Gui nengauwangq’rtua. - I have a son–in-law.
Alutiiqs use the term nengau’aq in a variety of ways. In some communities, it specifically means a son-in-law: the man who married your daughter. In others, the word is a general term for any man related by marriage. Whatever they are called, Alutiiq men know that when they marry an Alutiiq woman, they marry her family.
The extended family is extremely important in Alutiiq communities, where grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws, and godparents form an extensive support network. These family members are expected to share what they have and provide assistance when it is needed. Also, family members work together. For example, groups of related men often form the crews of fishing boats or hunt together.
Until recently, when newly married couples began establishing households of their own, Alutiiq newlyweds lived with the bride’s family. This practice has ancient roots. Historic accounts indicate that a young man spent the first few years of married life working for his father-in-law, until he had the resources to build and maintain a home for his wife.
Today, it can be hard to find a spouse in an Alutiiq community. Alutiiq villages are small. For young people there are few unrelated people to date, and the church further limits potential partners by prohibiting marriage between church relatives. You may not marry a godparent’s child. Thus, many young people marry beyond their community. This reshuffles village populations, introducing men and women from other communities or creating communities where many of the young people have left.
Photo: Opheim Anderson Wedding. Smith Collection, Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Kas’aq amlesqanek atuutet nallunituq. - The priest knows many songs.
Singing is a favorite pastime in Alutiiq communities. People of all ages enjoy sharing a tune or learning an Elder’s favorite melody. In addition to expressing joy and companionship, songs are a form of storytelling. They record community history, express values, and once helped people to communicate with the spirit world.
There are many different types of songs. Today people join in favorite Orthodox hymns, but they also remember traditional verses sung for hunting, curing illness, praising ancestors, dancing, and visiting. Many of these traditional songs helped Alutiiqs obtain assistance from spirits. Powerful Alutiiq whalers sang songs to control the movement of an injured whale. Hunters learned animal songs to attract game. Shamans used songs to drive away illness caused by evil.
Singing was also a central activity at winter festivals. The host of such a gathering hired a spiritual leader, a member of the community well versed in traditional songs and ceremonial etiquette, to lead the festivities. Here, songs helped to move participants from the everyday world into a magical realm. Singing invited spirits to the gathering and appealed to them for aid. People also sang songs in honor of ancestors. An ancestor might be memorialized with a mask and a specially written tune. Masks and songs were also paired to tell stories: to remember a great hunt, to recount a battle, or to share a family legend.
Photo: Alutiiq speakers record a traditional song.
Alutiit Spam-eq pingaktaarat. - Alutiiq people (always) like Spam.
The Hormel Foods Corporation introduced Spam to American consumers in 1937. Manufactured in Austin, Minnesota, this now famous lunchmeat came packaged in twelve-ounce cans. Hormel reports that more than seven billion cans of Spam have been sold in the past sixty-five years! Alaskans contributed significantly to this total.
Spam is a mixture of chopped ham and spices. Because it is cooked and canned, Spam does not need refrigeration. This makes it easy to ship and store. Spam gained popularity during World War II and has remained a favorite in Alaska’s rural communities, lodges, and field camps. Each year chefs complete at the Alaska State Fair in Anchorage to win the “best Spam recipe” contest.
Alutiiq families continue to enjoy Spam, adding it to a variety of dishes. In addition to eating fried Spam for breakfast and making Spam sandwiches, Alutiiqs enjoy the spicy meat in spaghetti, soups, and casseroles. And Alutiiq language teachers recently created a Kodiak version of Dr. Seuss’s beloved “Green Eggs and Ham.” The Alutiiq translation features seagull eggs and Spam.
Photo: Nettles and fried spam cooked over a coleman stove.
Panamek iqallugnek pit’llianga. - I got some fish with a spear.
There are many ways to catch a salmon. Today, a pixie, a wet fly, or a gill net will do the trick, but before the introduction of treble hooks and monofilament, Alutiiq people used an ingenious salmon harpoon. Similar to pieces fashioned by Tlingit fishermen, this harpoon featured two articulating valves made of dense bone. One side of the valve was smaller than the other. These pieces were carved to fit together over a long bone foreshaft. With sinew, a fisherman bound the spear’s components to a slender pole of flexible wood to create the complete weapon.
Fishermen standing in a stream thrust this weapon into passing salmon. People would block the stream with a simple stone or log weir and wait for a school of fish to appear. The spear was designed to completely penetrate the fish and then turn sideways. This kept the harpoon from tearing out of the soft flesh of the fish. After each successful catch, a fisherman would simply tie another harpoon to his spear and continue fishing.
This technology first appears in Kodiak’s archaeological record at least six hundred years ago, at a time when large number of Alutiiq people moved to Kodiak’s salmon streams, increasing their annual harvest of salmon.
Photo: Salmon spear points. Kalruk One site, Koniag, Inc. Collection.
Ugnerkami miskiiRiat amleritaartut. - In the spring there are many spiders.
There at least 350 species of spiders in Alaska, belonging to seventeen families. Spiders are not insects. They are close relatives of ticks and mites and belong to a group called arachnids. Insects have three body parts, six legs, and a pair of antennae. In contrast, arachnids have two body parts, eight legs, and no antennae.
Alaska spiders are typically small, especially when compared with varieties found in warmer climates. Many don’t build webs but hide in flowers to catch insects or hunt along the ground. Common Alaska spiders include crab spiders with a long second set of legs, shy hairy wolf spiders, and cobweb spiders with an orb-like body.
In the Alutiiq language, miskiiRaqis the general word for spider. However, there are many other spider words, indicating that Alutiiqs recognized different types and had unique names for unique varieties. For example sukunuuk, the Alutiiq word for daddy longlegs, a spider-like arachnid, literally means “one who likes damp places.”
Spiders seek warm places when the weather gets cold and may crawl into houses or be transported inside with materials like firewood. So it is quite likely that spiders were regular residents of Alutiiq sod houses, living among the rafters and grass thatching that covered these warm dwellings.
Photo: Kodiak spider carrying baby spiders.
Caqiq tamarmi suangq’rtuq. - Something all around has a spirit.
The Alutiiq concept of a spirit is complex. Alutiiq people traditionally believe that everything in the universe—living things, objects, places, and natural phenomenon like the northern lights—has a spirit or essence. This essence is characterized by its human conscience. The word sua literally means “its person,” illustrating the sentient, human dimension of all things. To have a spirit is to have a person inside, and this spirit can take human shape. For example, the spirits of animals can show themselves, peering out from their animal bodies or removing their skins to uncover their human form. This is why animals can often look like people and why people sometimes become animals by putting on skins.
In addition to the spirits of earthly things, the Alutiiq universe has great spirits, some of whom inhabit the sky worlds. Llam Sua, the spirit of all things, lives in the fifth and purest sky world. This spirit can see and hear everything but is invisible to people. Kas’arpak, the spirit who created all birds and animals, lives in the third sky world. This spirit assists shamans, relaying the wishes of Llam Sua to earth. There are also two female spirits, Imam Sua, ruler of the sea, and Nunam Sua, ruler of the forest, who live on earth. These spirits control the creatures in their domains and Alutiiqs called upon them for hunting luck.
Photo: Historic ceremonial mask, ca. 1872, Pinart Collection, Châteaux Musée, France. Masks were worn during dances that called spirits to the human world.
Yaamat ciqiki. - Splash the rocks.
It’s Saturday evening and curls of smoke drift from the small shed next to an Alutiiq home. It is banya night and a family has lit the woodstove in their bathhouse to heat rocks and water for washing. Inside, smooth, water-worn beach cobbles cover a stove fashioned from an oil drum and surrounded by tubs of freshwater. When the rocks are hot, family members take turns washing, splashing the rocks to create refreshing steam.
Extended family, neighbors, and visitors of all ages may participate. The oldest married couple usually washes first, followed by other married couples, then groups of single men, single women, and finally young people and guests. Washing is a leisurely activity, filled with visiting. It can take many hours.
The heat of the banya is always a subject of conversation and personal preference. Some people like a steamy banya. Others prefer it dry. People who enjoy a lot of steam might choose to banya together, or to banya later in the evening when the steam bath has had a longer time to build heat. Splashing the rocks creates a more humid banya, but if you splash the rocks too much, they will eventually cool down. This is thought to be inconsiderate, as it can cause the banya to cool uncomfortably. The next bathers may not have enough heat.
For banya rocks, Alutiiqs commonly choose rounded cobbles. Water-worn rocks are easy to carry and stack and they are less likely to explore. Elders warn against using layered rocks like shale or slate in the banya, because water can seep between the rock’s layers and cause the stone to shatter as it expands in the heat. This can send dangerous fragments of hot stone flying through the air. Elders also advise that rocks should be free of salt, because salt can also cause them explode. They teach that it is better to collect banya rocks from a riverbank than the beach.
Photo: A wood stove set up for banya, 2010. King Salmon River camp, Alaska Peninsula.
Ugnerkartuq awa’i. - Spring is here.
Spring is an unpredictable season in the Kodiak Archipelago. Some years, calm weather ushers in longer days and milder temperatures, but in others, winter storms pound the coast and snow falls well into April. For Alutiiqs, spring is a time of waiting as the subsistence cycle renews itself. People collected shellfish from the intertidal zone during low spring tides, while they watch for whales and sea mammals to return to nearshore waters. In late March and early April, grey whales begin to reappear and halibut and cod move closer to shore. By mid-April, marine birds flock back to rookeries to lay their eggs and herring spawn in protected bays. And in May, king salmon arrive, initiating the salmon fishing season.
Spring was a time of community renewal. Alutiiq people cleaned their houses and cut fresh dry grass to cover house floors and fill mattresses. Men oiled their kayak’s skins to protect them from rotting, and children took their toys from storage and played on the beach. Boys and girls floated model boats, tested their skills with bows and arrows, and played with dolls as soon as migratory birds returned, signaling the rebirth of the year.
Photo: Spring in Horseshoe Cove, Uganik Bay, 2004.