In Alaska, there is always a story being told, always a teaching being offered. This is the final piece in a three-part series focused on three communities in southeast Alaska, the Land of Many Welcomes. In this edition we explore Kodiak Island, Alaska.
Alutiiq history has historically been oral, and today, voices from the past speak in different ways on Kodiak Island.
At the Alutiiq Museum and Archeological Repository, ancient faces peer from whalebone masks.
At an art sale at the Su’nak First Nation offices, Janelle Carlson’s carvings on stone retell the stories her ancestors left behind in petroglyphs.
At Horseshoe Cove, an 800-year-old multi-room house emerges from an archeological dig, revealing how the Alutiiq people lived. Ancestors tell descendants stories about their lives at 1,200 sites on Kodiak Island.
“Archeological sites are the Alutiiq library,” one archeologist says in the film, Stories from Stone.
And ancestors’ remains and objects are returning home, thanks to the repatriation efforts of the Kodiak Alutiiq/Sugpiaq Repatriation Commission.
Of course, nothing tells the story about Alutiiq life better than Kodiak Island itself – at 3,465 square miles – it’s the second largest island in the United States and the 80th largest in the world.
The southwestern two-thirds of the island is part of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Here, seven major rivers and about 100 streams provide spawning habitat for all six species of Pacific Ocean salmon, trout and several other fish, as well as a nesting ground for 250 species of birds.
This is the home of Taquka-aq, also known as the Kodiak brown bear – at 10 feet standing on its hind legs and 1,400 pounds, the largest bear in the world (a title shared with the polar bear). Taquka-aq shares the grasslands and spruce forests with ermine, red fox, river otter and tundra voles, as well as the introduced Sitka deer, mountain goat, snowshoe hare and beaver.
The sea is bountiful with salmon, halibut and king crab. There are numerous canneries; logging and ranching are other prevalent industries.
Much of the island’s hustle and bustle is centered in Kodiak, the main city on the Kodiak Island, and an immersion in Alutiiq culture can be had for a walk.
On this day, Alutiiq artist June Pardue exhibited a variety of works in the lobby of the Alutiiq Museum. She weaved baskets out of beach rye grass, or out of seal gut and willow. A set of carefully detailed earrings feature a petroglyph design on elk hide with a walrus stomach overlay, bordered with beads.
Museum staff carefully brought out an elaborate, elegant headdress Pardue made for her daughter’s wedding. The headdress is made from beads, shell and fur.
According to the museum, such headdresses, known by the Alutiiq as nacaq (na-chak), are “an important item of ceremonial regalia, worn at festivals for dancing, feasting and visiting. Women’s headdresses were typically made from hundreds of glass beads strung on sinew and embellished with feathers colored with cranberry or blueberry juice. Strands of small beads were tied into a tight fitting cap with many dangling lengths attached to the sides and the back. These attachments often featured larger, heavier beads that swayed, glittered and jingled as the wearer moved.”
Pardue’s headdress is no less astonishing in its beauty and craftsmanship.
She learned to weave from her mother, who had learned from master weaver Fedosia Inga. It turned out to be a valuable inheritance.
Pardue was born in Old Harbor Village on Kodiak Island. In 1964, the village was wiped away by the Good Friday earthquake and tsunami. The family moved to a bathhouse, or maqiwik, and stored their food in the school basement. When the food was destroyed by water, Pardue’s mother told the children they had to work on their crafts, because that was how they would make money to survive. So Pardue did, at age 14.
Today, Pardue has baskets in permanent collections at the Alutiiq Museum, Baranov Museum, Sheldon Jackson Museum, and the Alaska Native Heritage Center. She has demonstrated the fine art of weaving at the United Nations and the Smithsonian Institute.
In the Alutiiq Museum, exhibits employ artifacts, photos and text to provide an immersion in Alutiiq life: “Sharing Words,” “Culture Through Time,” “Women at Work,” “Men are Working,” “Feeding our Families,” “Our Island,” “Cycle of Life: The Alutiiq Seasonal Round.”
A stuffed Taquka-aq stands on hind legs, watching as driftwood and a sea lion skin qayaq, or kayak, coasts by.
A photo exhibit, “Native Ways in Changing Times,” introduces visitors to the conflict between the state Fish and Game Department and Alutiiq people who hold fast to their way of living by fishing, hunting and gathering.
Photographer Lisa Williams, a social documentarian from Sonoma State University in California, quotes Walter Meganack Jr., president of the Port Graham Corporation: “I think there are a lot of Native people who have a real problem with the term ‘subsistence.’ I prefer to call it ‘way of life.’ There is no better label. ‘Subsistence’ doesn’t cover the spiritual aspect.”
It’s lunch time. Visitors enjoy king crab legs on the deck of Channel Side Chowder House, overlooking the channel to Near Island. A fishing boat cruises by. Suddenly, a swooshing is heard; Kum’agyak – bald eagle – flies low over the channel from a high tree on Near Island. Later, Winaq – Steller sea lion – is heard exhaling loudly as it cruises up the channel; later, it will be seen lunching on a salmon.
Sidetrip: Kenai Fjords
North of Kodiak Island is Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park. Here, visitors board a vessel owned by Kenai Fjords Tours – owned by an Alaska Native corporation – for an introduction to the rivers of ice known as glaciers.
A brochure gives a checklist of the wildlife to see – including their Alutiiq names and descriptions of how the people depended on these animals.
As we travel around the Chiswell Islands, it seems to be on the edge of the world – craggy islets host a winaq or a tufted puffin. The puffins, fat on candlefish, herring and sandlance, are described by the skipper as “flying potatoes” – a seemingly accurate description.
The boat turns north into the fjord between Harris and Aialik peninsulas. Glacial runoff stirs up the fjord, attracting prey for ar’uq (humpback whales) which fluke up – lift their tails out of the water – as they begin a dive.
Aialik and Holgate glaciers leave haunting memories. Aialik is one mile across and 1,600 feet high. Calved ice pops and cracks in the fjord. Bald eagles perch on a large ice chunk. Sea otters, ikam’aq, float on their backs, munching on shellfish.
Howdice “Howdy” Brown, Yupik/Mexican, of Kenai Fjords fishes a piece of ice out of the bay and allows visitors to hold it, a souvenir from the ice age.
This tour is unique in that it is seen through a Native lens – the lens of a culture that has lived here since time immemorial.
Kenai Fjords Tours is part of Alaska Heritage Tours, which is owned by CIRI, or Cook Inlet Region Inc.; its shareholders and employees are the First Peoples of this region. Other companies within Alaska Heritage Tours: Mariah Tours, Prince William Sound Cruises and Tours, Seward Windsong Lodge and Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge.
Online: www.alaskaheritagetours.com or (877)777-2805.
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