Qepel'ugaa iqalluk. - The fish is getting "maggoty."
Flies are part of summer in Alaska, and where there are flies, there are maggots. Biologists break the life cycle of the fly (Diptera) into four stages. The life of a fly begins when a female lays an egg. Within 24 hours the egg hatches into a larva, the whitish, worm-like creature also known as a maggot. For up to two weeks the maggot gorges itself on food, until it has consumed enough calories to enter the pupal stage. Now the maggot leaves its food source, crawling into a damp place to grow into a fly.
Although maggots often repulse Westerners, these tiny carnivorous creatures have many important functions. Across the globe people use maggots to consume food waste, process animal manure, speed the healing of wounds, as well as for fishing bait and food. Many cultures consume insects, and maggots, like other larva, are a rich package of fat and protein. They are also abundant.
For Alutiiqs, the concept of consuming maggots is not new. Keeping the flies off drying salmon is an age-old problem. Nets draped over draying racks fend off the magpies and gulls, and wind and smoke can reduce bugs, but flies are always attracted to drying fish. One way to protect you fish from maggots is to simply pick them off. Another is to cook infested fish. Elders recall that people used to boil maggot-covered dried fish in a pot of water. Then they put the rehydrated mixture in cheesecloth and mashed it. The final step was to add berries to create piginaq, a dish Elders recall as delicious.
Photo: Fresh caught salmon drying under a protective net.
Qallqayat teglengartaartut. - Magpies like to steal things.
Magpies are a member of the crow family, a group that includes crows, ravens, and jays. There are just two species of magpies in North America, the black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) found in Alaska and the western United States, and the yellow-billed magpie (Pica nuttalli), indigenous to California. The black-billed magpie is common in central and western Alaska. This large black-and-white bird inhabits shrub thickets and open forests but can live in urban areas. Its most distinctive feature is a black, wedge-shaped tail that is nearly as long as its body. Magpies live in groups and eat everything from bugs and seeds to baby birds, road kills, and garbage.
Magpies are known for their boisterous “mag, mag, mag” call and their bold, confident personalities. These characteristics have made them the subject of stories and jokes in many cultures. Both the Tlingit and the Alutiiq people use the word magpie as a nickname. For example, a difficult person or a talkative person may be called a magpie.
To Alutiiqs, magpies are an annoyance, because they steal drying food. Many people cover their fish racks with netting to keep the birds away.
Alutiiq artists also use the magpie’s black feathers to decorate crafts, as they have a beautiful iridescent green or purple sheen. However, because magpies are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, their feathers may not be bought or sold.
Painting: Magpies, by Lena Amason. Acrylic and oil on birch wood. Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum collections with asistance from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Ikuk’gka nunam kalikami. - I found it on the map.
The Alutiiq word for map, nunam kalikaa, literally means “the land’s paper.” Although maps and marine charts are important to modern hunters and fishermen, they are recent navigational tools. For thousands of years, Alutiiq people stored information about the landscape in place names and stories.
Eighteenth-century Russian fur traders made the first maps of Alaska. Sailing eastward from Siberian ports, they charted portions of the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska coasts, weaving together their observations and geographic details gleaned from Alaska Natives. Early hand-drawn maps show details for portions of the coast, with gaps for regions yet to be investigated. By the early 1800s, however, extensive exploration allowed Russian cartographers to produce a relatively accurate map of the North American coastline between the areas now known as western Alaska and southern British Columbia.
Russian traders first learned of the Kodiak Archipelago in about 1760. Residents of the eastern Aleutian Islands, including a Kodiak man taken captive by the Unangan, reported a distant island off the southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula that was rich in foxes and sea lions. Based on their information, Petr Shiskin, a crewmember aboard the Sv. Iulian, created the first known map showing Kodiak.
Photo: Archaeologists mapping an ancient vilalge site, Kodiak Island, 2010.
Ikuk kasuutkutartuk unuaku. - Those two are going to get married tomorrow.
In classical Alutiiq society, preparation for marriage began at puberty. At the onset of her menstrual period, a girl was secluded in special hut for at least ten days. Menstrual blood was considered so extremely offensive to animals that great care was taken to avoid contamination. This prevented her new, powerful life-giving abilities from diminishing the hunting luck of her father and brothers. This ritual separation also marked a young woman’s transition into adulthood. When she emerged from seclusion, her chin was tattooed with fine black lines to signal her readiness for marriage. At festivals she could now wear long beaded headdresses to attract suitors.
Marriages were either arranged or formed by mutual consent. A couple might approach their parents for permission to marry, or parents might plan their children’s engagement. Marriages were formalized with valuable gifts. Prospective in-laws exchanged items to symbolize their acceptance of a union. With the gifts bestowed, the groom went to live with his bride, working to assist her family. There was no formal ceremony at the time of marriage, although some unions were recognized later with celebrations at winter festivals. After marriage, a woman might add tattoos to her body or hands as a sign of love for her husband.
Everyone married, from shamans to slaves. Marriages were usually monogamous: one man married one women. However, polygyny—marriage to multiple spouses—did occur. Wealthy women would sometimes marry a second husband to assist with household chores. Similarly, men could have two or more wives. Chiefs and shamans, in particular, were known to have multiple spouses.
Divorce was possible, but not common. When a couple decided to split, the man simply moved out of the house. Any children remained with their mother, and both parents were free to remarry immediately without social stigma. In the historic era, as Alutiiq people adopted the Russian Orthodox faith, they began to practice Christian marriage customs.
Photo: Martin & Norrell Wedding, Karluk Church, Knagin Collection.
Maas’kaaq aturu. - Use the mask.
Masking is an ancient Alutiiq tradition. For centuries, Native artists carved images of powerful ancestors, animal spirits, and mythological beings into wood and bark. Masks were made in many sizes. Palm-sized miniatures may have been used to teach children traditional stories or carried by adults as amulets. Dancers wore full-sized portrait masks and enormous plank masks during ceremonial performances.
Masks were often brightly painted and adorned with a variety of attachments. Feathers, fur, and small wooden carvings were tied to an encircling hoop. Some masks were held in the hands or teeth, others were tied to the dancer’s head, and very large pieces may have been suspended over performance areas. A long-headed mask was a sign of power and authority. A whistling mask could conjure spirits.
Following ceremonies, masks were broken and discarded. This tradition reflects the spiritual power of the images they portrayed. Masks were part of the dangerous process of communicating with the spirit world. They were used in dances that ensured future hunting success by showing reverence to animal spirits and ancestors.
While Elders today remember the older word giinaquq, most today use the words giinaruaq (like a face) and maas’kaaq (borrowed from Russian) for mask. Today, “masking” refers to a tradition that takes place during the Christmas season, when revelers visit village households in disguise singing and dancing.
Photo: Unartulliq - Protector, Mask ca. 1872, Pinart Collection, Chateaux-Musee, France.
Akgua’aq kemegtullianga. - I ate meat last night.
Meat has been a mainstay of the Alutiiq diet for millennia. Like their forefathers, modern Alutiiqs are accomplished hunters who fill their freezers with sea mammal, deer, and even bear meat. But successfully slaying an animal is only the first step in feeding a family. Animal carcasses have to be processed and the meat they produce transported, stored, and cooked.
In classical Alutiiq society, animals were butchered with stone tools. Hunters used cobble spalls, sharp flakes of stone knocked off of beach cobbles, as well as ulus and flensing knives ground from slate, to skin, dismember, and deflesh carcasses. Bundles of meat were then wrapped in skins or placed in woven knapsacks and transported home. Hunters traveling on foot might place a layer of fresh grass on their backs to prevent meat carried on their shoulders from bloodying their clothing. At home, hunters often aged fresh meat, hanging it for a week or two to tenderize the flesh and mellow its flavor.
Fresh meat was cooked by stone boiling. Families dropped red-hot rocks into watertight containers—baskets, wooden boxes, hollowed out logs, and even animal stomachs—to heat their contents. They often added wild berries, particularly cranberries, to enhance the flavor of meat dishes. Roasting was another common cooking method. Alutiiq people used a flat stone slab heated in a fire to cook their meat, or they placed a roast on a skewer by the fire, turning it occasionally to help the meat cook evenly. Until the historic era when smoking, salting, and canning became popular, families air-dried meat not intended for immediate consumption. They stored this meat in wooden boxes and dipped it in oil before eating.
Photo: Frying bear meat for a potluck, 2013.
Cukaluten, paapuskaaq iwa’aru! Carliangqutartuq. - Hurry, get the midwife! She’s going to have a baby.
Each Alutiq community had at least one midwife, a healer versed in herbal medicines and the arts of bloodletting, surgery, and childbirth. Appointed by her community at a young age and apprenticed to an older midwife, this woman tended the sick, provided prenatal care, and delivered babies. Midwives are remembered fondly for their great knowledge, kindness, and ability to help people.
Healers were believed to have spiritual powers. In addition to learning skills from older women, they were imbued with special knowledge. They simply knew how to diagnose and treat illness—a divine gift. Women worked with their hands to locate sickness and used herbs, steam baths, and touch as therapies. But they were also recognized as helpers for offering domestic assistance. After the birth of a baby, for example, a midwife often stayed in the new mother’s home to help with chores for several weeks.
Midwives delivered most of the babies born in Alutiiq communities until the 1950s, when western practitioners began urging expectant mothers to deliver in hospitals far from home. Today, the role of midwife has evolved into the publically funded position of community health aide (CHA). CHAs work as liaisons between their villages and the western medical world. Most are women, and many are descended from traditional healers.
Photo: Girl holds a new baby sibling, Afognak village, ca. 1960. Chadwick Collection.
KaRauwamek muluk’uungtaartutkut. - We get milk from a cow.
Milk is a relatively recent addition to the Alutiiq diet, a fact illustrated by the Russian derivation of the Alutiiq words for milk. Although midwives brewed a tea from pineapple weed to stimulate the production of a new mother’s milk, and mothers nursed their babies for several years, cow’s milk was not widely used in Alutiiq communities until the twentieth century.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, a few Alutiiq families kept dairy cows. Most families, however, purchased canned milk along with staples like flour and sugar. Akhiok Elders remember hot cereal breakfasts with canned milk. Milk was also used to make pacifiers. Parents mixed milk with bread, sugar, and seal oil or butter and placed this mixture in cheesecloth. They tied the cloth closed with a string and nailed the string to the wall by a baby’s crib. When the baby cried, they offered the homemade pacifier.
Today, Alutiiq families purchase both fresh and preserved cow’s milk from grocery stores. Boxed and canned milk remain popular in rural areas, where groceries arrive by airplane. Milk has also been added to some traditional dishes. Alutiiq people eat tender young willow shoots with milk and sugar and mix milk into their akutaq, a desert made today with mashed salmonberries, sugar, and Crisco. Others enjoy dipping an alatiq (N) oralaciq (S), Alutiiq fried bread, into canned milk.
Photo: Cows on the beach in Ouzinkie. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.