Awirnanek slaapanek pilitaallriit. - They used to make spruce root hats.
Woven hats are one of the stunning pieces of headgear once worn by Alutiiq men. Twined from split lengths of spruce root, these waterproof, conical hats had a flat crown and ornate decorations. Anthropologists believe that Alutiiqs adopted these hats from the Tlingit Indians. Examples of Alutiiq awirnat in museum collections feature painted designs similar to the form-line art of Northwest Coast societies. On many, red and black designs depict the face of an animal.
In addition to painted images, spruce root hats, particularly those from Kodiak, featured attachments. Craftsmen sewed beads and dentalium shells to the surface of hats in symmetrical patterns and attached bundles of sea lion whiskers to their sides.
Spruce root hats were symbols of power and prestige. They were considered heirlooms and passed down through families. Historic sources indicate that these hats had the power to attract sea otters and that they were worn for hunting. In fact, the animal images painted on many hats may reflect helping spirits.
Elders recall that women wove spruce root hats on Kodiak until the 1920s. The roots they used were typically collected in spring. With the help of a digging stick, women pulled young roots from shallow soil. After heating the roots briefly to soften their sap, they pealed off the outer brown bark. The pale interior of the root was then split with a fingernail to form narrow strands, and the root’s dark core was discarded. Women then soaked their root strands in water to make them pliable and bundled them for later use.
Photo: Historic spruce root hat, purchased jointly by the Alutiiq Museum and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
Amikuruanek piturtaartut cali. - Squid are eaten too.
Squid, with their streamlined bodies and tentacled appendages, are cephalopods, related to the octopus. They are abundant in the Gulf of Alaska, where more than fifteen species of squid are known to thrive and others have moved north with recent changes in ocean environments. Aggressive predators, squid swim by propulsion, pulling water in and out of their bodies.
Around Kodiak, squid tend to school in the pelagic water over the outer continental shelf and slope. One of the common varieties, and the most economically important species at present, is the commander squid. Also known as the magister armhook squid (Berryteuthis magister), this medium-sized squid grows to about sixteen inches long and weighs roughly four and a half pounds. There is currently no commercial squid fishery in Alaska, although shrimp and finfish trawlers take squid incidentally. Both recreational and commercial halibut fishermen use squid as bait.
The Alutiiq words for squid—amikuruaq in the northern Kodiak way of speaking or utguiruaq in the southern Kodiak way of speaking—literally mean “like an octopus.” These are new words, coined recently by the members of the Kodiak Alutiiq New Words Council. Kodiak Elders do not recall harvesting squid, seeing it harvested in their youth, or eating the animals. However, because calamari, the Italian term for squid, is now served in local restaurants, many Alutiiq people have learned to enjoy this seafood. Calamari has a mild seafood taste, one that seafood lovers enjoy. Cooked correctly, the meat is sweet and tender. Elders particularly like eating calamari served in rings, because the animal is more identifiable.
Photo: Magister Armhook Squid (Berryteuthis magister), courtesy NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
Agyat unugmi antaartut. - The stars come out at night.
In the Alutiiq universe, stars live in the first of five consecutive sky worlds, closest to earth. This world is also home to the moon and northern lights, and the place where people go after dying for the fifth and final time. Like earth, this world has forests, rivers, and animals. Stars are believed to be the eyes of spirits, peering down at the earth through holes in the ground. Legend says each star is a man with one bright eye who lies face down on the ground.
An Alutiiq story tells of a girl who married a star. A chief kept his daughter in seclusion, and in her sadness, she refused to marry any of her suitors. One night, a man crawled through her window and convinced her to leave with him. She agreed, but the man mistreated her, keeping her hungry and cold. An old woman came to her aid, secretly feeding the girl and urging her to marry her son. The girl agreed and was taken by basket to the woman’s home in the sky. The old woman’s son was a star man. He had moss on his head, twigs for hair, and one bright eye in the middle of his forehead. He provided well for the girl and made her happy. In time, they had a star child. But the girl was homesick, so the old woman lowered her to earth to visit her father’s village. The villagers were scared of her, thinking that she was dead, so she returned to her home in the sky.
Photo: Whalebone carving that may represent a one-eyed star person. US Fish & Wildlife Service Colllection, AM606.
Sea stars, commonly known as starfish, are abundant, colorful residents of Kodiak’s waters. There are numerous species, which can be found in almost any environment–from rocky shores to mudflats, and from tidal pools to deep marine waters. Sea stars are echinoderms–spiny skinned creatures related to sea urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers. They have hundreds of tube feet tipped with suction cups. By pumping water in an out of their feet, sea stars can maneuver skillfully across the sea floor.
Many Kodiak sea stars have five legs like the flat bottom sea star (Asterias amurensis), mottled sea star (Evasterias troscheli), or leather sea star (Dermasterias imbricate). Others, like the sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) can have more than a dozen. Sea stars are enthusiastic eaters, gobbling up urchins, mussels, clams, crabs, and small fish. They have few predators, but people often consider them a nuisance. They eat up intertidal resources, rob crab pots, and foul fishing gear.
Although some cultures harvest and consume sea stars, Elder Phyllis Peterson reports that Alutiiq people do not. Moreover, she warns people not to touch sea stars, as they can make you itch all over.
The Alutiiq word for sea star–agyaruaq–comes from a word for star–agayaq–and literally means star-shaped. A five pointed star, or pentagram, is among the petroglyph images at Cape Alitak, and thought to be up to 1,000 years old. It may represent a starfish. Today, people tend to equate this shape with stars in the night sky, but it is unlikely that Alutiiq people thought of it in this way. In Alutiiq cosmology the stars are beings who gaze down at Earth through holes in the sky world, with one, large, oval eye in the center of their forehead!
Rausistuami slaawirtaartukut. - At Russian Christmas time we go starring.
Each January, the Russian Orthodox faithful in Alutiiq communities honor the birth of Christ with starring, a caroling celebration. Carolers travel from house to house carrying a large, brightly decorated, twirling star that symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem. They announce the birth of Jesus with songs and receive refreshments in return. This custom combines Christian symbols with Alutiiq winter traditions of visiting, feasting, singing, and dancing.
In Akhiok, starring traditionally lasts for four nights. For the first three, children with plastic bags collect candy as they carol from house to house. The festivities begin in the evening and may last into the small hours of the morning. Some families feed the carolers a meal, others offer a hot drink or a snack.
On the fourth night masked adults masquerade from house to house, dancing and singing until they are recognized by their hosts and must quit for the night. Many wear pillowcases over their heads, stuff their clothing, cover themselves with black wool blankets, and disguise their voices to hide their identities.
Masking carries with it the dangerous possibility that a spirit will join the group. One local story tells of a masking group that discovered a stranger in their midst. When the men removed the stranger’s mask, there was no one behind it and a flash of light flew into the sky!
Kodiak’s annual masquerade ball, held each January 14 in honor of Russian New Year, is descended from the masking tradition.
Photo: Children starring in Old Harbor.
Waa’ut piturnirtaartut mikelngut. - The small flounders are tasty.
The starry flounder (Platichthys stellatus) is an abundant, bottom-dwelling fish found in Kodiak’s shallow ocean waters, brackish estuaries, and even intertidal areas of rivers. Like halibut, flounder have both eyes on one side of their head. The eye side of the flounder is typically brown or black, and the blind side of the fish is white. However, this fish can camouflage itself by changing its color to blend with the surrounding environment. Flounder live throughout the North Pacific from California to Japan, where they can grow up to three feet long and weigh twenty pounds. Birds, sea mammals, and people eat flounder.
Alutiiq people once harvested flounder with fishing spears known as leisters. These leisters had a series of long, narrow, barbed bone points tied around a central shaft. The points curved inward to form a multipronged spear used to impale fish resting on the bottom of shallow lagoons, swimming in shallow waters, or caught in traps. To pursue flounder, fishermen would wait in boats or stand quietly in the water until a fish was visible. A calm day and clear water were essential for this type of flounder fishing.
Flounder can be captured at all times of the year, but they were most important to Alutiiqs in winter and spring, when poor weather limits access to fish in deeper, less protected ocean waters. Alutiiqs prize the flounder, an oily fish like king salmon or herring, for its fat.
Photo: Ice fishing for flouder, Karluk Lagoon. Alutiiq Museum library, courtesy Patty Mahoney.
Ilait teglengartaartut. - Some people like to steal.
Stealing was not a common problem in classical Alutiiq society. Although powerful people organized raiding parties to ransack other villages for food, goods, and even slaves, theft within a community was rare. As in many northern societies where families shared their possessions and assisted those in need, there was little need to steal. Alutiiq people abhorred thievery and exacted stiff social penalties of those caught pilfering from friends or neighbors.
Among Alutiiqs, thefts were avenged with shaming and shunning. If the stolen property could be identified, the victim of a theft could retrieve it. This was usually done in a public place, so that the culprit could be shamed in front of the community. The village chief might be consulted for advice on how to treat the crime, particularly for a repeat offender. Remedies included public denouncement, an embarrassing nickname, or a shameful song about the stealer. In extreme cases, the thief might be forcibly stripped of his or her parka. Because each parka was made to reflect an individual’s social status, family, and achievements, removing a thief ’s parka symbolically stripped him of his place in Alutiiq society.
Photo: Cormorant skin parkas. Etholen Collection. National Museum of Findland.
Cainiik arillartuq, kallaqutartuq. - The kettle is steaming, it's going to boil.
The traditional Alutiiq steam bath, commonly known by its Russian name banya (a form of sauna), remains important for bathing, socializing, healing, and spiritual cleansing. In a low-roofed shed heated with a woodstove, bathers splash hot rocks to create surges of prickly steam. Benches elevate bathers into the hot rising mist. Today bathing is done in age and gender groups. Men wash first, followed by women, and then children, and there is often friendly competition to see who can withstand the hottest banya.
Many ailments are treated in the steam bath, where steam enhances the potency of herbal medicines. Steam opens the body’s pores, improving the absorption of poultices and helping to shed toxins. Many medicinal treatments are preceded or followed by switching: swatting the body with leafy branches soaked in hot water. People commonly make switches from mountain alder, although birch branches, elderberry branches, beach ryegrass stems, angelica, yarrow, and even ferns may be used. Switching increases circulation, promotes greater sweating, and can relieve common aches and pains.
Steam is also spiritually cleansing. In classical Alutiiq society, steam baths helped to purify the sick, prepare hunters for the chase, strengthen warriors for battle, and ready pregnant women for delivery. Today steam bathing is a favorite way to relax and rejuvenate both physically and mentally.
Photo: Mitch Simeonoff steaming crab legs in Akhiok.