Una kenirwik angsinartuq. - This hearth is big.
In the center of most Alutiiq sod houses there was a stone-lined fireplace. In addition to heating and lighting the household, this hearth was a gathering place. People cooked around the hearth, repaired their tools, sewed clothing, and visited. In the evening, when families retired to small sleeping rooms, guests and single adults remained by the hearth to sleep and stay warm. The Alutiiq word for hearth reflects these functions. Kenirwik means “place to cook”, and it can be used for cookhouse or kitchen.
Alutiiq people created hearths by digging a shallow pit into the earthen floors of their homes. They lined these depressions with carefully trimmed slate slabs or encircled them with a ring of large, rounded beach cobbles. Some hearth pits were also lined with clay or small flat cobbles to retain heat. Hearths ranged in size from small fireplaces to enormous roasting pits, and some houses had several of these features.
Alutiiq hearths were also a spiritual place, where the living connected with departed relatives. According to Alutiiq tradition, when the fire cracks, the souls of the dead are hungry, and a piece of meat should be thrown into the flames. This practice mirrors the Yup’ik tradition of offering ancestors food through the fire. The Yup’ik believe that the souls of the dead wait beneath the hearth to be fed during winter festivals. Fire amplifies the small bits of foods offered to it by the living, ensuring that the dead do not suffer from hunger.
Photo: Mark Rusk by the stone-lined hearth in a 900 year old Alutiiq house. Flies and Grass site, Olga Lakes area.
Cama’i, Sun’amek taimaunga. - Hello, I come from Kodiak.
Cama’i, a traditional Alutiiq greeting, is a friendly, welcoming word used much like the English term “Hi.” “Cama’i,” you might say as you meet a friend on the street or enter a room full of people. Alutiiq people continue to greet each other with this familiar word. To many it symbolizes pride in Native culture and a continuing respect for Alutiiq, the traditional language of the Alutiiq world.
Alutiiq is one of six Eskimo languages spoken in Alaska and Siberia. It is most closely related to Central Alaskan Yup’ik, the traditional language of the Bering Sea Coast, and speakers of Alutiiq and Yup’ik can converse easily. Within Alutiiq there are two distinct dialects and many smaller regional variations in vocabulary and word pronunciation. Residents of the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound speak Chugach Alutiiq, while residents of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Archipelago speak Koniag Alutiiq.
Today there are less than 150 fluent Alutiiq speakers, although many more can understand the language. Alutiiq communities are working hard to preserve their language. Speakers are helping to write dictionaries, develop teaching resources, and lead language classes, and many consider language preservation the most important goal of the heritage movement.
Photo: April Counceller teaches a group of young people the Cama'i song.
Iqalluarpat amlertut kiagpak. - Herring are plentiful this summer.
Pacific herring (Clupea pallasi) are small marine fish that inhabit the near shore and continental shelf waters of the Gulf of Alaska. They spawn in at least thirty-five bays around Kodiak, with concentrations in Marmot Bay, Chiniak Bay, Sitkalidak Strait, and the fjords of western Kodiak. Each spring, herring mass in shallow waters to spawn. They prefer protected rocky coasts with dense bottom vegetation, where their sticky roe clings to eelgrass, rockweed, kelp, and even boulders. There are some traditionally used spawning sites, but spawning locales vary from year to year in many regions. Wherever they spawn, herring are highly visible. Their milt turns coastal waters milky and attracts the birds and sea mammals that feed on their roe.
Although adult herring are a potential source of food, modern Alutiiq people primarily harvest herring roe. Subsistence fishing begins in May, during peak spawning, and tapers off by July as the fish move offshore to feed. Alutiiq families collect the spawn stuck to seaweed, which they boil for just a moment. Elders flavor this dish with seal oil.
Herring remains are notably rare in Alutiiq archaeological sites. This does not mean that prehistoric people ignored this plentiful resource. Archaeological sites full of stone net sinkers occur in many coastal sites well situated for herring fishing. Perhaps Alutiiqs harvested herring or herring roe with these nets. The soft roe would not leave any traces for archaeologists to find.
Photo: Herring drying in Old Harbor. Photo by Fred and Mary Bailey. Andrewvitch Collection.
Uswillraraat quuq’rtut. - The children are playing hide and seek.
Hide and seek is one of many popular outdoor children’s games long played in Alutiiq communities. According to anthropologist Kaj Birket-Smith, who visited the Chugach Alutiiq people in the 1930s, children played quuq in Prince William Sound’s tall summer grass. They also juggled with pebbles while singing special songs and imitated circling birds in a game similar to ring around the rosie. Women and girls played this game in the fall, as birds migrated south. Participants skipped in a circle, moving in the direction of the sun. As they skipped they chanted, “Circle around, stretch your arms,” then they squatted down and sang, “How do we get up there? Like a waterfall.”
Kodiak Elders also remember playing palutsqaq, a game similar to the American favorite kick the can. A five-gallon can served as a base. One person was picked to be “it” and the rest would run and hide. When the seeker found a hider, both would race back to the can. Whoever reached the can first got to go and hide, and the other person became the seeker.
Photo: Boys playing on the beach, Karluk Spit, ca. 1960. Courtesy Clyda Christiansen
Amaryat quuhnartaartut. (S) - Highbush cranberries are (always) sour.
The highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule), known locally as the bog berry or sour berry, is a large flowering shrub that grows in Kodiak’s thickets and clearings, often in shady spots. This plant, found widely across North America, produces small red berries that dangle from a long stem in small bunches. Be careful, it is easy to confuse this plant with the poisonous baneberry.
Alutiiq people harvest highbush cranberries for food and medicine, picking them as they ripen in late summer and early fall. They are collected in as large quantities as larger lowbush cranberries, although their small size makes picking more difficult and time consuming.
Highbush cranberries are made into jams, jellies, and syrups and added to desserts. This berry is also a favorite choice for akutaq, a traditional dessert where berries are mixed with fat and flavorings like salmon eggs, mashed potatoes, or in modern times, sugar. These berries may also be stored in oil for later use.
Many people mash the berries for their juice, which they use to treat sore throats, colds, and respiratory illnesses. A spoon full of highbush cranberry jelly in a cup of tea is not only tasty but soothing.
Photo: Elder picking cranberries with her granddaughter, Larsen Bay. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA collection.
Verbs are particularly complicated part of Alutiiq speech. In Alutiiq, verbs include action words like paddle, spear, butcher, cook, eat, and think. However, they also include words like red or ugly, terms considered adjectives in English. Often, you can identify Alutiiq verbs by their endings. In Alutiiq dictionaries and lessons, verbs appear with a luni or luku ending. For example, nerluni means ‘to eat’, and kawirlirluni means ‘to be red.’
Verbs in Alutiiq have stems. Speakers follow a set of rule to identify the verb stem. Then, they add the appropriate suffix to show the time frame, the subject, or the object they wish to describe. These suffixes are known as postbases. Interestingly, postbases allow word roots to become nouns or verbs. The word for hinge, used in this lesson, is a good example. CaRniilaliluku, means hinge, or literally to make hinges.
Hinges likely became important in Alutiiq communities in the historic era, when people began to add western-style doors to their sod houses. Using nails and strips of leather or an old rubber boot, people created strong durable supports for hanging doors.
Photo: Sod house door, Old Harbor, 1946-1949. Andrewvitch Collection.
Cuknangqertuq ulugan. - Your pants got a hole.
The tools of classical Alutiiq society were often complex, featuring many parts. A harpoon, a cooking vessel, a suit of armor, or a mask had numerous carefully shaped, interlocking pieces. To fasten these pieces together, craftsmen drilled small holes for lashing and pegging.
Alutiiq people drilled holes in every type of material, from relatively soft mediums like wood, bone, and slate to much harder materials like ivory. How did they do it? Archaeologists aren’t entirely sure. Despite the great number of stone tools recovered from prehistoric settlements, very few appear to be drills. Some holes were probably drilled with the help of a bow drill–a wooden shaft fitted with a hard tip and rotated with a small bow. Other holes were likely made with a hand held bore. The biggest puzzle is how craftsmen drilled the tiny, precise holes in the ends of ivory needles.
One way to understand drilling technology is to examine cuknat. A study of slate ulus, household knives, illustrates some of the ways that craftsmen made holes. Many ulus had a hole on their upper edge for securing a handle. On some examples, a tight, circular, conical hole indicates the use of a rotary tool, like a bow drill. Interestingly, it was common for craftsmen to drill partly through an ulu, then turned it over and drilled through the opposite side to connect the holes. Other ulus have gouged holes. Here the craftsman used a tool to dig a hole into the slate blade, forming a long, narrow opening.
Photo: Slate knives with drilled holes, Outlet Site collection, Busking River, US Coast Guard collection.
Piiwaq piturnaituq. - Home brew tastes bad.
Although historic sources report that Alutiiq people once fermented salmonberry juice to create a sour, mildly alcoholic beverage, Russian fur traders were the first to introduce large-scale brewing. Accounts indicate that traders were a hard-drinking group who enjoyed brandy, rum, vodka, and gin imported from Siberia. Although they were not allowed to traffic in alcohol, traders could brew kvass, a beer made from grain and fruit designed to prevent scurvy. Their brewing techniques were quickly passed to Native people. The Alutiiq word from ferment beverages, piiwaq, comes from the Russian word for beer, pivo.
In the early twentieth century, Alutiiq people brewed piiwaq for winter consumption and holiday celebrations. Elders recall making batches by the kitchen stove, where cooks kept a supply of warm yeasted water for baking. In a barrel, brewers mixed yeast water with potato shavings, sugar, and sometimes fruit. Raisins, canned peaches, or even canned pineapple were added to the mixture for flavor. Then a cloth tied tightly over the barrel sealed the top. Fermentation took from two days to two weeks, depending on the desired strength of the brew and the patience of its maker. The longer the fermentation, the stronger and clearer the resulting liquor.
Another variation of piiwaq was made from dried peas or beans. This thick mixture bubbled as it fermented, making a boiling sound and creating a terrible stench. Elders recall that this type of home brew tasted okay but that it gave you gas and very bad breath!
Home brewing declined in the mid-twentieth century, when regular air service to rural communities made commercially produced beverages easier to obtain.
Photo: Historic liquor bottles.