Puyurnit piturnirtaartut. - Nagoonberries always taste good.
Also commonly known as the wild raspberry, or arctic raspberry, the nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus) is a low-growing plant that bears a sweet, dark red, segmented, raspberry-like fruit. On Kodiak, Alutiiq people use the same term for nagoonberry and raspberry, illustrating the similarity between this indigenous fruit and the historically introduced red raspberry. Many people consider nagoonberries one of Kodiak’s best-tasting wild fruits. Alaska’s Russian colonists called the nagoonberry the king of berries for this reason.
Nagoonberries grow in open environments, particularly in damp soils. They thrive in tundra, bogs, meadows, and along streambanks and lakeshores. The plant has crinkled, toothed leaves with three lobes, similar to those of a strawberry plant. Each plant bears a single pink flower that produces one berry. As such, they are not as abundant as other types of berries.
Nagoonberries ripen toward the end of July and are available through August. They separate more easily from their stems when they are ready to be harvested, although some people prefer to harvest them when they are a little underripe and firm. Kodiak Alutiiq people use these plump, juicy berries in many ways. Nagoonberries are eaten fresh, cooked into jams and jellies, and preserved in freezers and jars of oil. People also harvest the young sprouts of this plant, which can be peeled and eaten.
Photo: Pink flowering nagoonberry plant.
Gui atqa Sophie. - My name is Sophie
In classical Alutiiq society, children were often named for a beloved and recently deceased relative. Before birth, a child’s father would choose two such names, one for a boy and one for a girl. The child was not thought to resemble its namesake or to be the reincarnation of that person. The name simply paid homage to a dear family member. With the exception of certain ceremonial occasions, the names of deceased people were not spoken until their name had been given to a child. This tradition may reflect a belief that speaking the dead person’s name might summon his or her spirit.
In addition to a person’s given name, people often acquired nicknames during their lives. A person might be titled for a great deed or after an ancestor who had accomplished a similar feat. For example, a man with extraordinary hunting success might be named for a great hunter from his family’s past, as long as that man’s name had not been given to someone else. Other names came from friendships. Sometimes people exchanged names with their peers or created secret names to use only with their buddies.
Nicknames remain a common form of endearment in Alutiiq families, especially for children. Names may recall a favorite activity, a funny situation, or even a child’s early attempts at speech. These names often follow a person into adulthood and are both a source of humor and a fond connection to the friends and family members of youth.
Photo: Alutiiq Elder Sophie Shepherd.
Aalukaalitkiinga. - They named that person after me.
In classical Alutiiq society, people accumulated names over their lifetimes, adding new titles to commemorate a deed or reflect a change in their social standing. Many babies were first named for a relative—a namesake—a practice that continues today. In Alutiiq communities, children often bear a parent’s name. Fathers and sons have identical names, followed by Sr. and Jr. However, the eldest child is not always named for a parent. Today, Alutiiq children receive the name of a relative they resemble. Thus, a third son might be named for his father, or a girl for her grandmother.
Alutiiqs began adopting Russian names in the early decades of the nineteenth century as they joined the Orthodox Church. These names often came from a baptismal sponsor. Today, many Alutiiq babies receive an orthodox saint’s name eight days after birth. Parents choose the name of a saint who was born, baptized, martyred, or canonized near their baby’s date of birth, and the saint’s commemoration day becomes another birthday. For example, the parents of the late Elder Larry Matfay recorded his name day, April 10, the commemoration of Saint Hillarion, as his official birthday, not March 22, the date of his biological birth.
It was once traditional to host a party on your name day, inviting friends to your home for food, celebration, and reflection on the life of your saint. At such parties, the celebrant might read about the life of his or her namesake saint or sing the saint’s feast day hymn. Name day celebrations continue to be popular in some families, although some families have replaced them with secular birthday parties.
Photo: Birthday celebration in Old Harbor, Violette Able Collection, 1950s. Courtesy the Old Harbor Native Corporation.
Uyamillquan qup’artllria. - Your necklace got broken.
In classical Alutiiq society, jewelry was an important means of social and personal expression. Decorative lip plugs, nose pins, ear ornaments, bracelets, arm bands, belts, pendants, and necklaces were worn by both men and women, providing outward signs of the wearer’s place in society. Jewelry helped to indicate wealth, social standing, and passage through life events like coming of age or marriage.
In the historic era, Alutiiqs made necklaces from colorful glass beads imported from European factories by fur traders. They strung the beads on lengths of animal sinew and tied multiple stands together to create jewelry. In earlier times, Alutiiqs formed beads by mixing clay with seal oil or by carving them from shell, coal, stone, bone, ivory, or amber. A necklace collected in Kodiak in the nineteenth century features more than three hundred tiny bird claws set into each other to form small loops.
Children wore a different type of necklace, referred to today as a spirit pouch. At birth, a midwife dried the child’s amniotic sack or a portion of the placenta and placed it in a small pouch made of hide or cloth. The child wore this pouch around the neck as a protective charm for comfort and security. As the sack and placenta protected the child during pregnancy, they protected him or her in life.
Photo: Necklace and earrings of dentalium, glass beads, and abalone by Alutiiq artist LaRita Laktonen.
Kugyasiq aturtaaqa. - I use the net.
Alutiiqs captured salmon with a variety of tools. Streams were dammed with logs or stone weirs and the fish trapped behind them speared with special fish harpoons. Larger quantities of salmon, and perhaps herring and Dolly Varden, were captured with nets woven from nettle fiber and porpoise sinew. Each net was equipped with bark floats and stone sinkers-prehistoric versions of the cork and lead lines found on modern seines. Floats kept the top edge of the net on the water’s surfaces and sinkers weighted the bottom edge and helped to keep the net open. Large stone anchors secured the net to the riverbed or ocean floor.
Archaeological data illustrate that Alutiiqs began using nets about 3,800 years ago. Sites from this time period contain collections of stone sinkers-small, flat beach pebbles notched at either end. Why did Alutiiqs begin using nets? Some archaeologists believe that Kodiak’s population was rising and that people need to capture greater quantities of fish to feed their communities.
Photo: Men beach seining in Afognak Bay, ca. 1961. Chadwick collection.
Uqaayanat angtaartut. - Nettles are big.
The stinging nettle (Urtica lyalli) grows widely across the northern hemisphere. It thrives in open meadows, flourishes in damp soil, and is found commonly in dense clusters in areas disturbed by human activity. In the Gulf of Alaska, nettles often grow on the surface of archaeological sites-where they prosper in the rich organic soil formed by ancient garbage.
Nettles have distinctive toothed leaves that hold tiny stinging hairs. When broken, these hairs release formic acid, a skin irritant. The Alutiiq word for nettle literally means “something that makes you burn all over.” In the Kodiak area, people often refer to nettles as “burners.” Despite their stinging quality, young nettles are a tasty green vegetable. They are collected in the spring or early summer, boiled for fifteen minutes to remove their bite, and eaten like spinach. Nettles are also used to flavor food. They are added to soups or burned while smoking fish.
Nettles are also widely recognized for their medicinal properties. Nettle leaf tea is said to soothe respiratory problems, particularly tuberculosis, while a tea made from nettle roots can ease the pain of arthritis.
Ernerpak nuta’aq uksugkam Maqin’ra. - Today is New Year’s Eve.
A favorite Kodiak New Year’s tradition is the annual masquerade ball. This celebration of renewal occurs on January 14, New Years Day on the Julian Calendar that tracks the Orthodox year. The ball begins with a buffet dinner featuring many local foods, including dishes like perok, a fish pie. After the meal, revelers go home and return in costumes, fully masked to hide their identity. The remainder of the evening features lively dancing, comic performances, and a costume contest. At midnight, the revelers unmask themselves to reveal their identities.
While this event has links to Christian spirituality, particularly the biblical story of King Herrod’s murderous masked soldiers, its ties to Alutiiq winter festivals are also evident. Mask dancing was a central part of Alutiiq celebrations where the human-like spirits of animals were called to the dance hall and honored to ensure future prosperity. The masquerade ball also includes elements from other cultures that have contributed to contemporary Alutiiq life: Russian dishes made with traditional subsistence foods and the polkas, Rhinelanders, schottisches, and waltzes introduced by Scandinavian fishermen.
Photo: New Year Eve maskers, Ouzinkie, Melinda Lamp Collection.
Qiugyat asingcugtut unugpak. - The northern lights are beautiful/nice tonight.
The northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, are shimmering curtains of light that illuminate the night sky across the north. Similar lights seen in southern polar regions are known as the aurora australis. Interaction between the Sun and the Earth creates these lights. The aurora is powered by an electrical discharge that occurs when magnetism from solar winds collides with the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Glowing molecules created by this collision form dancing bands of multicolored light that extend from forty to six hundred miles above the Earth.
The aurora can cast a dramatic glow that illuminates the landscape. Athabaskan and Iñupiat people took advantage of this light to travel and hunt at night, even on moonless evenings. The Iñupiat also used the aurora for navigation, because the most cohesive bands of light trend from east to west before bending north.
Most northern cultures have legends about the aurora that connected these eerie lights with life after death. The Iñupiat believed that the aurora could kill people, and they brandished knives at the lights to keep them at bay.
The Tlingit Indians of southeast Alaska believed that the spirits of people who died during warfare traveled to a world in the sky. When these spirits came out to play, people on earth saw them as the aurora. These displays were a sign of impending war and bloodshed.
In Alutiiq cosmology, the northern lights are also believed to be the spirits of dead warriors. These spirits live in the first of five sky worlds, closest to earth, with the spirits of the stars and the moon. And like the Yup’ik, Alutiiqs once believed that whistling would bring the lights closer.