Aatama qungua Nuniami et’uq. - My father’s grave is in Old Harbor.
Death in classical Alutiiq society was a forty-day process of passing into the spirit world. When a person died, their body was washed by relatives and wrapped in skins. These were often old boat covers, or for wealthy individuals, sea otter pelts. The corpse was not considered evil or frightening, because the person’s spirit helpers were believed to leave their body at death. However, the deceased could reappear and communicate with others during the mourning period.
The body of the deceased was laid at home for several days while mourners sang, wept, and cut or singed their hair. Residents of the house didn’t work during this period. Burial was usually in or around the person’s community. Graves were simple pits dug into the ground and lined with wooden planks or slate slabs. Personal belongings might be included in the grave or placed on top. For the next forty days, water and food were brought to the grave, and then a memorial feast was held to honor the deceased.
Although there is limited historical information on other burial customs, archaeological data show that Alutiiqs practiced both mummification and cremation. The bodies of powerful whalers were often eviscerated, stuffed with grass, wrapped in skins, and placed in remote caves. Here other whalers would visit to harvest parts of the corpse to enhance their own hunting magic.
Today, burial practices closely follow the tenants of western religions. People are interred in formal cemeteries in graves marked with headstones or the white wooden crosses, picket fences, and spirit houses of Russian Orthodoxy.
Photo: Graves in the Old Harbor community cemetery.
Qangananek atkulitaalriit. - They used to make clothes out of ground squirrels.
The arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) is a largest ground squirrel in the new world. Known also as the tsik tsik, for its distinctive call, these plant-eating furbearers weigh up to two pounds and are about fifteen inches long. They have blunt faces, bushy tails, and a distinctive white speckled coat. Arctic ground squirrels occur widely across northern Canada, Alaska, and eastern Siberia and as far south as northern British Columbia.
Throughout the North, Native people trapped ground squirrels for food and clothing. Alutiiqs sewed their small furs together to make warm coats. A man’s ground-squirrel parka collected from the Bristol Bay village of Ugashik in 1883 features more than sixty pelts stitched together with sinew. This long, loose-fitting, hoodless robe was embellished with pieces of ermine, sea otter, and caribou furs.
Ground squirrels can be seen around northeastern Kodiak Island today, particularly in the Buskin River valley. They are also found on Chirikof Island and formerly inhabited Marmot Island. However, they are not indigenous to the region. Like many other Kodiak furbearers—beaver, muskrat, hares, and red squirrels—they are an introduced species. Archaeologists believe that Alutiiq people introduced these small mammals to the archipelago in prehistoric times, based on an abundance of ground squirrel remains in the archaeological sites on Chirikof Island and the animals’ limited capacity to reach the islands without human assistance.
How did Alutiiqs get pelts for clothing? Historic sources suggest that ground-squirrel pelts were traded to Kodiak from the Alaska Peninsula, Chirikof Island, and regions farther west. On Kodiak, therefore, ground-squirrel parkas were prized as a sign of wealth and influence.
Photo: Ground Squirrel, coutesy Steve Ebert, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
Allenertakinga akgua'aq. - A stranger came to see me yesterday.
Hosting guests was a sign of power and prosperity in Alutiiq communities. Each winter, as the sun sank below the horizon, wealthy families initiated festivals, inviting friends from their own community and neighboring villages to participate in feasting, dancing, singing, visiting, and gift-giving. Guests were anxiously awaited. As skin boats loaded with visitors appeared, members of the host community waded into the water to carry both the boats and their occupants ashore. In the ceremonial house, guests were seated and fed according to their social standing. The most important people sat by the door and were the first to be offered freshwater and food served in ornately carved wooden bowls. All festival guests received gifts, and an elaborately embroidered parka was the ultimate present.
These lavish festivals were just one form of hospitality. Throughout the year, Alutiiqs took pride in providing guests with hearty meals. People served visitors dried fish and meats alongside bentwood bowls filled with oil, and guests often left with refreshments for the trip home.
Welcoming guests with food remains an Alutiiq tradition. A cup of tea, a bit of smoked salmon, or a sweet are common offerings in Native homes and a sign of both respect and hospitality.
Photo: A visitor signed the guestbook at the Alutiiq Museum, May, 2008.
Qatayat nernertutaartut! - Gulls will eat anything!
Glaucous-winged gulls (Larus glaucescens) and Mew Gulls (Larus canus) are familiar residents of Kodiak’s shores. These opportunistic scavengers eat almost anything. They range throughout the Gulf of Alaska and Bristol Bay, where they are particularly attracted to human settlements. Each spring, gulls lay many thousands of eggs on inaccessible cliffs and rocky ledges. This protects the eggs from foxes, but not from Alutiiq people, who have long gathered gull eggs from boats and by rappelling down cliff faces.
In addition to food, gulls provided mariners with important environmental information. Travelers know that gulls can help them predict bad weather, find schools of fish, mark currents, avoid rocks, and lead boaters to land in the fog. Elders from the Alaska Peninsula remember that Alutiiq hunters had at least two helping animal spirits, one for land hunting and one for sea hunting. These spirits provided luck and guidance and were frequently birds. In fact, bird imagery is widely used in Alutiiq art, particularly on the bentwood hats worn by Alutiiq men when kayaking.
Photo: Glaucous Winged Gull, Alaska Maritime Wildlife Refuge, Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Taatillka nutengq'rtaallia. - My late father always had a gun.
The Alutiiq word for gun, nutek, is closely related to the word nutegluku, “to shoot it.” The first firearms Alutiiq people encountered were flintlock muskets imported by Russian traders. Stephen Glotov, who wintered in Alitak Bay in 1763, used musket fire to scare Alutiiq warriors attacking his ship. The warriors fled but returned later with shields impenetrable to Russian musket balls. In 1784, Alutiiqs suffered the destructive power of cannons when entrepreneur Gregorii Shelikhov attacked the settlement at Refuge Rock off Sitkalidak Island. When musket fire failed to subdue the community, Shelikhov fired two half-pound cannons at their sod houses, killing many and crushing further resistance.
Some historic sources suggest that guns were not initially traded to Native people, that firearms were a limited, valuable commodity Russian traders kept for themselves. However, archaeological data suggests that guns were part of Alutiiq households in the early decades of the nineteenth century. At Mikt’sqaaq Angayuk, “Little Partner,” an archaeological site, archaeologists found lead shot, gun parts, and a gunflint in an Alutiiq sod house dating to the 1820s.
Although Alutiiqs apparently had guns in the Russian era, their arrows and lances were better hunting weapons. The loud report of muskets frightened game, and their iron parts corroded quickly in the rain and salt spray. Most muskets survived in Russian America for only a few years.
More widespread use of guns began in the 1860s, when muzzle-loaded percussion cap lock guns replaced flintlock muskets. Explosive caps, a valuable trade good, ignited the powder charge in these weapons. Like arrows and lances, Alutiiq hunters often fired percussion guns from double-holed kayaks. The person in the front seat operated the gun, while his partner used a paddle to steady the boat from the rear.
In the early years of the American era, traders imported surplus civil war .44 caliber rifles that fired small rim fire cartridges, as well as some .50 caliber rifles. Rifles that fired large center fire cartridges replaced these older-style guns.
Photo: Lead shot, gun part, and a gunflint from an Alutiiq sod house ca. 1820s,ikt’sqaaq Angayuk site. Leisnoi, Inc. collection.
Aanaqa isuwim qilunek kenirllia. - My mother cooked seal guts.
In addition to food and oil, Kodiak’s mammals provided Alutiiqs with gut: a flexible, durable, waterproof material derived from the intestines of bears and sea mammals. Gut was sewn into a variety of bags, caps, and hooded jackets: the Gortex rain gear of the past. Known today by the Russian term kamleika, these lightweight jackets were an essential part of a hunter’s tool kit. They kept him dry, providing protection from hypothermia in Kodiak’s wet, windy environment.
Each gut garment was individually tailored to fit its owner. Bear intestine, the widest and most supple source of gut, was the preferred material. After harvesting, lengths of gut were soaked in urine to remove fat. Then they were turned inside out, scraped clean, inflated, and hung to dry. The final step was to split the gut into wide swaths of material. These swaths were sewn into jackets with special waterproof stitches. Skin sewers folded a piece of ryegrass into each seam to absorb any water that seeped through the holes made by their needles. While stitching, they also decorated each garment with beads, feathers, pieces of hair, strips of dyed skin, and bird beaks.
Russian traders, who valued these lightweight, water-resistant jackets, commissioned Native women to produce garments styled after European capes. These prized items were a sign of high status. They were worn by Russian officers and given as gifts to visiting dignitaries.
Photo: Elders work with seal gut. Dig Afognak Program, Afognak Island.