regional differences in precipitation, vegetation, and topography, most of Kodiak’s dirt can be classified as a silt loam. This reddish brown earth ranges from one to two feet thick and contains large amounts of organic material. In the wet environment, however, rain removes many of the soil’s nutrients. Water leaches out the soluble minerals, creating wet, acidic earth.
For Alutiiqs, this thick mantle of dirt provided a perfect foundation for houses. They created the walls and floors of structures by excavating through the soil into glacial gravels below. Digging was done with sturdy, pointed, sea mammal ribs and shovels made by tying a sea mammal scapula to a wooden handle. Builders piled the earth removed from these excavations along the outer walls and roofs of their houses to create warm, weather-resistant structures. The practice of building houses partially underground is at least five thousand years old and perhaps older. Some of the oldest houses, built before there were substantial accumulations of dirt to dig down into, appear to have been made by piling up blocks of sod.
Photo: Layers of dirt in an archaeological site.