Qanganangua’itukut Kasukuagni. - We don’t have yarrow in Akhiok.
Northern yarrow (Achillea borealis), also known as squirrel’s tail, is a hardy, medium-sized herb that thrives in open habitats throughout the Kodiak Archipelago. This member of the sunflower family has frilly grey-green leaves that are slightly hairy. In late summer, the plant produces clumps of small, white or pale pink flowerets.
Yarrow has many medicinal applications. Alutiiq people commonly use it as a steam bath switch or add it to poultices to relieve aches and pains. Warmed, wet leaves or crushed roots can be applied directly to an afflicted area or wrapped in a moistened cloth. Northern yarrow can also help to cure external infections such as sores, cuts, or in some cases toothaches. Tea can also be made from either fresh or dried yarrow leaves, steeped or boiled. The tea is said to relieve cramps and gas, increase appetite, and alleviate the symptoms of a cold. You can also repel mosquitoes by rubbing the plant on your skin or clothing.
Photo: Yarrow growing on a Kodiak beach. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Uksuq asillria. - The year was good.
Russian New Year is one of the beloved holidays observed by Alutiiq families that practice Russian Orthodoxy. This celebration of renewal is held annually on January 14, which is New Years Day on the Julian calendar that tracks the Orthodox year. Around Kodiak, Russian New Year is celebrated with social events that include feasting and dancing. Holiday parties include a diversity of elements reflecting the cultures that have contributed to contemporary Alutiiq life: the joyous dancing and visiting of Alutiiq winter festivals, Russian dishes made with traditional subsistence foods, and the polkas, Rhinelanders, schottisches, and waltzes introduced by Scandinavian fishermen.
In the Kenai Peninsula villages of Nanwalek and Port Graham, Alutiiqs celebrate Russian New Year with a special pageant. In this dramatic performance, costumed participants act out the triumph of the New Year over the old. A squad of armed guards accompanies the New Year, who is dressed in white and followed by twelve finely gowned women representing the months to come. The old year arrives in black, heavily masked and attended by clowns. Throughout the performance the two groups dance, spar, and joke. The pageant ends at midnight, as the old year is vanquished. This is followed by recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and late night dancing for everyone. Elders recall that similar pageants were once held on Kodiak.
Illustration: A year of Alutiiq activities. Alutiiq Museum gallery.
StRausircunituq. - It smells like yeast.
Yeast is a single-celled microorganism, a type of fungus widely present in nature. There are thousands of varieties of yeast in air, soil, and water, and on plants and animals. Archaeologists believe that people began incorporating yeast into bread at least 5,000 years ago. In baking, yeast works by generating carbon dioxide as it breaks down sugars. The gas forms bubbles in the dough, causing it to rise and creating delicious, fluffy bread.
In the early twentieth century, when Alutiiq ladies baked many rolls and loaves of bread to feed their families, baker’s yeast was an important kitchen tool. People purchased several varieties. Cakes of yeast were the most common, although yeast packets were sometimes available. Others simply saved a small portion of their yeasted dough to start the next batch of bread, the way many Alaskans use a sourdough starter.
Women kept their yeast in a warm spot. One common place was in a gallon jug behind an oil-fired kitchen stove. Here women would mix cakes of yeast with the starchy water created by boiling potato. The starch provided sugars to feed and multiply the yeast, creating a leavening water the women used to make bread dough. Ladies added to this mixture periodically to keep it alive.
Sun'aa'rausqak Nuniami et'aarllriik. - These two young people were in Old Harbor.
All human societies recognize the teenage years as a time of transition, a period when young people grow from children into adults. Adolescence is also universally a period of preparation, where boys and girls are trained for marriage, child rearing, and work. Alutiiq families educated young people through mentorship. Teens worked alongside family members to acquire the array of knowledge and skills needed for adult life. When sun'aa'aq were physically and socially mature, communities marked their new status in special ways.
For girls, menarche, the onset of menstruation, signaled adulthood. This was an extremely powerful moment, the point when a girl gained the power to create life. After a feast for family members and friends, the initiate gave away her toys and changed her appearance. She received a woman’s haircut, tattoos to her joints, and pieces of braided sinew tied around her neck, elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles. Finally, she put on an undecorated coat of reindeer calf skins and entered a period of seclusion in a special hut. The unusual coat symbolized her transformational state. At end of her confinement she took a steam bath and reentered the community. Alutiiq shaman, the intercessors of the spirit world, acknowledged the great power of this transition by decorating their clothing with the hair of young women preparing for seclusion.
For boys, first-kill ceremonies were the equivalent of a girl’s menarche ritual. Among the Chugach Alutiiq, boys gave away the meat from their first kill and then fasted for three days. This was followed by a feast where the boy was dressed as baby. Then, his mother sang him a lullaby, while another woman danced as the animal killed by the young man. A third woman pretended to kill the animal and distribute its fur, demonstrating the importance of the young man’s generosity.
Photo: Marra Adonga and Alfred Hansen, Old Harbor Alaska, ca. 1946-1949. Andrewvitch Collection, Alutiiq Museum, Gift of Olive Beemer, AM694.125.