Cillqat antaartut uksuarmi. - The fireweed comes out in the fall.
Late summer in the Kodiak Archipelago is brightly heralded by thousands of fireweed blossoms. This widely distributed perennial plant is a member of the evening primrose family, and it grows in both a dwarf and tall variety in the Kodiak region. The tall variety (Epilobium angustifolium) has a long stalk, narrow leaves, bright pink flowers, and long stalks that can reach up to eight feet tall. This variety thrives in meadows, open forests, hillsides, and anywhere the ground has been disturbed. The dwarf variety (Epilobium latifolium) is more common over gravely substrate and grows only about a foot tall. As fall approaches fireweed leaves turn from dark green to a brilliant red and release seeds coasted in a downy fiber.
Fireweed has long been both a source of food and raw material in Alutiiq communities. In the past, the plant served as roof thatching for sod houses, especially in interior regions where ryegrass was not available. And steam bathing switches were made from fireweed stalks.
Young fireweed leaves are often eaten fresh, although they also can be dried and used to make a soothing tea. Fireweed shoots are also harvested and may be cooked or eaten raw. In Nanwalek, an Alutiiq community of the Kenai Peninsula, people cook fireweed leaves in seal oil. Today, many people harvest fireweed blossoms to flavor sweet syrup for pancakes and deserts.
Photo: Fireweed blooming at Cliff Point, Kodiak Island.
An essential step in preserving Kodiak’s wealth of salmon for winter use is to prepare it properly. To prevent bacterial growth and rotting, salmon flesh can be frozen, salted, or desiccated. Alutiiq people use each of these techniques, although traditional methods of air drying and smoking remain very popular. First, however, families must butcher their catch to create seg’aq–fish prepared for drying.
An elder recall that splitting fresh fish is more difficult that splitting aged fish, so men filled their skiffs with salmon and let them sit overnight. Women then worked to clean the catch, splitting over two-hundred fish a day at the height of the salmon season. In the late nineteenth century, records indicate that Karluk’s 300 villagers cleaned about 100,000 fish a year!
There are many ways to butcher fish for seg’aq. The goal is to expose the meat to aid drying. Typically, people remove the head, spine, and ribs, creating two filets attached at the tail. Some people also score the flesh. Deep, angled cuts into the meat, perpendicular to the length of the fish, allow moisture to escape.
People hang their seg’at on wooden racks, suspending the filets by the tail. Experienced fish processers report that it is important to split the fish carefully, so that both filets are the same weight. If one filet is heavier than the other, the fish will slip off the drying rack. Drying takes about three weeks. On dry days, the fish flesh faces outward, but on wet days, people reverse the filets, facing the skin outwards to protect the meat.
Photo: An Old Harbor youth splits fish for drying.
Sisut piturnirtaartut kallagkwarluki. - Fish Eggs always taste good after you boil them.
Fish eggs are an Alutiiq delicacy. Each spring people collected herring roe from coastal waters and in the summer they carefully removed the eggs from hundreds of salmon captured with nets. Roe was traditionally eaten fresh or lightly smoked. Fish eggs were crushed with pestles, washed with freshwater to remove any fat, and then stored in wooden boxes to ferment. After several weeks, a hard crust formed on top of the eggs. People removed and ate this crust, then added the remaining eggs to akutaq — an Alutiiq dish of seal oil and berries. Fish eggs were also pressed. After air-drying, people placed the eggs in a wooden box and weight it with a board. Over time, they formed a dense mass that was sliced and eaten, much like cheese.
In addition to food, fermented fish eggs were also used to process or tan bird hides for clothing. According to an historic account, people cleaned their bird skins by scraping the fat off or chewing the skin to remove any fat. Then, they covered the skin with fish roe and left to sit. After several days, they skins were scraped clean and kneaded till soft and dry.
Photo: Salmon egg caviar and crackers.
Iqallut iniki initamen. - Hang the fish on the fish rack.
Fish racks are an essential feature of Alutiiq communities. Although salmon, halibut and cod are abundant in Kodiak waters, each is seasonally available. Salmon return to the islands waters in great numbers in summer and fall, and ocean fish move closer to shore in warm weather and are easier to catch in the spring and summer months. To make efficient use of these resources, Alutiiqs harvest fish in quantity when they are available and them process them for long term storage. One popular method is drying-using the air and the sun to dehydrate fish flesh. Racks were an important for the drying process.
Archaeological data suggest that people built fish racks both inside and outside structures. Post holes in village sites many thousands of years old, hint at the presence of racks, and the earliest historic photos from Kodiak show fish drying on long racks around sod houses. In the remains of some specialized structures, an abundance of small post holes, burned rocks, and charcoal suggest the rack were set up inside to dry fish with fires and perhaps smoke.
Today, fish racks may be made from rough-cut lumber or from spruce poles, branches, or young tree trunks that have been carefully limbed. Upright poles form a brace for a long bar over which thin strips of fish or entire filets can be hung. Many people loosely cover their racks with plastic tarps, creating a roof to keep off Kodiak’s persistent rain. However, it is important not to cover the rack too tightly, or the fish will mold. The final touch is often a fishing net covering. The net’s open weave lets in the air and sun but keeps small scavengers away. The Alutiiq word for fish rack, initaq, literally means “something you hang something on.” The same word can be used for other kinds of racks, like a coat rack.
Photo: Salmon drying on a rack beside Karluk lagoon, ca. 1987.
Iksak ipegtuq. - The fishhook is sharp.
Archaeological sites in the Kodiak Archipelago illustrate that Alutiiqs have harvested marine fish for many thousands of years. Even the earliest camps hold grooved cobbles used to weight fishing rigs to the ocean floor. More recent sites preserve the wood and bone parts of these rigs. Alutiiqs landed halibut, cod, and rockfish with hooks carved from bone. Small barbed pieces of bone were lashed to a curved shank, often fashioned from a seal rib. The, a pair of hooks was tied to a wooden bar, or rig spreader, with one hook suspended from each end. Then a stone sinker was tied from the center of the rig. Each fishhook received a baited with clams or fish and then lowered to the ocean floor with a line made from bull kelp. Some rigs included a wooden snood-a slender wooden leader-to strengthen the line above the hook.
In the historic era, metal hooks, monofilament, and steel leaders replaced bone barbs, kelp line, and wooden snoods. Whatever the materials they are made of however, the halibut fishing tackle used by sportsmen is essentially the same as the rigging ancient kayakers used to pull fish from Chiniak Bay.
Photo: Fishhook parts, Karluk One Site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Kugyasigciqukut parag’uutakun. - We are going to go fishing (seining) on the boat.
Visit any dock in the Kodiak Archipelago and you will find an array of fishing vessels. Skiffs, seiners, tenders, and crabbers are part of the rhythm of life in Kodiak and its Alutiiq communities.
Over the centuries, Alutiiq people have used many types of fishing boats. Before the arrival of Westerners, Alutiiq hunters pursued fish from sleek ocean-going qayat (kayaks). As Western vessels replaced Native boats, Alutiiqs learned to fish from wooden dories. From these boats, powered by rowing or by small sails, fishermen caught cod with hand lines tied to the gunnels. Other people fished for salmon with seine skiffs. Also propelled with oars, these boats were fourteen feet long and they could carry thousands of pounds of fish.
Canneries had steam powered launches, but in general motorized boats began to impact fishing practices in the late 1930s, as small outboards became available. In those days, a ten-horse kicker cost about $800! Power dories, owned mostly by canneries, helped fishermen tow nets and dories loaded with salmon, but they were often used for traveling. In the decade following World War II, more Alutiiq families began to acquire fishing boats. Boat building became a profitable winter activity. Craftsmen made skiffs, dories, and even purse seiners from local spruce.
Photo: The Nirvana, a salmon seiner from Uganik Bay, at work in the waters off Kodiak Island. Chadwick Collection.
Tallimanek una iqallugnek pit'llia. - This guy got five fish.
Five is a divine number in the Alutiiq world. The Alutiiq universe has five sky worlds and five underworlds. Layered on top of each other, these worlds contains a hierarchy of spirit beings. Llam Sua, the Alutiiq supreme being, resides in the fifth and most pure sky world. Other powerful spirits that guide human life live in the successive sky worlds. The first sky world, closest to earth, contained an earth-like landscape and the spirits of celestial bodies. Kodiak Alutiiqs believed that this world was the final resting place of the human soul. It was land where souls traveled after their fifth and final death and became the star people whose bright eyes looked back at earth through holes in the ground. Although little is known about the five underworlds, they were located beneath the sea and may have been the home of animal spirits. Fish, sea mammals, and even birds were thought to have homes under the ocean.
A reverence for the number five is expressed in the traditional female seclusion practices that surrounded major rites of passage in Alutiiq society-birth, menstruation, and death. Women giving birth were secluded in special huts for multiples of five days. Postpartum seclusion lasted five days, ten days, or occasionally longer, depending on the health and status of the mother. Additionally, young women were secluded for ten days at the onset of their first menstrual period. A similar seclusion occurred after the death of a child.
Photo: Coal labrets with a series of concentric circles likely representing the five layers of the Alutiiq Universe. Uyak Site, Larsen Bay Tribe Collection.
Gui wiinam itgai pingaktaanka. - I always like the sea lion’s feet.
Sea mammals propel themselves through Alaska’s coastal waters with strong, sleek flippers. Flippers not only help animals swim, they can be important tools for exiting the water and moving on land. Seal and sea lion flippers, for example, have a tough rubbery surface that keeps the animal from sliding on slippery rocks.
Many coastal societies harvested sea mammal flippers for this nonslip quality, carefully removing the extremities from the seals, sea lions, and walruses they captured to make boots. In western Alaska, people also inflated sea lion flippers to use as net floats, and in the Aleutians, people boiled seal flippers to make a thick paste that served as glue.
The most common use for flippers, however, is as food. Across Alaska, flipper meat is roasted, boiled, stewed, and fried, creating meals that many people consider a delicacy. On Kodiak, Elders debate whether seal or sea lion flippers are the best tasting, but both are considered a treat. Be careful, though: if you haven’t eaten sea mammal meat in a while, the rich flipper meat can give you gas.
Alutiiqs have several ways of cooking flippers. Some people pickle the meat. They boil it with onions and spice, remove the skin and bones, and store the meat in jars of vinegar. Others age the flippers for a short while or soak them in soda water overnight. Then they boil the flipper. When the skin comes off easily and the toenails fall out, the meat is ready to eat.
Photo: Whale breaching off of Cape Alitak, May 2010.