Sun'ami qitengtaartuq. - It rains all the time in Kodiak.
From September to April, a winter storm crosses the Gulf of Alaska about every five days, bringing intense rain, high winds, and heavy seas. Surrounded by ocean and encircled by Alaska’s high coastal mountains, Kodiak is continually exposed to the full force of these storms. The archipelago receives about 79 inches of precipitation annually and has more than one hundred wet days. Most of this precipitation, about ninety percent, falls as rain.
Alutiiq people have always adapted their practices to this soggy environment. Hunters, travelers, and people working outdoors once wore waterproof garments stitched from the intestines of sea mammals and bears. These flexible, lightweight coats were easy to work in and kept the wearer very dry. Houses were also built to keep out the rain. A thick cover of thatch and sod over a wooden frame helped to shed winter’s constant drizzle. Archaeological data, however, suggest that water did eventually seep into sod dwellings, particularly through their earthenfloors. To combat this seepage, Alutiiqs constructed drainage ditches to direct water away from living areas. Home builders lined and covered these trenches with boards, forming a network of channels below the floor.
Rain also influences subsistence activities, because it can affect the harvesting and processing of resources. Even today, people tend not to pick plant foods in the rain. Heavy rain makes berries watery, and wet vegetables are difficult to preserve. Similarly, fair weather is necessary to dry the quantities of salmon and halibut that people eat all winter long. Too much rain and fish flesh will fail to dry and will spoil.
Photo: A storm approaches Old Harbor.
Kanagllun asingia'artuq. - Your gutskin jacket is really nice.
Good outdoor clothing is essential on Kodiak, where cold wet weather or sea spray can easily cause hypothermia. Before the introduction of rubberized clothing, Alutiiq people fashioned waterproof jackets from gutskin. They sewed the intestines and esophagi of sea mammals and bears into flexible, lightweight garments with special waterproof stitches. The typical garment was knee length, although longer jackets were created for kayakers. These garments tied around the boat’s cockpit to keep rain and sea spray out.
Also known by the Russian term kamleika, these garments were so valued by western colonists that they commissioned Native people to produce them in European styles like cloaks. Gut rain jackets were popular gifts and souvenirs in the historic era.
Alutiiq people share the gutskin jacket with their northern neighbors. From Prince William Sound to the Aleutians and from the Gulf of Alaska to arctic Canada, Native people stitched similar garments to protect themselves from wet weather. Archaeological data suggest that this type of gear is very ancient. The delicate needles needed to work gut occur in some of Kodiak’s oldest sites, suggesting that coastal hunters wore protective gutskin clothing more than 6,000 years ago.
Photo: Child's gutskin rain coat. Made on Kodiak between 1905 and 1910 by Mary Demedov Sargent for Estern Sargent.
ARatukamek tang'rakameng suut nata agayuliteng. - When you see a rainbow, you're to make a sign of the cross.
Combine sunshine and raindrops and the result is a luminous arc of colors commonly known as a rainbow. This vivid display of light has a prominent place in the beliefs of many cultures. Some people see the rainbow as lucky, or as a sign of an important, upcoming event. In some spiritual traditions, the rainbow signals the birth of a baby and the reincarnation of a recently passed soul. Others consider rainbows to be divine. The Norse believed that rainbows were a bridge to the world of the gods. Among Australian Aborigines the rainbow is a serpent that battles the sun to replenish Earth’s essential water.
Alutiiqs use several words for rainbow. ARatukaq, a word derived from Russian, comes from the northern subdialect of the Alutiiq language. Puwisaq comes from the southern subdialect and also means belt.
The word puwisaq also refers to the strip of cloth or ribbon that Orthodox godparents once gave to babies at baptism. This piece of fabric was usually white with an embroidered cross, and was worn over the chest – between a person’s shirt and undershirt. For Easter, people wore a brightly colored versions on the outside of their clothing. These puwisat were worn across the body like a sash and knotted around the waist. One Elder remembered that when an honored person died, their death shroud would be torn into strips to use as puwisat for the community’s next generation of babies. Historically, people wore puwisat all the time, but only a few Elders still have their baptismal band stored away.
Elders report that rainbows are sometimes called, Puwisiim Maman lintaa - literally the Virgin Mary's puwisaq cloth. When the faithful see a rainbow, they make the sign of the cross, as a sign of respect and remembrance for the Virgin Mary.
Photo: A rainbow over the King Salmon River, western Alaska Peninsula, 2011.
April-rem puyurnit pingaktaarai. - April always likes raspberries.
The American red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is a recent introduction to Kodiak, brought to the island in the past century. This fast-growing, fruit producing plant thrives in thickets, clearings, and along the edge of wooded areas. It is now a local favorite. Bushes can be found around many villages. As with other types of berries, families have their own patches. The late Elder Julia Pestrikof planted a patch of raspberries on the hill by her home when she moved to Port Lions, following the 1964 tidal wave. This patch flourished, taking over the hillside.
Despite the raspberry’s recent arrival on Kodiak, historic records refer to raspberries as one of the foods eaten by Alutiiq people, and a bay on the western coast of Afognak Island bears the Russian name for raspberry, Malina. These references may reflect confusion with indigenous plants: the salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), the nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus), or the moss berry (Rubus pedatus), which produce a sweet, red, segmented, raspberry-like fruit.
The Alutiiq word for raspberry, puyurniq, is also distinct from that used for other berries. It comes from the word puyuq, meaning smoke. This may be because raspberries have pale grey fuzz around them, like a cloud of smoke.
Photo: Lip balm made by Susan Short with raspberries.
Qalnga’at tamarmeng teglertaartut. - All ravens steal.
The common raven (Corvus corax) is a year-round resident of Alaska that lives happily in every environment, from coastal meadows to arctic tundra and even city streets. This large member of the Corvidae family that includes crows, jays, and magpies, the raven is an all-black bird with a distinctive, wedge-shaped tail, shaggy feathers around its throat, a large bill, and a variety of hoarse calls. Ravens say “kraak” or may coo “glook.”
These quick learning birds are known for their cunning. They chatter, use tools, and have a complex social life. Alaska Natives have long admired the raven’s intelligence, and in Tlingit, Athabaskan, Yup’ik, and Alutiiq tales, Raven is a favorite character.
In Alutiiq stories the Raven is both a creator and a hero. He appears as a bird, but possesses supernatural powers that assist him in great deeds. He can speak Alutiiq, is strong enough to carry a whale, and can transform himself into other beings. One tale tells how Raven brought light to the world. By tricking a stingy chief in a distant land, he obtained two boxes, one with the moon and stars, the other with the sun. For bringing these priceless possessions home to his village, the chief rewarded Raven with marriage to the chief ’s two daughters.
Mamaayat qasartaapet. - We eat clams raw.
There is a common misconception that the word Eskimo means “eaters of raw flesh.” Linguistic research, however, suggests that the word actually translates as “snowshoe netter.” Despite this mistranslation, northern peoples are known for their consumption of uncooked foods. The Chukchi and Sami peoples eat many part sof the reindeer uncooked, and the Canadian Inuit enjoy many kinds of raw fish. Not all uncooked food is unprocessed, however. Freezing and drying are common ways to preserve plant and animal foods in the north for later consumption.
Uncooked foods have some advantages over those that are roasted, boiled, baked, and fried. First, they are often more nutritious. Cooking can destroy some of the nutrients that foods contain. Drain the liquid from boiled foods, for example, and you lose some of the vitamins and minerals in your supper. Foregoing the cooking fire is also convenient when traveling or when it is difficult to make a fire. Eating uncooked foods saves time, and it conserves fuel in places where wood is scarce or needed for other purposes. Native people will also tell you that freshly harvested raw foods taste great.
Although firewood was not typically scarce in the Alutiiq homeland, raw foods were widely enjoyed. Families commonly ate whale, seal, and sea lion meat raw, as well as fish and fish eggs. A favorite way to eat fresh-caught fish is with cow parsnip leaves. Raw fish, particularly the hump of a spawning pink salmon, can be wiped with these leaves to add flavor, or pieces of fish or fish eggs rolled up in the leaves like sushi.
Alutiiq people still eat many wild plant foods raw, as vegetables, salads, and desserts. Some favorite fresh greens include willow shoots and leaves, the inner fleshy part of salmonberry stems, tender young hemlock parsley stems, fireweed shoots, sourdock stems and leaves, beach loveage, chives, and goose tongue. Even marine plants are a source of tasty raw vegetables. Alutiiq people collect both bull kelp stems and rockweed for immediate consumption.
Image: Cleaning a fresh salmon in Larsen Bay.
Cingtaatarsurlita! – Let's gather razor clams!
Pacific razor clams (Siliqua patula) can be found in sandy beaches from California to the Aleutian Islands. Alaska is home to some of the world’s largest razor clams, which can grow up to a foot long. These large, narrow bi-valves have a thin, brittle, brown shell, and they are delicious!
Razor clams have a limited availability on Kodiak, due to its rocky coast. They typically occur on sandy or muddy outer coast beaches, from about four feet above mean low tide to a depth of 30 fathoms. However, they are relatively easy to find. These clams leave a distinctive dimple in the sand wherever they burrow. Strong diggers, razor clams can burrow up to five feet per minute to avoid capture. They can be collected during any low tide, but they are easier to harvest in spring when cool weather slows them down.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Kodiak Islanders worked in the razor clam industry on the Pacific coast of the Alaska Peninsula. The Kukak Cannery, built in 1923, processed clams harvested from abundant bed in nearby Swikshak Beach. The cannery employed Alutiiq men to dig clams, living in camps along the beach. They worked with men from the Quinault Indian Reservation and workers recruited in Grays Harbor, Washington. It was a tiring, dirty job done with a shovel and hip boots. The men packed live clams in 50 pound boxes, which were picked up by tenders for delivery to Kukak and other canneries.
Alutiiq women worked in the Kukak cannery processing clams beside ladies from other coastal Alaskan communities. A steamship transported them to the facility, where they lived in bunkhouses and ate in a mess hall. During the day, they spent long hours loosening clams from their shells and cleaning the meat. But after hours, the Kukak cannery was a lively community, where people made close friends, enjoyed music, played games, and explored the bay.
Photo: Razor Clam on the beach at Cape Alitak, May 2010. Photograph by Sven Haakanson Jr.
Arya’aq naaqiuq. - The girl is reading.
Like other Native American languages, the Alutiiq language, known also as Sugt’stun, is a spoken language that has only existed in written form since the arrival of Westerners in Alaska. In the early 1800s, Russian Orthodox monks created the first written records of Sugt’stun. They compiled vocabulary, studied Sugt’stun grammar, and translated church texts into Sugt’stun using church Slavonic/Cyrillic characters. Their efforts promoted bilingualism and created a valuable linguistic record.
With the sale to Alaska to the United States in 1867, however, the use of Sugt’stun diminished. Schools forbade children to speak the language, transmission from one generation to the next slowed, and literacy faded. Over succeeding decades, as English became the dominant language in the Alutiiq world, the number of Sugt’stun speakers dropped significantly. Today, there are fewer than 500 speakers of the language and many fewer who can read and write in Sugt’stun. In past three decades linguists have worked with speakers to document and reawaken the language. Sugt’stun is still not widely spoken, but words are reappearing around Kodiak and opportunities to learn the language are growing.
Written Sugt’stun uses letters from English to recreate Sugt’stun sounds. There are twenty-six letters in the Koniag Dialect of the Sugt’stun alphabet. Although written with roman characters, many of these letters represent sounds that are different from those in English. For example, the Sugt’stun letter q is pronounced something like the English letter k, but the sound is made farther back in the mouth.
Photo: Woman reading a magazine. Smith Collection. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.