Naama uqgwingcut? - Where are the willows?
There are more than fifty species of willow (Salix spp.) in Alaska. One botanist estimates that seventeen of these species can be found in the Kodiak region. Although most Alaska willows are shrub-sized plants, northern species can range in size from dwarf bushes to full-sized tress. Willows thrive in moist soils, particularly along streambanks. Their edible parts include leaves, buds, new sprouts, and inner bark, which are excellent sources of vitamin C.
The most common use of willows among Kodiak Alutiiqs is as a spring vegetable. Tender young shoots and leaves can be collected throughout the archipelago in May and June and eaten raw or added to salads and side dishes. Some Alutiiq people serve willow shoots with sea seal oil or preserve the shoots in oil for later use. Others enjoy eating the leaves and shoots with milk and sugar, much like akutaq, or Alutiiq ice cream.
Willow wood is soft, so it is not considered a good source of fuel. Willow is only used to warm houses or smoke fish if other woods are not available. The plant’s soft wood, however, is a favorite material for Alutiiq children, who fashion whistles and slingshots from willow branches.
Photo: Large willow bush in a coastal meadow.
Yaatiini, akgua’aq, ernerpak cali aqllangenguartuq. - The last few days have been windy.
Wind is a persistent environmental feature of Alaska’s gulf coast. Steep mountains funnel sudden gusts down coastal valleys, and winter storms bring blustery weather that generates high seas and cold temperatures. For Kodiak residents, the wind is both a friend and an enemy. In summer, it keeps the bugs away and helps dry food for winter use. But in winter, wind can make travel and subsistence activities difficult, encouraging boaters to stay ashore. Weather is always a major topic of conversation. People learn to read the winds in their communities, to help predict everything from salmon runs to the return of the mail plane.
An Alutiiq legend tells of a community where the wind always blew fiercely, stranding villagers in their homes. A brave man paddled his kayak into the wind to find its source. He came to a cliff where a man sat blowing violently. He shot the man, who retreated but did not die. Over many months, the kayaker traveled to distant places, searching out other winds and stuffing their mouths with moss. His noble actions calmed the winds but did not tame them permanently.
PatRiitaq inimauq gaalem caniani. - The picture is hanging next to the window.
Alutiiq sod houses, ciqlluat, were dark inside. Their thick wood-planked roofs, covered with sod, grass, and boards, were designed to be waterproof and therefore let in little light. Most houses had a smoke hole—a square, board-covered hatch in the ceiling that could be propped open to release smoke from a fireplace below. When open, the smoke-hole flap let in some light. Burning oil lamps, fires in centrally placed hearths, and small gut windows provided additional light. While they were not large enough to use as an emergency exit, these coverings of translucent sea mammal stomach or intestines let in enough light to ease the darkness.
Alutiiqs began adding wood-framed and glass-paned windows to their sod houses in the early nineteenth century. In Old Harbor, western-style windows appeared in sod houses in the early 1920s. In 1926, Old Harbor had more than fifteen sod houses with wood floors and windows and just three framed houses. Framed houses became more common in the 1930s. In 1931, when the Three Saints Bay cannery burned down, Old Harbor residents salvaged unburned materials to use in house building. Anthropologist Harumi Befu, who visited the community in the summer of 1960, reported that the Karakims’ and the Ingas’ houses were probably built with these materials.
Photo: Toddlers playing on either side of a window in Karluk. Clyda Christensen Collection.
Tamuuliciqukut uksurpailan. - We will make dry fish before the winter.
Winter in the Kodiak Archipelago quickly follows summer. As the days darken and stormy weather sets in, the landscape turns rapidly from green to brown, the temperature drops, and wet, windy days replace the warmer, foggy days of fall. In Prince William Sound, Alutiiq children once marked the first days of winter by making string figures. String games were intended to entangle the sun, slowing its seasonal disappearance.
Subsistence harvesting continues in winter. However, economic activities are usually those that can be conducted on or near land: deer hunting, bird hunting, and plant collecting. Lowbush cranberries, Labrador tea, and licorice ferns are some of the plant resources that continue to be harvested in the winter. Cranberries, collected in windswept areas where the snow has been blown away, are often eaten as they are picked. On calm days, people will venture out in their boats to hunt and fish, but sea mammals, halibut, and cod range farther from shore in the cold season and can be harder to catch.
Winter is also a time for social activities. People gather to visit, celebrate, and share the fish and game harvested over the past year. In classical Alutiiq society, many of these activities took place in the qasgiq, or community house. These large, single-roomed structures were built much like traditional houses. They were framed from driftwood, covered in sod, and had benches lining the walls. Russian observers noted that most communities had one such structure where men gathered to socialize, plan war parties, discuss political issues, and lead community festivals.
Photo: Wintery morning in Ouinkie, 1949. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Kaganat yaksigtut maaken. - The wolves are far from here.
Wolves (Canis lupus) occur throughout mainland Alaska, from the rainforests of Southeast to Unimak Island in the Aleutians and as far north as the arctic coast of the Beaufort Sea. This huge range, nearly eighty-five percent of Alaska, illustrates the animals’ great adaptability. Like people, wolves can exist in many different habitats.
Although wolves are not indigenous to Kodiak Island, they are a part of the mainland Alutiiq world. Alutiiqs once trapped wolves for fur. Although large furbearers like bears, wolves, wolverine, and lynx were sought less frequently than smaller fox, mink, marten, and fisher, Prince William Sound hunters devised special snares for these larger animals. When an unsuspecting animal got its head stuck in the noose, it struggled to get free. This motion caused a log to drop, hoisting the animal into the air and strangling it.
Wolves also appear in Alutiiq rock art. An ancient rock painting from Kachemak Bay seems to illustrate the transformation of wolves into killer whales. This image may indicate that Alutiiqs believed in a “killer-whale-wolf ” creature, similar to that from Yup’ik mythology. This creature was a powerful predator, taking the form of a killer whale to hunt at sea and a wolf to hunt on land.
Image: Black wolf in Alaska. Courtesy the USF&WS National Digital Archives.
Arnat peknartutaartut. - Women work hard.
Women had important economic, social, and spiritual roles in classical Alutiiq society. In addition to collecting plant foods, they processed fish for storage, tanned hides, sewed the skin coverings for kayaks, wove baskets, and manufactured clothing. In winter villages, groups of related women lived together in large sod houses with their husbands and children. A pair of sisters, for example, might share a household. Some anthropologists believe that Alutiiqs were a matrilineal society. Descent may have been traced through women, with children gaining their family identity from their mother’s side.
In the spiritual realm, women shared their powers as both shamans and healers. The shaman was a mystical person. They communicated with the spiritual world and could foretell the future, forecasting the wealth or predicting the success of subsistence activities. In contrast, healers were community doctors. They manufactured herbal medicines, tended the sick, and acted as midwives.
Photo: Female doll by Coral Chernoff. Purchased for the Alutiiq Museum collections with assistance from the Rasmuson Foundation.
Tangirnaq cuumi suut amlellriit. - Woody Island once had many people.
Woody Island is a small piece of land that lies at the northern entrance to Chiniak Bay, just two miles from the city of Kodiak. It is part of a cluster of islands that provides shelter for Kodiak’s harbors. Woody Island is four miles long and two miles wide. It has seven small lakes and about thirteen miles of coastline. By Kodiak standards this is small island, yet it has a rich and remarkable history.
Archaeological data indicate that Alutiiqs occupied the island for millennia. Prehistoric sites are common on Woody Island, and when Russian traders arrived, the major Alutiiq village in northern Chiniak Bay lay on Woody Island’s western coast. Known by its Alutiiq name Tangirnaq, this village was home to hundreds of residents who called themselves Tangirnarmiut, the people of Tangirnaq. The Russians called this settlement Ostrov Leisnoi, or wooded island.
In the late eighteenth century, Alutiiq residents of Woody Island were forced to hunt sea otters and process food for Russian traders. This was the first of many western enterprises on the island. In the early 1800s, Russian entrepreneurs processed salt on Woody Island, made bricks, and harvested ice. In 1893, Baptist missionaries established an orphanage and school near the village. In the early 1900s the navy built a wireless station on the island, and during the Second World War, the army erected a sawmill and the Federal Aviation Administration built a communications station. In the 1960s, when the community’s public school closed and ferry service to Kodiak was discontinued, many families moved to Kodiak. While no Alutiiq families live on the island now, people still harvest subsistence foods around Tangirnaq and consider it their home.
Photo: Shore of Woody Island that faces the City of Kodiak.
Maama niugneret amlesqat nallunitai. - My mother knows a lot of words.
Anthropologists classify the Alutiiq language as part of the larger Yup'ik language family. It is one of five closely related Native languages spoken on both sides of the Bering Sea, from the Chukchi Peninsula, across Saint Lawrence Island and Western Alaska to the gulf coast of Alaska. These languages form a continuum, with each language most closely related to its nearest neighbor. Along this continuum, the languages become more complex from west to east, with Alutiiq the most elaborate.
The complexity of Alutiiq is evident in its regional variation. There are two regional dialects of the Alutiiq, one spoken in Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula, and a second spoken in the Kodiak Archipelago and on the Alaska Peninsula. Furthermore, within these dialects are at least two sub dialects. In the Kodiak region, for example, there are small but notable differences in the language spoken each end of the archipelago.
Another example of the language's breadth is the use of a special ritual language by shamans. During performances, shamans would communicate with their helping spirits in a language that the audience could not fully understand and the few surviving shaman's songs cannot be fully translated.
Photo: Cover of the Alutiiq Picture Dictionary.