Pitun’illgu una-yaatartuq. - Don’t eat this—it is poisonous.
Alutiiq people have long recognized the poisonous qualities of certain local plants. Some of these plants were harvested for their medicinal value, and at least one was used in hunting. The most well-known Alutiiq poison was made from the roots of the monkshood plant, Aconitum delphinifolium. This beautiful blue-flowered herb grows in meadows and has a long slender stem. According to one historic source, the roots were dried, pounded or grated, mixed with water, and left to ferment. Fat from the corpse of a dead whaler was then added to the concoction to make a chemically and spiritually potent toxin.
Aconite poison contains an alkaloid that paralyzes the nervous system and lowers both body temperature and blood pressure. Whalers used it to immobilize whales. They smeared the poison on the long tips of slate whaling darts that they cast into the side or the tail of an animal. Although the poison did not kill the whale immediately, it acted over several days to paralyze the animal, which eventually drowned. With luck, the carcass would float to shore, providing abundant food and raw material for the whaler’s community.
Photo: Purple flower of the poisonous monkshood plant.
Maani palit’sat amlertut. - There are many policemen here.
Although police officers are a relatively new addition to Alutiiq villages, law enforcement is not. Until Alaska achieved statehood and its communities fell under a state judicial system, Alutiiq leaders acted as peacekeepers and judges. A village’s traditional council, led by a locally appointed chief, maintained order, kept track of residents, organized search-and-rescue missions, acted as a court system, and determined punishments for those who behaved inappropriately.
With the advent of statehood, state police became increasingly visible in rural villages. Today, the Alaska State Troopers serve Alutiiq villages with the help of village public safety officers or VPSOs.
The Village Public Safety Officer Program began in the late 1970s as a way to provide rural Alaska communities with public safety services. Because most state troopers are stationed in population centers far from rural villages, rural towns needed local people trained to manage emergencies.
With state funds and administrative assistance from regional Native organizations, small rural communities now train and hire their own public safety officers. VPSOs complete a training course at the Alaska Public Safety Academy in Sitka and then return home to help with law enforcement, fire fighting, search and rescue, water safety, and emergency medical services. Each VPSO works with an Alaska state trooper stationed in their region. Today there are more than eighty VPSOs serving Alaska communities, including five VPSOs in Alutiiq villages whose positions are administered with help from the Kodiak Area Native Association.
Photo: VPSO Jim Cedeno, photo courtesy the Kodiak Area Native Association.
Aiwiakaut paragautakun mangat taitaaartut, waamenguarluteng. - When you are going by boat, porpoises come and kind of play.
Two varieties of porpoise frequent Kodiak’s coastal waters: the harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and the Dahl porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli). These swift, muscular animals are members of the cetacean family, a group of marine mammals that includes whales. Porpoises feed on fish and invertebrates in coastal waters and are known to follow boats. Porpoise bones in ancient coastal middens illustrate that Alutiiq people have been harvesting these animals for at least six thousand years.
Alutiiq people hunted porpoises in spring and summer. Men in kayaks carrying sharp-ended harpoons pursued them in the water. Like whales or sea otters, they had to be taken at sea and could not be ambushed at rookeries like seals and sea lions. Therefore, porpoise hunting was a much more difficult and risky undertaking. A traditional Alutiiq dart game, where kneeling players toss darts at a swinging porpoise model, highlights the enormous skill involved in killing and landing a porpoise. In addition to food, Alutiiqs coveted porpoise for their sinew, particularly the long fibers that run along the animal’s spine and tail. These were separated into thread for fine embroidery and into line for kayaks and hunting gear.
Photo: Porpoise target piece carved of bark, Malina Creek site, Afognak Joint Venture Collection.
Paluwigmek taigua. - I am coming from Port Graham.
Port Graham is one of three communities located on the southern tip of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. This small village of about 178 people rests on the inner coast of a narrow fjord, also known as Port Graham. The communities of Nanwalek and Seldovia lie to the west and the north respectively.
Russian settlers from a trading post at nearby Nanwalek formed Port Graham. In 1850, the Russian American Company established a coal mine in the area, but it was not profitable and lasted only a few years. Alutiiq families began settling in Port Graham in the late 1800s and early 1900s, moving to the area from Yalik and other villages on the outer coast of the Kenai Peninsula. The community grew in the early decades of the twentieth century as job opportunities at a local cannery attracted people.
Today, the residents of Port Graham continue to work in the commercial fishing industry. A cannery provides employment for many residents, including some from the nearby village of Nanwalek. Other people make their living fishing or working in the timber industry. Whatever their jobs, the residents of Port Graham continue to feed their families from the land and sea. Harvesting wild resources remains an economically, socially, and spiritually important activity for people of all ages.
Map: Location of Port Graham at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula Courtesy Wikipedia.
Masrilumi arwarsurtaallriit. - They used to hunt whales at Port Hobron.
Today the derelict hull of a wooden ship, rusting tanks, and building remnants are all that remain of the whaling station at Port Hobron. Nestled against the shore of Port Hobron Bay, a narrow fjord on the northern coast of Sitkalidak Island, the now-abandoned station was an active commercial enterprise run by the Alaska Whaling Company from 1926 to 1937. The station lies at the mouth of Fugitive Creek, a sheltered spot that provides easy access to the deep waters off eastern Kodiak and the migration path of the Pacific Ocean’s great whales.
From Port Hobron, whalers pursued animals along the eastern coasts of Afognak and Kodiak islands between May and October, intercepting animals as they moved toward summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Whaling focused on blue, fin, humpback and sperm whales, although right, sei, and grey whales were also taken. The hunt was effective. With sturdy ships and explosive harpoon guns, even large, fast-swimming whales many miles from shore could be harvested. During its eleven years of operation, the station processed more than 2,300 whales.
Alutiiq laborers assisted with the catch. Photographs show that they staffed whaling ships, retrieved dead and wounded animals, and butchered carcasses at the station. Whale meat was salted and packed in barrels and sold for ten cents a pound at Port Hobron. Alutiiq families continued to eat whale steaks and to use whale oil as a dipping sauce for fish and bread into the early twentieth century.
Photo: Aerial view of the remains of the Port Hobron whaling station. Photo by Rick Knecht.
Elltuwaqa masiqsirami skuuluqutartuq. - My granddaughter is going to go to school in Port Lions.
Iqallut nasqut asumi kallaut. - The fish heads are boiling in the pot.
Eighteenth-century fur traders in the Kodiak region noted that Alutiiqs made and used ceramic pots for baking, cooking meat, and melting blubber. Although this pottery has not been produced in more than two centuries, archaeological data illustrate that it was expertly made. Pieces of these pots also provide clues to their manufacture.
Alutiiqs fashioned pots from local glacial clays mixed with sand and gravel. A few early pots also show the use of grass as a tempering agent. Most were quite large, up to a foot in diameter and big enough to hold several gallons of liquid, although people also fashioned tiny toy pots. Alutiiqs created two shapes of pots, tall conical pots with a flat base, and another style with a more rounded base.
To start a pot, a craftsman formed the base with a round disc of clay. To this, he or she added strips of tempered clay, winding them around the base. Craftsmen used small paddles to blend the strips of clay as they formed the walls of the pot. Many pot were cone-shaped at the base and then straightened at a distinct shoulder to form a cylinder at the top. A decorative collar might be added to the opening of the pot, and its surface smoothed with a wash of clay and burnished. Craftsmen probably hardened their pots by placing them in fires.
It is likely that Kodiak Islander learned to make ceramics from their neighbors on the Alaska Peninsula, who produced pots for more than a thousand years before the technology was adopted in the Gulf of Alaska. Ceramic pots appear in Kodiak’s archaeological record at about eight hundred years ago. They are most common in settlements of the islands’ southeastern and southwestern coast. The mouths of these vessels are typically coated with a thick, black crust, which may be carbonized grease.
Photo: Linda Mullen popping corn, Port Wakefield, Raspberry Island. Juney Mullen Collection.
KaRtuugaarturtaartukut, iqallugmek cali. - We eat potatoes to go with the fish.
Derived from the Russian word for potato, kartofel, the Alutiiq word for potato, kaRtuugaaq, reflects the introduction of garden produce to Kodiak in the nineteenth century. Russian traders introduced potatoes and potato gardening, encouraging potatoes to become a staple winter food in Alutiiq communities. Potatoes were particularly valuable because they could be stored well into winter. Elders remember their parents buying sacks of potatoes in the fall, purchased from cannery stores with summer wages. Others helped their mothers tend family gardens, pulling weeds and eating fresh produce on the sly, including raw potatoes.
In the historic era, Alutiiqs began to add mashed potatoes to akutaq, a popular dessert made from berries, fish eggs, seal oil, and the starchy bulbs of the Kamchatka lily. Lily bulbs, which can be dug in the summer, resemble rice. Like potatoes, they can be mashed into a starchy paste. Thus, potatoes were a good garden substitute for this wild ingredient.
Other uses for potatoes include healing. The noted Kaguyak midwife Oleanna Ashouwak is said to have put socks filled with grated potato under sick people’s feet to lower their temperatures and draw out illness. Elders recall that if a potato turned grey during such treatment, it was having the desired effect.
Photo: Potato shack, Ouzinkie area. Simth Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.