Qawangurtuataartut. - They always dream.
For Alutiiqs, dreaming is a magical state, one that draws people closer to the spirit world. Encounters between people and spirits often take place in dreams or as a person awakes from sleep. Shamans, people who interact closely with spirits,their apprentices through dreams, and dreams are thought to foretell the future. A person’s death might be predicted while dreaming, or a lucky amulet envisioned before it is found. Sleep is also the realm of the human soul. Shaped like a miniature person and stored in its owner’s breath, the soul was thought to travel during sleep, leaving the body to talk with other souls. Elders believe that this is why people sometimes feel tired when they awake from sleeping.
A legend recorded on Kodiak in 1872 tells of a hunter’s dream. A man was unable to hunt successfully and he pleaded for help. In his sleep, he dreamed of masks and heard an unknown voice singing songs. When he awoke, he began to repeat the songs. The next time he went hunting, his luck improved and he killed many animals. Other hunters asked about his good fortune. The lucky hunter taught them his songs and made the masks from his dream.
Photo: Woman asleep in a skiff, Ouzinkie 1940s. Smith Collections, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Pukilaanek iwa’at’skut. - Let’s look for driftwood.
Spruce trees are a recent addition to the Kodiak environment. Pollen and tree-ring studies indicate that the spruce forests of Shuyak, Afognak, and northern Kodiak are 500 to 900 years old. For ancient Alutiiq communities, driftwood was the primary source of lumber for home construction, tool production, and fuel. Locally available alder and cottonwood were useful for some tasks, but they were no substitute for the spruce, hemlock, yew, and cedar logs that washed onto Kodiak beaches.
Today, driftwood heats Alutiiq homes, fuels banyas, and smokes salmon. Families collect wood, searching the coast for suitable logs, particularly after stormy weather. Logs are tapped with a rock to ensure that they are not waterlogged and then towed home behind a skiff. Others may be marked and left for future collection. People use different signals to showlog ownership. Some carve their initials into the ends of a log. Others will place a rock on top of a log or stack driftwood and tie a line around one end of the pile. These actions signal that the finder will be back to retrieve his supply.
Photo: Driftwood on the beach at Cape Alitak, May, 2010.
Cauyaq nitniqgu. - Listen to the drum.
In the traditional Alutiiq language, the word for drum and music are the same: cauyaq. This duality illustrates the importance of drums to traditional Alutiiq music. Although Alutiiqs also perform with rattles and whistles, the drum, with its penetrating beat, is their main instrument.
Drumming is an ancient practice. Prehistoric petroglyphs from both Afognak and Kodiak islands show people holding drums and archaeological sites with well-preserved wooden artifacts include drum handles and drum rims many hundreds of years old.
In the past, craftsmen made drums by stretching a dehaired seal hide, a seal bladder, or a halibut stomach over a wooden frame. The frame was carved from a single piece of wood, bent into a circle with steam, and lashed together. To the frame, artists attached cross braces and a sturdy handle. Like other ceremonial objects, drums were often decorated. A drum’s skin might be painted with images of spirit helpers or its handle painted and adorned with carvings. Some drum handles displayed tiny masks attached so they faced the audience as the drummer played. A drum handle from an archaeological site in Karluk shows a human face inset with two tiny animal teeth.
Today, artists continue to fashion drums from local wood, carving and bending frame parts to shape. In addition to skin covers, some artisans use a resilient airplane fabric, treated with resin. This fabric is durable but still reverberates with deep resonant tones.
Photo: Youth drummer with the Akhiok Alutiiq dancers at the opening of the Like a Face exhibit, May 2008.
Tamuuq kinertaa. - The fish is dry.
Catching salmon is only the first step in a long process of preserving summer’s abundance for winter use. The real work begins once the fish are in the net. In the past, Alutiiq women used slate knifes, known as ulus, to clean and split fish, which they hung by the tail on wooden racks. Historic photos of Alutiiq summer villages show drying racks laden with filets beside sod houses. Fish had to be processed quickly to avoid spoiling and then carefully tended to protect them from bugs, birds, and rain. Fish that were not completely dried would rot, threatening even the most successful fisherman with a hungry winter. In addition to salmon, Alutiiqs dried halibut, cod, and many types of meat. At meals, people dipped strips of dry fish into bowls of sea mammal oil.
Dried fish remains a favorite food. Alutiiq families continue to hang red salmon filets and strips of halibut. In good weather, thin pieces of halibut will dehydrate in about ten days. Salmon filets take a number of weeks, but once dry, they can be stored for months. Many people eat dry fish as a snack, dipping it in special homemade sauces. Others carry dried fish when traveling for a quick meal.
Photo: Fish drying under protective netting, Afognak Island.
Saqul’aarsurciqukut. - We are going to go duck hunting.
More than fifty-two species of loons, grebes, swans, geese, and ducks winter along the gulf coast of Alaska. Waterfowl begin arriving in September, flocking to protected bays and estuaries to feed on shellfish, vegetation, and insects. About two hundred thousand birds winter in the Kodiak Archipelago, many of them in the marshy environments of southwest Kodiak Island. For the Alutiiq people, waterfowl provided an important source of winter food and raw material. Men once hunted birds from kayaks with special bird darts, or on land with bows and arrows. Today, residents use shotguns, typically harvesting birds from September through March, although sporadic hunting may extend into June.
There are many ways to prepare ducks. People often clean their ducks, pluck out the feathers, and store them in the freezer for roasting, stewing, and frying. Another method is to make stinky duck. Elders recall hanging mallards in their attic or behind the stoves to ripen. When the feathers wiped off easily, they would clean the carcass and cook it.
The word for duck is a good example of regional differences in the pronunciation of Alutiiq words. Speakers from the northwestern coast of Kodiak say saqul’aat with a “sh” sound at the beginning. This is the typical pronunciation in Afognak and Ouzinkie. Along the southeastern coast, however, in the communities of Old Harbor and Akhiok, the word is pronounced with an “s” sound at the beginning.
Painting: Duck, by Lena Amason. Acrylic and oil paint on brich wood, with strips of marine bouy. Purchased with assistance from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Maani tang'rtaan'itukut sungcunek. - We never see any (magical) dwarves around here.
The Alutiiq world is full of magical beings—giants who transform themselves by spitting, people who live on the smell of meat, wily sea monsters, enormous man-worms, evil shaman’s helpers with pointed heads, and dwarves. All of these creatures were thought to inhabit the earth and interact with people. Dwarves, or “little people,” are the best known. These tiny, hairy, knee-high men with loud voices were said to be exceptionally strong. They could kill animals by pointing at them and lived in their own small villages with miniature houses and boats.
Dwarves were often helpful to people in trouble and brought luck to hunters who treated them kindly. Elders remember leaving scraps of food for little people to eat and note that if you met a dwarf, you would be lucky for life.
A legend recorded by French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart tells of two men who secured their hunting luck by caring for two dwarves. The hunters went on a kayak trip and were overtaken by fog. They heard two loud voices and came upon a tiny kayak with two little men. They took these men into their kayak, which caused the fog to disappear. They took the dwarves home and cared for them and had good luck in hunting thereafter.
Because Alutiiqs believe that every object in the universe has a human-like spirit—an actual person inside of it—some people conclude that dwarves are spirits awaiting reincarnation.
Photo: Model kayak with miniature paddlers, gift of Perry Eaton.