Tuuciiqutat alagnangq'rtaartut. - The elderberry bushes always have berries.
Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is a large shrub with toothed leaves and soft wood that grows up to twelve feet tall. This bush occurs throughout northern North America in both wooded and open areas. Around Kodiak, it is particularly fond of the rich organic soil that forms over archaeological sites. Red elderberry has small, strong-smelling, ivory-colored flowers that produce clusters of small, red berries. Warning! The seeds, leaves, twigs, and roots of this plant are poisonous and can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Only the fleshy part of the berries and the blossoms are edible.
Alutiiq people use red elderberry for medicinal purposes. A tea made from the plant’s flowers was once used to induce sweating in cases of high fever, pneumonia, chills, flu, tuberculosis, and other chronic diseases, and a poultice made from the inner and outer bark could relieve back problems. The leaves can be used to make a yellow dye and the berries a purplish red dye, and the flowers can be used to make wine.
Photo: Alexandra (Sacha) Smith standing in front of a Pacific Red Elder bush in fruit, ca. 1991. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA collection.
Cirunertulit piturnirtaartut. - Elk always taste good.
Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) are one of four ungulate species introduced to the Kodiak Archipelago in the twentieth century. In 1929, eight Roosevelt elk were released on Afognak Island: five females and three males captured in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state in 1928. The animals spent their first winter in Kalsin Bay before being transplanted to Afognak in the spring of 1929.
Today, the descendants of these elk roam both Afognak and Raspberry islands and the herd has grown to about one thousand. People occasionally sight elk on Kodiak Island because elk are strong swimmers and will cross channels between islands. However, Kodiak has no established herd.
Roosevelt elk are larger and slightly darker than their Rocky Mountain cousins. A large Afognak Island bull can weigh as much as 1,300 pounds. Roosevelt elk can also be distinguished by their antlers, which are shorter, less symmetrical, and more massive than the antlers grown by elk living east of the Cascade Mountains.
On Kodiak, elk hunting officially began in 1950, when the herd had grown enough to permit culling. Since then, these large animals have become an important and highly desired source of meat in Kodiak communities, particularly Ouzinkie, where nearly half of households consume elk meat over the course of a year. Elk hunting is difficult because the animals are large, swift, and often found in rough terrain, so only a small number of people hunt elk, but the meat is widely distributed. Today, Alutiiq people harvest elk by permit from the end of September through November.
Photo: Elk released on Afognak Island, March 1929. Photograph by Charles Madsen, Courtesy the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
Neqllet taitaartut maut uksugmi. – The emperor geese always come here in the winter.
Emperor geese typically arrive in the archipelago between October and April. In summer, they breed in the Yukon-Kuskokwin Delta and along the coast of the Bering Sea in Alaska and Russia. As colder temperatures and ice develop, the birds fly south in search of open beaches to feed on seaweed and intertidal organisms. Most travel to the Aleutian Island, the coast of the Alaska Peninsula, or the Kodiak Archipelago.
Alutiiq hunters report that the Emperor goose population, at an historic low in the 1980s, is now rebounding. Although the birds cannot be taken for subsistence purposes due to legal protection, large gaggles of emperor geese are starting to appear, and even chase away flocks of wintering ducks.
Geese were once hunted with snares or bow and arrow. Today, they are taken with guns. Alutiiq people harvest geese for their meat and feathers. Elders recall that families used soft, warm goose down to stuff pillow and mattresses. Bird down is also an excellent fire starter. Despite the variety in species, Elders report that all geese, “taste the same!”
Photo: Emperor Geese on the shore of Chiniak Bay. Photograph by Dave Menke. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Kina nanwalegmek? - Who is from English Bay?
The Alutiiq village of Nanwalek lies on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, just ten miles southwest of Seldovia. Although Alutiiq people have lived in this region for thousands of years, the community of Nanwalek began as a Russian trading post, built by fur traders in 1785. It was first named Alexandrovsk after the Russian tsar Alexander I. Alutiiq families settled in Alexandrovsk because it was a center of commerce, a place where they could trade furs for Western goods. After the transfer of Alaska to American control, the village name changed to English Bay.
In 1991, villagers changed the community’s name again, selecting Nanwalek. This traditional Alutiiq name means “place by lagoon.” Today, about 220 people live in Nanwalek, most of them Alaska Natives. Many continue to speak Alutiiq and to participate in traditional subsistence activities. Community residents also work at the Nanwalek School, fish commercially, and take seasonal jobs at the nearby Port Graham cannery. You can reach Nanwalek by boat or airplane, but like many Alutiiq villages, it is not accessible by road.
Map: The Alutiiq world, with English Bay at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
Nuna ushnertuq - The land is eroding.
Erosion is the gradual wearing away of the earth by natural forces. Over thousands of years, wind, waves, rain, snow, and ice reshape the landscape, carving through soil and bedrock to create new landforms. Kodiak’s complex coastline, with its steep-sided fjords, inlets, straits, estuaries, lagoons, rocky headlands, and scattered islands, is the result of intense erosion.
Erosion is one of the biggest threats to the preservation of Alutiiq history. As erosion shapes Kodiak’s landscape, it also eats away the archaeological sites that document the past. Every year, meandering streams, storm surges, and heavy rains wash away a little more of the debris left by early residents.
For archaeologists, this natural process is both instructive and alarming. Although erosion can reveal the nature and location of buried deposits, it also destroys ancient materials. Erosion can also skew the archaeological record, making it more difficult to interpret. For example, it is difficult to find very old sites in the archipelago. Not only were there fewer people using the land seven thousand years ago, but erosion has had more time to wash away the most ancient traces of Alutiiq settlement.
Beachcombers should remember that collecting artifacts eroded from archaeological sites is illegal without permission of the site’s owner. If you find a site or an artifact, look with your eyes and your camera, not your hands. Leave the object in place and report your find to the landowner or an archaeologist.
Photo: Eroding shell midden, Kodiak Island.
Eskimut paagani et’aartut. - The Eskimos live up North.
Although the term Eskimo appears to have passed into English from the French word Eskimeaux, linguists believe that the word’s ultimate origin is in Montagnais, an Algonquian language spoken in the eastern Canadian provinces of Quebec and Labrador. The Montagnais used a similar-sounding word, meaning “snowshoe-netter,” to describe their northern Inuit neighbors. French traders recorded this word and other westerners eventually adopted this term.
Whatever its origin, Eskimo is a controversial term. Anthropologists have used it to describe the indigenous peoples of the North American Arctic, including the first residents of Greenland, the Canadian Archipelago, and coastal Alaska from Prudhoe Bay to Prince William Sound. The term was intended to denote a shared heritage—to highlight similarities in biology, culture, and language among the people inhabiting this northern environment.
However, because Eskimo is not a traditional self-designator, it is not widely used by northern peoples themselves. Most prefer to be called by their own cultural names—Inuit, Iñupiat, or Yup’ik—which mean “real people.” Alutiiqs are no exception. Although the Alutiiq people recognize cultural ties to their Yup’ik neighbors, most do not think of themselves as Eskimo. This distinction is evident in one of the the Alutiiq words for Eskimo, Pamanirmiu’at, which literally means “people up there.”
Isiit iingalartutaartut. - Owls (always) have big eyes.
An Alutiiq story from Prince William Sound tells of a young man who wished to be married. He traveled to a killer whale village, where he gave the chief dried halibut in return for the right to marry his daughter. The daughter left with the young man but discovered quickly that he had dirty, runny eyes. Disgusted, she snuck away and returned to her mother’s village.
The reference to dirty eyes in this story may reflect a common health problem in classical Alutiiq society. The oil lamps that burned daily in sod houses created soot that clogged both the lungs and the eyes. Russian traders report that blindness was a frequent problem.
Alternatively, dirty eyes may be a reference to the suitor’s youth and inexperience. Among the Yup’ik, with whom the Alutiiq people share many traditions, vision is associated with age, knowledge, and power, particularly supernatural power. It is rude for young people to make direct eye contact, and downcast eyes are a symbol of respect and humility.
This association between vision and power is also expressed in Alutiiq stories. Many Alutiiq tales mention taboos related to looking, particularly at supernatural things. For example, people who journey to the spirit world must close their eyes as they travel and are often shielded from watching spirits at work. Moreover, spirits are thought to have excellent vision. The souls of the dead peer down through the sky to observe life on earth, and Llam Sua—the Alutiiq supreme being—is all seeing.
Photo: Ceremonial mask with rays coming from eyes, signifying vision. Pinart Collection, Château-Musée, France.