Cuumi llaami nuus’niingq’rtaallriakut. - Before we used to have an outhouse outside.
In prehistoric times, going to the bathroom was a less private matter than it is today. Alutiiq families kept large wooden tubs near the doors of their houses to collect urine. Valued for its cleansing properties, Alutiiq women used urine to process hides. The ammonia in the urine broke down fat, leaving animal skins grease-free and ready for sewing.
Western colonists introduced outhouses. Although they eventually became popular, these small structures were not always used for their intended purpose. A story from Afognak Island tells how a missionary gave an Alutiiq man lumber to build an outhouse. Instead of using the new structure for its unclean, intended purpose, the man put it to better use smoking fish. Similarly, when missionaries distributed chamber pots to Alutiiq families in the 1890s, many chose to use these large, valuable ceramic containers in the kitchen, not the bedroom.
In Kodiak communities today, there are two common words for outhouse. Some people use the Russian term nuus’niik, which means “necessary place,” while others use the Alutiiq word anarwik, which means “place to defecate.” These terms are not just applied to outhouses, however. With the introduction of indoor plumbing, both words have come to mean bathroom and toilet.
Photo: Outhouse on Sitkalidak Island.
Allanertakiinga akgua’aq. - An outsider came to see me yesterday.
Traveling in prehistoric times, before letters and telephone calls could publicize your arrival, was dangerous. Alutiiq stories are filled with warnings about traveling through foreign lands, trespassing, and encountering strangers. A careful reading of these tales illustrates that strangers were unpredictable: they could help you or hurt you, and they were often deceptive. While it is still considered good manners to extend hospitability to a stranger, particularly one in need, one must also be wary. Some strangers are actually spirits in disguise and their kindness may conceal treachery. The meaning of the word allanertaq expresses this duality. Alutiiqs use the term as the word for both stranger and guest.
In one Alutiiq story, two inquisitive men travel to an island in the middle of the sea to meet a legendary cod fisherman. While they are enjoying a steam bath at the fisherman’s home, he ties a line to their kayak. Each time the men try to paddle home, the crafty fisherman pulls them back to his island. Finally, the wind overturns their kayak, and the men are cast upon the shore where they become two rocky capes.
To protect against such treachery, Alutiiq families sewed highly recognizable designs into their clothing and wore distinctive styles of hats and jewelry. Thus, even if an individual was unknown, the cut of his parka, the line of his boat, or the tattoos on his face might indicate membership in a particular family or community and the individual would be treated accordingly.
Some Alutiiqs also have trading partnerships: lifelong friendships with unrelated people in distant communities. Across Alaska, trading partners provided important links to resources in different environments, allowing people to access distant food and raw materials and gain assistance in times of need. Trading partners also provided a means of safe travel outside one’s home territory. A person traveling to meet his or her trading partner was socially connected and thus respected, not feared.
Photo: A view of the Alaskan mainland from Karluk.
Nuniamek ag'llriakut Uusenkaamen, paRaguutakun. - We went from Old Harbor to Ouzinkie by boat.
Ouzinkie lies in the forests of Spruce Island, just ten miles from the city of Kodiak. Derived from the Russian word uskiy, meaning narrows, the name Ouzinkie refers to the slender strait that separates Spruce Island from Kodiak Island. It also reflects Ouzinkie’s origin in the nineteenth century as a retirement community for Russian traders. Russians traders built ships and raised cattle on Spruce Island. Alutiiq people lived in the community, many as the spouses of traders, and in a tiny, nearby community located a Monks Lagoon known as Elovoe. Twentieth-century residents continued to raise cattle, worked for a variety of local companies, and supported efforts to protect Kodiak during World War II. In 1964, the tidal wave associated with the Great Alaska Earthquake destroyed the community store, cannery, and some homes. Today, Ouzinkie is home to about 160 people, many of whom fish for a living.
Spruce Island is also known for its connection to Father Herman. This Russian Orthodox monk is beloved for his devotion to the Alutiiq people. In 1818, Father Herman moved from Kodiak to the southeastern end of Spruce Island. He established a school, an orphanage, and a garden in a place now called Monks Lagoon. In 1970, Father Herman was recognized as a saint in the Orthodox Church. In commemoration of this event, the church leads a pilgrimage to Monks Lagoon every August, an event aided by Ouzinkie residents.
Photo: Dories in the Ouzinkie harbor, ca. 1940. Photo by Hender Toms. Malinda Lamp collection.
For many thousands of years, people around the world have used holes in the ground for cooking. From the Hawaiian pig roast to the New England clam bake, earth ovens provide an excellent place to cook many types of foods, and they are easy to build. Line a hole with some rocks. Add a pile of burning embers and top them with more rocks. Place your food on the rocks, cover it with some leaves or grass, and then burry everything with dirt. The heat generated by the coals will be stored in the rocks, gradually cooking your food. People often prepare meat in earth ovens, as the slow, sealed, cooking process creates a tender, juicy roast.
Among the Alutiiq people pit cooking appears to be thousands of years old. In ancient settlements, archaeologists find pits of all sizes that have layers of rock and wood charcoal. Some pits may have been for cooking food, other for drying foods over a slow burning fire. Pit cooking is especially common after about 800 years ago, the time when people began living in large, multi-family houses and hosting large gatherings. This technique allowed people to make quantities of food to feed extended families and hungry visitors.
Alutiiq roasting pits were up to about two meters (six feet) across, with sloped sides. Most have gravel or burned rocks inside, and some had a lining. On the shore of Afognak Bay, people applied a thick layer of glacial clay to the sides of some pits, forming a barrier between the wet soil and the cooking feature. Sometimes the pits have a layer of dirt or a clay cover, suggesting their contents was covered for cooking. Others have post holes around the edges, suggesting that people hung food over the pit to roast it.
Photo: Food storage and roasting pits at the Settlement Point site, Afognak Island.
Isiit awa’i angitut. - The owls have returned.
Three varieties of owls are common to the Kodiak Archipelago. The boreal owl (Aegolius funereus) and the northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula) frequent forested areas, and the short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) lives in open country.
Kodiak’s forest-dwelling owls are year-round residents. They nest in tree trunks and tend to be reclusive. These solitary, territorial animals hunt exclusively at night and are easier to hear than see. Short-eared owls, which migrate south each winter, are more visible. These birds nest in grass-lined burrows in lowland tundra, marshes, and tidal flats, often in small colonies. They eat voles, squirrels, bats, insects, and birds, which they hunt at night and in the morning.
Throughout Alaska, Native people associate nocturnal, carnivorous owls with the supernatural. Among the Tlingit, owls are feared. They are believed to bring bad news, foretelling warfare, sickness, fire, and accidents with their hoots. Moreover, witches are said to transform themselves into owls. The Aleut believed owls were magical and dismembered captured birds to release their powerful spirits. The Yup’ik associate owls with shamanism, due to their extraordinary vision.
Like the Yup’ik, the Alutiiq believed that owls assisted shamans. A wooden mask recovered from a late prehistoric village in Karluk features the face of a short-eared owl. This rare depiction of a bird’s face on a mask suggests that the artifact was spiritually powerful.
Photo: A mask carved to represent the face of an owl. Koniag, Inc. Collection, Kalruk One site.
Kiwiksat maniigtaartut qutmi. - Oystercatchers always lay their eggs on the beach.
With a world population of about ten thousand birds, the American black oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) is a large, jet-black shorebird with a long orange beak and orange-encircled eye. It inhabits the western coast of North America, ranging from the Aleutian Islands to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. It is most common at the northern end of this range, where it thrives along rocky coasts. Over half of all black oystercatchers live in Alaska, with the largest concentrations in Prince William Sound and the Kodiak Archipelago.
The oystercatcher’s diet reflects its environment. Around Kodiak, oystercatchers are present year-round, eating limpets, mussels, gastropods, and chitons as well as fish and crab from the rich intertidal zone. Oystercatchers are monogamous and territorial.
They mate with one partner and defend their nesting territories. In spring, females lay small clutches of eggs in simple nests on the beach. Scraped into the ground, these nests can be hard to see. Oystercatcher eggs are grey and spotted, like stones, blending into the beach. People and foxes are the biggest threat to oystercatchers, because the beaches the birds use can attract people and animals that disturb their nests.
According to an Alutiiq legend, God punished the oystercatcher for laying its eggs too early one year. The birds were not supposed to reproduce until May, but they did not wait. Now, they must lay their eggs right on the beach as they have been banished from the land.
Photo: Black Oystercatcher in the Shumigan Islands. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Library.