Guangkuta “Sugpianek” ap’rtaakiikut cuumi, nutaan ap’rtaaraakut Alutiit.- They used to call us Sugpiaq before, but now we are called Alutiiqs.
Who are Kodiak’s Native people? This a common question. Russian fur traders called them the Aleut, a word derived from a Siberian Native language that means coastal dweller. The Russian’s applied this term to all of the indigenous people they encountered, from the Aleutian Islands to Prince William Sound, regardless of their unique cultural heritages. On Kodiak, Sugpiaq (pluralized Sugpiat) was the traditional name for the people. Derived from the word suk, which means person, and -piat a suffix meaning real or genuine, Sugpiat translates as the real people. Many indigenous societies use similar terms. Yup’ik, the preferred designation of the Native people of western Alaska, also means “real people,” and Unangan, the preferred designation of Aleutian Islanders, translate as “we the people.”
Today many of Kodiak’s Native people refer to themselves as Alutiiq, which is the Sugpiat way of saying Aleut. Alutiiq remains popular as it highlights unique cultural qualities while retaining part of the word Aleut. However, there are still many people who prefer to be called Aleut, or who use the terms Aleut, Alutiiq, and Sugpiaq interchangeably. It is important to note, however, that most of Kodiak’s Native people recognize that the Aleut people of the Aleutian Island and those of Kodiak are cultural distinct.
Photo: Boy's party, Karluk. Clyda Christiansen Collection.
Giinan kawirtuq. - Your face is red.
In prehistoric times, Alutiiqs manufactured red pigment from naturally occurring ochre, a locally available iron oxide. Historic sources suggest that this soft mineral was ground to a powder and then mixed with seal oil and blood to produce paint. Several thousand years ago, ochre may have been used to tan and clean hides. Ochre grinding tools and layers of bright red, ochre-smeared earth occur throughout the archipelago’s ancient campsites. In more recent times, ochre was used as body paint. Dancers painted red lines on their bodies, and the faces of hunters, travelers, and the dead were adorned with red paint.
Craftsmen also made red pigments from a variety of local plants to color grass, spruce root, gut, hide, sinew, and wooden objects. On Kodiak, people produced a reddish-brown dye by boiling alder bark. In Prince William Sound, boiled hemlock bark or a mixture of cranberry and blueberry juices produced a dark red dye.
The symbolic meaning of the color red has been obscured by time, but among the Yup’ik people, who are closely related to Alutiiqs, it represents ancestral blood.
Photo: Decorated bag, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland, Helsinki.
MiskiiRat qar'usiq pingaktaantait. - Spiders don't like red cedar.
Two varieties of cedar are indigenous to coastal Alaska, the yellow cedar or Alaska cypress (Camaecyparis nootkatensis) and the western red cedar (Thuja plicata). Both are large evergreen trees with fibrous bark and a straight-grained, rot-resistant wood. Named for the color of their heartwood, in western North America, cedar trees grow primarily in the forests of southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Cedar has long been an essential resource to the Native societies of these regions. Although cedar does not grow around Kodiak, it was widely used by Alutiiqs, who collected it as driftwood.
Today, Alutiiq people use cedar primarily for firewood, because it burns cleanly. In the past, however, cedar was a coveted building and carving material. Cedar resists water more readily than spruce, so it was used to create objects that came in contact with moisture: houses, boats, hats, paddles and oars, hunting equipment, cooking utensils, and grave markers. Builders preferred to use cedar as the foundation logs and roof posts for sod houses, and in the historic era, they split roofing shingles from cedar.
Alutiiq people also used cedar in boat construction. Although red cedar is not a strong wood, it could be employed in any part of the kayak frame. It was a common choice for bow pieces. Where possible, craftsmen cut the curved prow of the kayak from a cedar stump, using the natural arc of wood formed by the tree trunk and its roots. To create kayak ribs and stringers, they soaked strips of cedar in hot water and bent them to shape.
Photo: Spitting a red cedar log on the beach at Cape Alitak.
Nagaayuq Ikani et’uq. - There is a refuge rock over there.
Atan ling’agiu. - Respect your father.
To Alutiiq people the world is alive. It is a place where all things are aware of and sensitive to human action. Caring for this world requires respect: a reverence for natural resources, recognition of the accomplishments of ancestors, and a modest view of one’s place on earth. Alutiiq people do not see themselves as conquerors of the land but as one component of a complexly integrated, life-giving system based on mutual respect.
In this system, the resources necessary for life give themselves to people, who must prove their worth through responsible acts. A hunter’s ability to show respect for the animals he seeks determines his success, not his skills. To Alutiiqs, seals, bears, fish, and birds are much smarter than people and can easily avoid being captured. But when a hunter demonstrates his humility, game will give itself to him. In this world carelessness, arrogance, and waste are signs of disrespect. They unsettle the natural balance and poison a person’s luck.
How do people show respect? Hunters dress neatly and keep their gear in good repair to show respect for previous gifts. They butcher animals carefully, returning a portion of the animal’s body to the land or the sea. This shows concern for the animal’s spirit, which will live on to create more game if treated properly. Families use materials from the land judiciously, wasting little, sharing with others, and creating beautiful objects.
Photo: An elaborately decorated parka produced for the Looking Both Way exhibit by Susan Malutin, Grace Harrod and community members, with funding from the Alaska State Museum.
Asuq atunkirciiqaqa. - I'm going to reuse the pot.
Salvaging, recycling, and reusing are essential components of Alutiiq spirituality. In the Alutiiq world, animals are smarter than people. Seals, ducks, and salmon give themselves to people who must in turn demonstrate their respect. Thrift is an essential component of this relationship. By utilizing resources carefully, including every part of an animal, people show their appreciation and help to ensure a future supply of game.
This sense of thrift includes recycling. Alutiiq people are well known for reusing objects and materials. Archaeologists note this in ancient tool collections. Alutiiqs ground broken slate ulu fragments into lances and arrows, created fire starters from old kayak parts, and used the broken bases of wooden containers as cutting boards. In more recent times, Elders recall stitching underwear and slips from the pretty flowered sacks that held cooking flour, and fashioning stoves for their banyas from empty 55-gallon fuel drums.
Modern Alutiiq artists also demonstrate the value of thrift in their work. Look closely at contemporary works and you will find strips of a plastic crab pot buoy framing a painting, or pieces of polar fleece garments cut into decorative designs to adorn a scarf. Like their ancestors, artists transform leftover materials into objects with lasting beauty.
Photo: A rock paddle mended and then resused as a cutting board. Koniag, Inc. Collection, Karluk One.
Kuigmen iqallugsullriakut. - We went to the river to fish.
Despite its wet environment, Kodiak’s has few large rivers. The archipelago’s drainage systems are simple, reflecting its glacial history. Throughout the islands, short, steep, clear-water streams flow through glacially carved valleys draining small areas. Most streams are less than ten miles long and descend swiftly out of the mountains into adjacent bays. Rivers and larger streams tend to occur in bay heads and in a few valleys in southwestern Kodiak that were not completely filled with ice during the last glacial epoch.
For Alutiiq people, rivers are not only an important harvesting environment where salmon, trout, ducks, bears, and otters can be taken, but a means of travel. They provide avenues through Kodiak’s mountainous interior. The Portage River on northern Afognak Island provides an overland route to southern Afognak’s Kazakoff Bay, and from the head of Larsen Bay, it is an easy hike down the Karluk River to Karluk village at the river’s mouth. Alutiiq people once moved logs across larger lakes and rivers by tying them into rafts and paddling across. Elders remember paddling logs across Karluk Lagoon and Afognak Lake.
According to Alutiiq legend, the first woman formed rivers and lakes by spitting into ditches and holes. Like all features in the Alutiiq landscape, rivers have spirits that can be manipulated. One Alutiiq legend tells how an evil shaman captured a young woman searching for her lover. The shaman bewitched a river, which delivered him victims by sweeping them over a powerful waterfall. When the young woman succeeded in killing her captor, the shaman’s grip on the river was released. The treacherous falls disappeared, and she was able to paddle home safely.
Photo: Fall time along the Ayakulik River, Kodiak Island.
Isuwiq yaamamen mayallria. - The seal climbed up the rock.
The Kodiak Archipelago is formed of intrusive igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks many millions of years old. Slate and shale, greywacke and granite are the stones that make up the island’s core, and they provided raw material for many traditional tools. Harpoons and arrows were tipped with small points fashioned from local cherts, knives were ground of hard black slate, and oil lamps were pecked from cobbles of hard grey-green tonalite. Rocks were also important for cooking and bathing. Stones heated in a fire were dropped in baskets to warm food, and hot rocks splashed with water created steam for steam bathing. Collecting the right type of rock was an art. Some stones shatter readily when heated, producing dangerous flying debris. Alutiiq people continue to collect specific types of cobbles for use in the steam bath.
Yaamaq is also the name of a popular children’s game played by individual competitors or teams of players. Children erect stakes on the beach, each in a shallow depression about two hands wide. Next, players select smooth, hand-sized rocks to throw at the stakes and line up behind one stake to take turns throwing at the other. Contestants score two points by hitting the stake or one point by tossing the rock that lands closest to the target. Bouncing the rock into the stake is not allowed, and a team must accumulate sixteen points to win a match. The game ends when a team wins two consecutive matches.
Photo: A circle of rocks may represent the remains of an ancient hunting blind at the Amak site, 2011.