Nuusiq ipegcaru minguutamek. - Sharpen the knife with the whetstone.
For more than six thousand years, Kodiak’s Native people fashioned cutting tools from sheets of hard, black slate. Flensing knives for slicing blubber, ulus for splitting fish, and sharp-sided lances for hunting sea mammals were all carefully ground to shape and sharpened with the aid of whetstones—special sharpening stones. Tabular pieces of fine-grained siltstone, commonly found on Kodiak beaches, were used to hone tool edges to razor sharpness, perhaps with the aid of some water or oil. Many of the whetstones found in archaeological sites have been used repeatedly and have very smooth worked surfaces.
Kodiak’s prehistoric archaeological sites are also full of other types of grinding tools. In addition to the smooth whetstones used to sharpen slate implements, archaeologists find gritty pieces of pumice, scoria, and sandstone used to shape bone and wood objects, much like sand paper. Some of these have deep grooves from the tools shaped against them. Burnishing stones are also common. Smooth, flat pebbles were used to flatten the grain of wooden objects to create an even, lustrous finish. Masks, paddles, dishes, and many other objects were finished with this technique.
Photo: Whetstones from the Outlet site, Buskin River. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.
Angutet awai ungastaartut kangillaruakameng. - Elders always let their whiskers grow when they get old.
Like all men, Alutiiq men grow facial hair. In classical society, some wore small beards and mustaches while others plucked their faces clean. In Prince William Sound, Chugach Alutiiq men pulled out their facial hair with their fingers.
Although men often removed their own whiskers, animal whiskers were commonly used for personal adornment. In addition to bone tubes, men threaded sea lion whiskers through holes in their nasal cartilage and attached sprays of whiskers to variety of hats. Artists fastened whiskers threaded with tiny beads and decorated with tassels of color thread to elaborate wooden hunting visors. These whiskers were tied to the rear of large closed crowned hats and to the sides and tops of visors. Individual whiskers were secured by looping them through a pair of small, drilled holes and then tying the end of the whisker to its shaft with a piece of sinew thread. Some hats featured a few whiskers. Others displayed dramatic sprays, which looked like the plumage of a bird. Bundles of whiskers were also tied to hats woven from spruce root. One such hat, collected in Karluk in 1884, features two bundles of more than 17 whiskers each. These bundles were wrapped with red trade cloth and fastened to either side of the hat. Painted blue and decorated with shells obtained in trade, this hat was probably a symbol of its wearer's great wealth and power.
Photo: Bundles of sea lion whiskers adorn the side of this Alutiiq hat woven from spruce root. Owned jointly by the Alutiiq Museum and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.
Paapuma niutaakiikut, “Kukuumyarkunaci, Iiyaq taiciqniluku.” - My grandmother told us, “Don’t whistle; you are calling for the Devil.”
Whistling is a fun, light-hearted activity in contemporary Alutiiq communities. Children make whistles from willow branches, hunters call animals with whistles carved from green alder, and comically masked carolers travel from house to house during Russian Christmas whistling and playing instruments. But in classical Alutiiq society, whistling was a dangerous and tightly controlled practice connected with the spirit world. Dancers at winter festivals called spirits from the sky and beneath the sea by whistling, which was said to mimic spirit voices. Some ceremonial masks even had a circular mouth to represent whistling.
Whistling was also associated with evil and sickness. In a house with a sick child, residents who heard whistling noises knew that evil spirits were to blame. Similarly, shamans used whistles to conjure the spirit world when curing the sick or cursing rivals. Many Elders learned that spirits spoke first with whistles and then with words. Children were taught never to whistle for fear they would be harmed. So, next time you find yourself whistling, remember, you may be summoning Kodiak’s powerful spirit world.
Photo: Whistling mask, Pinart Collection, Châteaux-Musée, France.
Qaniq qatertuq. (N); Qaniq qat’rtuq. (S) - The snow is white.
Societies around the world recognize and name colors in distinct ways. Among Alutiiqs, there are just four basic color terms: red, white, black, and green. Alutiiq people recognized a broader range of colors, but most were described in reference to these four terms. For example, blue was considered a shade of green. The Alutiiq word for blue translates as “greenish.” Other colors were noted by their resemblance to common things. In describing an object with a yellowish tint, an Alutiiq person might say that it was the color of oil.
The color white was used for both personal adornment and decorating objects. Alutiiqs made a white pigment from limestone obtained in trade with the Alaska mainland. They ground this soft rock to a powder and then mixed it with oil to create paint. At winter hunting festivals, the faces of the first two dance performers were often painted white and red, and masks were often decorated with white. In an analysis of mask design, anthropologist Dominque Desson observed that white was commonly used as a background color, to paint the nose and upper portions of the face, and to outline facial features.
Photo: Payulik - Bringer of Food, painted mask, Pinart Collection, Châteaux-Musée, France, 988-2-169.
Kumaq kuakaskameng tamleritaartuq. - The wick always gets black after it burns.
Stone lamps filled with sea mammal oil once illuminated and heated Alutiiq homes with the aid of small wicks twisted from plant fibers. Many different plants could serve this purpose. Kodiak’s early Russian colonists noted lamps fitted with grass wicks. Alutiiq people also used clumps of moss and tufts of cotton grass to fashion wicks, as both materials absorb oil well.
Cotton grass (Eriophorum spp.) is a sedge that grows in a wide range of wet habitats. There are three varieties in the Kodiak region. Cotton grass blooms in summer, creating an easily identifiable white, fluffy seed head that resembles cotton, as well as narrow, grass-like leave that rise from its base. Elders remember rolling several tufts of the cotton to create an absorbent wick that burned gradually.
The wick is an ancient piece of Alutiiq technology. Although plant fibers are seldom preserved in prehistoric sites, archaeologists know that Kodiak’s earliest residents used them. Settlements over 7,000 years have produced lamps with soot-blackened rims. They were charred as a burning wick consumed the seal, sea lion, or whale oil within.
Photo: A field of cotton grass. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Nulingr'tua. - I've got a wife.
Everyone in Alutiiq society was expected to marry. Although marriages were not typically arranged, there were preferred marriage partners. According to anthropologist Birket-Smith, a young person was particularly encouraged to marry a cousin. However, not all cousins were potential mates. Parallel cousin (your parents' same sex siblings' children) were considered siblings and were not appropriate spouses. But cross cousins (your parents' opposite sex siblings' children) were desirable mates. For example, a young man in search of a wife would consider marrying his father's sister's daughter, or his mother brother's daughter. A cross-cousin was only one choice for determining a marriage partner.
In addition to their many domestic activities - making clothing, stitching boat covers, weaving, cooking and caring for children, Alutiiq wives helped to maintain their husband's hunting luck. First, they could never touch their husband's weaponry and had to seclude themselves in a special hut during each of their menstrual periods. By observing these taboos, they insured that their husband's hunting gear was not polluted by their fertility. Additionally, wives had an obligation to assist their husbands with hunting rituals. The wife of a whaler, for example, was instructed to stay in-doors and remain quiet while her husband was hunting, least she scare the whale. And when the dead whale washed ashore, she was responsible for giving it a drink of fresh water.
Photo: Akhiok husband and wife, ca. 1930 Courtesy the National Archive, Seattle.
Aatunat qiurtut. - The sourdock are ready.
Sourdock (Rumex fenestratus) is a member of the buckwheat family that produces tasty green leaves. It is sometimes called wild rhubarb, though there is a similar, related plant that botanists classify as wild rhubarb (Rumex arcticus). Both plants have tasty green leaves. Those of the sourdock plant are sour, while those of the wild rhubarb have a lemony flavor.
Sourdock is particularly prized in Alutiiq communities. This large herb produced thick stems and long leaves. It grows four feet tall and is widespread in the Kodiak Archipelago. Sourdock can be found in wet meadows, on slopes, and in disturbed areas. Roadsides and in vacant lots are good places to collect this plant.
Alutiiqs traditionally gather sourdock leaves and stems in May and June, before the plant flowers and becomes tough. The leaves can be eaten fresh or stored for later use. In the past, Alutiiqs preserved quantities of cooked sourdock in seal oil for winter consumption. Raw berries, especially blackberries, or chocolate lily roots were often added. Today, sourdock is made into jams and pies, boiled and served as a vegetable, and added to soups. It stores well in the freezer and can be used all winter long as a vegetable or condiment.
Photo: Sourdock in a coastal meadow.
Una tuntuq suarnituu’uq. - This deer has a wild taste.
Wild meats can have a gamey taste. There are people who claim to like this flavor, but most prefer to avoid eating gamey steaks and roasts. To prevent filling their larders with wild-tasting deer, elk, goat, or bear, Alutiiqs take two essential steps: they harvest the right animals at the right time of year, and they process their kills carefully.
Sitka deer are a good example of these principles. When bucks enter the rut in November, their meat becomes gamey. The reproductive hormones that drive them to seek out does alter the flavor of their meat. Knowledgeable hunters will avoid taking these animals, even though they are often less shy and easier to find than females. A hunter looking for good food will hunt earlier in the season or resist the temptation to harvest a buck with large antlers in the late fall.
Good meat care also will improve the flavor of an animal. Hunters who bleed their kills have better-tasting meat that preserves well. Alutiiq Elders recall their fathers hanging meat for many days, even weeks, to tenderize it. This process cannot remove a gamey taste, but it does make meats like Sitka deer, which are naturally low in fat, less stringy and easier to chew.
Photo: Men returning from a deer hunting trip on Afognak Island, ca. 1962. Chadwick Collection.