Kasukuagmen agkuma, uutursurciqua cali. - When I go to Akhiok, I will get sea urchins, too.
Sea urchins are echinoderms, spiny-skinned animals related to starfish and sea cucumbers. Kodiak is home to two varieties, the red urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) and the green urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis). Both are about the size of a tennis ball and both live in lower intertidal and shallow subtidal waters. Urchins have a hard shell known as a test. They prefer rocky substrate where they feed on kelp and floating algae. They mature at age three and produce five skeins of roe, a favorite food of sea otters, starfish, crab, eels, and people. Commercial harvesting of Alaska’s sea urchins began in the early 1980s and continues today. Urchins are easy to catch. Scuba divers simply rake them into a mesh bag.
Urchin shells are a common find in many coastal archaeological sites, suggesting that this seafood has been a delicacy for thousands of years. Today, Alutiiqs gather sea urchins for their eggs, particularly during very low spring tides. Urchins produce roe in late winter and spring for about six weeks, so April is the most common harvesting time. People enjoy eating urchin eggs raw or wrapped with rockweed leaves, a tender marine algae.
Photo: Tristan Kewan and Justin Hays with an urchin filled midden. Horseshoe Cove site, Uganik Island, 2004.
Isuwiq piturnirtuq. - The seal tastes good.
Kodiak’s sea mammals provided a variety of resources for Alutiiqs. Seals, sea lions, porpoises, and whales produced meat for food, oil for light, hides for boat coverings, and bone and sinew for tools. Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) were particularly important, because they were available year-round and could be hunted in protected waters. Alutiiq people harvested seals both on land and at sea. Hunters wearing wooden helmets carved in the shape of a seal’s head would sneak up to haul-outs and spear sleeping animals. Young seals were particularly easy to catch and desired for their tender meat. Others chased seals by kayak and harpooned swimming animals. It was important to strike a seal after it took a breath of air, so the injured animal would not sink. This remains true for people who hunt seal with guns.
Today, Alutiiq hunters are working with the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the National Marine Fisheries Service to study the decline in local seal populations. By sharing tissue samples from their catches, Alutiiqs help scientists learn more about the place of harbor seals in Kodiak’s marine ecosystem and ensure that seals will be plentiful for future generations.
Photo: Harbor seals in the water off Cape Alitak, 2010.
Uquq isuwim suqani etaartuq. - Oil is always in the seal stomach.
Although seal meat makes a tasty meal, seals once provided much more than food. In classical Alutiiq society, every part of the animal was used. Skins were fashioned into clothing and boat covers, intestines were sewn into waterproof bags and jackets, strips of sinew from the animal’s powerful back were made into thread, seal bladders were shaped into drum coverings, and seal stomachs were made into food containers.
Seal-stomach containers were particularly common household items, and they were used well into the twentieth century. By late fall, the rafters of a typical house were heavily laden with seal stomachs full of summer foods. Berries, greens, oil, fish eggs, and other foods were packaged in these pokes. In addition to storage, such containers were also used to render oil from blubber. Pieces of blubber were stuffed into the stomach and both ends tightly lashed to prevent it from leaking. As it aged, the blubber would release the oil, which was then used for food, fuel, and to waterproof skins. Conveniently, the dark color of the seal stomach protected the oil from sunlight and its taste-altering effects.
Photo: Seal stomach poke from the Alutiiq Museum's collections, gift of the Matfay family.
PaRaguutat kugyasinek aturtaartut. - The boats use seine nets.
A seine is a weighted fishing net, designed to hang vertically in the water. Seines are among the fishing gear Alutiiqs have used to capture salmon for millennia. Historic accounts indicate that Alutiiq people wove their seines from animal sinew and attached bark floats and stone sinkers: ancient versions of the cork and lead lines found on modern nets. Floats kept the top edge of the net on the water’s surface and sinkers weighted the bottom edge and helped to keep the net open. To ensure an evenly tied net, craftsmen used a net gauge, a small hand-held tool with a bar the width of the desired net mesh. By tying each knot against the bar, they could ensure that all of the knots were equally spaced.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, Alutiiq families living at the south end of Kodiak Island worked for canneries during the summer, beach seining and packing fish. Men worked in teams with dories to drag seines around schools of fish, pull the loaded net to shore, and pitch the fish into a skiff. When commercial fishing waned, they moved to their own fish camps to put up supplies of salmon for their families. Elders recall the fun they had as children, pretending to beach seine and capturing sticklebacks with nets made out of cloth flour sacks.
Today Kodiak fishermen set seines behind fishing vessels, encircling schools of fish and then gathering the bottom of their nets to entrap them. Others anchor nets with a larger mesh in shallow water, where they trap fish by the gills (gill nets). Both techniques are popular methods of commercial fishing.
Photo: Beach seining in the Karluk River, 1984.
Mingqun kakiwigmi et’uq. - The needle is in the sewing bag.
Alutiiq women are known for their sewing skill. In ancient times, they used delicate ivory and bird bone needles, bird bone awls, and wooden spools of animal sinew to stitch fine clothing. Their tools were stored in sewing bags with scraps of fur and gut. Each bag was uniquely decorated with animal-hair embroidery and appliqué of dyed gut. When not in use, sewing bags were rolled up and tied closed.
In classical Alutiiq society, both men and women carried sewing tools, particularly when traveling. Men kept sewing kits in their kayaks to repair tears in the boat’s skin covering. Sewing tools were also used to fasten wooden slats into protective vests or armor, to stitch waterproof containers from birch bark, and to create tattoos. A soot-blackened length of sinew attached to a needle was passed under the skin to make permanent designs on the face, chest, or arms.
Sewing was often a social activity. Women enjoyed each other’s company as they produced clothing and covers for skin boats. Girls began participating at the age of six, making thread and braiding line. In some communities, Alutiiqs recognized a young woman’s coming of age with a public festival where her parents gave away their hunting and sewing tools. This act symbolized a family’s preparation for their daughter’s new adult life.
Photo: Decorated sewing bag, Etholen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Kalla’alek alingnartuq. - The shaman is scary.
Alutiiq shamans healed the sick, foretold the future, controlled the weather, and recounted events in far-off places. They acted as intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds, fulfilling the dangerous task of communicating with animals, ancestors, and supernatural beings. Shamans could turn themselves into animals or send their souls to find lost people.
Contact with the spirit world was achieved through trances and with the use of special gear, including shamanic masks and dolls. Dolls could be sent away to perform tasks, or carved in the likeness of an individual to cause harm or manipulate a person’s behavior.
Both men and women could become shamans, and shamanic powers often ran in families. An aspiring shaman acquired his or her spirit by walking for many days. The spirit entered a novice’s body and taught him the secrets of the trade. Once the spirit was obtained, the shaman might hear its voice in the cry of a bird or be approached during his or her daily life. However, not all people who anted to be shamans got called. Shamans often performed in the evening, dancing and singing as they communicated with the spirit world.
Shamanic practices continued well into the twentieth century. Elders recall their fear of powerful individuals who could heal the sick or cause great harm. People protected themselves with prayer. In the late twentieth century, however, shamanism faded from practice.
Shaman is a Siberian word incorporated into both English and Alutiiq. One of the common Alutiiq words for shaman— samanaq—reflects this derivation.
Photo: This pregnant doll may represent a fertility figurine used by a shaman. Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Tuntuq saRayami inimauq. - The reindeer is hanging in the shed.
Outbuildings have been a part of Alutiiq communities for thousands of years. In studies of ancient Alutiiq settlements, archaeologists find smokehouses, storage sheds, and a variety of small structures that illustrate how people used the space outside their homes. Historic sources tell us that Alutiiq families also built small dwellings for menstruating women and women in labor. To protect hunters from the life-giving power of women, women were secluded in small structures adjacent to their homes. This ensured that the hunter’s ability to kill animals was not diminished by his wife’s power to create life. Men also stored their hunting gear outside their homes to avoid accidental contamination.
Today, Alutiiq families keep sheds to store gear, supplies, and even food. This cool, dry shelter is an excellent place to store leafy alder branches for use in the banya. The branches are tied in pairs and hung to dry. Other people use their sheds to cure meat, stockpile dried fish, and keep their hunting and fishing equipment out of the rain.
Not everything stored in a shed is safe, however. A Karluk hunter remembers a large brown bear that kept raiding his shed, stealing his winter supply of dried salmon. Each night the bear reached into the little wooden shelter, pulling out as much fish as he could and leaving a big mess for the hunter to find in the morning. Angered by several nights of raiding, the hunter decided to wait for the bear. As darkness fell, he hid himself in the shed, standing quietly for hours. Sure enough, the bear returned looking for a meal. With his rifle on his shoulder, the man kicked the door open and shot the very surprised bear standing a few feet away. That was the end of the bear.
Photo: A potatoe shed in Ouzinkie. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Mamaayat malugnek salangq’rtut. - Clams have two shells.
The Kodiak Archipelago has more than 2,400 miles of shoreline, much of it covered with intertidal organisms. Most beaches have dense concentrations of shellfish, marine invertebrates, and plants. The region’s rocky shores are home to thick patches of barnacles, mussels, chitons, limpets, snails, and sea urchins, while sandy beaches hold clams, cockles, and tellins. Only the exposed cobble beaches of Kodiak’s outer coast and areas with heavy freshwater drainage are devoid of intertidal fauna.
In addition to food, this abundance of shellfish provided Alutiiqs with raw material. In the prehistoric era, shells were used as cutting and scraping tools and fashioned into decorative beads. Some craftsmen made beads from the center column of whelk shells. Others cut shells bead from clamshells. A collection of worked shell pieces from the Uyak site in Larsen Bay illustrates the process of creating clamshell beads. First the shell was broken into small pieces. These pieces were ground into circular disks with the aid of a sandstone abrader. The final step was to drill a hole in the center of the disk.
Some shells were particularly coveted for decoration. Alutiiqs obtained dentalium shells, the curved, white, tusk-shaped shells of scaphopods, in trade with the societies of southeast Alaska. They were used to decorate clothing and worn as earrings and nose pins and were considered extremely valuable. Historic sources indicate that a pair of delicate dentalium shells could be traded for an entire squirrel skin parka.
Photo: Ancient shell beads, Alutiiq Museum collections.