Kum’agyak uqguwmi misngauq. - An eagle is perched in the tree.
Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) are a common sight in Kodiak’s coastal environments. These large, territorial raptors eat a variety of fish, small mammals, and birds and may occur in great concentrations when feeding on migratory species like herring or salmon. They have excellent eyesight and grow up to forty inches tall with a seven-foot wingspan. However, with large feathers and hollow bones, a full-grown eagle may weigh just fourteen pounds.
Although many Native American cultures honor the eagle, Alutiiqs captured eagles for raw material, preferring to esteem the clever raven. An account from Russian colonial times reports that an Alutiiq person kept a tame eagle. Other sources indicate that birds were snared using fish heads for bait. Eagle wings functioned as brooms and fire fans, their hollow bones as needle cases, and their feathers as fletching for arrows and filling for mattresses. Eagle skins were also a source of material for clothing. Among the Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound, eagle skins were plucked of their large feathers but the down was left in place. The skins were then washed in a mixture of water, fat, and spruce bark and scraped clean. Ten skins were then sewn together to make a coat. If the feathers were left on the skin, the coat was water repellent and could be used as a rain jacket.
According to Alutiiq legend, people could transform themselves into eagles by putting on an eagle skin. A tale from Prince William Sound tells of a young man who transformed himself into an eagle and captured a whale to feed his hungry grandmother.
Photo: Eagles perched in a Kodiak area tree.
Amlesqat Nuniarmiut Iragmek taimaut. - There are a lot of Old Harbor people that come from Eagle Harbor.
Today the grass-covered depressions of sod houses and the memories shared by Elders are all that remain of Eagle Harbor, a once sizeable Alutiiq village. This community rested on the southern shore of Ugak Bay, facing Saltery Cove and the rocky capes of Pasagshak. Historic source indicate the community may have been present as early as 1805. About 1830, the Russian artel Igak moved across Ugak Bay to Orlovsk, or Eagle Harbor, from its location in present day Saltery Cove. In 1837, Eagle Harbor became a relocation village for Native survivors of a smallpox epidemic. More than 730 Native people died during the epidemic, decimating many small communities. Russian colonists reorganized the Native population into communities, often near workstations. In Ugak Bay, Native laborers lived in Orlovsk while Russian American Company staff members lived in the adjacent community of Minokova.
Despite its grim start, Eagle Harbor flourished. It was well located for harvesting sea lions that were plentiful on Ugak Island at the mouth of the bay. Residents also took large quantities of salmon from streams beside the village. Some families also kept cattle, while others worked as sea otter hunters and trappers. The community had a Russian Orthodox Church and a store. In 1879 Eagle Harbor was home to about 265 people. In summertime, people moved across the bay to work temporarily at the salmon saltery at Saltery Cove. By 1920, families were moving out of Eagle Harbor. Trapping produced little income, the store closed, and people needed jobs. Village families gradually moved to Kodiak, Woody Island, and Old Harbor.
Photo: Aerial View of the Eagle Harbor area.
Kulunguaqa kataigiiyaqa. - I dropped my earring.
Earrings are one of the many items of personal adornment that Alutiiqs once used to express social identity. Like labrets, nose pins, necklaces, belts, and decorated clothing, earrings were worn by men and women and incorporated valuable materials to illustrate the wearer’s status. Historic paintings from the early nineteenth century show Alutiiq people with earrings tied in their earlobes and around the rims of their ears, with up to eight piercings per ear. These earrings were fashioned from strings of European glass trade beads. Other common materials included handmade beads of shell, coal, amber, and ivory and slender dentalium shells from southeast Alaska.
How long have Alutiiqs worn earrings? Archaeological data suggest that this practice may be more than 2,000 years old. Beads and other jewelry begin appearing in Kodiak’s archaeological record about 2,700 years ago and coincide with a period of population growth, extensive long-distance exchange, and increased warfare. It appears that people began wearing jewelry at this time as a way to express their affiliation with particular social groups. Earrings may have been part of this expression.
People wearing earrings are also depicted on incised pebbles, small pieces of engraved slate that appear in archaeological sites about six hundred years old. Although the function of these pebbles is unknown, they show people in ceremonial dress, and some are wearing vertically dangling strings of beads that appear to be earrings.
Photo: Child making dentalium shell earrings.
Nuna aulakan alingnartuq. - It is scary when the land shakes.
The Kodiak Archipelago lies at the juncture of two major tectonic plates, enormous pieces of the earth’s crust that are continually colliding. Here rock formed on the ocean floor is scraped off the Pacific plate as it slides beneath the more stationary North American Plate. As the Pacific plate adjusts to this pressure, sections occasionally slip, creating earthquakes.
Alutiiq legends provide several explanations for earthquakes. Some say that invisible men who lived inside the earth created quakes and made volcanoes steam and smoke when they fought, cooked meals, or heated a steam bath. Others suggest that earthquakes are caused by a powerful shaman grieving the loss of his son, and some believed that they were the result of a mythical being giving birth: the favorite animal of the Alutiiq supreme being Llam Sua.
Whatever their source, earthquakes have repeatedly shaped the lives of Alutiiq people. The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, one of the largest in recorded history, created a tsunami that leveled the communities of Kaguyak and Old Harbor, forced residents to vacate Afognak village, and generated dramatic changes in the distribution and availability of subsistence resources. Geologists believe that quakes of this size happen every four to five hundred years—more than fifteen times in the past 7,500 years of Kodiak’s human history.
Photo: Downtown Kodiak, Summer 1964, showing damage from the 1964 quake. Photo by Bill Workman. Workman Collection.
Ugnerkami Paas’kaartaartukut. - We have Easter in the spring.
Orthodox Easter is a central holiday in Alutiiq communities. Like Russian Christmas, it combines cultural traditions. Forty days of Lent precede Easter, creating a period of reflection and sacrifice. The Alutiiq faithful live simply, eating fish and vegetables, as no animal products are allowed. This period of fasting mirrors spring in classical Alutiiq society, when people lived on dried foods and shellfish as they waited for sea mammals, fish, and birds to return to coastal waters.
Religious services mark the days leading up to Easter. In Akhiok, Easter Sunday begins in church, as worshippers circle the building with lit candles. In Old Harbor, an egg hunt in the village cemetery follows the liturgy. Children search for eggs then visit neighbors to announce the resurrection of Christ and trade their finds. The eggs have Christian and Alutiiq significance. They symbolize both the rebirth of Christ and of the land—the return of migratory birds that foreshadows the coming wealth of summer. In the days that follow Easter, men ready their gear for fishing.
Photo: Easter at the Afognak Bible Church, ca. 1961, Chadwick Collection.
Cuumi niugtaallriit, “Iraluq tuqu’uq.” - Before they always used to say “The moon died.”
An eclipse occurs when one celestial object moves into the shadow of another. This term is often used to describe a solar eclipse, when the moon’s shadow crosses the earth’s surface. However, there are also lunar eclipses, when the moon moves into the shadow of the earth. Each year, the earth experiences two to five eclipses of the sun and two to three eclipses of the moon.
There are two ways to say eclipse in Alutiiq. The first, “iraluq tuqu’uq,” means the sun or moon has died. The second, “macaq, iraluq pairutuk,” is a way to say, “The sun and moon passed each other.”
According to local folklore, the moon is brighter after an eclipse. Alutiiq tradition holds that the moon is a man who wears a different mask each night. At dusk, he enters a cave, changes his clothes, and puts on the mask for that evening. When the moon is eclipsed, the man is said to be wearing grease, which darkens his face. When the eclipse fades, he has cleaned himself, creating the brighter moon that follows.
Manigsurciqukut. - We’re going to look for eggs.
Bird eggs are a favorite spring food in Alutiiq communities. Each year many thousands of seabirds nest along the rocky shores of the Gulf of Alaska coast. Collectors begin gathering eggs in May, particularly gull eggs. To avoid eggs with developing chicks, it is important to collect those that have been recently laid. Elders teach that you should not collect from a nest with three eggs. This means that the bird has laid its entire clutch and the eggs have been developing for some time. Most people collect eggs by boat, but in the past, they were also harvested by rappelling down steep cliffs with the aid of ropes made from sea-mammal hide.
In the past, people ate eggs fresh or stored them in pits for future use. Elders remember cooking eggs and other fresh foods in hollowed-out cottonwood logs on the beach. They dropped hot rocks from a campfire into the log to heat water for cooking. Before refrigeration, people stored eggs in grass-lined pits to keep them cool, but unfrozen, throughout the winter. Upright sticks marked these pits so they could be easily located.
Cuqllit amlen'irtut maani awa'i. - There are not many Elders around anymore.
The world’s cultures respond to aging in very different ways. Some societies believe that the aged have less to contribute than the young, considering the elderly a social burden. But in Alutiiq society, older people hold a distinguished, highly respected place. The term Elder refers to their special role. Elders are culture bearers, social leaders, and beloved members of the Alutiiq community. Through their lifetime of experiences and their knowledge of generations past, they connect younger people with Alutiiq history not written in books. Their stories, dances, songs, and activities pass Alutiiq heritage forward and infuse youth with traditional values. In a rapidly changing world, Elders help others remember what it means to be Alutiiq and to take pride in this ancestry.
Today, many Elders participate in cultural programs designed to preserve and share Alutiiq traditions. They teach the Alutiiq language in schools, demonstrate traditional crafts at summer camps, teach songs and dances during Alutiiq Week celebrations, and help to celebrate community events. They are also important advisors, helping others to make decisions that serve Native people and maintain traditional values. When does someone become an Elder? Some say it is at the age of fifty. However, the transformation is usually gradual, occurring as a person gains respect for their knowledge, demonstrates a willingness to share wisdom, and leads by example.
Photo: Alutiiq Elder with cotton grass, photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.