AkaRautaq miktuq. - The garden is small.
Although Alutiiq people have long enjoyed wild fruits and vegetables, gardening is a recent pursuit. Russian colonists were the first to attempt cultivation in Kodiak’s fertile soil, growing grains and vegetables. Barley crops fared well, but wheat failed to ripen in the cool, wet summer months. Vegetable crops were more successful. As early as 1790, Russian gardens produced potatoes and cabbages. By the mid 1800s some village residents were raising potatoes commercially for Kodiak Monks, especially on Afognak Island.
Gardening gradually became an Alutiiq pursuit. By the early twentieth century, many families tended large vegetable plots to supplement their harvest of wild food and store-bought groceries. Potatoes were the most important crop, although gardeners also grew lettuce, cabbage, carrots, rutabagas, beets, turnips, and radishes.
Gardens were often established in open, sunny places, not necessarily adjacent to their owner’s home. For example, Ouzinkie residents gardened in Sourdough Flats, on Cat Island, and on Garden Point. Similarly, Kodiak’s Potato Patch Lake takes its name from the many gardens that once surrounded its shores. Families worked together to develop their gardens. Men prepared the earth by hoeing and tilling. Women and children tended the plants: weeding, watering, and fertilizing with buckets of kelp. Because of their rich soil, old Alutiiq village sites were favored locations for gardens.
Families stored their garden produce in cool, dark cellars sometimes called potato houses. Dug into the ground, these cellars were lined with grass and accessed with a ladder. The grass provided insulation for the vegetables that were layered in the hole.
Photo: Children helping with a Ouzinkie Garden. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith
Katurtut. - They are gathered.
Winter is the Alutiiq social season. Each year as the land freezes and darkness creeps across the sky, people set aside their subsistence gear to focus on household chores and socializing. In classical Alutiiq society, people gathered to sew parkas, mend tools, play games, and prepare for festivals inside houses warmed by blazing wood fires.
In addition to informal family gatherings, Alutiiqs hosted large winter celebrations. Guests were invited from neighboring communities to feast, dance, sing, and socialize. Preparations included creating gifts for each guest, preparing enormous amounts of food, and decorating the community men’s house where the festivities were held. On the day of the festival, members of the host community would don their finest clothing and wait on the beach for guests to arrive. As the kayaks approached, they would sing greeting songs and then rush into the water to help the boats ashore. The festivities lasted several days. When all the food was gone and participants were exhausted, the host’s gifts were distributed.
As you gather with your family and friends to celebrate the holidays, remember that you are participating in an ancient tradition. Winter feasting, worshipping, and fellowship are cross-cultural customs shared by people around the world.
Photo: Patty Gugle's Birthday Party, Ouzinkie ca. 1960. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Tanrat alingnartaartut. - Ghosts are always scary.
In the Alutiiq universe, ghosts are the physical manifestation of human and animal souls, and they are associated with death and reincarnation. When a person or an animal dies, their soul is released from their body to return to life. A person’s soul is in their breath and can be reincarnated five times before reaching eternal rest in the sky world.
In contrast, the reincarnation of animal souls perpetuates the supply of game and depends upon respectful treatment of the animal’s body after death. Animal souls look like small animals and reside in specific places in their owners’ bodies. The soul of a bear, for example, looks like a small bear and lives in its owner’s head. Before reincarnation, some souls may turn into ghosts.
According to traditional beliefs, a human soul that wants to be reborn pulls a boat up onto the shore. The soul then enters a pregnant mother’s womb and waits. The womb is thought to act like a house, protecting the soul as its new owner grows. When an expecting woman gets sick to her stomach, it is said that the soul inside her did not like something she ate. When a soul is ready to die, its owner dreams of taking a boat trip. When the fire cracks, it means the souls of the dead are hungry, and a piece of meat should be thrown into the flames.
Ghosts—the souls of the dead—should not be confused with spirits. Spirits are a type of evil being who live in the wilderness. Although people who live in solitude can turn into such beings, they are visible only to shamans, who recognize them by their pointy heads.
Pikiyutat amlertaartut uqgwim acaani. - There’s always a lot of presents under the [Christmas] tree.
In traditional Alutiiq society, gifts were given to show respect, form alliances, and display leadership. Guests arrived in Alutiiq communities with gifts of food and were given refreshments to carry home. Gifts were also used to formalize marriages. Prospective in-laws exchanged items to symbolize their acceptance of a union. The most obvious form of giving happened at winter festivals. After several days of dancing and feasting, chiefs would distribute their wealth, giving away valuable trade goods and clothing. The ultimate sign of prestige was to provide a squirrel-skin parka for each visitor. This lavish gift illustrated the host’s leadership ability: his power to obtain resources and organize labor.
To ensure harmony with ancestors and continued economic prosperity, gifts were also given to the spirit world. People who harvested berries might leave a small gift to thank the plant. Similarly, gifts were offered when picking medicinal herbs to ensure that their properties would work effectively. And gifts of food were left on the graves of the recently deceased to provide sustenance in the spirit world.
Photo: Family opening Christmas gifts, courtesy the Knagin Collection.
Arya’aq qecenguq. - The girl is running.
The life of an Alutiiq girl began in a small hut. Here, her mother labored with the help of a midwife and then rested with her baby for five to ten days before introducing the infant to the household. During this seclusion, the baby might have a hole pierced below her lip to hold a labret. As an infant a baby girl would be carried on a cradleboard and carefully tended to, never allowed to cry for lengthy periods.
By age six, girls helped with simple chores, like making thread from sinew and braiding line. To learn adult skills, they played with replicas of their mother’s tools: tiny stone lamps, wooden water scoops, bentwood cooking boxes, and dolls. Carved from wood and clothed, a girl’s dolls were thought to represent the souls of ancestors waiting to be reborn when the girl became a mother. Girls learned about spiritual life by participating in festivals, dancing with adult women in performances that honored ancestors.
At her first menstruation, a girl passed from childhood into adult life. As at birth, she was secluded in a special hut. This isolation lasted up to several weeks, marking her new ability to bear children and to produce spiritually powerful blood. Following seclusion, a young woman took a cleansing steam bath and had her chin tattooed to publicly display her new social status. Sometimes a festival was held to celebrate her initiation. Menstrual seclusions continued in the Kodiak region well into the twentieth century. Elder women recall being secluded in their bedrooms and forbidden to look out a window for fear they would invite bad weather.
Photo: Girl with crowberries. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
In the Alutiiq language, the term for glacier varies by region. Among Kodiak area Alutiiq speakers, the word is cikusinaq. The root of this word, ciku-, means ice, piece of ice, or iceberg. Add the suffix –sinaq, meaning large or great, and you get cikusinaq – large ice. In contrast, Kenai Peninsula Alutiiq speakers pluralize cikuq, the word for ice, using cikut- many pieces of ice, as the their term for glaciers. All of these words reference the size of glaciers, helping people distinguish between common pieces of ice and the massive ice sheets that shaped the Alutiiq homeland into the mountainous, fjorded region we know today.
During the last glacial epoch, a time that stretched from about 120,000 to 10,000 years ago, enormous streams of ice ran out of Cook Inlet, and off the Kodiak Mountains carving valleys, cliffs, and mountains, as well as deep bays. During the first glacial advance, ice covered all of Kodiak, with only mountain peaks rising above the ice. During subsequent advances, ice covered most of the archipelago, but did not reach all the way across southwest Kodiak Island. This region’s lower, rolling topography reflects it’s distinct history. Less glaciation and more exposure to wind and water rounded the topography of southwestern Kodiak.
Geological studies suggest that deglaciation of the Kodiak region, the melting and retreat of glacial ice, began about 17,000 years ago. Western areas of the archipelago were ice-free by about 14,000 years ago. As the ice retreated, freshwater filled valleys forming Kodiak’s major freshwater features, including Karluk and Red lakes and the rivers that drain them.
The Koniag Glacier, found today in the mountains behind Kiliuda Bay, is a remnant of the glaciers that once covered Kodiak. This small mountain glacier flows off Koniag Peak and is about 7 miles long. In 1963, the Kodiak Historical Society named the glacier for the Alutiiq People. Koniag is a term sometimes used for early Alutiiq settlers.
Photo: Koniag Glacier on central Kodiak Island.
Aritenka tamartaanka. - I loose my gloves all the time.
Gloves and mittens are an essential piece of clothing in northern environments. Like warm fur parkas and insulated sod houses, they are one of the cultural adaptations that protect people from frostbite and hypothermia. Yet references to Alutiiq gloves, and examples of such garments, are rare.
In Prince William Sound, Alutiiqs are reported to have made mittens from bear paws, adding a separate piece of hide to form the thumb. A Smithsonian Institution collection includes a pair of mitten liners woven from grass. And Kodiak Elders note that people once lined mittens with dried moss to increase their warmth.
The limited use of gloves and mittens is in keeping with the limited use of shoes. Although Alutiiqs made and wore boots, they reserved footwear for the harshest weather.
This cultural preference for bare hands and feet may reflect a physiological adaptation to the cold shared by many northern peoples. The hands and feet of arctic dwellers maintain a consistently higher temperature than those of other human populations. This is caused by cold-induced vasodilation, a physiological process that moves blood from the trunk to the extremities.
Arctic dwellers have a more rapid onset of this process. They divert heat more easily to areas of the body that are far from the core, lose heat more rapidly, and are frequently exposed. This adaptation is critical in cold environments where people need their hands free to manipulate weaponry and tools. It is also evidence of the remarkable ways that human populations adjust both culturally and biologically to their surroundings.
Photo: Mitch Simeonoff runs a skiff in Alitak Bay, 2010.
Nept’stanek nuryugtua. - I need some glue.
Without the aid of nails, superglue, or duct tape, Alutiiq craftsmen invented many ingenious ways to join the pieces of their complexly designed tools. The parts of a harpoon shaft, for example, were specially carved with scarfs to fit snugly together and then lashed to hold them in place. In addition to scarfing and lashing, glue was used for a variety of projects. Some ulu handles appear to have been secured to their slate blades with glue, ands mall objects, like mask attachments, may have been glued in place. Archaeologists report that birch bark was glued over the joints of prehistoric sea otter darts.
How did the Alutiiq make glue? Historic sources don’t provide many clues, but information from Aleutian Island Elders illustrates one way it can be done. In the Aleutians, glue is traditionally manufactured from fur seal flippers, both front and back. About half of the blubber from the flippers is removed and then the remaining parts boiled with water to create a thick paste. The resulting glue is particularly well suited for joining wood to wood. It creates strong, lasting bonds, but smells badly if left sitting too long. Another method of manufacturing glue is to simply boil cod eyeballs in a pot of water. The eyeballs are crushed as they cool, and then the mixture is stored in a cool, dark place in a bit of seal gut with both ends tightly tied.
Photo: Salmon harpoons designed to fit together. Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. collection.