Nunakuartuq Kal’unun. - He is walking to Karluk.
Before airplanes and motorized boats, Alutiiq families often traveled by foot. Walking long distances was an activity that people accepted and enjoyed. Travelers crossed rivers and mountains to visit family and friends, to move to and from hunting and fishing camps, to trade with neighbors, or to access seasonal jobs. Some travelers followed well-worn trails, routes used for millennia by people and animals. Others hiked to ridge tops, using Kodiak’s mountain chains as a path across the island. It was easier to walk across the tundra of alpine environments.
Even kayakers took advantage of overland routes. Elders recall traveling from Olga Bay to the village of Ayakulik via an interior route. They paddled up the Akalura River and across Akalura Lake to access a portage trail leading into Red Lake. After carrying their boats and supplies over the swampy trail, they camped on the lakeshore before paddling across Red Lake and down Red River into the waters of the Ayakulik. This route allowed travelers to avoid the treacherous waters at the tip of the Alitak Peninsula. It also provided a chance to fish for salmon along the way.
A related portage took people across the isthmus that separates Olga Bay from Shelikof Strait. Portages from Kaguyak to Alitak Bay, from Kalsin Bay to Ugak Bay, from Ugak Bay to Kiliuda Bay, and others helped travelers to avoid dangerous headlands.
Photo: Ouzinkie residents prepared for a hike, 1940s. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Wiinarpat guut'gpagtuut. – Walrus have big teeth.
Winarpk, the Alutiiq word for the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) translates as ‘big sea lion.’ This term that reflects the rarity of walrus in the Alutiiq homeland. Walruses are coastal resident of western Alaska, found along the shores of the Bering and Chukchi seas. These large sea mammals occasionally stray into the Gulf of Alaska, but the region’s warm, ice free waters are beyond their typical range.
Although walruses are not indigenous to the Gulf of Alaska, walrus ivory has made its way to Kodiak for thousands of years. Small, carved, ivory objects appear in Kodiak’s oldest sites. Although they are rare, these objects indicate Alutiiq people were familiar with the properties of ivory. About 2,500 years ago ivory became more common and settlements contain worked pieces of ivory as well as finished ivory objects. These artifacts suggest that ivory was accessible and worked regularly. Most of these ivory carvings are smalls and decorative. People made jewelry, amulets, and even dolls from ivory. One such carving, from the Uyak site in Larsen Bay, depicts a walrus head! But there are also some stunning, large ivory carvings. A figurine found on Afognak Island was fashioned from a 10-inch section of tusk.
Why do craftsmen value walrus ivory? Even the most compact bone has small holes that create a grainy appearance. In contrast, ivory is heavily mineralized, smooth, and free of irregularities. These characteristics allow ivory to be carved and polished into beautiful shapes.
Photo: Ivory carving of a walrus head. Uyak site, Larsen Bay Alaska, courtesy the Larsen Bay Tribe.
Anguyartut. - They are having war.
In classical Alutiiq society, where social positions were inherited and a small class of wealthy individuals acted as community leaders, warfare was a means of enhancing wealth. In addition to avenging wrongs, elite men led raids on other communities to acquire plunder and slaves, and increase their affluence. Neighboring Alutiiq communities were attacked, as well as more distant Aleut, Dena’ina and Tlingit villages.
In battle, warriors carried short wooden clubs, spears, bows, and specially fashioned arrows. The arrows were tipped with bone points that had thin, splintery barbs. Craftsmen designed these barbs to cause extensive internal damage by breaking off inside their victims. In addition to weaponry, warriors carried large shields made from thick planks of hardwood and wore protective vests of wooden armor. Fashioned from small pieces of wood and tied together with sinew, these sturdy yet flexible shirts protected a warrior’s chest from enemy arrows.
Warfare is a common topic in Alutiiq stories, where incidents leading to conflict often unfold in predictable ways. In many stories, visitors from a distant place ridicule and embarrass a community member—particularly a chief or a child. After the incident, community members secretly follow the offenders to their homes and take revenge, sometimes with the assistance of neighbors. These stories illustrate the types of events that led to conflict and probably reminded people about the consequences of cruel behavior. They also illustrate that the goal of conflict was not simply to punish the offender, as this could be done anywhere, but to separate the offenders from their possessions. By taking revenge in the offender’s home, raiders could acquire plunder.
Photo: War sheild and club made by Andrew Abyo. Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum's collections with support from the Rasmuson Foundation's Art Acquisition Initiative.
Qangiq, anguyartaasqat agellriit Swaacit nuniinun. - Long ago, warriors went to the Tlingits’ lands.
In the Gulf of Alaska, Native people traditionally raided each other’s communities to avenge a wrong, secure hostages, and obtain wealth. Members of the elite class led raids. These were wealthy individuals who maintained their status by accumulating goods and slaves. On Kodiak, such individuals mobilized adult men to attack villages both at home and afar. Historic accounts tell of battles waged in the Aleutian Islands, Cook Inlet, and Prince William Sound.
Before embarking on a raid, warriors met in the community men’s house. Here they received food, water, and gifts from the family of the man leading the raid. Warriors then took turns dancing and recounting their ancestors’ successes in war. Then the host offered each a gift as a token of the riches they were soon to obtain.
Early the following morning, the warriors departed in large, open skin boats. Historic accounts indicate they painted their faces, wore vests of wooden armor, and armed themselves with bone-tipped spears, bows and arrows, wooden clubs, and large wooden shields. The object of a raid was to kill adult men, take women and teenagers as slaves, and gather large quantities of plunder. However, with the help of mediation, hostages might be freed and returned to their homes.
Photo: Daniel Harmon, Alutiiq man from Woody Island, serving in the Viet Nam war. Harmon Collection.
Tamiinek taangaq aturtapet. - We use water in everything.
Freshwater is a plentiful resource in the Kodiak Archipelago. Although the region contains few large rivers, more than eighty inches of precipitation fall each year, and many small streams funnel rainwater and snow melt down steep mountainsides to the coast.
Alutiiq villages were often built near a reliable source of freshwater, a pond or a stream where water could be collected for drinking, cooking, bathing, healing, and manufacturing. Residents hauled water to their houses in bentwood buckets and tightly woven baskets, where it was stockpiled in containers fashioned from seal stomachs. Families drank water from woven cups or sucked it out of gut containers using straws made from the dried stems of cow parsnip plants. Vessels used for hauling water were also used for cooking. People added fire-heated rocks to boxes filled with foods and water to cook their contents. Water was also a preservative. Berries, for example, could be kept fresh for months in cool or frozen water.
An Alutiiq legend recorded at the turn of the nineteenth century tells of the origins of water, both fresh and salt. According to this legend, a man and a woman descended from the sky in a seal bladder. The man scattered his hair on the mountains, creating trees and forests, while the woman produced the ocean by urinating and the rivers and lakes by spitting into ditches. Yup’ik and Iñupiat peoples tell a very similar story, illustrating the deep ancestral ties among Alaska’s coastal societies.
Photo: Boy in Larsen Bay carries water buckets with the help of a wooden yolk. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Kuicaaq qus'igtuq. - The waterfall is high.
Kodiak’s rugged topography and its wet weather combine to create many small waterfalls. Heavy rains saturate the ground, providing runoff for streams that spill down mountainsides and plummet over cliffs. Some waterfalls are seasonal, fed by spring rains and melting snow, while others drain steep slopes year-round. The Alutiiq word for waterfall, kuicaaq, comes from the word for creek, kuik.
Waterfalls are a prominent feature in Alutiiq legends and are often associated with the supernatural. In some stories, waterfalls act as passageways into distant and dangerous lands. In one tale, a woman in search of her lost lover paddles over a waterfall that traps her in a world filled with cannibals. When she succeeds in killing the cannibals, the waterfall disappears and she is able to paddle home.
In other tales, waterfall and animal spirits are associated. In these legends, waterfalls provide freshwater for thirsty sea creatures. According to one tale, an Alutiiq boy saw a whale swim toward shore. As he watched, the whale shoved its head onto the beach and opened its mouth. A little man, the whale’s spirit, came out carrying a leather bucket in each hand. The little man went up to the waterfall and filled his buckets, and then climbed back into the whale’s mouth. Refreshed, the whale closed its mouth and swam back out to sea.
Photo: An Afognak Island waterfall.
Muuguat amlerpianitut maani, allrani kesiin iquutaartukut, piturnirtut. - There are not many watermelon berries around here, but sometimes we find them, and they’re delicious.
The watermelon berry (Streptopus amplexifolius) is a slender, tall, leafy shrub. It grows to about three feet tall and can be found in woods, alder thickets, and meadows across the southern half of Alaska. A member of the lily family, watermelon berry has small white flowers and broad oval leaves that grow in an alternating pattern up its stem. This gives the plant a twisted appearance, and some people know it as twisted stalk.
In August, the plant forms oval, orange or red berries with many seeds. Alutiiqs call this fruit muuguaq—“something you suck”—a name that aptly describes the berries’ watery quality. Because watermelon berries are not often found in large quantities around Kodiak, most people harvest them for a snack. They are not a species that is taken home for processing. However, if you find enough of them, they will make tasty jelly.
On the Kenai Peninsula, Alutiiqs gather the young shoots, leaves, and stems of watermelon berry from late April to early June, while they are tender. These leafy parts of the plant can be eaten raw, fried, or steamed. By summer, the plants become tough and are not good to eat.
Photo: Watermelon berry. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Kal'uni qangyut angtaartut. - The waves are always big at Karluk.
Rough water is a fact of life in the Gulf of Alaska, where wave production is closely related to the speed and duration of local winds. Heavy seas are particularly common in fall and winter, produced by frequent, powerful storms. Waves associated with these storms regularly reach heights of twenty feet and can build to over thirty feet. Around Kodiak, the severity of heavy seas is compounded by the region’s considerable fetch, the distance the wind travels over open ocean. Storms approaching the archipelago cross vast stretches of the North Pacific, building energy.
For mariners, waves present many challenges. Making forward progress, steering, launching, landing, and avoiding hypothermia are all more difficult in rough water. Classical Alutiiq boats—skin-covered qayat and angyat—were expertly designed for this environment. Alutiiqs carved bow pieces from a single piece of wood to ensure their strength and designed these pieces with a curve that helped propel boats over the waves. Similarly, a flexible wooden frame allowed vessels to bend with pressure and a skin cover sewn with waterproof stitches ensured a dry boat.
A boater’s skills were also critical to safe travel. Men learned to launch boats in the surf by watching the rhythm of the waves and finding a lull in the breakers. They also learned to paddle from a kneeling position, using their bodies to help steer through rolling water.
Photo: Waves colide with the shore of Cape Alitak, May, 2010.