Giinan tang'raqa! – I see your face!
Like masks, the human face was also a canvas. Here, identity, emotion, and social circumstance were symbolized in classical Alutiiq society. Face paint, tattoos and jewelry were more than just decorations, they transformed a person’s image into a social statement. Mourners cut their hair and blackened their faces. Participants at winter festivals wore headdress and face paint to symbolize their home village. Girls tattooed their chins to symbolize readiness for marriage. Warriors painted their faces in preparation for a raid.
Photo: Ivory fastener with a carved face, Karluk One site, ca. AD 400, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Uksuartuq awa’i. - It is fall now.
Fall along Alaska’s gulf coast arrives with a palette of changing colors. The hills fade from green to gold, coastal meadows blaze with bright red fireweed and elderberry leaves, and the skies darken from blue to grey as the days shorten and winter storms reappear.
For Alutiiqs, fall was a time of preparation. Subsistence activities turned from the sea toward the land. Families harvested salmon from local streams, hunted ducks migrating through coastal marshes, and picked berries sweetened by the first frosts. Foods were processed and stored for winter use, filling sod houses with a wealth of resources. Subsistence activities were accompanied by preparations for cold weather. People gathered firewood, patched their sod houses, laid fresh grass on their floors, and began to create new clothes and tools from the abundance of the previous summer.
Photo: Fall colors along the Karluk River, 2014
Ilat naata allringumi ell'uteng. - Families should always stay together.
Families are the basic unit of human societies, and as the structure of societies changes, the organization of families changes as well. In the Kodiak region, archaeological data illustrate that nuclear families—parents and their children— lived together in one-room houses for several thousands of years. Small camps across the landscape suggest that one or two families hunted and fished together, moving in and out of larger winter villages with changes in the seasons.
By about AD 1200, Alutiiqs began to build much bigger houses. Each dwelling had a variety of small sleeping chambers attached to large central room. Historic accounts indicate that large extended families—parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—lived in these structures, with up to eighteen people per household. What caused this reorganization of families? Archaeologists believe that as the Native population grew and competition for natural resources increased, families coalesced to harvest, process, and store large quantities of foods and materials.
Today, families continue to be the primary work unit in Alutiiq communities, particularly for subsistence activities. Although groups of people may help each other with subsistence tasks like splitting fish or hauling wood, family members working together conduct most subsistence activities, and some families even maintain specific harvesting areas recognized and avoided by others. Berry patches, for example, are often family owned. Within the family, there is a division of labor by gender. Men and women tend to different tasks. Men are the primary hunters, wood collectors, and builders. In contrast, women typically gather plants and herbal medicines and process foods.
In addition to the family ties created by blood and marriage, Alutiiqs also build family connections through the Russian Orthodox Church. Every Orthodox child has a krasnaq: a family friend who acts as a godparent and assists that person through life. The bonds between godparent and child are so strong that marriage to the child of one’s godparents is strictly prohibited.
Photo: Erickson Family beside their Chignik home. Erickson Collection.
Mas’kaaq culungq’rtuq. - The mask has feathers.
Birds were a central part of classical Alutiiq society, both as an economic resource and as spiritual beings. In addition to eggs and meat, they provided a variety of feathers with important everyday uses. Eagle feathers were used in mattresses and as fletching for hunting arrows and toy darts. Waterfowl down could be used to start a fire, and feathered pelts were a primary material for clothing. Beautiful parkas were stitched from the skins of puffins and cormorants and worn as everyday clothing.
Feathers were also used for decoration. Inserted between the strands of spruce-root baskets, woven into grass mats, or sewn into the seams of clothing made from bear or sea mammal gut, feathers helped to accent the beauty of Alutiiq objects. Feathers also adorned spiritually powerful hunting hats and ceremonial masks, symbolizing the magical ties between people and birds. Birds were seen as helping spirits. They fed families, helped fishermen find schools of fish, marked currents and rocks, and led mariners to land in Kodiak’s dense fog. Modern fishermen still appreciate birds for these qualities.
Photo: Puffin skins sewn into a parka, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
There is no one English word that describes tugluq, a flavorful, traditional, Alutiiq dish. Like akutaq or ciitaq, tugluq was a mixture of ingredients tailored to the maker’s tastes and the availability of foods. The base was uququq–fermented seal oil. To this, chefs added berries and greens to form a tasty, aromatic, uncooked meal. Although tugluq is not currently served in Alutiiq homes, Elders remember eating it as late as the 1950s.
A key feature of tugluq was its longevity! This dish was the Alutiiq version of the never-ending pot, a perpetual plant food stew that was never fully eaten and could be replenished for months. In Alutiiq communities, a barrel of tugluq might last all winter, as people added more fermented oil, and whatever fresh or stored plants were available. And as the mixture aged, and continued to ferment, it becomes more flavorful. Both the fermentation and the oil in the dish acted as preservatives.
Making tugluq was a way for Alutiiq people to avoid waste, as leftovers could be added to the mix. Thrift, especially with food, is an essential Alutiiq value. It demonstrates respect for the natural world and ensures a future supply of plants and animals. Tugluq makes good use of the foods you have. Moreover, tugluq supports another Alutiiq value, hospitality. The pot is always available when guests arrive.
Many cultures have a perpetual stew tradition. The hunter’s pot, with meat and tubers, was part of medieval European cuisine. Caribbean cultures make pepperpot. Vietnamese pho and Japanese ramen are often made with stock from a perpetual pot of bone broth. And a legend from India tells of a woman with five husbands who fed her large family from a never-ending pot.
Photo: Phyllis Peterson holds a jar of berries preserved in oil, an ingredient in Tugluq. Photo by Priscilla Russell, Kodiak Area Native Association Collection.
Qaatanek pisurciqukuk. - We (two) will gather ferns.
The spreading wood fern (Dryopteris dilatata) is one of at least nine varieties of ferns commonly found in the Kodiak Archipelago. This large fern, which thrives in moist forests and coastal meadows throughout the north, can often be found growing near sourdock and nettle plants. The spreading wood fern has dense, triangular fronds that can reach over a foot in length. When it first sprouts in late April and May, the fronds appear as tightly curled fiddleheads. These tender shoots are both delicious and nutritious.
Alutiiqs collect fiddleheads for food. People prepare the young fronds by boiling or steaming and then eat them as a vegetable. They can also be added to salads. Fiddleheads are best consumed in the early spring when they are less than six inches tall, because the fern develops a bitter taste as it grows and unfurls. In fall, people collect the tender, juicy, buried portion of fern stems, which can be roasted. Both of these edible parts of the fern can be canned, dried, or boiled and stored till needed.
Photo: Fern frond, collected in the Old Harbor area, Kodiak Island Alaska.
Qulnek sua’angq’rtua. - I have ten fingers.
The Alutiiq word sua’aq refers generally to a finger. Like English speakers, however, Alutiiq speakers have unique words for individual fingers. For example, Alutiiqs call the middle finger akulimaq, from the word for in-between. The second, or index finger is tekeq. Alutiiqs have a joke about people who wag their index fingers at others. This sort of nagging is said to make your finger grow longer!
Because most Alutiiq speakers don’t know the individual finger terms, language instructors recently translated “Where is Thumbkin,” a popular British children’s tune that teaches finger terms, into Alutiiq.
Some classic Alutiiq tools had special places for fingers. The throwing boards used to loft harpoons had specially carved grooves for the last three fingers. Harpoons featured a small finger rest, a crescent-shaped piece of wood or bone tied to the weapon’s shaft. The hunter placed his index finger on the rest to steady the harpoon while he prepared for a strike. One example in the Alutiiq Museum’s collections is carved from a walrus molar.
Photo: Harpoon finger rests. Koniag, Inc. collection, Karluk One.
Keneq kuarnarpet. - We can build a fire.
Large fires set in stone-lined hearths once warmed Alutiiq households. Alutiiqs lit these fires with wooden fire starters. These three-piece implements had a flat wooden platform (hearth) and a long shaft (spindle) that was rotated rapidly against the platform with a small bow. The friction caused by the movement of the shaft created an ember that people coaxed into a flame with a small bit of tinder. Wood shavings, birch bark, spruce pitch, and even bird down were used to feed the fire. Driftwood and woody brush then provided fuel for cooking, drying clothing, and heating, as well as light for indoor chores.
Analysis of charcoal from archaeological sites illustrates that people fueled their hearths with a variety of locally available woods. Many ancient fires were lit from brush. Alders, willow, and other woody shrubs were a main source of fuel for the island’s earliest residents. Valuable driftwood logs were often reserved for building houses, boats, and fish-drying racks and for carving hunting and household tools.
Fire was also important to Alutiiq spiritual life. Men lit bundles of dried grass and spruce cones to please the spirit world and ensure hunting luck. And oil lamps have long been lit at gatherings to symbolize the enduring ties among Alutiiqs, their ancestors, and the natural world.
Photo: Fire on the beach, Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.