Taugna piugcinitaqa, iqallungcuk mikpakartuq! - I don't want that (one), the fish is too small.
In the Alutiiq language there is a distinction between fish of different sizes. If you want to speak of fish generally, you use the word iqalluk, but if you are referring to smaller fish like smelt, capelin, needlefish, or Pacific sand lance, you say iqallungcuk, or little fish. Herring fall somewhere in the middle and are called iqalluarpak. This term for herring comes from the word for smelt, iqalluaq. It is used by Yup’ik people and Alaska Peninsula Alutiiq people, and literally means, “big smelt.”
Little fish have many functions in the Alutiiq world. Small fish provide plentiful food for the animals Alutiiqs depend on. Where little fish congregate, Alutiiq people know they can also find halibut, salmon, seals, ducks, and other valued species.
Some little fish are eaten. Alutiiq families continue to fish for smelt in the springtime, catching them with poles or nets near the mouths of rivers. Smelt fishing is popular in near shore waters, around river mouths. Smelt can be eaten fresh or processed for later use. Some families roll the entire fish in flour and fry them. Others squeeze the guts out, then soak the fish in brine, lay them on trays, and smoke them like salmon. Smelt may also be kippered: partially smoked and canned or preserved in salt.
Photo: Little fish on the beach at Cape Alitak, 2010.
Nerciquq aarimek. - He is going to eat liver.
People around the world enjoy eating liver. From liverwurst to fried chicken livers people savor its flavor and texture. Alutiiqs are no exception. Elders report enjoying a variety of wild game liver. They consider seal liver the best, followed by deer liver. Bird livers and fish livers are also delicious and long ago people ate bear liver, often raw. Today, most Alutiiqs panfry liver, serving it with onions. To insure a pleasant flavor, some soak the organ meat before cooking. A water bath can remove any gamey taste.
Be careful, however, eating too much liver in the Arctic can be risky. Sea mammals store high levels of vitamin A in their livers, a nutrient that can be toxic when consumed in large quantities. Small overdoses of vitamin A make people sleepy, queasy, and irritable. Large overdoses can cause painful pealing skin, coma, and even death. How do Alutiiqs avoid over consumption? People often share liver, so one person seldom eats very much of this rich food. Traditional stories also remind people to be careful of what they eat.
A legend from Prince William Sound tells of a woman who liked to eat liver. When her husband gave her an odd looking liver, she refused to eat it. She later discovered that he had killed her sister and harvested the girl’s liver! To repay him for his treachery, the woman tricked her husband into falling asleep by a fire. She sang him a dead person’s song till he was no longer able to move, and then killed him by throwing his body on the fire!
Photo: Seals off of Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.
Uyaqurtulit ikegtaartut. - There's not many loons.
Alaska is home to all five of the world’s species of loons (Gavia spp.). Three of these species—the common loon, the red-throated loon, and the Pacific loon—are frequent visitors to Kodiak. This can make it difficult to differentiate between types of loons. Although each species has distinctive plumage in the summer, all loons fade to a similar plumage in the winter, sporting a dark brown back and a white breast. Loons are large diving birds with webbed feet and sharply pointed bills. They feed mostly on fish and aquatic plants in shallow waters, both fresh and marine. They have a number of calls, but are known for their haunting cry: an eerie, laughing sound.
Loons are considered lucky in the Arctic, where they are admired for their speed and sharp vision. To foster these qualities in their children, Alaska Natives often placed newborn babies on loon skins. A Chugach Alutiiq legend illustrates this tie to keen vision and explains how the loon got its white breast. A blind boy sitting by a lake heard a loon’s call. The boy shouted to the loon to approach him. When the bird arrived, the boy asked him to restore his eyesight. The loon agreed and took the boy for a ride on his back, diving under the water and circling the lake five times. When they surfaced, the boy could see again. To thank the loon, the boy returned to the lake with an apron of white dentalium shells: a gift that gave the bird its white breast.
Photo: Red Throated Loon, Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Aikut nerestangq'rtut. - The dogs have lice.
Historic accounts indicate that lice were a constant plague in Native communities. These small, rapidly reproducing parasites were hard to eradicate, as people lived in tight quarters where they passed easily from one person to the next. Moreover, people wore heavy fur and bird skin clothing where vermin could hide, and some communities had limited water for washing. Many loads of furs harvested in Alaska arrived in Europe infested with lice.
Lice are tiny wingless parasite that feed off small amounts of blood. Their bites can be very itchy, and itching louse bites often leads to skin infections. The journals of Russian traders in Alaska report that itch and skin ulcers were common maladies, found on almost everyone.
To get relief from lice, Alaska Natives washed, picked them off, and sometimes turned their clothing inside out. In the coldest regions of Alaska–people took their clothes off at night and left them outside to freeze–which killed the lice. A good shake in the morning and one’s clothes were vermin free.
A traditional Alutiiq song, sung by many dancer groups today, pokes fun at lice and reminds people hard it can be to kill them–even with water and steam. The song describes a louse taking a steam bath, showing of in the heat and singing his own little song!
Photo: Alutiiq dancers singing the louse song, August, 2011.
Ken’akan suu’ut qapilanek iwa’itaartut. - When the tide is low some people go down to get blue mussels.
For coastal peoples, daily life is closely connected to the cycle of the tides. The ebbing and flowing of nearshore waters affects boat travel, altering currents and wave activity, water depth, and suitable boat landing locations. It also covers and uncovers important subsistence resources. In Alutiiq communities, the lowest tides of spring are eagerly awaited because they reveal a wealth of food.
Minus tides are particularly important for accessing shellfish. Although mussels can be collected during any low tide, accessing burrowing species like clams and cockles, and the chitons, urchins, and limpets that inhabit lower intertidal waters, often requires a minus tide. Throughout the year, minus tides typically occur for a few days every other week, making shellfish intermittently available. In winter, access is further limited by darkness as minus tides rarely coincide with daylight. Native people throughout the Gulf of Alaska dealt with this problem by illuminating darkened beaches with torches. Even today, residents of Akhiok will collect shellfish by lantern light.
As spring approaches, minus tides begin to coincide with daylight. This creates many more opportunities to collect intertidal resource at a time of year when fresh foods are limited and stores of food from the previous are exhausted. As Alutiiq Elders often note, “When the tide goes out, the table is set.”
Photo: Low tide on Afognak Island.
Ing’im ceniini kenegtangq’rtuq. - The mountainside has cranberries.
The lowbush cranberry, or lingonberry (Vaccinium vitisidaea), is a creeping plant with thick, oval, shiny, green leaves; pink, bell-shaped flowers; and round, red berries. The word kenegtaq literally means “something pressed down.” This plant flowers in mid to late June and is commonly found throughout Kodiak’s spruce forests, particularly in wet areas.
Alutiiq people harvest the bright red, sour cranberries as food, preferably after a heavy frost when the berries are sweetest. They were eaten as a condiment with fish or mixed into Alutiiq ice cream. Unlike many juicier berries, lowbush cranberries can be stored for a long time. Those used before freezing weather were traditionally kept in freshwater in a cool place. After freezing weather, the berries were stored in gut containers filled with seal oil.
The lowbush cranberry plant has medicinal properties. Alutiiq people prepared tea made from the leaves to treat colds. Eating raw lowbush cranberries is also recommended for sore throats, canker sores, and kidney problems.
Photo: Low bush Cranberry, By Dawn Endico from Menlo Park, California (Lingonberry), via Wikimedia Commons
Camani ilangq’rtua. - I have family in the Lower Forty-eight.
When Alutiiqs speakers talk about the continental United States they use the word camani, which literally means “down there.” In Alaska, the English equivalent is “the Lower Forty-eight.”
Despite the separation between Alaska and regions south that camani implies, anthropologists believe that Alaska was the major gateway to the Americas, the region through which ancestral Native American societies arrived from Asia many thousands of years ago. In the past decade, however, opinions on the timing and the route of these migrations have changed. Archaeologists once argued that hunters simply walked into Alaska at a time when waters surrounding the Bering Straits were tied up in glacial ice and proceeded south to populate the remainder of North and South America about eleven thousand years ago.
While it is quite likely that some people walked into Alaska from Siberia, new archaeological data suggest that others may have boated east, arriving much earlier than expected. Although the oldest finds in coastal Alaska are less than 10,000 years old, data from the Channel Islands off the southern coast of California illustrate that maritime peoples were well established by at least 11,600 years ago.
Did North America’s earliest settlers paddle past Kodiak? Although archaeological data presently suggest that Kodiak’s first permanent settlers arrived about 7,500 years ago, evidence of earlier visitors may be present. People were living in on the Alaska Peninsula and the eastern Aleutian Island well before this time. Changing sea levels and millennia of erosion have likely obliterated much of the evidence of Kodiak’s first colonists, but careful research might one day expose evidence of very early connections between coastal Alaska and the Lower Forty-eight.
Map of North America
Ilait asiiritaartut. - Some people are always lucky.
Luck was an essential part of hunting in classical Alutiiq society. In addition to promoting hunting success through large public ceremonies that honored the spirit world, Alutiiq hunters collected amulets. Men typically carried these small charms for personal protection and assistance. They could be collected or manufactured but were usually something small and rare.
Historic sources report that hunters collected small, brown, floating rocks, which may have been the seeds of tropical plants transported north by ocean currents. Alutiiq considered these stones powerful good luck charms. Some were worn around the neck, others were kept in a box lined with eagle down and fed with food and red paint. Similarly, hummingbirds, their nests and their eggs, were considered lucky. These rare birds were dried and carried in a bag to promote hunting success.
Other talismans included eagle feathers, raven’s feet, loon skins, bear’s hair, and certain roots, berries, and old archaeological artifacts. Some talismans were lashed to the inside of a hunter’s kayak, near the cockpit where they could be seen. Aleut hunters tied small, ivory sea otter carvings to their boats. Alutiiq hunters lashed parts of animal skulls filled with eagle down and red paint to their vessels. These amulets were said to illuminate the water and attract sea otters. Talismans were also secured to hunting hats.
The tie between talismans and birds was particularly strong, because birds were the personal spirit helpers of many hunters.
Photo: Humingbird in a Kodiak garden. Photo courtesy Richard MacIntosh.