Kas’at maani, Sun’ami amlertut. - There are a lot of priests here in Kodiak.
In every Alutiiq community, there were individuals who functioned as religious leaders, or priests. These highly respected wise men were tradition bearers, trained in all aspects of ceremonial life. They were not feared like shamans, who interacted with dangerous elements of the spirit world, but revered for their cultural knowledge and ability to work with helpful spirits. This role was inherited, passed from one generation to the next, like the roles of chief or whaler in Alutiiq society. Questions that could not be answered were often referred to the community priest.
A priest had two major functions. They instructed children in traditional songs and they organized and supervised winter festivals. A family hosting a gathering hired a priest to lead the festivities, compose songs for the event, and ensure they followed proper protocols for seating guests, honoring ancestors, gift giving, and many other activities.
In recognition of their role as spiritual leaders, Alutiiqs used the word kas’aq when referring to Russian Orthodox clergy, who filled many of the same functions as traditional religious leaders.
Photo: Priest officiates at an othrodox wedding ceremony in Karluk. Clyda Christensen Collection.
Ungalarmiut yaksigtut. - People of Prince William Sound are far from here.
Prince William Sound lies at the center of the Gulf of Alaska, between the Copper River delta and the Kenai Peninsula. Steep, glaciated mountains rim this wide, forested embayment, filled with fjords and islands. Like Kodiak, Prince William Sound is known for its plentiful marine resources, but furbearers, sheep, and goats also abound. And like Kodiak, the sound is home to Alutiiq communities.
Archaeological data indicate people first colonized Prince William about 4,400 years ago and that they shared many traditions with Kodiak islanders. It is not clear whether the sound’s earliest inhabitants came from Kodiak or the nearby Kenai Peninsula, but they used tools and structures similar to those in neighboring areas, suggesting ancestral connections. Moreover, through time, changes in the archaeological record of Prince William Sound mirror changes on Kodiak, suggesting that residents of both regions were closely related.
Although the Native population of Prince William Sound appears to have always been relatively low, historic accounts reveal that eight distinct Alutiiq groups lived in the sound. Collectively, the members of these groups called themselves Chugach, and they spoke a regional dialect of the Alutiiq language. Although part of the same culture, each Chugach group was independent, with its own political leader and central village. Today, the principal Chugach villages of the region are Chenega Bay, Eyak, and Tatitlek in Prince William Sound, and Port Graham and Nanwalek on the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. Chugach people also live in the Prince William Sound communities of Cordova, Seward, Valdez, and Whittier.
The Kodiak Alutiiq word for the people of Prince William Sound, Ungalarmiut, literally means “people of the east or northeast.” It is derived from ungalaq, the word for an east or northeast wind.
Illustration: Man of Prince William Sound by engraving by John Webber, 1784.
Qatayaq qayam cuungani misngauq. - The seagull is landed on the bow of the kayak.
From the Arctic Ocean to Prince William Sound, Alaska’s Native people crafted swift, seaworthy qayaqs from wood and animal skins. Each culture had a distinct style of boat with unique qualities designed for their environment.
Yup’ik qayaqs were short and broad, designed for stability in the ice-filled waters of the Bering Sea. Alutiiq qayaqs were long and slender, built to withstand the rough, windy waters of the North Pacific Ocean.
One of the most distinctive elements of the Alutiiq qayaq is its split, upturned prow. Like the boats size and shape, this part of the qayaq helps with navigation. The lower curved part of the prow slightly hollow on the sides, helping the boat cut through the water. The tall upper part provides buoyancy, helping the boat to float as it encounters waves.
The Alutiiq qayaq prow also helped paddlers identify each other. See a paddler in a split prow qayaq heading towards you and chances are that you are about to encounter another Alutiiq person, someone who speaks your language and may even be a relative.
An Alutiiq legend tells of the origins of the split qayaq prow. According to this story, the first man and women who entered the world, paddled between two cliffs. When the cliffs closed in on their boat, they broke one end, creating the curved prow that still characterizes Alutiiq qayaqs.
Photo: Larry Matfay holds the prow of the kayak in which he rode as a child. Photo taken in Old Harbor, outside Matfay's home. Photo courtesy Florence Pestrikoff and family.
Amlertaallrit qateriut. - There used to be a lot of ptarmigan.
Alaska is home to three varieties of ptarmigan, two of which live in the Kodiak Archipelago. The willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) inhabits low, wet tundra environments while the rock ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) lives in rocky mountain habitats. Ptarmigans are small birds, weighing no more than a pound and a half. Biologists believe that they are abundant in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Although the size of the population is unknown, willow ptarmigan are more common than rock ptarmigan.
During the warm season, ptarmigan scatter across the landscape to feed on plants, berries, flowers, and insects. In fall, ptarmigan form flocks, congregating and dispersing repeatedly until winter conditions prevail. During the cold season, the birds live in large nomadic flocks, moving continually in search of food. This is the easiest time of year to hunt ptarmigan.
Ptarmigan are a valued winter resource in Alutiiq homes. When stormy weather makes it difficult to hunt by boat, people often hike into the hills in search of birds. On Kodiak, the official ptarmigan hunting season is mid-August through the end of April. Ptarmigan are not always easy to find, however. Although they may be abundant in places, their populations can fluctuate dramatically. Moreover, they are susceptible to over-hunting.
Although ptarmigan are always a delicious meal, Elders recall eating the birds when they were sick. Because ptarmigan feed on wild herbs, they are thought to have strong medicinal properties. Some Alutiiq people will boil the birds for hours to create a rich, healing broth.
Photo: Willow Ptarmigan on Kodiak Island. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Archive.
Tunngat manigtut p’hnami. - The puffins are laying eggs on the cliff.
Puffins, also known as sea parrots, are members of the auk family. The Kodiak Archipelago is home to two varieties of this bird, the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) and the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata). Both have large, brightly colored, yellow and orange beaks, with white breast feathers and black back feathers. In summer, they live in nearshore ocean waters where they nest on cliffs, between boulders, and in burrows. In winter, they move out to sea. Although puffins are small, weighing just one to two pounds, Alutiiqs captured them for both food and raw material. The meat of the puffin is said to taste like tuna fish.
Puffin skins were one of the most common materials used for parkas and were typically worn by the poor. It took up sixty puffin skins, complete with their white breast feathers, to make such a garment. Puffin beaks also adorned a variety of objects. They decorated clothing, were tied to drums, and in Prince William Sound, they were worn on the aprons of shamans performing at festivals. However, their best-known use was on dance rattles. One of three traditional musical instruments, these rattles were about twelve inches wide and had as many as five concentric wooden hoops. Craftsmen painted the hoops red and black and lashed them to a cross-shaped handle. Then, they drilled each ring with small holes so that clusters of puffin beaks could be attached.
Photo: Carved ivory puffin, Settlement Point site, Afognak Island. Afognak Native Corporation collection.
Allrani iwaiyaqa qapuk qutmi, kesiin miktaartuq. – Sometimes I find pumice on the beach, but it is always small.
Alutiiq craftsmen once used pumice like sandpaper, to smooth the surfaces of tools during manufacture. Kodiak’s archaeological sites commonly contain pieces of pumice with facets, ground surfaces created by rubbing the stone against a bone or wood object. In more recent times, people used pumice to clean their stove tops, and anything else they wanted to smooth or shine.
Although Kodiak Island has no volcanos, pumice can often be found along the archipelago’s shores, delivered to the area by wind and tides from the volcanically active Alaska Peninsula. Much of the pumice found on Kodiak in the past century comes from the 1912 eruption of Mt. Novarupta on the Alaska Peninsula. The explosion, the largest in the 20th century, sent more than 30 cubic kilometers of volcanic debris into the air. Although prevailing winds carried much of the massive debris cloud toward the northern end of the Kodiak Archipelago, light weight pumice clogged the ocean and floated around the islands.
In the days following the eruption, people in boats reported that the pumice was a foot deep and that in Shelikof Strait, the pumice field was dense enough for a person to walk on! As the tides carried pumice to shore, and as pumice eroded from the Alaska Peninsula landscape, Kodiak beaches were inundated with the material. People found garbage can-sized pieces and collected pumice along the shores for decades.
Photo: Pumice and Scoria abraders from the Karluk One Site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.