Imam taanga taryutuu’uq. - The ocean's water is salty.
The bountiful North Pacific Ocean has been the economic foundation of Alutiiq communities for more than 7,500 years. Kodiak’s first settlers arrived by boat and were fully equipped to exploit the marine environment. These early colonists probably came from coastal areas of southwest Alaska and remained in Kodiak to harvest the wealth of sea mammals, fish, birds, and shellfish they encountered. Colonization is itself convincing evidence of a seafaring people, because the Kodiak Archipelago was surrounded by water sixteen thousand years ago, more than eight thousand years before the first known Native settlement. Kodiak’s first families must have arrived by boat.
In addition to food, the ocean provided Alutiiqs with raw materials. Tools were made of whale bones, boats covered with sea lion skins, and clothing made from the pelts of puffins and cormorants. Although the technologies used to harvest marine resources have changed with time, today’s reliance on the ocean is very similar to the ancient economic pattern. Alutiiq communities continue to make their living from the sea, whether it be through subsistence practices, as part of the tourist industry, or in the commercial arena. The ocean continues to feed Alutiiq families.
Photo: Rocky coast of Kodiak Island. Nekeferof Collection.
Utguit yaamat acaatni etaartut. - Octopus are always (located) under rocks.
Kodiak’s rocky shores are home to a variety of octopi. These shy creatures live in deep intertidal and shallow subtidal environments and are commonly found beneath rocks. Octopus can weigh over forty pounds. They capture fish, shellfish, and crab, which they eat with their sturdy beaks.
Octopi are traditionally captured in the spring. At low tide collectors will comb the beach looking for clusters of rocks. A scattering of broken clamshells is a good sign an octopus is nearby. When the collector finds a likely spot there are a number of ways to capture the octopus. One way is to poke a stick under the rock and pull it back quickly. If you are lucky, the octopus will grab hold and come out with the stick. A pieces of bark tied to the stick will sometimes attract the animal. Another way is to pour a little household bleach at the base of a rock. Now illegal, this method flushes the animal from its hiding place. The next step is to grab the back of the animal’s head and flip it inside. This paralyzes the animal so it can be killed and gutted. Be careful of the animal’s beak, however, as a strike hurts! Once gutted, people tenderize octopus by pounding the carcass on a rock. Then they wash it clean with seawater.
Octopus is delicious and this low fat seafood can be eaten in many ways. In Alutiiq communities it is frequently boiled. Pieces of the meat are then dipped in seal oil, butter, or barbeque sauce, or battered and fried. Some people chop or the meat and mix it with a batter to make fritters. Octopus is also used as fishing bait.
Photo: Boy with octopus near Old Harbor.
Una uquq asirtuq. - This oil is good.
Today, many people limit the amount of fat in their diet, but in the past, fat was an essential part of every Alutiiq meal. It provided calories and helped people metabolize the large quantities of protein provided by fish, birds, and shellfish. Alutiiq women melted sea mammal blubber in ceramic pots to produce oil, or left blubber to liquefy naturally in underground pits and sealskin pokes. Fat was served at meals with dried foods. Guests in Alutiiq households received bowls of grease for dipping morsels of fish and meat. Fat was a symbol of prosperity and grease bowls were often highly decorated to reflect the importance of this food. The more grease offered, the more honored the guest and the more generous his host.
In addition to food, oil can be used as a preservative. Berries, shellfish, and other foods were once commonly stored in sea mammal oil in containers made from dried seal and sea lion stomachs. Oil coated the foods and prevented them from drying. Today some Alutiiqs use store bought oil for this purpose.
Oil also provided fuel for stone lamps. A lamp filled with seal oil would burn for hours, providing light and heat for an Alutiiq family.
Photo: Ahiok Elder Phyllis Peterson with a jar of berries stored in oil. Photo by Priscilla Russel, KANA Collection.
Aakanat amlertaartut uksuakaarmi. - Old spawned-out fish are plentiful in the early fall.
After growing to full size in the ocean, salmon return to freshwater to spawn. This journey is physically taxing. Salmon stop eating when they enter streams, relying on their stores of fat for energy to swim, build nests, and reproduce. Malnutrition, exhaustion, and physiological changes associated with spawning cause their bodies to change dramatically. The lithe, bright silvery fish found in the ocean fade and turn to red, green, brown, and even grey. Some species develop stripes or skin lesions. Others grow a hump, a hooked upper jaw, and jagged teeth.
There is a common misconception that salmon are inedible, perhaps even poisonous, once their bodies begin to decay. Alutiiq Elders report that this is simply not true. Although the texture of salmon flesh changes as fish deplete their energy stores, these fish are still a good source of food. Many Alaska Natives enjoy eating aakanaq—old fish.
Alutiiq Elders report that old fish have a more crumbly, white flesh, similar to the texture of canned tuna. This fish does not fry well, because it contains less oil, but it is very good to bake, boil, or dry. Old silver salmon make especially good dried fish. Old fish can also be eaten raw. Elders remember harvesting old red salmon from the Olga Lakes as late as March. People packed the fish back to Akhiok and cut thin, partially frozen slices of meat from their tails to eat raw. One Elder recalls his father eating silver salmon heads harvested from streams in winter. The fish heads were still good to eat, even if the remainder of the fish was gone. With two slices of bread, the gentleman had a quick and nutritious sandwich.
Photo: Children play with a dead salmon, Afognak Village area, ca. 1960. Chadwick Collection.
Nuniarmiuq-qaa ellpet? - Are you an Old Harbor person?
The community of Old Harbor (Nuniaq) has its origins in the era of Russian conquest. In 1784, Russian traders massacred several hundred Alutiiq men, women, and children at Refuge Rock, a tiny island off the eastern coast of Sitkalidak Island. In Alutiiq, this sacred place is known as Awa’uq: to become numb. To many it represents a dramatic turning point in Native history, the loss political sovereignty and traditional lands under Russian subjugation. After the battle, Russians traders established a settlement in nearby Three Saints Bay, where Alutiiq people were forced to hunt and prepare food for Russian use. In 1793, the Russian colonists moved their settlement to Pavlovskaia Gavan—Paul’s Harbor—the present location of Kodiak. The Native community they left behind became known as Starrie Gavan or Old Harbor. The community’s Alutiiq residents moved several times, finally settling in the present location of Old Harbor. In the mid nineteenth century, Old Harbor also had a Russian trading post that was located near Gull Light at the Sitkalidak Narrows.
Old Harbor has long been a refuge for people from other villages. Survivors of a devastating smallpox epidemic joined the community in 1838, and in the twentieth century, people from the villages of Aiaktalik and Eagle Harbor resettled here. Even the village’s own residents have been forced to resettle. Old Harbor was badly damaged by the tsunamis that followed the1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. Only the community’s Orthodox church survived the flood. Families had to rebuild their homes.
Throughout its history, Old Harbor residents have made their living from the sea. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, residents worked in area canneries processing fish for western markets, and they participated in whaling at Port Hobron. Commercial fishing became an economic mainstay in the late nineteenth century and is combined with tour guiding and sport fishing today. Old Harbor residents enjoy sharing Kodiak’s environment with visitors and their hospitality is renowned.
Photo: The Alutiiq village of Old Harbor.
Angyakun aiwikutartukut. - We are going (away) by open boat.
The Alutiiq angyaq is a large open boat much like the umiak of northern Alaska. These twenty- to thirty-five-foot vessels were used for traveling and trading and could hold up to twenty people. They had a sturdy driftwood frame covered with sea lion skins that was well designed for carrying cargo and landing in the surf. Resting on their knees, paddlers propelled angyat with the same beautifully decorated, single-bladed paddles used for kayaking.
In the early years of western colonization, Russian traders confiscated and destroyed angyat in an effort to disable Alutiiq communities. Without large boats it was difficult for villagers to gather, flee subjugation, or mobilize attacks. However, the Russians recognized the great value of these vessels and adapted some for their own transportation needs. In Russian, these were known as baidara.
The art of angyaq construction has faded from living memory, but museum collections preserve a few boat models. With the help of these models and boat parts recovered from archaeological sites, Alutiiq carvers are exploring the angyaq and relearning this boat-building tradition.
Photo: Angyaq parts for the Karluk One village site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Arllut kuimartut imarmi. - Orcas are swimming in the ocean.
The orca or killer whale (Orcinus orca) is the largest member of the dolphin family. These large, toothed sea mammals are aggressive hunters known for their feeding habits. In addition to fish and squid, killer whales will eat other whales, sea lions, seals, and even birds. Adult orcas grow to between twenty-three and twenty-seven feet long and weigh up to ten tons. They are easily identified by their prominent dorsal fin and distinctive black and white markings, with a white spot behind each eye, a white lower jaw, and a white stomach.
Killer whales live in all the world’s oceans. In Alaska, they frequent waters over the continental shelf from southeast Alaska to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, moving northward in the spring as sea ice retreats and south in the fall as the ice advances. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that there are about one hundred killer whales living in the area encompassing the Kodiak Archipelago and the Shumigan Islands.
According to Alutiiq legend, killer whales are people who have turned into spirits. A story from the Alaska Peninsula tells of a group of mountain people who became killer whales by putting on whale skins. To go hunting, the whale people dove into a smoking, bubbling, mountain lake to reach the ocean. On the coast, there was a village where the residents were lazy and played kaataq all day. One day, dressed as people, the killer whales entered the men’s house and challenged the villagers to a game of kaataq. When the villagers lost the match, the whale people took them to the mountains, killing everyone but two old couples whom they left to tell the story.
Photo: Orca swims in the channel between Kodiak and Near Island.
lliya’ateng carlia’artaarait. - They used to always take care of their orphans.
In classical Alutiiq society, young people who lost their parents were adopted into wealthy families as laborers, working in return for food, clothing, and shelter. This treatment of orphans is indicative of the importance of family to Alutiiqs. A person’s lineage was not only essential to defining their identity but to maintaining it. Without a family, a person had few social or economic resources and was easily disregarded. This perception of orphans is not unique to Alutiiqs. Alaska’s Athabaskan and Iñupiat societies also used orphans as laborers.
The treatment of orphans is recorded in traditional Alutiiq stories. One tale from Prince William Sound tells of three orphan boys. After being badly abused, they take revenge on their village. Escaping imprisonment in an empty sod house, the boys find weapons, kill the community chief and his family, chase away the other villagers, and then leave the community to live by themselves.
In 1893, the word orphan took on a new meaning, when the Baptist Mission founded a home for needy children on Woody Island. This organization cared for children whose parents had died or were unable to support them. Unfortunately, the orphanage forbade the practice of Russian Orthodoxy—the predominant religion of their Native residents—and in some cases took children against their parents’ will. Children came from the Kodiak area and from adjacent areas like the Aleutian Islands. By 1900, there were forty-eight children in the home. In addition to academic studies, girls learned household chores and boys received instruction in agriculture.
Photo: Children at the mission home in Ouzinkie with new clothes, ca. 1940. Smith collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.