PaRaguutakun uguaq kiturtaarpet. - We always pass Ugak island on the boat.
Ugak Island lies at the entrance to Ugak Bay, on the far eastern edge of Kodiak Island. Exposed to the open ocean, Ugak Island is small and mountainous. It is just 2.7 by 1.7 miles, and yet rises to over three hundred feet above sea level. This creates a precipitous shoreline with few landing spots. Nonetheless, Ugak Island was once home to an Alutiiq village. In April of 1805, Russian trader Uri Lisianki visited a settlement with four sod houses on the island’s northern coast, and in the 1930s anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička learned the location of this settlement in discussions with Kodiak residents.
What did people do on Ugak Island? It is likely that they visited in the spring and early summer, moving to Kodiak’s outer cost to fish for cod and pollock and to hunt sea mammals. The waters southeast of Kodiak are a major migration route for whales moving through the Gulf of Alaska, and gray whales and humpback whales are known to swim through the channel between Ugak Island and Narrow Cape. From the island, hunters could have watched for these economically valuable animals.
Ugak Island is also home to several sea mammal haul-outs. Harbor seals rest on the island’s southeast coast, and Steller sea lions on the northern shore. The sea lion haul-out is typically used from late June to early October by about four hundred animals. Historic sources indicate that the residents of Eagle Harbor, an Alutiiq village in Ugak Bay’s southern shore, visited the haul-out regularly to harvest sea lions for skins and sinew.
Photo: View east from Ugak Bay toward Ugak Island.
Gui ataaqa unganuuni suullria. - My father was born at Uganik Island.
Uganik Island is a large, mountainous landmass on the western coast of the Kodiak Archipelago. It is the eighth largest island in the Kodiak region, covering approximately fifty-seven square miles. The island trends northwest to southeast, forming the northern limit of the Uganik Bay region and creating the southern coast of Viekoda Bay.
Uganik Island’s environment changes from north to south. The northern end of the island is mountainous, with steep peaks flanking the shore. This part of the island has a relatively straight, exposed coastline with long stretches of rock cliff and only a few protected bights. In contrast, Uganik Island’s southern third is lower and more protected. Here, mountains give way to rolling hills, tidal flats, lagoons, and small freshwater lakes.
Although the island’s protected shores may appear more inviting for settlement, archaeological data indicate that Alutiiqs used Uganik’s outer coast extensively. Cod fishing was their central activity. The waters at the mouth of Viekoda Bay and adjacent Kupreanof Strait support a cod nursery, an area where fish are abundant throughout the year. About 3,400 years ago, fishermen camped on Uganik Island to harvest this resource and dried quantities of cod for later use.
The name Uganik comes from the Alutiiq placename Unganuut, and it was first recorded in 1805 by Russian explorer Uri Lisianski. Linguists believe Russian traders spelled this name incorrectly. They probably should have written either Uganuut or Uganuuk, not Uganik.
Photo: Village of Uganik, ca. 1914. Dennis Winn Collection, Courtesy March McCubrey.
Ulukaq aturluku. - Use the ulu.
Angaaqa. - My uncle.
Alutiiq people reckon descent bilaterally. This means that children trace their ancestry equally through their mother’s and father’s lineages. A child is recognized as belonging to both sides of his or her family. While Alutiiqs share this practice with the Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, and Inuit societies of northern Alaska and Canada, they are unique in the Gulf of Alaska. Neighboring Tlingit, Athabaskan, and Aleut societies practiced matrilineal kinship. In this system of identifying relatives, children inherit family ties through their biological relationships with women. They are members of their mother’s family.
Kinship systems are often reflected in the words people use to identify family members. For example, among societies with bilateral kinship systems like the Alutiiq people, the word for uncle, angaaq, can be used for any uncle: your mother’s brother or your father’s brother. However, in matrilineal societies, there are often separate terms for mother’s brother and father’s brother.
In Alutiiq communities, extended family members—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—are an important part of many children’s lives. Older relatives like uncles often act like parents, teaching, guiding, and caring for children as they learn adult skills. In the modern era, it is not unusual for an Alutiiq boy to be raised by his uncle or to act as crewmember on his uncle’s boat.
Photo: Man and boys in Old Harbor.
Cuumi tan’urat etquat aturtaakait. - They used to use boys’ urine before.
Across Alaska, Native people used human urine for processing hides. In Alutiiq communities, urine was collected in wooden tubs stationed outside people’s houses. Hides were soaked in these tubs, where the ammonia acted as soap, breaking down fatty deposits clinging to the skin. According to Russian observers, animal gut for waterproof clothing was prepared by turning the gut inside out, scraping it clean with a shell, and washing it repeatedly in urine. Urine was also used to remove the hair from hides. Hides were soaked in urine and then rolled and left in a warm place to sit for several days until the hair could be easily scraped away. Urine was even used to help set dyes. In Prince William Sound, people soaked spruce roots dyed for basket weaving in urine to fix the color.
Alaskans also once used urine for washing, because of its grease-cutting properties. From southeast Alaska to the North Slope, Native peoples cleaned their hair, clothes, and bodies with sterile, freshly passed urine. Urine was also noted for its medicinal properties. In the Kodiak area, Alutiiqs used urine to clean sores and dislodge devil’s club needles from the skin. The urine caused the skin to swell, making the spines easier to remove. To relieve arthritis, people diced the leaves of the licorice fern, mixed them with urine, and heated the mixture to form a comforting poultice.
Photo: Larsen Bay student scraping bear gut, Alutiiq Week, 2013.