KRaasnaat ag’inartut - Godparents should be respected.
Russian colonists introduced godparenting, a relationship between adults and children that has become second in importance only to parent-child bonds in Alutiiq communities. KRaasnaaq comes from a Russian word meaning “godparent.” Some Alutiiq speakers further differentiate between godmother and godfather with the alutiicized terms maamasinaq (“great mother”), and taatasinaq (“great father”), symbolizing the lifelong importance of godparents.
Today, parents choose both a godfather and a godmother for their child at the time of baptism. If the child is a boy, it is the father’s duty to choose the godparents. If the child is a girl, it is the mother’s duty. Godparents are typically not close relatives, but family friends or distant kin. Moreover, a child’s godmother and godfather are usually not related to each other. The practice strengthens social ties across unrelated or distantly related families. These ties are so strong that a kRaasnaaq’s children are considered a godchild’s siblings, and they are forbidden to date or marry.
The duties of a godparent begin at baptism and continue throughout life. Godparents are responsible for purchasing the blanket and clothing an Alutiiq baby needs for baptism, and the same-sex godparent provides the cross the baby will wear throughout life. The godparents also hold candles during the baptism and the confirmation of baptism that follows. During childhood, godparents take their godchildren to church and help to celebrate birthdays, name days, and Christmas.
Photo: Baptism of Rosemary Rogers, Rogers Collection.
Kulunguaq canakii suulutamek. - My ring is made of gold.
The bedrock underlying the Kodiak Archipelago formed about seventy million years ago during the Late Cretaceous period. Geologists believe that Kodiak’s slates and greywackes developed on the South Pacific seafloor before rafting north on the earth’s crust to their current location. During this process, deposits of quartz were literally squirted into cracks in the rocks, where they cooled and formed distinctive veins. Some of these veins contain gold, silver, and metals of the platinum group.
Although significant deposits of precious metals have yet to be found on Kodiak, small quantities of gold have been found in association with Kodiak’s quartz deposits, particularly in Uyak Bay. They are also a consistent find in the region’s glacial gravels. As glaciers cut into the island’s bedrock, they eroded the gold in local quartz veins and redeposited it in sands and gravels. Erosion and wave action have worn away some of these glacial deposits, leaving gold in beach deposits.
Although the Alaska and Yukon gold rushes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century diverted attention from Kodiak’s fur industry, reducing the number of ships that visited the archipelago, gold fever reached Kodiak. Most of the mining took place along the beaches, where prospectors worked gravels to extract the gold. During this era, Alutiiq families participated in placer mining in places like Bumble Bay, to supplement income from fox farming and trapping. Other miners tried lode mining, cutting adits and shafts into hard-rock prospects to find the source of the placer gold. None of these ventures were very profitable and mining faded.
The Alutiiq word for gold, suulutaaq, comes from the Russian word zoloto. Because there is no word for yellow in the Alutiiq language, some people refer to the color yellow with the term suulutat’stun, which means “something like gold.”
Photo: Entrance to historic hard rock mine, Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Ikauwitiit nitnirtaartut. - Golden-crowned Sparrows always sound beautiful.
Sparrows are among the best-known birds in North America. There are many species and subspecies of sparrows, particularly west of the Rockies. Eleven species of these small, shy songbirds frequent Alaska, summering in brushy habitats from the coastal meadows of western Alaska to the rainforests of the Panhandle.
Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) are one of several species that summer on Kodiak. These larger sparrows have a long tail, a grey breast, and a crown of distinctive yellow-and-black striped plumage on their heads. When they are excited or about to fly, they may lift the feathers on their crown. Golden-crowned Sparrows feed in flocks, eating seeds and insects. Although they build grass-lined nests on the ground, they spend much of their time perched in alder and willow thickets singing, preening, and twittering. Males make a distinctive, whistling call, singing three descending notes that sound like the children’s song “Three Blind Mice.”
In the Alutiiq world, the Golden-crowned Sparrow is a harbinger of spring. Elders remember watching for sparrows and geese to return to Kodiak in the days following Easter, so they could play games on the beach and take their toys out of storage. It was considered unlucky for children to play outdoors or with certain toys before spring returned. While they waited for the ikauwiitii, however, children could play string games to hasten the rising sun.
Photo: Golden-crowned sparrow in summer. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library
Tang’rciqamken camiku. - I will see you again sometime.
For example, saying goodbye in Alutiiq is a lot harder than saying hello. Cama’i, the Alutiiq greeting, is a simple one word, a two-syllable welcome that people remember easily. To say farewell, however, you must use a full Alutiiq phrase. The common leave-taking salutation is tang’rciqamken, which literally means, “I’ll see you.” Fluent speakers often add a variety of endings to this phrase, like camiku, which means “sometime.”
Because the Alutiiq goodbye is hard for many English speakers to master, people sometimes Anglicize the phrase for fun. Around Kodiak you might hear someone say, “drop your pumpkin,” as they wave goodbye.
The difficulty English speakers have in learning Alutiiq reflects both differences between the Alutiiq and English alphabet and the complexity of the language. Alutiiq words contain a number of sounds not found in English, and Alutiiq is one of the more intricate Eskimoan languages. For example, linguists recognize that within the Yupik language family, to which Alutiiq belongs, the rules for accenting words become more complicated from west to east, with the most rules in Alutiiq at the far eastern extent of the Yupik-speaking world.
Photo: People on the dock in Ouzinkie wave goodbye. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Weguat qutmi naut. - Goose tongues are growing on the beach.
Goose tongue (Plantago maritime) is a low-lying plantain, an herb that grows in coastal wetlands on beaches, cliffs, and marshes across southern Alaska. This plant resembles a clump of grass. It has long, narrow, pointed leaves that grow in bunches from its base. These leaves are thick and succulent and a favorite food of bears. From its base, the plant also produces small stems of yellow or greenish flowers that grow up to eight inches tall.
On Kodiak, goose tongue is a widely harvested spring vegetable. The leaves have a mild salty flavor. People collect its tender young leaves from May until the plant flowers in late July. By midsummer, the plant matures and the leaves become bitter and fibrous. Alutiiq people eat goose tongue raw, steamed, or boiled. One local recipe suggests mixing crisp bacon and sautéed onions with four cups of steamed goose-tongue leaves to create a flavorful side dish. Other recipes include goose tongue in fritters or as a salad ingredient tossed with other spring greens.
Photo: Goose tounge growing in a coastal meadow.
Kasnaam sua taikutartuq. - A government person is coming.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kodiak’s rural villages maintained local governments led by a community chief. The chief was chosen from the adult male residents of each village by a traditional council that included a second chief, a church warden, a lay reader, and community Elders. Although the position was not inherited, and no one was forced to serve as chief, chiefs were often succeeded by a family member.
The chief controlled activities in and around the village, wherever its residents were working. He was responsible for overseeing the community’s economic welfare, managing public safety, and acting as a court system. The chief held meetings to discuss issues that affected the community. This included a meeting before each subsistence season to organize harvesting activities. The chief decided where each family would fish or trap, what camps they would use, and how long they would be gone. This coordination fostered cooperation, ensured that all families were provided for, and helped the chief keep track of the people in his care.
Meetings began at the chief ’s house, where he consulted with his council and formed an agenda. Then the chief called a public meeting, which was often held in the local school. The second chief told residents about the meeting, or it was announced at church. Everyone was invited to come and share their opinion, but the chief made the final decision. This included designing punishments for people who broke community rules.
This system continued into the late 1950s, when Alaska became a state and communities began electing a city mayor and participating in the statewide judicial system. In the 1970s, Alutiiq villages also established tribal councils to meet the requirements of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Today, each tribal council has seven members elected by the villagers for a designated term.
Photo: Karl Armstrong on the steps of the US Capital. Armstrong Collection.
PiRani qawartaartua. - I (habitually) sleep on a grass mat.
If you were to enter a typical Alutiiq household of the seventeenth century, fine weaving would surround you. Woven mats would lie on sleeping benches, cover the walls, and hang in doorways. Woven containers for collecting, storing, and cooking food would surround a central fireplace. People would wear woven socks, mitts, and caps. A mother would hold her baby in a woven carrier. And in the rafters would lie woven tools: nets for fishing and birding and lines for harpoons and boats.
Large mats were perhaps the most impressive of these weavings. Grass mats served as bedding, door and wall coverings, household partitions, kneeling pads for kayaks, and wrapping for the dead. They were woven from dried and bleached beach rye grass and many were embroidered with designs made of colored grasses or adorned with fabric, gut, or decorative attachments. This attention to beauty in an everyday object reflected a reverence for the plants that provided the weaving material.
Large mats took a great deal of time to make. Anthropologist Lydia Black reports that Aleutian Island weavers might spend a year creating one mat six feet long by four feet wide. Weavers stopped making these large, labor-intensive pieces in the late nineteenth century. Instead they focused on producing smaller baskets, which were highly prized by westerners and could be used as currency.
Photo: Rye grass in a coastal meadow, Kodiak Island.
Weg’et kiagmi anglitaartut. - The grass grows tall in the summertime.
More than sixty-five varieties of grasses grow in the Kodiak Archipelago, as well as many types of sedges and rushes. The most widely harvested grass is beach rye grass (Elymus arenarius), a plant common across the northern hemisphere. This tall, sturdy grass grows in open environments, particularly at the margins of saltwater beaches. It has wide, flat, coarse leaves that are known for their stiffness, particularly in comparison with other types of grasses. Beach rye grass was traditionally gathered by both Alutiiq men and women and used both fresh and dried.
Grass was an especially important raw material in Kodiak’s treeless regions. Alutiiq people used it in building and insulating structures. Each fall grasses were cut to thatch the roofs of sod houses, provide a clean floor covering, and create fresh bedding. Grass was also used in food storage and preparation. Storage pits were lined with grass, grass provided tinder for cooking fires, and it was used as a cutting surface: a clean place to butcher fish and meat. Alutiiq people once used rye grass to create a variety of household objects. They wove baskets, drinking cups, mittens, and socks from this grass and tied it into banya switches. Rye grass, which can be harvested throughout Alaska, remains a popular weaving material among Native peoples.
Photo: Weaver Arlene Skinner with grass dried for weaving.