Taryurtuu’uq una iqalluk. - This fish is salty.
Salt is an effective preservative because it can dehydrate plant and animal tissues and limit the growth of bacteria. This mineral was a valuable commodity during Kodiak’s historic era because it was used to process both animal pelts and fish. Early traders imported most of their salt. Although salt can be boiled out of seawater, the extraction process is time-consuming and labor intensive. It takes a great deal of fuel to create salt crystals from a kettle of saltwater.
During the Russian era, Alutiiq people air-dried most of the fish they harvested for winter consumption. However, Russian entrepreneurs experimented with salting small quantities of salmon for export. Salting operations took place in Barling and Afognak bays. Salt was also applied to sea otter pelts before their shipment to Asian markets.
Fish salting became more common in the early American era, with the development of commercial fishing. With several dories and a seine, companies harvested red salmon—drying the backs to feed Alutiiq people and salting the bellies for export. Alutiiq men staffed one salting operation on the Karluk River, catching, dressing, and preserving salmon, which they packed into barrels made from Afognak Island spruce.
Photo: Saltery at Port Hobron, ca. 1980. Albatross Collection, Courtesy the National Archives.
Allrani suu’ut caqainek pukugtaartut. - Sometimes people salvage some stuff.
Pukuk is an Alutiiq word that has made its way into English conversation in the Kodiak area, like the Yiddish word schlep or the French word café. There is no exact English translation. Generally speaking, this Alutiiq verb means to salvage, although its more nuanced meanings include borrowing something without any intent of returning it or obtaining something you need at no expense. For example, if you are building a banya and need an oil barrel for the stove, you might pukuk one you’ve seen sitting behind your auntie’s house for a while. Being able to pukuk things is a positive quality, a sign of resourcefulness valued in Alutiiq communities.
A story from Akhiok tells of a young man who pukuk-ed a bicycle. The bike’s original owner left it in a ditch. For months, the young man walked by the bike, watching the weeds grow around it and the rain pour down on it. Eventually the tires deflated and the bike started to rust. The young man knew that there was a good bicycle under the sad exterior. So he finally pulled the bike out of the brush and cleaned it up. He even added new tires. While the young man was pedaling the bike around town, its original owner recognized his old ride and wanted it back. Too late: the bicycle had been legitimately pukuk-ed.
Photo: Karluk boys on bicylces. Courtesy the Rostad Collection.
Ernerpak pilallriit. - They sawed (wood) today.
Saws are a relatively recent introduction to Kodiak. Russian traders brought the first metal saws in the late eighteenth century. Before the introduction of European tools, however, Alutiiqs devised a variety of manufacturing techniques to complete jobs that employ saws today.
Bone and wood objects that needed to be cut in half were whittled around their girth, the way a beaver gnaws a standing tree. Then, the craftsman snapped the two halves of the object apart manually. Alutiiq people shaped sheets of slate into spears and knives in a similar way. A sharp-edged chip of stone from a beach cobble was used to saw grooves into thin sheets of slate, forming the outline of a tool. Excess slate was then snapped away following these grooves. Archaeological data indicate this technique is more than five thousand years old.
In the twentieth century, as dories replaced kayaks, metal saws became important for boat building. In gathering materials for handcrafted boats, Alutiiq carpenters cut natural knees—arched boat ribs—from living trees. They removed long, L-shaped sections of wood from the lower trunk of a standing tree and its associated roots. This produced a strong, naturally bent piece of lumber that could be cut into sturdy boat ribs. This technique did not kill the tree, but it left a distinctive scar. Evidence of this practice is preserved in the spruce forests of Kodiak and Afognak islands. You can still see dory-knee trees as you walk through the woods, particularly in stands of large trees near shore. The oldest scars bear the marks of saw teeth and axes. More recent scars reflect the adoption of chain saws.
Photo: Men sawing lumber in Ouzinkie. Marie Heinrichs Collection.
Naata guangkuta skaulurluta. - We should all go to school.
Russian entrepreneur Gregorii Shelikhov established the first European-style school in the Kodiak region in the 1780s. Young boys taken hostage by Russian traders or enrolled in the school by their fathers learned to speak, read, and write in Russian and studied mathematics, carpentry, and navigation with the goal of becoming sailors. In 1794, Russian Orthodox clergy took over the school.
By the turn of the twentieth century, American missionaries also had established schools on Kodiak. The Baptist mission school on Woody Island is the best known, but there was also a mission school in Ouzinkie. Federally funded government schools, designed to educate children through the eighth grade, developed in the early twentieth century. Like mission schools, these institutions sought to acculturate Native youth, teaching a largely foreign, western curriculum and forbidding the use of the Alutiiq language.
Students who wished to continue their education beyond the eighth grade had to leave home for boarding school, most commonly the Mt. Edgecombe school in Sitka. Although the federal government paid for boarding school, many students did not have the money to return home for vacations and did not see their families for years. An entire an Alutiiq generation grew up far from their communities. When they returned home, they felt like outsiders. There were few jobs that required the skills students had acquired in school, and they had not learned the traditional skills that teenagers once acquired in village settings. Today there is a school in every Alutiiq community, allowing most children to complete their high school education at home.
Photo: Karluk school house. Clyda Christiansen Collection.
Allrani guangkuta nertaartukut anaqiitanek. - Sometimes we eat sea cucumbers.
The sea cucumber is an echinoderm, a creature related to sea urchins and sea stars. There are many varieties of sea cucumbers found in Alaska waters, from intertidal areas to the edge of the continental shelf. Sea cucumbers are known for their ability to expel and regrow their digestive systems, a process each animal repeats annually, or when threatened by predators like sea otters, fish, crab, and sea stars. The most frequently harvested variety is the giant red sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus). These slow-moving, widely available, bottom feeders grow up to about a foot long, weigh 4 pounds each, and have a spiny brown skin.
The Alutiiq word for sea cucumber—anaqiitaq—comes from anaq, the word for excrement. This connection reflects the animal’s shape and appearance. Despite this unappetizing reference, the animals have a history of subsistence use in Alaska where they are harvested by hand or with spears.
Alutiiq people do not harvest sea cucumbers widely today, and Elders do not recall eating the creatures as children. However, Alutiiqs recognize that sea cucumbers are a source of food, and some people report that they can be sliced thinly and pan fried to create a dish that tastes like clam strips.
Today, sea cucumbers are best known for their economic value. Commercial sea cucumbers fishing began in Alaska in 1983, in southeast waters. The Kodiak fishery opened for the first time in 1991. Today, Kodiak divers harvest about 150,000 pounds of sea cucumbers annually. They collect the animals by hand, placing them in mesh bags. On the dock, they gut their catch and deliver them to canneries to be processed for both meat and skin, foods enjoyed in Asia.
Photo: Giant California sea cucumber. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Kapuustat aturtaarait naucestarwigmi. - They use kelp (sea lettuce) in the garden.
The sea lettuce found in the Kodiak Archipelago (Ulva sp.) is a bright green, leafy, intertidal alga that thrives on rocky shores. This marine plant has smooth, transparent leaves with small holes that can grow up to a foot long. These leaves have a short stem, or stipe, that clings to rocks with a tough, fibrous hold on. This plant is widely available. It grows along the Pacific coast from Korea to California. It prefers calm waters in the mid intertidal zone, and can be found in Kodiak’s sheltered bays and inlets.
The Alutiiq word for sea lettuce may come from the Russian word for cabbage, perhaps as a reference to the leafy character of both plants. Today, Alutiiq people do not harvest much sea lettuce. However, one user notes that it can be dried and the resulting flakes added to soups and stews. Some people also fry dried sea lettuce to make tasty chips.
Anthropological information suggests that Alutiiq people used marine algae more frequently in past. Although these plants contain a lot of water, they are nutritious. They are a source of carbohydrates that can be eaten fresh or dried for later use. They are also a valuable source of emergency food and even medicine. One Elder recalls eating rockweed when he was traveling and out of food. Another Elder reports that ribbon kelp can be heated and applied to arthritic joints for pain relief.
Wiinat carliangut. - The sea lions are having babies.
The Gulf of Alaska is home to the Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), the largest pinniped in the North Pacific. Bulls average 1,150 pounds, cows 580 pounds, and both are nearly ten feet long. Sea lions are opportunistic feeders that range from intertidal areas to the edge of the continental shelf. Fish are their primary food, although they also eat squid and an occasional harbor seal. Like seals, sea lions haul out on land to rest, breed, and pup.
Alutiiq people hunted sea lions both on land and in the water. Some animals were taken from kayaks with harpoons, but it was easier to capture them at rookeries. With clubs and spears, hunters would sneak up on resting sea lions, particularly during the summer pupping season.
In addition to food, sea lions provide an array of raw materials. Sea lion bone was fashioned into tools, intestine was used for clothing and containers, and whiskers decorated hunting hats. The most important resource, however, was the animal’s skin. Sea lions are one of the only sources of large hides in the Kodiak Archipelago. Kayaks and larger open skin boats were covered with sea lion skins, particularly those of cows. Sea lion skins were also used to cover the smoke hole of a sod house and to wrap the dead for burial.
Allringuq arnaq maani pilitaartuq arhnat amit aturluki. - There is one woman here who makes things using sea otter skins.
Hunted nearly to extinction during the historic era, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) is now a common sight in Kodiak waters. These playful mammals live in nearshore colonies where they feed on a variety of fish, shellfish, and invertebrates. Although they are not traditionally hunted for food, Alutiiqs sought sea otters for their elegant fur, which was fashioned into clothing.
In classical Alutiiq society, hunters worked in teams to pursue sea otters from kayaks. They would encircle an animal, shooting at it with bone harpoon darts each time it surfaced. Air bubbles showed the hunters the way the otter was traveling. When exhausted, the animal could be captured and clubbed to death. Hunting magic was an important part of the chase. Hunters tied amulets of eagle down and red ochre to the inside of their kayaks and dressed neatly out of respect for the animal. A good hunter could attract a sea otter by learning and repeating its vocalizations.
Alutiiq legend tells that the sea otter was originally a man. While collecting chitons he was trapped by an incoming tide. To save himself, he wished to become an otter. His transformation created all otters. Because of this connection between otters and humans, hunters are required to provide otters with special treatment. Freshly killed sea otters are traditionally taken to shore, skinned, given a drink of freshwater, and their bones buried or sunk to perpetuate the animal.
Photo: Sea otter mother and baby. Painting in acrylic by Sara Squartsoff. Alutiiq Museum collections.