ALUTIIQ MUSEUM  215 Mission Road, Kodiak, Alaska 99615   |  844-425-8844  |  view calendar > | search >
Shell's Inside (Abalone; Mother of Pearl)
Word in Alutiiq: Salam Inua
In a sentence:

Salat inuat rirtut. - Shell insides are shiny.

MP3 File: ShellInside

ShellsInsideSmThe Pinto Abalone (Haliotis kamtschatkana) is a shallow-water, marine snail. It is one of eight abalone species that inhabit the Pacific coast of North America, and the only abalone that lives in Alaskan waters. It can be found from Alaska’s Yakutat Bay to Point Conception in southern California. This small abalone has an oval shell that can grow up to six inches long. It thrives in areas with kelp beds, a rocky sea floor, and currents, between the lowest limit of the daily tides to about 40 feet of water. Although the Pinto Abalone has an unremarkable, dull, tan or pink outer shell, the shell’s interior features a beautiful, glossy, blue-green nacre. This iridescent coating, also known as mother of pearl, is exceptionally strong.

Alaska Native artists prize the colorful, durable abalone shell. The Tlingit people have long used it to decorate clothing and jewelry. They wear abalone earrings, decorate blankets with abalone buttons, and once, fastened thin pieces of the shell to their faces with spruce gum. The Tlingit also inlay carvings with piece of abalone, lining many objects with shimmering pieces of shell.

Some of the abalone used in southeast Alaska was collected for food and raw material by Native residents. However, as abalone is found only on the outer western coast of southeast Alaska, and as Alaskan abalone has a smaller more brittle shell than California abalone, abalone was a major trade item along the northwest coast. Some of this material made its way to Kodiak.

At the Karluk One site, archaeologists recovered two pieces of abalone shell. The presence of abalone many hundreds of miles from its source illustrates the far-reaching trade networks that existed long ago. People traveled great distances to obtain valuable materials, materials that helped community leaders show both their wealth and ability to connect with distant people and places.

Photo: Inside of an abalone shell from Sitka Sound.

Podcast Available: Shell's Inside
Word in Alutiiq: Skuunaq (schooner); Raa’uciq (sailboat)
In a sentence:

Skuunaq tang'rk’gka. - I saw the ship.

MP3 File: ship

Ship1Sailing ships were a common sight in Kodiak waters in the historic era. Russian traders traveled to Alaska aboard wooden vessels that carried men, provisions, weapons, and smaller boats for coastal exploration. The Alutiiq word for ship, skuunaq, comes from the word “schooner,” as does the Alutiiq name for the city of Kodiak, Sun’aq, because Kodiak was a port with many sailing ships and a place where ships were built. Russian entrepreneurs had a small shipyard on Woody Island where they built sailing ships to transport goods both in Alaska and back to Russia.

What did Alutiiqs make of the first ships to sail Kodiak waters? Johann Heinrich Holmberg, a Finnish naturalist who visited Kodiak in the summer of 1851, learned of an early encounter from Elder Arsenti Aminak. Aminak was a boy of about ten when a Russian ship wintered around Alitak Bay. He recalled that the boat confused the Alutiiq people. At first they thought it was some type of odd whale and paddled out to see it. Upon closer inspection, however, they decided it was a monster, with a very bad smell and strange occupants who blew smoke from their mouths: sailors smoking pipes.

An Alutiiq song passed down through generations also recalls early interactions with sailing ships and the sadness women felt when ships transported Alutiiq men far from home. The song says, “These schooners are making me cry . . . because of my boyfriend. What am I going to do afterwards? They’re taking my boyfriend away.”

Photo: Sailing ships at the dock in Kodiak, ca. 1940.  Smith Collection. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.

Podcast Available: Ship
Shoes (plural)
Word in Alutiiq: Pashmakiit
In a sentence:

Naama pashmakiigka? - Where's my (2) shoes?

MP3 File: shoes

Traditional Alutiiq clothing included long hoodless bird-skin parkas, waterproof gut jackets, and a variety of fur, spruce root, and wooden hats, but footgear was rarely worn. Only in the coldest weather did people put on shoes. Next time you watch the Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers, look at their feet. They dance barefooted!

Footwear was made from a variety of raw materials. Throughout the Alutiiq world, fish skin was fashioned into boots, particularly dog salmon skin. A pair of traditional boots from Egigik, an Alutiiq community on the Alaska Peninsula, has a thick hide sole and salmon skin uppers, with leather laces and leather drawstrings at the top.

In Prince William Sound, the Chugach Alutiiq people made boots from sea lion skins and from the hind feet of black bears. The claws and pads were removed from the bear’s feet and replaced with a sole of sealskin. People made hip boots by using the fur from a bear’s entire hind legs with the feet still attached. To increase their warmth, boots were stuffed with bundles of grass or moss, fitted with a loose sole of mountain goat or bear fur, or paired with socks woven from ryegrass.

Photo:  Historic leather shoe soles, Alutiiq Museum Collections.

Word in Alutiiq: Lapaat’kaaq
In a sentence:

Naama lapaat'kaaqa? - Where's my shovel?

MP3 File: shovel

Digging tools were important in classical Alutiiq society, both for subsistence activities and for construction. Men and women used long, pointed pieces of whalebone to dig clams from the beach and unearth the roots of plants used for food and medicine.

Alutiiqs also fashioned shovels from wood and bone. Artifacts from the Uyak site in Larsen Bay illustrate that craftsmen shaped the scapulas of sea mammals and bears into shovel blades. These broad shoulder bones were drilled at the narrow end so a handle could be attached. Then the wide end of the bone was shaped and tapered to create the digging blade. Similar shovel blades are found in archaeological sites in western Alaska, illustrating the widespread use of this tool.

The use of bone shovels must be thousands of years old, because Alutiiq people built their houses by digging large foundation holes as early as 4,500 years ago. These early sunken floors were up to three feet deep and thirteen feet across, requiring builders to remove large amounts of earth during construction.

The Alutiiq word lapaat’kaaq comes directly from the Russian term for shovel, lopaatka, and illustrates how words from other languages have been absorbed into Alutiiq by simply adding an Alutiiq suffix.

Photo: Archaeologist Molly Odell shoveling dirt at the Amak site, 2012.

Show Off; Smart Aleck
Word in Alutiiq: Cip’ausngasqaq
In a sentence:

Awaqutan cip’ausngauq. - Your son is a smart aleck.

MP3 File: smartalec

In the Alutiiq language, the word cip’ausngasqaq translates literally as a “know it all” or a “smart aleck,” and people use the term to refer to someone who thinks of himself as a big shot. Among Alutiiqs, behaving like a big shot can be dangerous. Boasting is not only bad manners, it can poison your luck. A boastful hunter may offend the animals his family depends on and cause them to avoid his arrows. In the case of a bear, boasting can cause the animal to become enraged. A braggart can bring starvation on his family or get himself killed.

Despite warnings about boastful behavior, Alutiiq stories feature the raucous, boastful Raven, an obnoxious bird that does great deeds. In these stories, Raven lives in Alutiiq communities and can speak in Alutiiq, but he is arrogant, dirty, and impolite to his Elders. Yet despite his poor behavior, Raven is smart and keeps his promises, and he ends up succeeding where others fail.

In one legend, Raven lives with his elderly grandmother at the edge of a large village. Here, he is so disliked that he must live off refuse from the beach. One harsh winter, when hunting was impossible, the villagers began to starve. Raven, who was always able to scavenge enough food for himself and his grandmother, asked the village chief what he would give him if he were able to bring the chief food. The chief offered Raven his oldest daughter in marriage. Pleased with the offer, Raven ordered his grandmother to clean their house and pecked her until she complied. Then he scavenged a bundle of dried fish and won the chief ’s daughter. But the Raven smelled so bad that the girl refused to stay with him and went home to her father. The next winter, famine struck the community again. Raven sent his grandmother to the home of another young woman and offered her food to marry him. She agreed, and despite the Raven’s stench, she stayed in his home. Raven then captured a giant whale and brought it to the starving village to share with all those who had treated him poorly. They gorged themselves on blubber, eating so much that they soon died. Only Raven, his grandmother, and his faithful wife lived.

Shuyak Island
Word in Alutiiq: Suu’aq; Suyaraq
In a sentence:

Anchorage-mek tai’akamta plane-gun Suu’aq tang’rtaarpet. - When we come from Anchorage by plane we can see Shuyak Island.

MP3 File: shuyak

huyak Island, the seventh largest of the Kodiak islands, covers sixty-nine square miles at the northern end of the archipelago. Just twelve miles long and eleven miles wide, this small island features a lush blanket of spruce forest and hundreds of small lakes. Unlike surrounding areas, Shuyak is relatively flat, rising to only 660 feet above sea level. However, a complex system of bays and inlets forms the Island’s western coast, creating more sheltered waterways than any other place in the archipelago. Throughout the day, twenty-foot tides change the look of these waterways, exposing reefs and clam beds or filling channels and lagoons. Elders believe that the word suu’aq means “rising out of the water.”

Today, most of Shuyak falls within the boundaries of the Shuyak Island State Park, a wilderness recreation area that attracts sea kayakers, birdwatchers, fishermen, and wildlife photographers. Although the island is quiet, with no modern communities, it was once an integral part of the Alutiiq nation. Archaeological sites illustrate that Alutiiq families lived throughout the coast of Shuyak, and historical records suggest that it was home to at least two Alutiiq communities in the eighteenth century. Early historic accounts suggest that Russian entrepreneur Gregorii Shelikov established trading relations with the chief of one of these villages. However, when villagers killed two Russian workers and a Native interpreter sent to Shuyak to trade, Shelikov retaliated by destroying the community. Rumors suggest that the inhabitants of the other Shuyak village fled out of fear of the Russians. By 1796, there were no Alutiiq communities on Shuyak.

In the twentieth century, Alutiiq people returned to Shuyak to harvest fish. In the 1920s, Fred Sargent, Christ Opheim, and their sons salted salmon on Shuyak for human consumption and as animal food for the growing fox farming industry. In the 1930, entrepreneurs converted a family-run herring saltery in Port William on Shuyak into a salmon, herring, and halibut processing facility, which operated as the Washington Fish and Oyster Company until 1976.

Image: Topographic map of Shuyak Island.  Courtesy the USGS.

Word in Alutiiq: Qenaluni
In a sentence:

Allrani suk qenataartuq. - Sometimes a person gets sick.

MP3 File: sick

Before contact with Europeans, injuries were the most common cause of pain, disability, and death in Native societies. People suffered from drowning, hypothermia, falls, animal attacks, injuries caused by other people, smoke inhalation, poisoning, insect bites, and infections, as well as degenerative conditions including cancer, arthritis, and periodontal disease.

Among Alutiiqs, two distinct types of healers combated sickness. Medical specialists treated physical injuries with herbal remedies, bloodletting, and even surgery. Their knowledge was considered secret but could be passed on to a special person. In contrast, shamans managed illnesses caused by misalignment with the spirit world. They prevented disease by ensuring that people acted correctly. When sickness was attributed to the supernatural, shamans worked with dances, gestures, and chants to divine the cause and develop a cure.

With the arrival of Westerners, Native people were introduced to infectious diseases from the Old World. Across the Americas millions of indigenous people, who had no immunities to these diseases, were killed by colds, influenza, tuberculosis, smallpox, and venereal disease. Epidemics were a grim fact of life during Kodiak’s early historic era. In the first half of the nineteenth century, there were four deadly outbreaks of respiratory illness and a devastating smallpox epidemic. In 1837, this smallpox epidemic killed 738Native people in the Kodiak region and spread to Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula, where hundreds of others died.

Silver Salmon
Word in Alutiiq: Qakiiyaq
In a sentence:

Kuignun itertut qakiiyat. - The silver salmon are entering the creeks.

MP3 File: silversalmon

Silver salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), also known as coho salmon, begin to appear in Kodiak waters in June, but they do not typically enter streams till mid-August. Runs continue through the fall, and fish may be present in freshwater well into December. Silvers prefer larger watercourses for spawning and are most abundant in the river systems of southwestern Kodiak. Elsewhere, they tend to occur in the larger streams at the heads of bays.

In the past, Alutiiqs harvested silver salmon at weirs, using barbed harpoons and gaffs. Silvers were also captured in traps woven from roots, grass, and bark. Fishermen sunk these traps in intertidal waters surrounding stream mouths, with their openings toward the water’s surface. As the tide receded, any fish that had ventured inside the trap was unable to swim away.

Silver salmon remain a favorite subsistence food and are prepared in many ways. Dried or smoked fillets are cut into strips and stored in oil. Silvers are also eaten raw with tender cow parsnip stems, roasted with cow parsnip leaves as a seasoning, or baked with a stuffing of chocolate lily roots, wild chives, and rice. They are also a common addition to perok, a fish pie made with rice and vegetables.

Photo:  Woman filets a silver salmon in the grass at Cape Alitak.

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