Akgua’aq natermi qawallianga. - I slept on the floor last night.
Traditional Alutiiq houses had earthen floors. Dug into the soft volcanic soils of Kodiak Island, these floors had many features. In the center of most was a stone-ringed hearth that provided light, heat, and a place to cook. Clay-lined pit for holding water and food surrounded some hearths. Large roasting pits, where meat was buried with hot rocks to bake, flanked others. Other houses had subfloor storage pits. Lined with grass, these pits kept foods cool but unfrozen throughout the winter season. Some houses were also equipped with drainage ditches: board-covered trenches dug into the floor that helped to channel rainwater away from living areas.
Elders recall that dirt floors had to be carefully maintained throughout the year. Floors were swept with brooms made of eagle wings and covered with thick layers of clean, dry grass. In fall and spring and before important festivals, people cut fresh dry grass from the hillside to cover their floors. In sleeping areas, this grass might be covered with bear or otter hides to create warm, soft bedding.
In winter, household floors became a stage for festivals—the place where community members gathered to dance, sing, and communicate with the spirit world. Stories of these festivals, recorded in the nineteenth century, tell of spirits so frightening that the grass on the floor retreated in fear.
Image: Floor of a 900 year old house, Flies and Grass site, Olga Bay area.
Suit’kaat asingcugtaartut. - Flowers are pretty.
Each summer blue lupine, purple iris, lavender geranium, magenta fireweed, pink rose, yellow buttercup, and many other flowering plants flood Kodiak’s meadows with color. For Alutiiq people, however, wildflowers are more than a delightful reminder of summer. They are a source of information and a valuable natural resource.
Flowers help collectors judge the quality of plants. Many of Kodiak’s vegetables are picked before they blossom, because their leaves and stems toughen and may become bitter with flowering. Beach loveage, cow parsnip, sourdock, and goose tongue are all gathered when they first appear in May and June. Later in the summer, families will only harvest the nonflowering stems of these plants.
Like many other plant products, some flowers are eaten. Elders report sucking the nectar from salmonberry flowers, eating the berry-like flowers of pineapple weed, and making tea from the petals of wild roses. Other flowers can be used as medicine. Alutiiq people administer a tea made of elderberry flowers, fresh or dried, to reduce fever and relieve flu symptoms. This tea induces a cleansing sweat. Flowers are also used in poultices. A poultice of dried hemlock parsley flowers (Conioselinum chinense) can be used to clean wounds, one of wild sage (Artemisia tilesii) can relieve hemorrhoids, and one of heated single delight flowers (Monese uniflora) can treat tumors.
Photo: Lupine blooming on the shore of Monashka Bay, Kodiak Island.
Tumanaq martuq. (N); Umneq martuq. (S) - The fog is thick.
Each summer Kodiak’s coast clouds of mist and sea fog envelop Kodiak’s coast. As warm summer air passes over the cool North Pacific Ocean, dense patches of fog build against the island, where they may sit for days. Because fog can seriously hinder travel and subsistence activities, predicting its arrival and departure are important skills. It is not the clock that people watch in planning subsistence activities but the tides and the winds, the ocean and the sky.
Weather forecasting is considered an art in Alutiiq communities. People perfect their knowledge of the weather throughout life, learning from experience and developing an elaborate lore of local conditions. In the past, people also watched for omens that would foretell the weather. For example, if eagle down tied to the prow of a kayak fluttered, it was a signal of coming bad weather. Older individuals were particularly sought after for their knowledge, and some communities had a “sky person,” a weather expert who provided advice to hunting parties.
Photo: Fog covers the coast of Afognak Island.
From footprints, it is possible to estimate the size, age, and gait of a person and to tell how recently they passed by. As such, ancestral Alutiiq people were keen observers of not only bear and otter tracks, but of the footprints left by people and spirits in human form. Alutiiq legends record this practice. In traditional tales, footprints provide vital clues about the activities of others, concrete evidence in a world often filled with deception.
One legend reports that deep indentations in bedrock are the footprints of heavy, powerful beings. Another records a young man improving his hunting luck after footprints help him to find an encampment of spirits. In a third tale, footprints lead a woman to her missing husband. The man, who deserted his wife, wished her to believe he was dead. However, when she recognized his footprints along the beach, she knew he had carried his kayak to the water recently. She went in search of him and discovered that he was alive and living with another woman.
Village-ni kaaRaruangcut amlertaartut. - There are a lot of four wheelers in the villages.
Four-wheelers are the small, open, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) that provide transportation in Kodiak’s Alutiiq communities. Because it is both difficult and expensive to ship a full-sized car or truck to a remote village, many residents choose to purchase these sturdy, fuel-efficient bikes. Visit Ouzinkie or Larsen Bay and you will see people transporting luggage to the airport, hauling firewood, taking children to school, and recreating with their four-wheelers.
Although many people refer to their bikes by brand names like Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha, and Kawasaki, Alutiiq Elders developed the word kaararuangcuq for four-wheeler. This term literally means “kind of like a little car.” Another word used by some Elders is masiinakliitarpak, meaning “big motorcycle.”
Four-wheelers are an essential part of modern village life, but older residents remember the days before the machines arrived. They note that four-wheelers have changed rural living. Not only is it much noisier with the bikes around, but people get less exercise. Men who used to walk miles to hunt now ride their bikes. They may get to travel farther and stay out longer, but they aren’t in as good physical shape and they don’t necessarily do better at hunting. The noise of the bikes can scare away game.
Photo: Yolonda Inga, Athur Peterson, Thomas Rastopsoff, and Phillis Peterson on a four wheeler in Akhiok, Rostad Collection.
Kaugya’arsurlunuk. - Let’s (two of us) go fox hunting.
Kodiak is home to several varieties of fox (Vulpes vulpes). Coastal habitats support both red-furred animals as well as their darker cousins the silver and cross fox. Foxes are one of the region’s six indigenous land mammals, present in the archipelago for thousands of years. They occur throughout the archipelago, with the exception of the Trinity Islands. Foxes den in meadows and along stream banks but forage primarily in coastal habitats where they prey on rodents, birds, eggs, insects, fruit, and carrion. They are also adept at living near human habitations, where they forage in garbage.
Alutiiq people traditionally harvested foxes for fur, because their meat has an unpleasant musty taste. They were only taken for food in extreme emergencies. In fall, people hunted foxes with bows and arrows, snared them along habitually used trails, or since historic times, captured them with traps.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Alutiiqs participated in fox farming, an industry that developed to help trappers secure a stable income. There were seven major fox farms in the Kodiak Archipelago, located on small, uninhabited islands. The largest was on Long Island, where more than one thousand animals were raised on locally caught salmon.
Photo: Fox in the Karluk Lake area, Kodiak Island.
Kaugya'at naut'starwiat et'llria Long Island-mi. – There used to be a fox farm on Near Island.
Fur farming was once one of Alaska’s largest industries. For nearly two centuries, Alaskans raised a variety of small fur bearers–fox, chinchilla, rabbit, mink, muskrat, and beaver. The industry worked to improve the quality of pelts available for sale, enhance the range in which animals could be harvested, and stabilize dwindling supplies of fur in over trapped areas.
Causal fur farming began in Russian times when people released foxes on coastal islands. The animals weren’t tended. They simply multiplied naturally and people returned to harvest them. Eventually, caretakers began feeding island fox populations and their operations evolved into carefully controlled farms with pens, nutritional supplements, and veterinary care. Managed farms had greater start-up costs, but they reduced poaching, dramatically improved the survival of fox pups, and permitted selective breeding to create quality pelts.
In the early decades of the 1900s, fox farming became popular in the Kodiak region. Many entrepreneurs, including Alutiiq families, established fur ranching operations. The first formal enterprise was the Kodiak Fox Farm on Long Island, a facility with breeding pens and corals. The initial breeding stock for the farm came from Chirikof Island, where foxes from the Semidi Islands were released in 1891.
Additional fox farms sprang up on many local islands. The impressive list of fox farm locations include Amook Island, Bare Island, Raspberry Island, Whale Island, Abrams Island, Hog Island, Marmot Island, Dry Island, Nelsons Island, Low Island, Kalsin Island, Ugak Island, and others.
To start their farms, ranchers purchased animals from other Alaskan fur farmers or from Alutiiq hunters, who captured and sold live foxes. Live trapping was a lucrative business. A pair of healthy fox pups could be worth as much as $600 (over $7,500 in today’s dollars). Native people also sold dried fish for fox feed, which operators supplemented with fresh wild foods like fish, bird eggs, and berries.
Photo: Fox pelts in Ouzinkie, Melinda Lamp collection, AM588:140.
Alatiryugtua. (N); Alaciryugtua. (S) - I want fry bread.
Travel almost anywhere in Native America and you will find fried bread. This beloved food is a common addition to meals, a staple at celebrations, and a symbol of intertribal unity. Alutiiq communities are no exception. Fry bread is favorite food that is often found at gatherings, offered with holiday meals, and served to guests. Elders recall dipping fried bread into syrup or canned milk mixed with sugar, sprinkling the bread with sugar, or topping it with homemade berry jam. Today, people often enjoy it with butter and honey.
When did Kodiak’s Native people adopt fry bread? Some think it is a Russian addition, others suggest this food was developed in the American era. In the western United States, Indian women first created fried bread from food commodities issued to reservation families. Here, frying with deer or bear tallow was a traditional method of cooking cakes made from seed meals.
Poor-quality western rations were simply adopted to create a similar food. Perhaps Alutiiq families faced with commercial foods also created fried bread, or perhaps children sent to Native boarding schools learned how to make it from friends.
Whatever the origins of Kodiak’s fry bread, there are differences in the way Alutiiqs make this food. Kodiak chefs typically add yeast and sugar to their dough. In contrast, Native people in the Lower Forty-eight omit the sugar and use baking powder for leavening. The flavor of the bread is also influenced by the handling of the dough, the shape of the bread, the oil used for frying, and the frying time. Thus, although all bread dough is made with essentially the same ingredients, there is an art to making light, fluffy pieces of fried bread, and each chef has their own method for success.
Photo: Potluck plate with two pieces of fried bread.