Anguaq taisgu. - Give me the paddle.
Alutiiq hunters propelled their skin-covered kayaks through coastal waters with narrow wooden paddles. Unlike the double-bladed paddles of neighboring peoples, these paddles had a long, spear-shaped, single blade and a short T-shaped handle, much like a modern canoe paddle. Craftsmen carved these paddles from hard woods collected on local beaches.
Kayakers, in a kneeling position, alternated strokes on either side of their boat. The narrow blade, with its diamond-shaped cross-section, allowed them to make quick stabilizing movements in rough water. Paddles were traditionally stored on the deck of the kayak and a spare was carried for emergencies. In rough water, a group of kayakers might ride out a storm by rafting their boats together with their paddles. In winter, paddles were also used to scrape ice from the deck of the kayak. Men also used their paddles to find sea mammals by placing the handle against their teeth to feel vibrations in the water.
Historic images of paddles, and those preserved in museum collections, illustrate that many were brightly decorated. Hunting scenes and geometric designs embellished the slender wooden implement with black, red, and blue paint. Today, Alutiiq artists are reawakening the art of paddle carving, combining traditional forms with their own designs to create both functional and decorative pieces inspired by the past.
Photo: Wooden paddle. Koniag, Inc. Collection, Karluk One site.
KRaasiyaqa maaskaaqa. - I am painting my mask.
Painted designs are the final artistic touch on many Alutiiq objects. Artisans continue to decorate everything from masks, hunting hats, and paddles to household implements withcolorful geometric designs, animal shapes, and human figurines. In classical Alutiiq society, paint was also applied to the body. People reddened their faces before traveling or receiving guests, and warriors painted their faces before a raid. At winter festivals, dancers adorned their faces and chests with painted lines, and shamans performed naked, wearing only body paint. To show their grief, mourners covered their faces with black paint, and like travelers, the faces of the dead were painted red.
Before the availability of commercially manufactured pigments, Alutiiq people created paints from plants and minerals. Artists extracted colors from barks, grasses, and berries or created colorful powders by crushing red shale, iron oxide, copper oxide, and other minerals with a mortar and pestle. They mixed these pigments with a binder of oil or blood. Historic sources indicate that artists often cut their noses with shells to obtain blood for paint. Paint mixed with blood lasted longer than paint mixed with oil, and therefore it was used to decorate objects, like paddles, that were used in the water.
Artists applied paint to objects with their fingers, a small stick, or possibly a paintbrush made with animal hair. Archaeologists studying late prehistoric village sites have found small, decorated handles with a tiny knob on one end. They speculate that bristles were tied to these delicate knobs for fine painting. Native artists in southeast Alaska once used similar tools.
Photo: Objects associated with painting, Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection. Top row from left - Pumice grinder covered in red pigment, wooden bowl stained with red ochre, piece of red ochre, possible paint brush handle, piece of copper oxide; Bottom row from left - miniature skin sewing board painted with a sea otter, painted mask bangles (decorative attachments).
Ugnerkami iqallut taikata sikialitaartukut. - In the spring when the salmon come, we make the partially smoked salmon.
Sikiaq, a lightly smoked salmon, is a common offering at Alutiiq breakfast tables. Stay at an Alutiiq lodge or bed and breakfast and you may awake to the aroma of this baking fish. Unlike typical smoked salmon, which is brined and then smooked for about ten days, sikiaq smokes for just two to three days after salting. This shorter cooking process imparts a gentle smoky flavor and unique texture. The outer layer of the salmon filet becomes firm, while the meat inside stays soft. People usually use filets of silver or red salmon for this dish.
For a delicious meal, people bake sikiaq like fresh salmon, heating it in the oven with a slathering of sliced onions, butter, pepper, and fresh herbs. It makes a delicious hot breakfast, although people enjoy it at all times of the day.
Photo: Elder Julie Knagin filets a red salmon.
Quteq Pas'rsami cucunartuq. - The beach at Pasagshak is beautiful.
Place names are like the layers of an archaeological sites, an accumulation of cultural information reflecting local history. Overtime, as events shape communities and cultures change, the names used to describe the landscape evolve as well. Some names stick, others fade. The resulting accumulation creates a cultural mix. Pasagshak Bay and its surrounding features are a great example.
Pasagshak is a deep u-shaped bay on the north shore of Kodiak Island’s Ugak Bay. Kodiak residents love the region for its beautiful black sand beaches, salmon-filled river, scenic lake, and dramatic peaks, all accessible by road.
Archaeological deposits illustrate the Alutiiq people lived along the bay’s shores for thousands of years, hunting and fishing from its productive waters. The name Pasagshak comes from the Alutiiq place name–Pas’rsaq. The meaning of this word has been lost to time, but Elders recall it as the traditional term for the region.
In contrast, we no longer know the Alutiiq name for the large lake at the head of the bay. Today it is called Rose Tead, reflecting the World War II buildup of Kodiak. This includes the road that leads to Pas'rsaq and the remnants of an airstrip and bunkers near the lake’s shore. The name of the lake honors Rose Cecelia Teed Wohlstetter, a Chicago-born beauty who became a Broadway dancer. During the war years, she served as a USO Camp Show performer, and was one of Kodiak’s favorites.
Photo: Aerial view of Pasagshak from Shaft Peak.
Paapuka gui cisllangq’rtaallia. - My grandmother had a peg calendar.
Charting the passage of time was once a relative process. Alutiiq people noted the seasons by following changes in the natural environment and in the economic and social activities that accompanied the yearly cycle. With the introduction of Russian Orthodoxy, however, the Alutiiq faithful adopted Russian-style peg calendars to track their days.
Peg calendars were typically fashioned of wood. Some were small boxes with a calendar carved in the lid. Other calendars were designed to hang on a wall. Each calendar had a flat surface with evenly divided segments representing the months of the year. Each segment had a series of holes representing the days of that month. A small peg was moved from hole to hole to signify the date. Calendars usually started on September 1, the first day of the ecclesiastical year. Special symbols adorned peg holes representing Sundays and church holidays. Each family then added markings to represent special household occasions — family member’s name days and the feast days of beloved saints.
Siberian fur traders introduced peg calendars to Alaska in the eighteenth century. Used in Orthodox communities throughout the state, they were commonly kept in the eastern corner of the house where religious icons were reverently displayed. A senior member of the household moved the peg daily to track the religious calendar. Although Elders remember using these calendars, they were gradually replaced by American-style paper calendars in the later decades of the twentieth century. Today, many examples can be seen in museum collections.
Photo: Peg Calendar by Alutiiq artist Andrew Abyo. Courtesy Andrew Abyo.
Kicarwigmi sugyartuq. - There are a lot of people in Anchorage.
Today, the Kodiak Archipelago is home to about 1,800 Alutiiq people. Although this is not the smallest Native population the islands have sheltered, it is much smaller than in the prehistoric era. However, the number of Native people that once occupied the archipelago remains a source of debate. Russian fur trader Grigori Shelikov claimed a population of 30,000 residents. Historians believe that this is a gross overestimate, one that reflects Shelikov’s desire to claim a large number of subjects for the Russian crown and further his political ambitions.
Other population estimates are more modest. Based on the distribution of village sites, archaeologists estimate that the late prehistoric population may have been about 10,000 people. However, historic records, maps showing the location of villages, and Native place names suggest that the Kodiak region was home to about 6,500 people in the decades following Russian conquest.
Although Kodiak was the most heavily occupied region of the Alutiiq homeland, perhaps due to its wealth of economic resources, significant numbers of Alutiiqs also lived in adjoining regions. Although their exact numbers are unknown, anthropologists believe there were up to 900 Alutiiq residents of the Alaska Peninsula, and perhaps as many as 1,500 Alutiiq people in Prince William Sound at the time of Western contact.
Photo: A crowd gathered in Old Harbor to watch a pie eating contest. Violet Abel Collection, courtsey the City of Old Harbor.
PiRuq piturnirtuq. - Perok tastes good.
Alutiiq cuisine, like Alutiiq culture, is a mixture of Native and European traditions that reflects Kodiak’s rich cultural history. Foods inspired by Russian culture can be found on many Alutiiq tables: berry tarts in the summer, sweet kulich bread at Easter, and perok throughout the year. Perok is a fish pie made with rice and vegetables. Although families enjoy perok for supper, it is often served at special occasions, including birthday parties, holiday celebrations, potlatches, wedding receptions, and funeral repasts.
Cooks across Alaska make perok with a variety of ingredients. Some people use root vegetables like turnips and rutabagas. Others add slices of hardboiled eggs, parsley, sautéed onions, or ground bacon. On the Kenai Peninsula you may find moose meat in your pie, and in the Pribilof Islands, chefs fill their perok with halibut. Kodiak Islanders prefer salmon perok, particularly pies made with fresh sockeye or king salmon. Tasty modern versions include hamburger, corned beef, and even gravy. Each cook makes perok a little differently, but you can build a delicious pie from this basic recipe.
Make a large batch of piecrust. Use the crust to cover the bottom and the sides of a rectangular baking dish: a 9-by-13-inch pan works well for a family meal. Cover the bottom crust with a layer of partially cooked rice. Cover the rice with a layer of fish. You can use canned fish, but soak it first to remove some of the salt. Pepper the fish and add a layer of sautéed vegetables, hardboiled eggs, or whatever you like. Moisten the fish and vegetables with a few pats of butter and then cover with a second layer of rice. Cover the entire pie with the remaining crust and bake it for one hour at 350degrees. Serve hot and don’t forget the ketchup.
Photo: A golden brown, freshly baked Perok.
Arnaurciqsaqlluni. - He has feminine ways.
Native American societies commonly celebrate people of two spirits. Such people may be seen as a combination of masculine and feminine characteristics or as gender neutral. They may also hold special or esteemed roles in their communities.
Explorers recorded the presence of cross-gendered people in Alaska Native societies. Historic sources indicate that parents could give a girl a boy’s name, or a boy a girl’s name, when a child of a particular sex was desired. Or if the child appeared to better fit a different gender role, parents could raise the child in the traditions associated with that gender–with the skills, clothing, tattoos, and social roles. Transgendered individuals were valued members of their communities who could marry and become cultural specialists like shamans.
The Alutiiq word for a two-spirit or transgendered man, arnauciq, translates as “a male who is sort of female.” Arnauciq sometimes accompanied hunting trips to perform women’s tasks, as women were forbidden to hunt or using hunting speech. The term for employing such a companion is arnaucirluni – to provide oneself with a take-along woman.
Image: Petroglyph from Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island.