Kulutruaq gua’i. - The labret is right here.
Throughout Alaska, many Native people wore labrets: decorative plugs of bone and stone inserted through holes pierced in their cheeks and below their lips. Alutiiq men and women wore labrets singly or in pairs. At birth, babies were fitted with a tiny starter labret, often made of ivory. Over the course of an individual’s life, they enlarged their labret hole to hold a series of bigger plugs. A larger labret might be inserted to recognize a marriage, the birth of a baby, or another important life event. Some labrets were decorated with inlays of animal teeth, incised with geometric designs, painted with ochre, or embellished with strings of beads.
Craftsmen carved labrets in many different shapes. Some look like top hats, others like a whale’s flukes or a large spool. Anthropologists believe that labrets acted as symbols of personal identity, illustrating the status and family of the wearer. High-status individuals wore large, highly decorated labrets, and each family may have had its own style. Labrets first appeared in the Kodiak Archipelago about 2,500 years ago, at the same time that other forms of jewelry developed. Labrets disappeared rapidly in the historic era because of western intolerance and changing social circumstances. Explorers, merchants, and missionaries were unanimously horrified by a practice they believed caused facial disfigurement.
Photo: Labrets from Kodiak Island, Alutiiq Museum collections.
Nanwaq cikumauq. - The lake is iced up.
Although no place in the Kodiak Archipelago is more than eighteen miles from the ocean, lakes and rivers are important topographic features for both people and animals. In addition to drinking water, fresh watercourses provide access to char, trout, salmon, and waterfowl and an avenue into the interior.
Although ponds are common, there are few lakes in the archipelago and most are fairly small. Karluk Lake, the largest, covers only 14.7 square miles. These topographic characteristics reflect Kodiak’s glacial history. Most streams descend directly out of steep, glacially carved mountains into adjacent bays. Lakes and larger streams tend to occur in a few valleys not completely covered in ice during the last glacial epoch.
Elder Larry Matfay remembered ice fishing for steelhead on a frozen lake. Covered with a blanket, he would watch for fish through a small hole in the ice. The blanket blocked the sunlight, allowed him to see the fish, and kept the fish from spooking. As the fish began to swim by, he would use a leister—a multipronged spear—to capture it. Small fish lures carved from ivory and found in archaeological sites suggest that this practice may be quite ancient, perhaps more than two thousand years old.
Photo: Early morning at Olga Lake, 2005.
Suuget ilait niu'uqurtaarait Nanwam suugi ell'uni.–Some people always talk about there being a 'lake person.'
Stories of unusual creatures associated with water are ancient and found in many cultures. Greek myths talk of the sirens, birds with women’s faces whose sweet songs lure sailors to their death. The Scottish tell tales of the beautiful Selkie, gentle beings who swim the oceans as seals and shed their skins to walk on land as people.
In Alutiiq legends, creatures move between the human and animal worlds by putting on and taking off skins that retain animal characteristics. A boy escapes harm by wrapping himself in an otter skin and swimming away. A swan removes her feathers to become a woman. Bears are descended from people. These tales highlight the Alutiiq belief that all creatures have an inner, human-like consciousness. Inside animals are fundamentally human. It is not surprising, therefore, that Alutiiq Elders tell stories about human-like sea creatures.
Clyda Christiansen remembered Elders speaking of mermaids and relating that people would be turned into beings that were half human and half fish at the end of the world. This legend combines Bible stories with Alutiiq concepts of the universe where the boundaries between people and animals are fluid.
Lucile Davis recalled a creature that lived in Karluk Lake and was associated with sightings of dead people. The creature would appear in the lake, or in the river or swap below the lake. These were the places where the dead showed themselves to the living, so they would not be forgotten. Here, Lucille’s youngest brother Moses saw the spirit of Phillip Vasili, a man who drowned in nearby Larsen Bay. To protect themselves, people said blessings and sprinkled holy water across the area.
Photo: View across Karluk Lake in spring. Karluk Lake Survey Colleciton, AM620.
Laam’paaq kuarsgu. - Light the lamp.
From Kodiak to Greenland, Native people used stone oil lamps to heat and light their homes. On Kodiak, artisans formed lamps from beach cobbles of sandstone, granite, or a greenish-gray igneous stone called tonalite. Craftsmen formed lamps by sanding and pecking—banging one cobble against another. Although time-consuming, this technique produced many beautiful pieces. Some artists decorated their lamps with elaborate figurines and geometric designs. Sea mammals and human faces are some of the three-dimensional carvings that decorated Alutiiq lamps.
Alutiiq oil lamps come in many sizes. Household lamps were large, heavy pieces designed for stability. Travelers squatted over smaller, more portable lamps to warm themselves, and children played with tiny lamp replicas. Alutiiq Elders recall that lamps were filled with sea mammal oil and lit with wicks of twisted moss or cotton grass. Each lamp had a spirit, and when not in use, it was stored upside down to keep the spirit from escaping. Archaeologists often find upside down lamps in old houses. Today a burning oil lamp is a sign of prosperity and cultural endurance. The light of Alutiiq culture shines brightly as Elders and youth gather around a glowing lamp.
Photo: Ancient oil lamp lit for a modern gathering, 1997
Wiika taugum taqikii. - My husband was lanced by that person.
Among the techniques used by Alutiiq healers, lancing and bloodletting were chief remedies for pain and illness. Elders recall that the famous tribal doctor Oleanna Ashouwak (1909–1965), a resident of Kaguyak, used these techniques to help people experiencing headaches. She would cut the skin at the back of a patient’s head with a small knife, to release “bad blood.” If the patient didn’t bleed very much, Ashouwak used a small tool made from a cow’s horn to suck out additional blood. Similar bloodletting practices employed on the head, wrists, or thumb, were also treatments for pneumonia, tuberculosis, and chest pain. Healers also employed bloodletting after the birth of a baby, to help new mothers regain their strength.
A bloodletting tool in the Alutiiq Museum’s collections is fashioned from a cow’s horn. This piece was collected in Old Harbor in the 1950s. Elders recall that such horns were used both to numb the skin before it was lanced and to induce bleeding after lancing.
In addition to bloodletting, Alutiiq healers practiced a variety of other surgeries and employed massage, herbal treatments, and holding to treat their patients. Many of these activities took place in the warm, restorative environment of the steam bath.
Photo: Blood letting horn from Old Harbor. Collected by By Bill Laughlin, KANA Collection.
Man’a nunarpet. - This (here) is our land.
The Alutiiq homeland stretches from Prince William Sound almost to the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula, covering a vast section of the Alaska coast. Archaeologists believe that Alutiiqs have always lived here, because the distribution of prehistoric artifacts across this landscape closely mirrors the distribution of modern Alutiiq communities. From ancient occupations to the present day, groups of tools occur in the Alutiiq homeland that are different from those found in surrounding areas.
In classical Alutiiq society, people did not own land in the modern sense. Families, perhaps even communities, maintained harvesting rights to the resources in particular locations. Berry patches, salmon streams, bird rookeries, and other fixed harvesting spots were habitually used by the same group, who asserted their hunting and fishing rights in reference to ancestral patterns. A family maintained its right to a salmon stream because previous generations fished in the same spot. Rights to resources were passed through families, not the ownership of land.
Today, land remains an important symbol of Native identity. Passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 returned many thousands of acres to the Alutiiq people. Although the ways that people use these lands have changed, the land and its resources continue to provide for Alutiiq communities.
Photo: Roy Rastopsoff hunting on southern Kodiak Island.
Cuumi nukallpiaq aaquyanek pisurtaallriit. - Men before used to always go hunting for land otter.
Kodiak is home to two varieties of otters, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) that inhabits nearshore coastal waters, and the land otter (Lutra canadensis) that lives primarily in freshwater lakes and streams but ventures into saltwater to hunt. Land otters are opportunistic feeders that eat everything from fish to waterfowl, insects, rodents, and plants. Land otters live in family groups, inhabiting the same den for many years. Like the sea otter, land otters have a soft, warm pelt that Alutiiqs fashion into clothing. Land otters were once captured in deadfall traps weighted with a large rock or in snares made of flexible sticks.
An Alutiiq legend from Prince William Sound explains the land otter’s use of both the sea and the land. When the spirits of the land and sea divided the animals between them, the land otter was left behind. At that time the otter had a short tail. The two spirits quarreled over the otter, tugging on its tail until it stretched. The otter cried, “Please let me go! I will stay with both of you.”
Photo: Land Otters. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Tamamta uyaqsarmiu’at. - We are all Larsen Bay people.
Tucked against the shore of Uyak Bay, sixty-two miles from Kodiak, the village of Larsen Bay is a cluster of houses, large metal-roofed cannery buildings, sturdy wooden docks, and boardwalks. Today, the community is home to about eighty-nine people. Named for Unga Island entrepreneur Peter Larsen, the modern community began to develop in 1888 when the Arctic Packing Company constructed a cannery on the western shore of Larsen Bay, opposite the present location of the village. Here a seasonal community processed salmon from southern Kodiak Island.
In 1911, the Alaska Packers Association built a large modern cannery next to the future site of Larsen Bay village. By about 1930, families living in the Uayk Bay region began to settle beside the cannery, and were joined gradually by residents from nearby Karluk and Uganik. This created the modern village. The cannery, which continues to operate seasonally under changed ownership, provides employment for community members. Many Alutiiq families also lead guided hunting and fishing excursions around scenic Uyak Bay.
Despite its association with the canning industry, Uyaqsaq was once home to many ancient Alutiiq families. A portion of the village rests atop the Uyak site, a massive prehistoric midden that holds houses, tools, and burials. This site is one of the best-known in Alaska due to its research history. In the 1930s, Aleš Hrdlička, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, led investigations here. In his quest for human remains he paid little attention to archaeological details, destroying valuable information and removing hundred of ancestral remains. In 1991, Larsen Bay residents argued successfully for the return of these remains. One of the first repatriations in the United States, their efforts set a precedent for the return of Native American skeletons and reverential treatment of Native American graves.
Photo: Aerial view of Larsen Bay, 2001.