Ulutegwik ikirsgu. - Turn the television on.
Television began reaching rural Alaska communities in the1970s, as communication systems evolved following World War II. Alutiiq villages began to receive radio signals in the 1960sand public television a decade later. Satellite television followed in the 1990s, and now many rural communities have Internet access. The recently coined Alutiiq term for television, ulutegwik, literally means “place where you look.” Other Alutiiq speakers simply change the English acronym TV to TViq.
One indirect and unexpected result of the Exxon Valdez oil spill was the expansion of television viewing. Restoration funds designated to purchase private lands for addition to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge provided Alutiiqs with opportunities to sell land. Some used the resulting income to purchase luxury items, including satellite dishes that could access hundreds of TV channels. This has made the home shopping network and Hollywood movies part of daily life. It has also created a few jobs installing and servicing television systems.
To some, greater rural access to the media indicates progress. To others, it represents the continued erosion of Native culture and values. The western images and messages that flood Alutiiq homes have profoundly impacted young people. In addition to promoting consumerism and glamorizing high-risk behaviors, these images marginalize and suppress traditional practices. As television became popular in Alutiiq villages, for example, weekly community dances featuring local musicians disappeared.
Photo: Marie Hensen and Nick Alokli. Alokli Collection.
Akgua’aqu palat’kaami qawarciqua. - I am going to sleep in the tent tonight.
Kodiak’s archaeological sites indicate that the island’s first residents built tents. In some places, a selection of shallow post holes shallow post holes around a simple stone hearths suggest the use of temporary or even portable structures. In others, more permanent, circular dwelling made with low rock walls appear to have had a tent-like roof. These early structures were fairly small, covering an area of about 130 to 160 square feet, just big enough for a family. Parents and their children probably slept in these cozy skin-covered tents around a small stone-lined hearth. Oil lamps carved from sandstone provided additional light and heat.
Although Native people began to live in more substantial sod houses about six thousand years ago, temporary structures remained important for hunters, fishermen, and travelers. Elders report that a large spruce tree makes an excellent emergency shelter, and some recall covering themselves with a bear hide and sleeping on a bed of spruce branches. More formal shelters were made by piling spruce boughs over a framework of wooden poles or by stacking driftwood logs to form a three-sided structure that was covered with grass. Campers could build a fire in the entrance to the shelter and use piles of fresh grass for a comfortable mattress.
Photo: Alutiiq family camped at Port Hobron, ca. 1890. Albatross Collection, National Archives.
Quyanaa tailuci. - Thank you all for coming.
Quyanaa is the Alutiiq word for thank you. People offer this common expression of gratitude throughout the Alutiiq nation. “Quyanaa,” you might say to your host at the end of a visit, or to a friend who gives you some smoked salmon. To many, using this word symbolizes pride in Alutiiq culture and a continued respect for Native language and traditions. Add the suffix –sinaq, meaning “large” or “great,” and you get quyanaasinaq, thank you very much.
Different pronunciations of this word illustrate regional differences in the Alutiiq language. There are two major Alutiiq dialects, Koniag Alutiiq spoken in the Kodiak Archipelago and on the Alaska Peninsula, and Chugach Alutiiq spoken in Prince William Sound and on the Kenai Peninsula. Although these dialects are mutually intelligible and use the same alphabet, some words in each dialect have unique pronunciations. For example, Koniag Alutiiq speakers say quyanaa with an emphasis on the first a, but if you live on the Kenai Peninsula you emphasize the second a. These subtle differences may not register with casual students of Alutiiq, but among fluent speakers they provide evidence of a person’s origins, much like a New York accent or a Scottish brogue to an English speaker.
The word quyanaa sounds familiar across Alaska, because it is shared with other Native languages. In the Yup’ik language, which is closely related to the Alutiiq language, people also say quyana, but spell the word with just one a at the end instead of the two used in Alutiiq. In Iñupiaq, the language of northern Alaska, thank you is quyanaq: quyana with a q at the end.
Quyawim ernera pingaktaaraa. - He likes Thanksgiving.
The origins of the Thanksgiving holiday are as complex as the history of America. Although many people consider the harvest feast held in Plymouth colony in 1621 as the first Thanksgiving, the tradition of giving thanks over a harvest meal is not confined to European settlers, nor did it begin in Plymouth. For millennia, Native American communities have recognized nature’s bounty and given thanks at fall gatherings. Alutiiqs, for example, have long shared stores of foods harvested in the summer during fall and early winter gatherings. Today, the festivals of the past have changed to modern potlucks and potlatches, but they reflect a tradition of honoring ancestors and the spirit world for the gifts of food that sustain human life.
Thanksgiving became a United States holiday during the Civil War. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November a national day of thanks. Many Alutiiq families have adopted this holiday, celebrating as other Americans do with a day of feasting and relaxation. Although Kodiak’s Thanksgiving tables may feature turkey and pumpkin pie, they are also likely to include local foods from the past year’s harvest. The seal and deer meat, salmon, crab, and wild duck served in Alutiiq homes mirror the feast shared by the Plymouth colonists and their Wampanoag Indian neighbors, who celebrated the bounty of their world with local venison, cod, lobsters, seals, and a variety of game birds.
Photo: Ouzinkie children dressed for a Thanksgiving play and celebration, 1960s. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Allrani aigaqa cukirtaartuq. - Sometimes I get a sliver on my hand.
The Alutiiq word for thorn, cukiq, can be used to mean sliver, thorn, barb, quill, or even spruce needle, and the word for the prickly devil’s club, cukilanarpak, means “plant with big thorns.”
When northern European peoples immigrated to Kodiak in the late 1800s, it is likely they introduced a unique woodworking style known as crown of thorns. This carving technique uses notched and uniformly sized sticks to create objects that have a thorny appearance. Artists snap the individual sticks together at their notches, using thousands of pieces to assemble an object without glue or tacks. Puzzlework is another term for this construction technique.
Common examples of crown of thorns objects include bowls and wreath-shaped picture frames that look similar to the crown of thorns worn by Christ. Crown of thorns carving is considered a type of folk art, where artists use small pieces of notched or layered materials to create or cover objects. The materials are often scrounged. In the early nineteenth century, for example, cigar boxes were a favorite raw material for this type of art.
On Kodiak, Alutiiq carvers probably learned the crown of thorns technique from Swedish and Norwegian fishermen who married into their families, as the technique is thought to originate in Germany and Scandinavia. Craftsmen used pocketknives to whittle bits of driftwood into the small sticks needed to build objects, especially picture frames. Today, crown of thorns frames can be found holding icons in community churches or fitted with family pictures in Alutiiq homes. Red cedar is the favored material for this detailed, time-consuming work, which a few Kodiak artists continue to practice.
Photo: Crown of thorns style ornaments and icon frame, by Carol Gronn.
Kelugkanek aturtaartukut mingqu’akamta. - We always use thread when we sew.
Alutiiq seamstresses manufactured thread from the tendons of whales, porpoises, and seals. Thin strands of sinew were separated with the fingernails from sea mammal tendons and the resulting thread wrapped around a wooden spool. This sturdy sewing material was used to stitch clothing and lash together hunting and household implements. The wooden slats of a warrior’s vest of armor were tied together with sinew thread and dyed strands of sinew were woven into men’s belts. Porpoise sinew, used for the fine emboridery, was especially valued.
With sinew thread, a thimble made from a thick piece of hide, and sharply pointed awls and needles, Alutiiq women stitched and decorated clothing. With a bone awl, a seamstress would pierce a hole in the hide she was working and then use a slender bird bone or ivory needle to pull the thread through the hole. Some needles had tiny eyes. Others had a small knob for attaching the thread. Still other needles were unmodified. Women wrapped sinew strands around these implements to pass them through the holes made by their awls. Needles, thimbles, and spools of thread were stored in finely decorated sewing bags.
Photo: Youth and adults learn to make thread from Sinew with the help of Coral Chernoff.
Pingayunek carliangq’rtua. - I have three children.
Counting is a skill that children around the world learn at a very young age, and although quantifying objects comes naturally to humans, the world’s societies count in many different ways. Counting systems reflect the mathematical concepts of a culture, which are influenced by language, social practices, worldviews, and even subsistence activities.
Speakers of Indo-European languages like English use the decimal system, a three-thousand-year-old way of counting based on the number ten. Although Alutiiqs adopted this system in the modern era, the traditional Alutiiq counting system is based on the number twenty: the total number of fingers and toes found on a person. This system was once shared with speakers of related Native languages from Kodiak to Greenland.
In the base-twenty system, people make numbers larger than twenty with reference to twenty. To say thirty, for example, a speaker would say “suinaq qulnek ciplluku,” a phase that translates as “ten above twenty.” Today, however, Alutiiq speakers typically follow the base ten counting system where thirty is pingayun qula, or “three tens.”
Photo: Three student carvers, culture week, Ouzinkie School.
Sun’all’men agyugtua. - I want to go to Three Saints Bay.
Three Saints Bay is a narrow, 8.7 mile long embayment on the southeastern side of Kodiak Island. The shores of this productive waterway have been home to Alutiiq people for millennia. Nestled between larger Kaiugnak Bay and Sitkalidak Strait, at the foot of some of Kodiak’s tallest mountains, the bay is known for its ancient settlements. Its name, however, reflects Kodiak’s Russian history.
Three Saints Bay was the location of the first permanent Russian settlement on Kodiak Island, and Russian traders named it after the flagship in entrepreneur Gregorii Shelikof ’s fleet of sailing vessels. In August of 1784, Shelikof landed in the bay and started to build a fort. After a brutal assault on a large group of Alutiiq people hiding at a nearby settlement, Shelikof took Native women and children hostages as a means of subjugating local communities. The hostages were brought to Three Saints Bay, whose name paid homage to the patriarchs of the early Christian Church, Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom. Widely considered fathers among the saints, these men were known in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican faiths for sharing Christianity.
Photo: Aerial view of the entrance to Three Saints Bay.