Litnauryugtuci-qaa? - Do you all want to study?
The study of Alutiiq heritage has changed dramatically in the past three centuries. In classical Alutiiq society, children learned the skills of adult life by working with and listening to family members. People with special gifts—artists, healers, shamans, tradition bearers, and politicians—apprenticed to accomplished community members to study a trade. An aspiring midwife would assist an established healer, or a rising leader might work as a member of the chief ’s council or a community’s second chief to enhance his knowledge of diplomacy.
This intergenerational transmission of traditions eroded in the historic era as European practices and values collided with Alutiiq culture. Some Alutiiq traditions disappeared due to social pressure. For example, Alutiiq people stopped wearing labrets within decades of conquest, because facial piercing horrified European colonists. Other traditions were systematically suppressed with western instruction. In American-era schools, children were forbidden to speak Alutiiq and received instruction in English. On Woody Island, missionaries teaching Alutiiq boys to play baseball made them speak in English. When they used Alutiiq or Russian they had to sit out the game. More serious discipline included physical punishment and humiliation.
Today, the formal study of Alutiiq heritage is returning to Kodiak. Many of the islands’ schools recognize and celebrate Native heritage by including Alutiiq cultural exploration in classroom curricula and by hosting programs that teach Alutiiq heritage in Alutiiq ways. Other education programs are thriving through local organizations. The Alutiiq Museum’s language program pairs fluent Alutiiq speakers with apprentices to reawaken Kodiak’s Native language. This work is helping to revitalize the transfer of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.
Photo: Skin sewer Hanna Palmer Sholl studies an embroidered cap from the Etholen Collection at the National Museum of Finland.
Suumacirpet asirpiartuq. - Our way of living is the best.
There is no easy way to translate the word subsistence into the Alutiiq language. Westerners often think of subsistence as the process of obtaining and eating wild foods, an alternative to buying groceries. This definition, however, fails to capture the complexities of living off the land.
To the Alutiiq people, subsistence is life. Collecting wild foods is not simply an economic act, but a central component of social and spiritual life. Through hunting, fishing, and gathering, Alutiiq people experience and express Native identity. They explore their deep and enduring connection to the land. They care for their families and communities. They celebrate and sustain life.
To Alutiiqs, subsistence is also a birthright, a way of living passed down from ancestors that has sustained countless generations. As one Alutiiq leader puts it, “it’s being who you are.” While not a literal translation of the word subsistence, suugucirpet, “our way of living,” expresses these many connections.
Photo: Collecting chitons along the shores of Mission Bay, Kodiak Island, 2012.
Kiakutartukut. - We are going to have summer pretty soon.
Summer in the Kodiak Archipelago comes slowly. In April and May, low pressure systems generated in the Aleutian Islands shift westward into the Bering Sea and Kodiak’s weather begins to moderate. Warm, foggy conditions replace cold winter winds as the days lengthen and the sun rises high above the horizon. By June, temperatures are mild and the hillsides green.
For Alutiiqs, summer has always been a time of work. The resources critical to a subsistence lifestyle are abundant and most easily obtained during the warm months. In June and July people hunt sea mammals and sea birds, fish for cod and halibut, and collect fresh greens from coastal meadows. Salmon fishing and berry picking follow in August and September.
In the distant past, summer was also the time for travel and trading. During the warm, light months, villagers regularly paddled to the Alaska mainland to visit their neighbors and obtain foods and raw materials not locally available.
Photo: Summertime at Ocean Bay, Sitkalidak Island. Courtesy the Don Clark collection.
Maaninguall'raq macamek tang'rpakartaan'itukut. - Around here (pitifully) we do not see the sun.
Sunshine is an important ingredient in Alutiiq subsistence activities. To preserve the quantities of meat, fish, and even plants harvested during the productive summer months, families need dry weather. Without it, foods do not desiccate and can spoil rapidly in the damp Kodiak environment. Even the best hunter can experience a lean winter if a wet summer makes processing his catch difficult. With luck, families had some sunshine and a little wind to speed the process.
Sunshine was also important for drying the plant fibers used in weaving many common objects - baskets for carrying, cooking and storing foods, mats for household use, woven clothing, and cordage. The Alutiiq also used the sun to soften spruce pitch, used to waterproof kayak seams and patch dories. To coax the sun from behind the clouds, and to hasten its return during the dark days of winter, Alutiiq children played a sunrise game with a wooden bead on a string.
According to Alutiiq lore, the sun is a spirit who lives in the fifth sky world - the one that is closest to earth. A number of legends explain the origin of the sun. In one, a man fell in love with his beautiful sister and they had twins. One twin became the moon, the other the sun. Another legend says that the sun is a man from Cook Inlet who fled to the sky after killing his brother. One side of him shines during the day as the sun, the other at night as the moon. And in a story from Kodiak, Raven brought daylight to his community by capturing the sun, moon, and stars from a stingy chief and releasing them from their boxes into the sky.
Photo: A Kodiak Sunset
qugyut qat’rtaarut. - The swans are (always) white.
The tundra swan (Cygnus columbianus), a common visitor to Kodiak’s coastal wetlands, is one of three species of swans found in Alaska and the largest Alaska bird. This all-white bird is distinguished by a teardrop-shaped splash of yellow on either side of its black bill. Tundra swans summer in Alaska, migrating up to four thousand miles each fall to wetlands in the eastern United States. At age two, young swans develop their white adult plumage and mate for life. In the Kodiak Archipelago, tundra swans are particularly common in the open, grassy environments of southern Kodiak Island. Here, about two dozen breeding pairs raise cygnets each year.
Alutiiqs once harvested swans for food and raw material. Hunters captured these large birds with bows and arrows as well as snares. Archaeological collections indicate that their long, sturdy, lightweight wing bones were commonly fashioned into awls: tools for punching holes in leather.
An Alutiiq story about a beautiful female swan illustrates the human-like spirit inside of every animal. In this tale, the swan removes her skin to go swimming, revealing a beautiful woman. A young man steals her skin and when she can’t flee, they marry. Later the swan-woman escapes the man’s village and takes their young son. The man begins a long quest to find his family and eventually arrives in a special bird world. Here, in the far-off place where birds migrate in the winter, he sees naked birds painting on their colorful plumage. When he begs to travel back to earth with the birds, the raven agrees to carry him. But he is too heavy for the birds and falls into the ocean, where he becomes a white whale.
Photo: Swans flying over the ocean off Cape Alitak at sun set.
Piugta imarmi kuimartuq. - The dog is swimming in the ocean.
Surrounded by sparkling ocean waters and fantastic scenery, Kodiak may seem like an ideal place for a summer swim, but consider the water temperature. Although the archipelago lies in the path of the Alaska current, a flow of warm water that streams out of the central Pacific and circulates along the gulf coast, water temperatures are always chilly. Close to shore, surface temperatures rarely hit fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and they are often lower due to cold water runoff from rainfall and melting mountain snows.
In classical Alutiiq society, swimming was thought to build character. Children were encouraged to swim in all seasons to increase their tolerance to the cold. Russian explorers noted that Alutiiq men often refreshed themselves with a swim after steam bathing, a practice that some continue today. Today, youngsters enjoy a swim on sunny summer days, taking dips while picnicking and playing on local beaches. One trick for more comfortable swimming is to wait for the sun to warm shallow waters left by a falling tide. Swimmers who brave the flood that accompanies a rising tide encounter much colder ocean water.
Photo: Boys swimming near Ouzinkie, ca. 1940. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.