Amitatut nan’ryaartaakenka. - I used to trap weasels.
The short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea), also known as an ermine, is one of only six land mammals indigenous to the Kodiak Archipelago. Biologists believe that weasels, along with bears, otters, foxes, voles, and bats, colonized Kodiak following the last major glaciation. Weasels probably migrated to Kodiak from the Alaska Peninsula or the Kenai Peninsula, before sea levels rose to their modern levels. However, they must have arrived after voles, because these mice-like rodents are the weasel’s primary source of food.
Alutiiq people trap weasels for their pelts. This small animal is coveted for its white winter fur, which fades to a chocolate brown in summer. Strips of weasel fur are still used to adorn traditional clothing. The tassels decorating a snow-falling parka and the bands of fur used in headdresses are some of the embellishments made of weasel fur.
Weasels are a favorite prey of children, who hunt them in the fall with deadfall traps. In the past, parents saved the skin from a boy’s first kill, presenting it to their community at a winter festival. The boy’s weasel, fox, or seal skin demonstrated his potential as a hunter and his upcoming passage into adulthood.
Photo: White weasel fur trims the parkas of Kodiak's Alutiiq dancers.
Lla Asirtuq. - The weather is good.
Llaatsurtaallriit. They used to be weathermen.
Understanding the weather, especially the behavior of the wind, remains an essential skill in Alutiiq communities. Today, the weather is a central topic of conversation, and accurate weather information helps people order their daily lives and stay safe. The weather affects everything from the ability to hunt, fish, and collect, to the arrival of the mail plane. Interpreting weather conditions is a difficult business, as conditions vary across the landscape and can change quickly. This means that people must know how a set of conditions affects different areas of the island.
Alutiiq weather lore is particularly rich in knowledge of the wind and its effects on the water and animal behavior. The Alutiiq language reflects this detailed perception. Alutiiq speakers use a great number of terms to discuss the direction, speed, intensity, and duration of winds. Other words describe the noises the wind makes or the relationships between the wind and the landscape. For example, a speaker might report that the wind is whooshing, or use a word that describes the wind as blowing from the east and out of a bay.
Maqineq nangkan, tang’rciqamci. - After the week is over, I’ll see you guys.
All human societies have systems of reckoning time, ways of accounting for the sequence and duration of events. However, concepts of time vary greatly with cultural and environmental factors. The places people live, the technologies they use, the structure of their economies, their social organization, and even their ritual systems influence their perceptions of time.
The strict divisions of clock and calendar time are western constructs, originating in the Judeo-Christian worldview and becoming widespread in the nineteenth century with the Industrial Revolution. To Westerners, time is linear and nonrepetitive. It progresses from the past into the future and provides daily structure for the complicated world in which people live.
In contrast, life in farming societies and among high-latitude hunting and gathering peoples is often closely tied to the passage of seasons. Here people tend to see time as repetitive and circular, part of an ever-renewing cycle. This was true in classical Alutiiq society, where people recognized the phases of the moon, seasonal changes in weather, and the cyclical availability of plants and animals.
Alutiiqs began to chart the passage of days and weeks when they became members of the Russian Orthodox faith, using peg calendars to track important events in the church year. Although an historic construct, the word maqineq, for week, seems to be derived from the word for “day before a holiday.” For example, in the Alutiiq language, Christmas Eve is ARusistuam Maqinera. The use of the root maqi- in relation to holidays may also be related to maqiwik, the Alutiiq word for steam bathhouse. In Alutiiq society, people once took steam baths to cleanse themselves before special events.
Photo: Alutiiq Museum calendar page.
Itganka mecuu’ut. - My feet are wet.
In Kodiak’s cool, wet environment, staying dry is a constant battle. Alutiiq people, who thrived in this moist land for thousands of years before rubber boots and Gortex, devised many ingenious ways to keep from getting wet. Hunters coated the sea lion skin coverings of their kayaks with oil to make them waterproof. Seamstresses fashioned lightweight, flexible rain gear from the intestines of bears and sea mammals using special waterproof stitches, and men built warm, weather-resistant homes to protect their families.
Traditional sod houses had many features designed to keep out the rain. Elders recall many of the details of building these waterproof structures. The first step was to dig a large hole in which to build a house. Where possible, this hole was dug down to gravel to help the floor drain. In some cases, builders also dug a network of drainage ditches into the floor. Covered with boards, these narrow subfloor trenches helped to move water out of the house. Next, the builders used driftwood logs to erect a wooden structure inside the hole. This was covered with a layer of insulating grass, with the blades oriented to help shed moisture. In some cases, the grass was held in place by a mud plaster, in others, it was weighted down with sticks and logs. Sod blocks were the piled against the structure with the grassy surface facing inward, again to provide insulation. Final touches included a window covered with waterproof gut and a small trap door in the ceiling that let out smoke while keeping the rain out.
Photo: Community members participate in an archaeological excavation in the rain, Salonie Mound, July 2007.
Ar’ut amlertut. - There are many whales.
Six species of baleen whales feed in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Each spring, grey, humpback, minke, fin, right, and blue whales swim by on their way to the Bering Sea, although many remain in the Kodiak area. For Alutiiqs, these animals represented an enormous resource. Even a small whale could feed a community for weeks. In addition to their highly prized meat and fat, whales provided bone for tools, baleen for baskets and cordage, and flexible membranes for clothing.
Whaling is an ancient Alutiiq tradition. Archaeologists find whalebone in sites many thousands of years old. These bones may be the result of a hunter’s lance, or perhaps they were scavenged from dead whales that washed ashore. Historic accounts tell that whalers were a select group of powerful people, literally known as “shamans who hunt whales.” Lone hunters armed with slate tipped spears dipped in a powerful poison pursued the great animals by kayak. Once speared, the whale was left to die and wash ashore.
Although hunting technologies changed in the historic era, Alutiiq men continued to pursue whales from the Port Hobron whaling station on Sitkalidak Island in the early decades of this century. With steel-hulled ships and gunpowder-charged harpoons, they harvested oil, baleen, and whalebone for American industries.
Photo: Whale surfacing in Monashka Bay.
Akgua’aq kiimagtulliakut. - We ate whale blubber yesterday.
Blubber, the thick layer of fat that lies between a whale’s skin and its muscles, has important biological functions. Like all mammals, whales must maintain a warm body temperature. While swimming in icy waters, blubber keeps them warm by reducing the outward flow of heat; the colder the water, the thicker the layer of fat needs to be. Blubber is also lighter than water, so it provides buoyancy, offsetting the weight of heavier bones and muscles. It is also an important food source. Many whales do not feed during annual migrations, relying on their fat stores for months of sustenance.
Different whales produce different amounts of blubber. In the Gulf of Alaska, the larger species that range farther from shore tend to be fatter. These include blue, fin, right, and sperm whales. Twentieth-century commercial whalers targeted these animals for their valuable fat. When an animal was captured, workers cut its blubber into strips, melted it in industrial cookers, and sold the resulting oil for use in candles, cosmetics, and crayons.
In contrast, traditional Alutiiq whalers focused on harvesting the smaller, less fatty whales available closer to shore: humpbacks, minkes, and grey whales. These animals represented an enormous package of food and raw material, and their blubber was one of their biggest assets. Butchering a whale was a community affair. The process began by giving the whale a drink of freshwater, a task completed by the whaler’s wife. Then villagers worked together to cut strips of blubber and meat from the carcass, a process that ended with a feast. Alutiiqs melted buried blubber in pits to liquefy naturally, or chewed it and spit the resulting oil into a container.
Photo: Petroglyphs showing a pair of whales. Cape Alitak, Kodiak Island, May 2010.