Kulic’kiit miktut, kesiin piturnirtut. – Snipes are small but they taste good.
The common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) is a shorebird found around Kodiak’s grassy coastal meadows, ponds, and fields during summer. This member of the sandpiper family breeds yearly across northern North America, then heads south to winter in warmer climates.
A small bird, snipes have a long, straight bill designed for pursuing shellfish, insects, and worms in the mud. Mottled brown plumage keeps the shy snipe camouflaged. However, snipes will flush when approached and fly in a zigzag pattern to escape predators. This makes them hard to harvest.
Alutiiq Elders report hunting snipes at low tide in the nighttime. People approach the birds on sandbars, using a spray of pellets from a shotgun to bring down the darting snipes and harvest a number of animals at once. Rather than pluck snipes, people skin them and add their small bodies to soups and stews. They are also tasty roasted.
Harvesting small birds may seem like a lot of work for a small return, but it is a common practice in the Arctic. Like collecting shellfish, or fishing for herring, people take advantage of the abundance of food represented in many small packages to create nourishing meals. This is a strategy many societies use, particularly when large animals like seals or caribou are hard to harvest or not available.
Photo: Common Snipe, coastal Alaska. Couresy the USF&WS National Digital Library.
Qaninguq. - It is snowing.
Although the Kodiak Archipelago does not receive large quantities of snow, snow cover is present between December and March and remains in the region’s high interior mountains throughout the year. For Alutiiqs, frozen landscapes presented both opportunities and challenges.
Winter in the Alutiiq homeland is a great time to travel overland. Wind-packed snow can make walking easier than in the warm season when people on foot must wrestle through a thick tangle of brush and tall grasses. Overland travel across frozen lakes was easier. Elders remember walking great distances in the winter, traveling between communities with the help of temporary snowshoes woven from green alder branches or a flexible spruce bough. More permanent shoes were carved from alder branches and fitted with a webbing of whale sinew.
Although overland travel is easier in winter, snowdrifts bury wood and brush, making it more difficult to collect firewood. Alutiiq people used hand-pulled sleds to move drift logs and cut timber in the snow. These sleds had narrow runners, sometimes made of spruce roots, to prevent sinking. One man would push the sled while another pulled. However, people did not employ dogs in pulling sleds.
To many Alutiiq Elders, a heavy snow cover is a sign of future prosperity. Some believe that a snowy winter will bring a good berry crop, while others say that heavy snows foretell strong salmon runs.
Photo: Joyce Smith and Larsen Bay children with a snow man. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Iingalarsuutegken aturkek. - Use your snow goggles.
Although snow can provides a helpful surface for traveling, transporting goods, and tracking animals, it also presents challenges. One of these is snow blindness. The bright reflection of the sun’s ultra violet rays off the snow’s white surface can damage a traveler’s eyes. Known as photokeratitis, this condition is essentially sunburned eyes. It can affect the thin outer surface of the eye, the inside of the eyelids, and the whites of the eye. People who experience snow blindness often don’t notice that their eyes have been burned until they experience redness, blurry vision, tearing, a gritty feeling, sensitivity to light, or even a temporary blindness.
Photokeratitis can be a problem in Alaska during the long days of spring. To protect their eyes from snow glare, Alutiiq people fashioned a variety of goggles from wood, bone, and even baleen. In Prince William Sound, people sewed baleen eyeshades into fur caps, and on the Alaska Peninsula, hunters carved wooden goggles with narrow eye slits that they tied around their head with strips of sinew. Like sunglasses, these slits emitted enough light to see but limited harmful glare.
Photo: Inuit man wearing snow goggles carved of caribou antler. Photo by Julian Idrobo, courtesy Wikipedia.
Tobacco, paulamek, cayumek ilaluku, taumi mililuku, tawaten iqmilitaallriit. - Add tobacco, ashes, and tea, then grind it. We used to make snuff like that.
By 1840, trade goods from Asia and Europe were reaching Alaska in large quantities, supplied by merchants in Siberian ports and Hudson’s Bay Company outposts in the United States and western Canada. Russian colonists hoarded the finer goods—porcelains, iron tools, and gunflints—for their own use, but traded food and trinkets to Alutiiqs. Tea and sugar were distributed with tobacco, copper rings, kaolin pipes, glass beads, and English ceramics. Traders used these inexpensive commodities to pay Alutiiq hunters for valuable sea otter hides, which they sold for profit in distant markets.
With tobacco, Alutiiqs made snuff, a mixture held in the mouth. The most common additive was wood ash. On Kodiak, people ground leaf tobacco in a large hollowed-out whale vertebra, known as a kuRusuq, using a wooden pestle. Elders remember their parents mixing ashes from the woodstove, or from burned cottonwood bark, with long leaves of Black Bull tobacco. Other additives could include crushed dried nettle leaves or burned brown spruce cones. In Prince William Sound, hemlock and yellow cedar ash were preferred additions. A little moisture helped the mixture stay together. For this purpose some people uses water. Others moistened their snuff with cold brewed black tea.
Alutiiq people fashioned snuff holders from birch bark or alder wood. Hunters commonly carried these small containers. In embroidered skin bags, snuff could be found among the sewing gear, ammunition, and extra arrows carried by all kayakers.
In addition to its recreational uses, snuff had medicinal qualities. Elders recall using a mixture of tobacco and cottonwood ash to treat toothaches. People placed chew on or near the tooth to relieve pain.
Photo: Snuff grinder made from a whale vertebrae, Sundberg Collection.
Nikllinek kupcuunalirciqukut. - We are going to make smoked salmon out of red salmon.
Sockeye salmon, or red salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka), are the first salmon to move into Kodiak’s freshwater streams each year. They begin arriving in early May and are the second most abundant salmon species. More than two million return annually, with peak runs in August and September. Unlike pink and silver salmon, however, reds are not evenly distributed, because they require lake-headed streams for spawning. There are only thirty suitable streams in the Kodiak area. Reds spawn primarily in the major river systems of southwestern Kodiak. Over half the population can be found in the Karluk, Ayakulik, and Frazer rivers, and Olga Creek.
Archaeological data show that Alutiiqs have harvested red salmon from these important streams for thousands of years. Along the Karluk River alone, there are dozens settlements dating from 6,000 years ago to the historic era. Many have large sod houses framed with wood, indicating that these were not temporary settlements, but places where people intended to stay for long periods of time. In the late prehistoric era, people may have occupied these settlements year-round, paddling to the coast for the marine resources they needed, and for visiting and trading.
From these villages, Alutiiqs captured salmon at weirs with traps and spears. Simple barriers of logs or rocks were built in streams to keep fish from passing. This allowed fishermen to spear fish with special harpoons carved of bone. According to traditional beliefs, the soul of a fish lived in its guts. Once captured, the intestines had to be returned to the water to free the soul and produce more fish.
Photo: Freshly caught red salmon on a Kodiak beach.
Cuukii'itua!–I have no socks!
In the past, Alutiiq people often went barefoot. A historic account from Karluk tells of Alutiiq ladies dressed in stylish, velvet dresses, walking to church barefoot. Boots were saved for cold winter weather, and often included a lining of moss or grass, and a pair of hand woven grass socks.
Why did people line their boots with grass? Dried grass is naturally absorbent. It contains air pockets that pull in moisture. This is important. The human foot contains over 250,00 sweat glands and can produce half a pint of moisture a day! Like a good pair of wool socks, loose grass and grass socks provided insulation and wicked sweat away from the wearer’s feet. They also absorbed moisture that leaked into the boot from the outside.
Grass socks were usually ankle high and sometimes decorated with dyed strips of grass incorporated into the weaving. Weavers created tightly woven socks to create more grass-covered surface area with greater wicking ability. The socks acted as a barrier, moving sweat away from the feet and into loosely stuffed grass between the boot and the sock. People dried their sock after wearing, which helped these ingenious garments last a long time.
Photo: Grass socks woven by June Pardue, AM727.
Engluq nikiimek patumauq. - The house is covered with sod.
The lush grasses of Alaska’s coastal meadows produce more than just weaving material for Native people. The thick tangles of roots, which cling to deep underlying layers of soil, were traditionally cut into blocks and used in house construction. Piles of sod were used to line walls and create a warm insulating cover for traditional houses. Such roofs were heavery. As such, Alutiiq builders covered the tops of large structures with grass thatching to limit the weight of the roof.
Each fall, Alutiiq people cut sod blocks to renovate their semisubterranean houses. Before the introduction of metal tools, archaeologists believe that Alutiiqs used pointed digging sticks fashioned from sea mammal ribs to harvest sods. Cut blocks were laid on top of the wooden house frame over a layer of beach ryegrass. The grass provided waterproofing, while the sod held the grass in place and acted as insulation.
The use of sod to create warm, durable housing is a practice shared by coastal people from the Gulf of Alaska, the Athapaskans of interiors Alaska, and the Inuit of Arctic Canada. Although many people think igloos—dwellings built from snow and ice—are the most common arctic dwellings, they were not. Aleut and Eskimo peoples have relied on sod for protection from cold, stormy Arctic weather for thousands of years, in many places where it is not possible or practical to build houses from snow.
Photo: Archaeologists sitting on a pile of sod blocks. King Salmon River area, Alaska Peninsula.
Ciqlluaq tukinallia. - The sod house was comfortable.
Known today by the Russian word barabara, the tradition Alutiiq house was a sod and thatch-covered structure built partially underground (semi-subterranean). After digging a foundation pit, builders erected a post-and-beam framework and covered it with planks split from driftwood. Over the wooden frame, they piled sod for insulation.
Houses were entered through a low door that led into a large room with a central hearth. Around the walls were earthen benches for sitting and sleeping. Dry grass or animal skin, particularly bear hides, covered these benches. This is where Alutiiq people cooked, repaired tools, sewed clothing, and hosted visitors.
Attached to the central room were a series of side chambers. Accessible through narrow passageways, people used these rooms for sleeping, steam bathing, and food storage. Groups of related Alutiiq women and their families lived together. Each family had its own sleeping room but shared the large central room.
In addition to houses, Alutiiqs built sod-covered structures for community activities. These large, single-roomed buildings also had benches along the walls. Here, men gathered to socialize, plan war parties, discuss political issues, and lead community festivals. Women and children joined these festivals but as a rule did not visit these community houses regularly. Russian observers noted that most communities had one such structure, although it is not clear whether these “men’s houses,” as they are sometimes called, were owned by wealthy community leaders or simply maintained by the wealthy. Whatever their ownership, the use of community houses is a practice Alutiiqs share with their Yup’ik and Iñupiat neighbors.
Historic photographs show Alutiiq families living in sod houses about one hundred years ago. As the American fishing industry introduced large quantities of western goods, wood-framed structures gradually replaced sod houses. Alutiiq Elders remember that as frame houses replaced traditional sod houses in the early twentieth century, the old, sod-covered buildings became gathering places for steam bathing, processing foods, and playing games. Today, sod houses are used for social and ceremonial gatherings as a proud symbol of Native heritage.
Image: Diagram of an Alutiiq sod house.