Qikarllut tuknirtaartut. - The sinew is strong.
Sinew is a general term for the tough, fibrous, connective tissue found throughout an animal’s body. Tendons and ligaments are both sources of sinew. Tendons connect bones to muscle, while ligaments connect bone to bone.
Sinew is a valuable raw material. In addition to being very strong, it is durable. Moreover, when moistened, sinew creates its own natural glue. Then, when the material dries, it shrinks. As such, it is excellent for creating tight lashings.
Alutiiq people used sinew for many tasks. Seamstresses created sinew thread for stitching garments, tied strips of sinew together to make nets, and braided sinew into thick cords. Carvers used sinew to lash together the pieces of multi-part tools, including everything from harpoons and arrows to vest of armor.
One of the most important uses of sinew was in stringing and reinforcing bows. Many Alutiiq long bows and recurve bows feature a thick bundle of braided sinew strands running down the back of the bow, from nock to nock. This band strengthened the bow, preventing it from breaking during use. Some bows even had a carved channel to help hold the sinew band in place. Caribou sinew, from along the animal’s spine, was particularly valued for backing bows.
Photo: A sheet of sinew and sinew strips created for sewing, courtsey of Coral Chernoff.
TuuRaliguanga. - I am building a skiff.
Before the availability of aluminum skiffs and powerful motors and winches, Alutiiq fishermen relied on wooden dories and their own physical strength to harvest salmon. Set netting, beach seining, and ocean seining were done with high-sided, flat-bottomed skiffs propelled by rowing. These skiffs appeared in the late nineteenth century, during the first years of the commercial fishing industry.
In places like Karluk, crews of fourteen men set and retrieved beach seines by hand until 1896. They anchored one end of a net to the beach and loaded the remaining net into a dory. Then, eight men paddled the boat while two others cast the seine. Men in two other dories worked to keep the lead and cork lines from tangling. When the set was complete, the entire crew worked by hand to haul in the catch. Only a couple of sets could be made each day, because each set took from four to six hours.
Local canneries that equipped their workers owned many of the early dories. As the fishing industry developed, however, Kodiak craftsmen began to build and own wooden boats, including skiffs, dories, and purse seiners. After the Second World War, boat-building became a profitable winter industry, particularly in communities like Ouzinkie and Afognak village where timber was plentiful.
Photo: Men fishing with skiffs, Karluk. Clyda Christensen Collection.
Amlesqanek metqangq’rtuq. - He has a lot of slaves.
Like their Tlingit and Aleut neighbors, Alutiiqs lived in a ranked society. Individuals were born into one of three classes: elite, common, or slave. These social distinctions ordered much of daily life. From dividing subsistence foods to sharing a meal, giving gifts, or seating guests at a festival, activities were structured by social position. People of higher status always received the best treatment. A person’s clothes were even a measure of their rank. The wealthy wore embroidered garments of plush otter and fox furs. Slaves, at the other end of the social spectrum, wore simple robes stitched from seal and bird skins.
Slavery was an important component of the Alutiiq social system. By owning slaves, members of the elite class were able to maintain and enhance their prestige. War captives and orphans, usually women and children, became the property of the wealthy. They were obliged to work at subsistence and household tasks to generate wealth. As such, they were both a source and a symbol of wealth. Slaves could be traded for goods, exchanged for hostages, given as gifts, and even sacrificed at their owner’s death. According to historic accounts, the treatment of slaves depended on their owner. Some owners were kind. Others were not. Whatever their treatment, the enslaved were allowed to marry and have children. Slaves could even marry non-slaves. These individuals remained in service, but their children were considered free.
Photo: Puffin skin parka, the type of garments worn by slaves. Ethnolen Collection, National Museum of Finland.
Caqit asiiyutaakameng, narlurtaapet. - When something spoils, we always smell it.
The human sense of smell pales by comparison to that of many animals, yet nature equipped people to recognize thousands of odors strong and faint. Biology isn’t the only determinant of the way we smell, however. Our cultural heritage influences everything from the scents we enjoy to how we use smells in our daily lives.
For example, historical records tell us that the early sailing ships that visited Kodiak smelled badly to Alutiiqs, as did the scent of Alutiiq villages to sailors. Each culture had different olfactory preferences.
Strong smells have long been a part of Alutiiq society. Elders remember the pungent odors of cooking bear meat, weasel skins stretched to dry, and fermenting salmon eggs. These aromas were not unpleasant, although an Alutiiq legend featuring a comical, smelly raven shunned by his wife, reminds people that smelling badly can cause problems!
Where there are strong smells, people often devise ways to eliminate them. Alutiiqs use steam bathing and deodorizing plants to manage odors. People still rub fresh pineapple weed on their hands to neutralize smells, hang alder branches in smokehouses and outhouses to refresh the air, and cover traps in grass to remove human scent. Hunters will also rub their hands with angelica before touching their traps to mask their scent.
Photo: Alutiiq Elder with yarrow, a plant whose ordor repells mosquitos. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Mecuusqanek kenerqat puyurnartuu’ut. - Wet firewood is very smoky.
In Alutiiq communities, wood smoke is best known for its ability to flavor and preserve fish. Each family has its own special recipe for creating savory smoked salmon. Some rely on cottonwood, as both the bark and the wood of this widely available tree create lots of smoke and impart a wonderful flavor. Others prefer alder branches with the bark removed, or birch wood. In the past, smoke was also used to process hides and fumigate houses. Burning branches will drive bugs from your home, and the smoke of seabeach sandwort will keep mosquitoes at bay.
Smoke was also used for medicinal and spiritual purposes. In Akhiok and Old Harbor, the leafy stems of crowberry shrubs were once burned in homes to prevent and cure illness. Visitors to these communities were asked to jump over burning plants and stand in their smoke. This destroyed diseases and chased away evil spirits.
Alutiiqs also used smoke to ritually clean contaminated objects. If a baby was accidentally born in a house or if a menstruating woman touched her husband’s hunting gear, it was fumigated with smoke to restore its potency. Similarly, winter hunting ceremonies began by purifying the air with the smoke of burning grass, and to clear the air, a smoking torch preceded a corpse as it was carried outdoors for burial.
Photo: A smokey camp fire, Cape Alitak.
Kupcuunamek minarnga. - Give me some smoked salmon.
There are many ways to cook salmon, but smoked fish is always a favorite. It takes several weeks and lots of hard work to create this delicacy, but it is a popular way to preserve the wealth of summer salmon. Every family has its own smoking method. Most start by cleaning the fish, creating two fillets joined at the tail. Others cut the meat into strips. Next the fish is dry salted and washed, or dipped in brine. Sugar and spices can be added for flavor. After a day or two of air-drying, people take their fish to the smoker, where slow-burning fires impart a distinct smoky taste. People in the Chignik region prefer the flavor created by alder, while Kodiak residents often choose cottonwood. The smoking process takes from a few days to several weeks. Some families smoke their fish for three days and then allow it to finish drying naturally. Others may smoke over a very low fire for up to three weeks.
It is not clear whether Alutiiqs smoked salmon in the prehistoric era. Russian accounts, historic photos, and oral histories indicate that people dried huge quantities of fish, but less is known about smoking. At an ancient salmon fishing camp on the Buskin River, archaeologists uncovered large charcoal-filled pits inside tent-like structures. Were these smoke houses? Fires may have been lit to create a hot, bug-free environment for drying fish, or they may have been used to create flavorful smoke.
Photo: Bob Ignatin and Nick Lukovitch, Old Harbor, 1946-1949. Fred and Marie Bailey collection, courtesy Wilmer Andrewvitch
Iput yaamat acaatni etaartut. - Snails are always under the rocks.
Snails, particularly the periwinkle (Littorina sitkana), are common residents of Kodiak’s intertidal waters. These slow-creeping marine invertebrates are members of the gastropod family, a group that includes both snails and slugs. Periwinkles inhabit the rocky beaches of the North American Pacific coast from Alaska to Baja, California. They live in a protective, spirally coiled shell and prefer the high to middle intertidal zone. Here they eat algae and detritus and in turn, provide food for fish, birds, and crab.
Although these small shellfish grow to just half an inch long, archaeologists believe they were once a source of food. Periwinkle shells occur in large quantities in some late prehistoric settlements. While some snails may have accidentally made their way into ancient deposits as unsuspecting passengers on kelp and larger shellfish collected on local beaches, thick dumps of periwinkle shells in some sites suggest that snails were intentionally collected. How were these tiny creatures eaten? Periwinkles may have been dropped into hot broth to make soup. When cooked, the animals come out of their shells, which rise to the surface and can be scooped away.
Mikllumni papaama neganek pilitaakiinga, amitatugnek pisiurluta. - When I was small my dad made me snares so we could catch weasels.
Fall and early winter are the best times to hunt Kodiak’s furbearers, when their coats grow full and plush in response to cold weather. Although trapping was introduced in the historic era, Alutiiqs have long used snares to capture fox, land otter, ermine, and even bears and waterfowl.
Snares were set along habitually used paths or in areas where animals were known to feed. To capture bears, the Chugach Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound attached a snare to a tree that was cut nearly in half. When the bear became entangled the ensuing struggle broke the tree and created a drag that slowed the animal, making it difficult for it to escape.
An ingenious Alutiiq goose snare in the Smithsonian Museum’s collection is fashioned from wood, baleen, and leather. It features a slippery loop of baleen tied to a set of wooden stakes. The stakes were set in the ground and the loop left to catch the head, foot, or wing of a bird. Alutiiq people set these snares along the shores of ponds and marshy areas where geese fed.
Photo: Wooden snare pins, Karluk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.