Cuumi uspaq’rtaaqait. - They used to give us vaccinations.
Vaccinations may seem like a feat of twentieth-century bioengineering, but they have a long history in Europe and even Alaska. The world’s first vaccines became available after 1796, when British physician Edward Jenner used cowpox to develop an immunization for smallpox. Russian authorities recognized the importance of Jenner’s invention, and by the early decades of the nineteenth century they widely vaccinated their citizens against smallpox. Vaccination spread east with the Russian fur trade, arriving in Alaska by at least 1805.
Russian Orthodox priests were often trained to give vaccinations, and vaccinations were routinely given to Alaska Natives sent to Russia to study. Other Native people, particularly those living close to Russian posts, received vaccinations from Russian American Company officials as part of local health care efforts.
Despite efforts to protect people from smallpox, early vaccination programs were not always successful. Vaccines were in short supply and not always reliable. They had to be shipped great distances to reach Alaska and sometimes lost their potency during travel. Additionally, Native people were often reluctant to be vaccinated. To ease their concerns, the Russians trained Native people to give vaccinations. In the fall of 1828, an Alutiiq man traveled to Kodiak’s rural communities providing inoculations. Tragically, however, vaccination did not reach far enough into the Kodiak Alutiiq population, and the 1837 smallpox epidemic had a devastating impact. Nearly five hundred people died in just six months.
Photo: The openning of a new health clinic in Old Harbor.
Guangkuta nunarpet. - This is our land.
When Russian traders arrived in the Kodiak Archipelago, there were more than sixty Alutiiq villages. Rows of sod houses formed coastal communities that were home to as many as three hundred people. Chiefs governed villages, acting as political and economic leaders. Russian accounts suggest there were also regional chiefs, powerful people who administered several villages.
With the loss of lives and political autonomy that accompanied western colonization, the number of Alutiiq communities dwindled. Following the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1838, the Russians resettled Alutiiq survivors into seven major villages. St. Paul, Woody Island, Afognak, Eagle Harbor, Old Harbor, Karluk, and Chirikof were the central Alutiiq communities during the final decades of Russian rule, although not the only communities. Many of the old villages were soon reestablished, although in some cases in shifted locations.
Today, the Kodiak Archipelago is home to six distinct Alutiiq villages, accessible only by air or boat. Akhiok and Karluk lie in the windswept meadows of southwestern Kodiak, nestled among the island’s rich salmon streams. Larsen Bay is tucked into shores of Uyak Bay, a protected glacial fjord, while Old Harbor faces eastward toward the broad expanse of the North Pacific Ocean. And spruce trees and sphagnum moss provide the setting for Port Lions and Ouzinkie, Kodiak’s northernmost Alutiiq communities.
Photo: Village of Old Harbor before the 1964 earthquake and tsunami. Smith Collection, courtesy Tm and Norman Smith.
Puyulek yakguani et'aartut, ingrini. - The volcanoes are far away, in the mountains.
Although there are no volcanoes in the Kodiak Archipelago, the mountainous Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Island chain are formed largely by volcanic activity. Along this expanse of Alaska’s coast there are at least eighty volcanoes that have been active in the past eleven thousand years, spewing ash and pumice into the ecosystem.
For Alutiiqs, volcanic eruptions have long threatened life, property, and economy. The most spectacular event in recent memory was the explosion of Novarupta in 1912, an adjunct of the Katmai volcano on the Alaska Peninsula. The nearby villages of Katmai, Douglas, and Savonoski were destroyed, and an enormous plume of ash smothered shellfish and deciduous vegetation, choked salmon streams, changed the distribution of marine fish and sea mammals, and killed seaweed and kelp beds as far away as the city of Kodiak. Today, a thick layer of beige-colored ash represents this eruption. It is visible below the modern ground surface at the north end of the Kodiak Archipelago.
A record of at least one prehistoric eruption is preserved in Alutiiq art. A five hundred-year-old painted box panel from Karluk shows an exploding volcano. Geologists note that the image looks much like Mt. Augustine, a volcano in Cook Inlet that erupted about five hundred years ago. Whether or not the eruption on the panel depicts this particular event, it represents the earliest known human record of a volcanic episode in Alaska.
Photo: Volcanoes rise above the King Salmon River, Alaska Peninsula, 2010.
Kaugya’at ugna’anek nertaartut.- Foxes eat voles.
The northern vole (Microtus oeconomus), also known as the tundra vole or root vole, is one of Kodiak’s original residents. This small rodent feeds primarily on the bark and roots of plants, particularly sedges and cotton grass. In search of food, it will dig long underground tunnels. Biologists believe that the vole may have been the first mammal to colonize Kodiak after the last ice age. Because voles are the major prey of small carnivores like red fox and short-tailed weasel, they speculate that the vole population must have been well established before other terrestrial mammals could thrive. It is also possible that voles arrived in the Kodiak Archipelago with people, inadvertently hitching rides with unsuspecting kayakers.
However they arrived, archaeological sites indicate that voles were common pests in ancient villages. Vole tunnels, vole skeletons, and garbage chewed by voles are regular finds. Moreover, traditional stories talk about the vole as a mischievous thief, rooting in people’s stores and stealing food. Although voles were not eaten, people did occasionally collect the rice-like roots of the chocolate lily from vole caches. According to one legend, if a person takes lily bulbs from a vole, he should not take all of them and should leave fish or some other food in their place.
Photo: A northern vole. Courtesy Wikipedia.