Stuulumi nertaartukut. - We eat at the table.
Western-style furnishings are fairly recent additions to Alutiiq houses. In prehistoric times, Alutiiq builders fitted their homes with earthen benches. Woven mats and bear hides covered these benches, providing dry, comfortable places to sit and sleep. Household rafters, and pits and boxes built into the floor, provided places to store belongings.
Historic descriptions suggest that Alutiiqs began using Western furniture in the late 1800s, as European-style houses became common. Most houses were modestly furnished with a table, a few chairs, and small beds, although wealthier families might also have a sofa, a rocking chair, a sewing machine, or a piano.
Today, a special stuuluq can be found in many Alutiiq homes. Families who practice the Russian Orthodox faith keep a small shrine in a corner of their living room where they display icons and an oil lamp – or lampada. This corner is a reminder of the presence of God and a place where family members pray. Below the shrine there is often a table. As priests are not always available to lead services in rural Alutiiq communities, local church readers use such tables to hold their religious books. Families also store oil, water, wicks, and their Easter kulich, a sweet bread, on their corner tables.
Photo: Children in Larsen Bay around a table, 1950s. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Carliarluki nakernaten. - Nakciquten. Take care of your talisman. You will be lucky.
Alutiit’stun niuwaneq pingaktaaqa. - I like to talk the Alutiiq language.
The Alutiiq language, the indigenous language of the Kodiak Archipelago, is known as Sugt’stun, which literally means “to speak like a person.” Although there are just a few handfuls of fluent Sugt’stun speakers in the Kodiak region today, Alutiiqs know that in any language, words can impact the world around them. Speaking is a powerful act.
In classical Alutiiq society, there were many restrictions on human speech. Alutiiqs had to be very careful with their words, because everything around them—animals, objects, rocks, flowers, clouds, and even mountains—is alive and aware of human conduct. Among the Chugach Alutiiq people, it was taboo to make noise when passing a dangerous place, to laugh at the convulsions of a dying animal, or to use the name of a recently deceased person until a newborn had been named for that person. These acts could anger spirits and imperil human lives. Words were also a source of power, and certain people were said to learn special words. For example, a person who knew the secret word belonging to the fire could make a blaze burn brighter, and a person who knew the secret word for the sea swell could make the water calm.
One taboo on human speech that persists today is talking about bears. Kodiak Elders believe that bears are people who ran away from human society a long time ago and that bears remain particularly good at hearing and understanding human speech. A good hunter never talks about his preparation to kill bears or brags about his skill. This could ruin his luck and put him in danger, as a bear might be listening and become enraged. When a hunter approaches a bear, he must break his silence. He must speak to the animal, letting it know he needs its body. ”We do this because we need you, not for fun.”
Photo: Kathy Nelson talks with Elder John Pestrikoff.
Ipimni kRaasiruangq’rtua. - I have a tattoo on my arm.
Tatooing was once a widespread practice among Alaska’s Native societies. Anthropologists believe that arctic peoples have been tattooing themselves for at least 3,500 years, based on tattoo-like designs found on ancient depictions of the human body. Like clothing and jewelry, tattoos carried messages. They transform the skin into a palette that provides social information, spiritual protection, and medicinal assistance.
Early historic descriptions of Alutiiq people record two methods of decorating the body. One method was to break the skin with a fine bone needle and then rub the resulting cut with a mixture of spruce charcoal and blood. This created a dark blue tattoo. A second method was to run a blackened sinew thread beneath the skin with the aid of a needle. Because women were the principal sewers in Alutiiq society, and famous for their intricate embroidery, it is likely that women were also tattoo artists.
Both men and women wore tattoos. At puberty, young women tattooed their chins with fine vertical lines. These lines were a sign of adult status, marriageability, and probably fertility. Other facial tattoos included lines running from the ears to the chin, lines across the cheeks, or small round dots on the cheeks. At marriage, an Alutiiq woman might also tattoo her chest or arms as a sign of love for her husband. Other common tattoos were bands of designs that originated at the shoulders or under the arms and crossed the chest. These tattoos were signs of wealth and high social standing.
Like the practice of wearing labrets, tattooing disappeared with western contact. At least one observer noted that body decoration was becoming less common in the Kodiak region by the early 1800s. This change probably reflects western disdain for a practice that was believed to be disfiguring. Today, however, some young Native people are choosing tattoos as a way to express their heritage. A woman from Unalaska recently tattooed her cheeks in the style of her ancestors, and in the Kodiak region, petroglyph tattoos connect people with their past.
Image: Drawing of an Alutiiq woman with face tattoos.
Caayuryugtuten? - Do you want tea?
The practice of steeping herbs in hot water to create soothing teas is an ancient art. For centuries, Alutiiq healers have been distilling the essence of plants for medicinal purposes. Remedies for colds and coughs are particularly plentiful. Cranberry leaves, spruce cones, rose hips, nettle leaves, Labrador tea leaves, and even the inner bark of the devil’s club root can be boiled to treat congestion. However, the new green growth of spruce trees—the tips collected in spring— are thought to be especially powerful. If your cold is accompanied by a sore throat, a tea made by boiling alder cones may help, and if you have a fever a tea made from the flowers, berries, or cambium of the red elderberry can induce a rejuvenating sweat. Alder cone tea is also used to treat diarrhea, but it should never be confused with pineapple weed tea, which has a laxative effect.
European tea, or black tea, came to Alutiiq communities with Russian traders, as did the word chai. This is the origin of the Alutiiq word for tea, caayuq.
Tea became a favorite beverage in Alutiiq communities and is still widely consumed. For a unique flavor, some people add rose petals to this popular drink. Others add cranberry jelly to treat a sore throat. People also mix tea leaves into a snuff made of wood ash and tobacco for an extra kick. Most often, however, tea is shared for refreshment and socializing. Neighbors may gather for conversation and tea as they take turns using the steam bath. And visitors are often offered a cup of hot tea as a sign of hospitality.
Photo: Dora Aga, Larsen Bay, makes tea from rose petals. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Uciitilat litnauwitaartut. - The school teachers always teach.
Children in Alutiiq communities learned traditional skills by playing and working with adults. Children’s toys were miniature replicas of adult tools that helped youth practice the essential activities of a subsistence lifestyle. By age six, girls were weaving mats and assisting their mothers with household tasks. They learned to process fish with tiny ulus and practiced parka making with miniature skin-working boards. Boys began instruction in hunting at about eleven, playing with miniature bows and arrows. They also worked wood with toy wedges and adzes and fought mock battles with replica war clubs and shields.
Games of skill helped to teach hunting skills, promote teamwork, and foster friendly competition. Young and old enjoyed throwing darts at a swinging porpoise model or tossing discs at a target on a seal’s skin. Lessons in Alutiiq history and values were taught with stories. Stories recounted the pursuits of famous ancestors, discussed the dangers of wandering far from home, and gave examples of model behavior. And each community had at least one ritual specialist, a person with expert knowledge of songs, dances, and legends who helped to teach children about the origins of the Alutiiq universe.
Western-style schooling began in the Russian era with the founding of both secular and parish schools. Some Alutiiq people even traveled to Siberia to advance their education.
These schools embraced bilingualism and helped to create the first texts written in Alutiiq. In contrast, American schools, introduced to most communities by the early twentieth century, sought to assimilate Native children. Teachers imposed a strict English-only policy, physically punishing those who spoke in Alutiiq.
Today, schools are more sensitive to the educational needs of Native children. Each of Kodiak’s Alutiiq villages has a public school that provides classes and acts as a community gathering place. Administrators, teachers, and parents work hard to include Alutiiq traditions in lessons and provide experiences that transmit Native culture and values to the next generation.
Photo: Ouzinkie school in the 1930s. Hender Toms collection, courtesy Melinda Lamp
Litnauwistarpet asirtuq. - Our teacher is good.
Western-style teachers became part of the Kodiak landscape in the late eighteenth century, soon after the arrival of Russian fur traders. Although Alutiiq adults taught their children the skills they needed for life in the Alutiiq world, a small number of boys began to study the Russian language, mathematics, and navigation at a secular school founded by Gregorii Shelikof in 1786. In 1794, when the first Orthodox mission arrived in Kodiak, clergy members took over the school, acting as its teachers and administrators.
The number of Kodiak schools and teachers proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, after the purchase of Alaska by the United States. In the American era, missionaries set up orphanages with schools in places like Woody Island and Ouzinkie, and the Bureau of Education began establishing community schools.
These government schools were the precursors of modern public schools, although most did not offer high school classes. Students who wanted to earn a diploma had to leave home for boarding schools in places like Sitka, Alaska, and Salem, Oregon. Boarding schools were damaging to many students. They were far from home, forcing years of isolation from family members, separation from community events and cultural practices, and increasing dropout rates. One Alutiiq Elder recalls how his father died while he was at boarding school and the pain of not being able to return home.
In 1972, twenty-seven Alaska Native students sued the State of Alaska for failing to provide high schools in their communities. They argued that the state was denying them fair access to an education, as guaranteed by Alaska’s constitution, and that this failure was in violation of the United States Constitution’s prohibition against discrimination. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed. This decision began a period of school building in rural communities and created the schools that children in Alutiiq villages attend today. Although some students still opt for boarding school, most are educated in their own communities where their families can also be their teachers.
Photo: Old Harbor students with their teacher, ca. 1950. Violet Able Collection, Courtesy the City of Old Harbor.
Una niuwacestaaq. - This is a telephone.
In the days of cell phones and high-speed Internet connections, it’s hard to imagine that just thirty years ago, many of Kodiak’s rural families had no phone service. Elders recall that signal fires were once used to send messages from one village to the next and that lookouts were posted on mountainsides to signal the arrival of boats before ship-to-shore radios helped fishermen communicate with their families.
In the mid-twentieth century, communication improved with regular mail boat service and the use of telegraph machines and short-wave radios. However, CB radios were the most popular form of communication before the telephone. In the mid-twentieth century, many islanders kept these portable devices in their homes and took them on fishing and hunting trips. Every family had their own radio name, which they used to call others on a widely monitored frequency. To talk, the callers switched to a different channel. Because anyone could listen in, callers often used codes to indicate private information, like the location of good fishing spots.
In the 1950s, Larsen Bay residents established their own community telephone system with surplus World War II phones, linking each house with wire strung through neighborhood trees and bushes. Modern telephone service to the villages began in the 1970s. Although most families did not own a phone, centrally located phones in places like the village post office or community hall provided worldwide telecommunication.
Photo: Woman speaks on the telephone ca. 1970. KANA Collection.