The Kodiak Alutiiq story began more than 7,500 years ago, when daring paddlers in skin covered boats left the security of the Alaska mainland to explore a distant island. Who were these people? Some think they were the descendants of interior Alaskan caribou hunters who adapted to life on the coast. Others argue that they were members of an ancient seafaring culture with ancestral ties to the shores of Siberia. Whatever the answer, both Alutiiq legends and ancient settlements on the Alaska Peninsula suggest people colonized Kodiak from the west.
From first settlement, Kodiak’s residents were skilled mariners, dependent on the sea for the necessities of life. Over 7,000 years, small, mobile, tent-dwelling bands developed into prosperous, permanent villages through human ingenuity. In response to climate change, population growth, and pressures imposed by neighboring societies, Alutiiqs learned to harvest resources with increasing efficiency. They made more effective hunting tools, captured fish in larger quantities, processed foods for storage, and organized community labor – creating the powerful chiefdoms encountered by Russian traders in the eighteenth century.
Classical Alutiiq Society
By AD 1200, Alutiiq society flourished in every corner of the archipelago. Spread from Shuyak to Tugidak, the population may have reached 14,000. Whaling villages and fishing communities sheltered extended families, who lived in large, multi-roomed sod houses. Chiefs and their families were the central figures of village life. Leaders, who inherited positions of authority from the previous generation, organized labor to insure the harvest of huge quantities of natural resources for food, barter, and festival. To maintain their prestige, chiefs traveled long distances to visit and trade. In huge open skin boats, a wealth of Kodiak resources – hard black slate, red salmon, bear hides, and spruce root, were transported to the mainland and exchanged for antler, ivory, horn, animal pelts and exotic stone. Peaceful trading was interspersed with conflict. Chiefs initiated raiding parties, traveling hundreds of miles to avenge insult and invade rival communities for plunder and slaves. During the dark winter months, the products of summer subsistence activities, trade, and warfare were invested in the community through public displays of prowess. Priests and shamans, specialists in the arts of ceremony and communication with the powerful spirit world, were hired to organize winter festivals. By honoring the events of the year, displaying their wealth through lavish feasts and gift giving, honoring ancestors, and thanking the spirit world, the Alutiiq elite perpetuated their status and provided for the economic, social, and spiritual needs of their communities.
Alutiiq society looks much different today. Single-family, ranch-style houses have replaced communal earthen homes, and hunters work from aluminum skiffs rather than skin boats. Family get-togethers feature perok and polkas, the Russian fish pie and Scandinavian dance music of recent immigrants. And Alutiiq villages, like all American communities, are connected to the larger world with airline flights, postal service, cable television and the Internet.
Yet, an Alutiiq way of living persists. Western-style Native corporations act much like traditional chiefs, working for the economic, social, and even spiritual health of their members. Every January, revelers celebrate Russian New Year with a masquerade ball that maintains elements of traditional winter festivals — masking, feasting, dancing and oration. Fishermen pull halibut from icy waters with tackle that is essentially the same as handcrafted rigging used for more than 5,000 years. And Elders light seal oil lamps at cultural events that are identical to the stone vessels that illuminated Kodiak for its first settlers.
Alutiiq identity is a marriage of genealogy, worldview, and experience that transcend the inevitable changes of time that influence, but do not define, all societies. The journey that began long ago continues today.
This cultural history is courtesy of Amy Steffian, Deputy Director of the Alutiiq Museum & Archaeological Repository