Una luuskaaq cirunemk canamauq. - This spoon is made from horn.
In the Alutiiq language the words for horn and antler are the same–ciruneq. Like antler, horn is a hard but flexible material that grows from an animal’s heads. Typically found in pairs, horns feature a core of bone covered with a hard layer of keratinized skin. The quality of the material depends on the type of animal and its condition. Healthy animals produce strong, elastic horn that can be made into beautiful objects.
In Prince William Sound and on the Kenai Peninsula, Alutiiq people harvested the horns of mountain goats. Both male and female goats have horns that grow continuously, laying down new rings of keratin each year. These horns are short–just 8 to 12 inches long, sharply pointed, and gently curved. From this material, craftsmen fashioned elegant spoons.
The first step in working horn is to clean out the spongy, blood rich, inner corn, a messy job that can be accomplished with a combination of soaking, scraping, or aging the horn. With a clean piece of material, carvers can season the material and work it dry, or soften the horn by soaking. Alutiiq methods of working horn are not recorded. However, they were probably similar to those of the neighboring Tlingit people, who also manufactured horn spoons. Tlingit carvers spit mountain goat horns in half, boil the pieces, soak them in oil, and then mold them to a desired shape. When it was time to carve, craftsman use warm water to soften the material. The final step was to buff the carving to create a shinny surface.
However they were made, Alutiiq horn spoons are works of art. Known in Alutiiq as alungun, from the root word for licking, theses spoons featured intricately carved handles with stacks of human and animal figures. On the wide shallow bowl, artists incised geometric designs and added inlays. Historic examples features tiny white glass beads set into the bowl. These elaborate decorations suggest that horn spoons were used in ceremonies, perhaps in combination with decorated wooden feast bowls.
Photo: Chugach Alutiiq spoon handle of mountain goat horn, ca. 1834. Courtesy the Etholen Collection, National Musuem of Finland.
Naparuaqutanek ikuutuq. - She found some horsetails.
Horsetail (Equisetum spp.) is a small green herb that grows throughout the Pacific coast of Alaska. There are many different species of horsetail, some that thrive on land and others that prefer wet, marshy terrain. Some varieties have a thin stem and feathery branches that give it the appearance of a horse’s tail. Horsetail is one of the most widespread plants in the world and a common colonizer. It grows well in wet soils, preferring moist forests, damp meadows, swamps, stream banks, and recently disturbed areas.
Alutiiq people gather and eat the spring stage of this plant, collecting the brown, branchless shoots that begin to develop in mid-April. These thick, succulent shoots grow up to a foot tall and have small, cone-like tips known as strobili. These shoots look like an asparagus spear. After removing the brown covering on the shoot’s head, horsetail can be eaten raw, added to salads, or boiled to make a tender vegetable. In Kenai Peninsula communities, Alutiiqs often serve horsetail with seal oil.
People harvest horsetail until early June when the last sprouts develop. The plants then form tough green stems with feathery branches. Although the plant cannot be eaten in summer, a variety of Alaska Native groups harvest the summer stage for medicinal purposes. People use the silica-rich stalks to polish wooden objects, make a greenish-yellow dye from the mature stalks, and incorporate horsetail fibers into weaving. The plant’s tubers are also edible.
Photo: Horsetail growing in a marshy area.
TuugtaRaq sungarwigmen ag’uq. - The doctor is going to the hospital.
Medical care in Alutiiq communities was once provided by two types of specialists: healers who treated the sick with heat, herbal medicine, and bloodletting, and shamans who realigning the ill with the spirit world.
When new diseases arrived in Alaska with Russian traders, medical care expanded to include Western practices. In the early decades of colonization, sailing ships carried a physician who treated sick sailors and sometimes cared for the ailing in communities they visited.
In the early 1800s, the Russian American Company established a medical system to aid in recruiting Russian workers and promote productivity. The first formal hospital was built in Sitka in about1818. Here the sick received medical care from a physician, food, and rest at no cost. This hospital acted as the central regional facility, providing equipment, drugs, vaccinations, supplies, and even visiting physicians to outlying areas where the company established infirmaries or smaller hospitals.
Historic accounts suggest that the company built a hospital in Kodiak 1840, although a physician was not present. Instead, feldsher, local people trained as medical providers, oversaw treatment. As such, Native people were among the leading staff members at the early hospitals. The Alutiiq word sungcarwik, a recently coined term for hospital, literally means “place to heal.” Alternatively you can use, qenawik, an older term for hospital that means “place for sickness.”
Who received care at Alaska’s first hospitals? The company offered smallpox vaccinations and treatment for syphilis widely, but reserved other services for its employees. Some of these employees were Native people, although many Natives continued to receive medical care in their communities.
Photo: Griffin Memmorial Hospital, 1940s. Courtesy the Anderson Family, Afognak
Nutaamek engluliyut. - They are building a new house.
When Alutiiq people travel outside Alaska or meet visitors from distant places, they are often asked about igloos. “Do you live in an igloo? Do you know anyone who does?” This tired stereotype traces its origins to twentieth-century portrayals of northern people by the media. Movies about the Inuit of the high Arctic taught Americans that northern indigenous people lived in snow houses, or igloos, obscuring the diversity of arctic cultures and housing types.
Although the word igloo comes from the Inuit word for house, it can refer to a variety of structures: a permanent wood and sod house or a temporary shelter made of snow. Although Alutiiq people never used snow houses, the Alutiiq word for house, ungluq, is similar to igloo. This reflects the deep linguistic ties between coastal societies of the far north.
For at least five thousand years, the traditional Alutiiq house was a wood-framed structure covered with warm, weatherproof sod. Alutiiq families lived in these structures into the early decades of the twentieth century, when log cabins and milled lumber houses became the norm. A photograph taken in Old Harbor in the 1890s shows a western-style log structure among a community of sod houses. Elders recall that such structures gradually replaced sod houses, which were transformed into steam baths, cooking houses, and places where men gathered to gamble.
Sava Matfay, father of the late Larry Matfay, built the first wood-framed house in Akhiok. Sava traded a fur buyer a single sea otter pelt for a load of red cedar planks. The fur buyer shipped the lumber to Akhiok and then helped the Matfays build a home.
Photo: Remains of the Matfay house, Akhiok, Alaska.
The rufous hummingbird has the longest migration of all hummers in the United States. These solitary fliers arrive in Alaska by early May. They spend just three months in the north laying eggs and raising their young. In the fall, they return south, flying thousands of miles to warmer climates. Some travel to Mexico. Others head for places like Florida, an annual round trip of roughly 8,000 miles!
Kodiak lies at the far western limit of the rufous hummingbird’s range, but birds are known to visit in the fall. Local birders believe that many of these individuals are immature birds, inexperience migrators who stray accidentally into the archipelago. Perhaps due to their rarity, Alutiiq hunters prized hummingbirds, and their tiny nest and eggs, as amulets. Dead birds were dried kept in hunting bags for luck, beside bits of bear hear, colorful stones, and other personal talismans.
Kodiak Alutiiq speakers refer to humming birds as kumlurngaq. However, in other parts of the Alutiiq world speakers may use the term megtarpak–from the word megtaq for bumblebee. This word reflects the tiny, buzzing-like characteristics of the hummingbird.
Photo: Rufous Humingbird, courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Kai'akameng kenirtaartut. - When people are hungry they cook.
Throughout northern environments, late winter and early spring are the leanest times of year. There are fewer sources of fresh food in this season, and bad weather can make those that are available hard to reach. Moreover, by late winter, food stores from the previous summer are often exhausted. For many of Alaska’s Native peoples, late winter was a time of hunger. The Alutiiq term for this season translated as “cutting the salmon into strips,” a reference to rationing the last pieces of stored fish. Historic sources note that communities managed this period of shortfall by subsisting on intertidal resources.
In February and March, families collected large quantities of shellfish, seaweed, and invertebrates while waiting for the return of sea mammals, birds, and fish to coastal waters. And when ice covered intertidal areas, people resorted to eating clothing and leather items to prevent starvation.
Hunger was also problematic during the early years of western colonization. Native people forced to work for the fur trade had little time to complete the subsistence activities needed to sustain their families through the cold season.
Photo: Digging for clams at the mouth of the Buskin River in winter. Jarvela Family collection, courtesy Kathy Nelson.
Taugna suk pisurta. - This person is a hunter.
The Alutiiq word pisurta translates literally as “one who hunts.” Hunting has always been essential to life on Kodiak, a way to procure not only food but many of the raw materials of daily living: animal skins for clothing and boat coverings, gut for waterproof rain gear and containers, bone and antler for tools, and whiskers, claws, teeth, and hair for decoration.
Hunting takes skill, athleticism, a keen knowledge of the natural world, and in the Alutiiq world, respect. In classical Alutiiq society, children began practicing hunting skills at a young age, mimicking adults with toy boats and weapons. Both boys and girls learned to hunt by accompanying adults on hunting trips. Once a girl began menstruating, however, she could no longer participate for fear of contaminating hunting weapons.
In addition to learning how to use weaponry, where to find animals, and how animals behaved, Alutiiq children learned rules for hunting. A hunter had to show respect for the animals he pursued by dressing cleanly, keeping tools in good repair, and never bragging about successes. A hunter must store his tools away from adult women, whose menstrual blood was considered contaminating and could offend animals. A hunter had to release the souls of the animals he killed so that they could be reincarnated and continue to provide for people.
Throughout the historic era, Alutiiq men were sought for their prowess as hunters. Russian traders recognized that the Alutiiq style of sea otter hunting was far more successful than their own and conscripted Native hunters to harvest otter pelts for Asian and European markets. Since the twentieth century, Alutiiqs have worked as hunting guides, leading sportsmen on hunting trips for brown bear and introduced species like deer and elk.
Image: Hunters clibming a snowy hillside on Afognak Island, ca. 1961. Chadwick Collection.
Atmangq’rtuq. - He has a backpack.
Packing well for a hunting or fishing trip was as important in the past as it is today. Alutiiq men filled their kayaks with useful things: wooden containers filled with fresh food and water, sleeping blankets, and even inflated seal bladders for emergency buoyancy—the personal flotation devices of the past. Each hunter also carried a special skin bag with smaller necessities: harpoons and arrowheads to equip hunting tools; needles, sinew, and skin to patch tears in the skin of their kayaks; and in the historic era, ammunition and tobacco.
These bags were exquisitely made and decorated, because beauty in clothing and personal articles was considered a sign of respect for the animals a hunter pursued. One such hunting bag, collected on Woody Island in the late nineteenth century, is elaborately decorated with colored thread, caribou hair embroidery, and strips of dyed gut—perhaps sea lion esophagus.
Photo: Skin bag, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland, Helsinki.