ALUTIIQ MUSEUM  215 Mission Road, Kodiak, Alaska 99615   |  844-425-8844  |  view calendar > | search >
Word in Alutiiq: Nuyat
In a sentence:

Suk uksurtuwiqami nuyai qat'ritaartut. - When a person gets to be an Elder their hair turns gray (white).

MP3 File: hair

Before the adoption of western hairstyles in the mid-nineteenthcentury, Alutiiq men and women wore their hair long. Men typically cut their hair at the shoulders and braided it. Women cut bangs across their foreheads but let their hair grow down their backs. A woman’s long hair was typically braided, or folded and tied at the back of her head. Like clothing and jewelry, special hairstyles were worn for different occasions. For winter festivals, people greased their hair with seal oil and adorned it with ochre and white feathers. And at the death of a close family member, mourners blackened their faces with soot and cut their hair short.

Hair also had economic and spiritual functions. Human hair was used to suture wounds. Animal hairs were used in embroidery, particularly the white chest hairs of caribou. Kodiak Alutiiq people obtained these hairs in trade with the Alaska Peninsula. The hairs were dyed and then used to decorate garments, caps, skin bags, and even boots.

According to traditional beliefs, the hair was a resting place for the soul. For this reason, shamans often used human hair on their dolls. Such dolls represent people who were waiting to be reincarnated, or they might reflect living people the shaman wished to harm. A shaman would carve a wooden replica of a person, attach a piece of the person’s hair or clothing, and then harm the doll by cuttingit, burning it, or sticking it with pins. The doll was then left for the person to find. This practice was believed to cause illness.

Photo: Pastor Chadwick receives a hair cut, Aognak village, ca. 1961.  Chadwick Collection.

Word in Alutiiq: Sagiq
In a sentence:

Una sagiq ang’uq. - This halibut is big.

MP3 File: halibut

The continental shelf waters surrounding Kodiak contain large concentrations of marine fish. Halibut, cod, pollock, and other species breed and winter in these productive, deep waters. As winter storms dissipate and the weather warms, bottom fish move into shallower coastal waters to feed. Here halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) can reach impressive sizes, some topping four hundred pounds.

For Alutiiqs, halibut and other marine fish represent a predictable and delicious source of fresh spring food. Harvesting begins in April and continues through the summer months. In the past, fishermen in skin-covered kayaks used hand-held wood and bone fishing rigs baited with clams to lure bottom fish. Once hooked, the thrashing fish was pulled to the surface and clubbed with a wooden billy shaped like a small baseball bat.

Today people catch halibut on hand-held jigs, fishing poles, and with commercial gear. However it is caught, halibut remains a favored subsistence food. It is eaten fresh, and like salmon may be dried in strips for storage. Children in Old Harbor love dried halibut as a snack.

Photo: Sven Haakanson with a halibut.

Word in Alutiiq: Mulut’uuk; Murut’uuk
In a sentence:

Allrani mulut’uuq atu’akamgu aigaqa mulut’uurtaaqa. - Sometimes when I use the hammer I hit my hand.

MP3 File: hammer

Before the availability of iron tools, Alutiiq people fashioned hammers from hard stones. They collected greywacke and granite cobbles from Kodiak beaches for help with chipping, pounding, and splitting jobs. Small hand-sized stones with pitted sides and ends illustrate the use of hammerstones for delicate jobs like shaping pieces of chert into scrapers and arrow points. Larger cobbles with heavy battering attest to rougher jobs. With these tools, Alutiiqs hammered tent stakes, split bone and wood for carving, and knocked spalls from other cobbles to make sharp-edged butchering and scraping tools.

Although Kodiak’s Native people used hammerstones throughout prehistory, large, carefully made mauls occur mainly in the late prehistoric era. This trend reflects the construction of multiroomed houses, fishing weirs, and large, open skin boats. As Alutiiqs began to build large wooden structures, they developed new tools to help. Fashioned from greywacke cobbles, D-shaped mauls feature large horizontal and vertical grooves, suggesting that they were hafted to make heavy-duty hammers.

Photo:  D-shaped maul of granite.  Karluk One Collection, courtesy Koniag, Inc.

Word in Alutiiq: Aigaq
In a sentence:

Aigartuugu. - Shake his hand.

MP3 File: hand

Traditional Alutiiq artwork rarely depicts human hands. Most dolls were fashioned without arms, and hand carvings were not commonly attached to masks, as they were in some areas of Alaska. However, when hands are depicted in Alutiiq art, they are often pierced, shown with a hole in the center.

For example, a scraping tool from a prehistoric village in Karluk shows a hand, or perhaps a seal flipper, with a hole in its palm. Look closely at the central figure in the Alutiiq Museum’s petroglyph logo: it depicts a person holding up his or her hands. In the center of each hand is an open circle.

What do these circular holes mean? Among the Yup’ik people, the western neighbors and close relatives of the Alutiiq people, pierced hand motifs symbolize a willingness for spirits to allow animals to slip through their hands and ensure an abundance of game on earth. Holes and circles represent a passageway between the multiple layers of the universe.

Some circles suggest passage into the spirit world. The circular designs decorating prehistoric harpoons likely reflect the releaseof an animal’s spirit that occurs at its death. If properly treated, this spirit will return to the spirit world to await reincarnation.  Other circles suggest movement out of the spirit world. Traditional masks, used to invite spirits to festivals, were often surrounded by one or more circular hoops.

Image: Alutiiq Museum logo from the Cape Alitak petroglyphs, Kodiak Island.

Hare; Rabbit
Word in Alutiiq: Kuskaanaq
In a sentence:

Kuskaanaq ekllinartuq. - The hare looks delicious.

MP3 File: hare1

The varying hare or snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) occurs widely throughout North America. This small furbearer is well known for its seasonally changing fur color. In winter, the snowshoe hare has a pure white coat and black-tipped ears, which provides camouflage in a snowy landscape. In summer, hares turn a reddish brown to blend with the loose soil and brush surrounding their nest. Snowshoe hares breed prolifically. They can bear four to eight litters a year, with as many as eight young in each. They are largely herbivorous, eating leafy shrubs, tree bark, and vegetables, although some adults will also feed on mice and carrion.

Kuskaanatare not native to Kodiak. In the past, Alutiiqs obtained their pelts in trade with the mainland and used them to make clothing, including hare parkas. In 1934, 558 snowshoe hares were captured along the railway in Anchorage and shipped to Kodiak for release. Their introduction was successful, and hares are now abundant in some areas of the archipelago. Although they can be hunted year-round, many hunters prefer to pursue them in fall and spring when their fur is changing colors and they are easier to see. Today, hares are taken with rifles and shotguns for both food and fur. Some Alutiiq Elders prefer not to eat them, however, because they are seen as nuisance animals, akin to cats.

Photo:  Gilr in Ouzinkie with stuffed rabbit toy.  Melinda Lamp Collection.

Word in Alutiiq: Ayaquq
In a sentence:

Ayaquq egtaakait cuumi arwanun. - They used to throw a harpoon at a whale before.

MP3 File: harpoon

For thousands of years Alutiiqs used harpoons to hunt sea mammals in Kodiak’s rich marine waters. Harpoon points were carved from bone and fitted into a wooden shaft equipped with an air-filled float. Alutiiq people used two kinds of harpoon points: a barbed point that stuck directly into an animal and a toggling harpoon designed to turn sideways in prey. The float was made from an inflated seal stomach. It acted as a drag on the wounded sea mammal and made the animal more visible in the water.

Alutiiq kayakers hurled their harpoons with the help of a throwing board. This wooden tool acted as a lever, lengthening the arm and improving throwing distance. It also allowed hunters to throw with greater force. Once wounded, the sea mammal was followed until it could be dispatched with a slate lance. To save the animal’s blood, which was eaten, wooden plugs were inserted into the wounds. Then the animal was tied to the hunter’s kayak and towed home.

Photo: Bone harpoon head, ca. 1200 years old, Uyak Site, Larsen Bay Tribe Collection.

Podcast Available: Harpoon
Word in Alutiiq: Nasquq
In a sentence:

Nasquqa allrani anq’rtaartuq. - My head sometimes hurts.

MP3 File: head
Covering the head is an important part of staying warm in cold, wet, or windy conditions, like those found on Kodiak. Alutiiq people designed a great variety of hats to protect their heads and retain heat. Unlike the skin clothing of far northern Alaska, Alutiiq parkas did not include a hood. People wore long robes with a short, loose-fitting, standup collar, like a mock turtleneck. The one exception was the gut skin rain jacket, a waterproof, hooded garment designed for protection from rain and sea spray. These jackets had a closely fitting, lightweight hood that covered the head and neck. Equipped with a string, the jacket’s hood could be drawn tightly around the wearer’s face so that the head was entirely covered. In addition to keeping your hair dry, this design prevented water from running down the back of your parka!

Alutiiq people fashioned other headgear from wood, spruce root, and animal tissues. In their kayaks, men wore elaborately decorated hats and visors bent from wood. In addition to shielding their faces from rain and glare, these hats were a type of amulet, an object that provided spiritual assistance with the hunt. Helmets carved in the shape of a seal’s head were another type of hunting hat. Shaped like a hard hat, these hats featured a seal’s head on the crown, as if the animal were poking its head out of the water. Wooden figurines from archaeological sites depict hunters wearing these helmets, and illustrate that this type of hat is hundreds of years. 

Alutiiq women made other hats by weaving spruce roots into round-rimmed caps, or stitching skins into tall, narrow headdresses. Like wooden hats, these garments were colorful and elaborately decorated. Spruce root hats were painted with geometric designs or animal faces, and embellished with beads and dentalium shells. Skin hats featured a stunning mix of bird and mammal tissues, with decorations of puffin beaks, tufts of hair, and embroidery. And in the historic era, Alutiiq ladies crafted beautiful gutskin hats modeled after the caps of Russian seafarers.
Photo:  Seal helmet carving by Lena Amason, 2005.  Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum collection with support from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Word in Alutiiq: Unguwateq
In a sentence:

Qunukamken unguwatemnek. -  I love you from my heart.

MP3 File: heart

People who hunt and butcher animals regularly develop an excellent knowledge of anatomy. Butchering allows hunters to learn about internal organs, which improves their ability to capture game. It also helps them obtain special foods and raw materials. Alutiiq people eat many of the internal organs of the animals they harvest. Alutiiq people continue to prepare the heart, lungs, intestines, liver, and kidneys of seals in traditional recipes and to eat the liver, kidneys, intestines, and even the arteries of caribou.

In addition to their economic value, some internal organs have spiritual significance. In the Alutiiq universe, every animal possesses a soul that must be released at the time of its death. The spirit of a salmon resides in its intestines and the spirit of a sea otter is found in its bones. Returning these parts to the natural environment shows respect for the animal, allows its soul to be reincarnated in another animal, and ensures a future supply of game. It also guarantees that powerful animals will not harm the living.

To honor a dead caribou, Alaska Peninsula hunters cut off the tip of the animal’s heart and offer it to the four directions. Similarly, Kodiak hunters cut out a bear’s heart, remove the tip, and split the organ into four pieces to make sure the animal will not come back to life. Any other part of the bear that is not used must be returned to the kill site to appease the animal’s spirit.

Photo:  Sven Haakanson butchers a seal.

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