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Aron L. Crowell

Crossing the Alutiiq Homeland: Heritage and Identity

The 2001 Harriman Retraced expedition spent eleven days traveling east to west through the coastal homeland of the Alutiiq people. This sea track of more than 650 miles took us to Kayak Island, Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, Kachemak Bay, Kodiak Island, and the Pacific shoreline of the Alaska Peninsula. All along the way we explored Alutiiq history and visited contemporary communities. The towns of Cordova, Valdez, Homer, Kodiak, and Chignik were our gracious hosts.

At least 8,000 people were living in the Alutiiq region when Russian, English, and Spanish explorers first arrived in the late 18th century. At that time they called themselves Sugpiat ("real people"); the name Alutiiq (or in plural form, Alutiit) was adopted later. It comes from Aleuty, a general term used by the Russians for Native peoples across much of western and southern Alaska. The Sugpiat or Alutiit lived in scores of large villages and traveled in skin boats to summer fishing and hunting camps. They held feasts and masked hunting rituals during the winter to build social connections and sustain spiritual relationships with the spirits of animals.

kayaks

Alutiiq kayaks from the village of Nanwalek in Cook Inlet, 1997. (Photo by Lena Anderson. Courtesy of the Arctic Studies Center).
Click image for a larger view.

 

The very first people in the area belonged to a cultural tradition called "Paleoarctic" by archaeologists. They arrived about 10,000 years ago as part of an early wave of migration from Siberia. Paleoarctic people pioneered the transition from interior hunting to a coastal way of life. From archaeological evidence we know that by 9,000 B.C. they were traveling to offshore islands and harvesting fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. Over the following millennia the population increased and people moved into larger and more permanent settlements. Descendant generations conceived rich traditions of art, mythology, social life, and religious belief.

During our travels the Clipper Odyssey stopped first at Kayak Island, where the Bering expedition of 1741 discovered hastily abandoned Chugach Alutiiq settlements. Reports from the expedition brought southern Alaska and its wealth of sea otter furs to the attention of Russia and set the stage for colonial rule that would last until 1867. In Kenai Fjords National Park the expedition went ashore at an 800 year-old seal hunting camp (see daily log, August 3). In Katmai National Park the highlight was an Alutiiq refuge village in Kukak Bay, where local residents retreated during raids by warriors from other Alutiiq or Unangan villages. The site reflects widespread indigenous warfare in the centuries following A.D. 1000. In Kodiak we visited the Alutiiq Museum where objects from archaeological sites and Smithsonian collections made in the 1880s are included in the exhibition Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People. The project was developed as collaborative effort of the Smithsonian's Arctic Studies Center, the Alutiiq Museum, and Alutiiq communities (Crowell, Steffian, and Pullar 2001).

hunting ceremony

Winter hunting ceremony on Kodiak Island, 18th century. (Illustration by Mark Matson. Courtesy of the Arctic Studies Center).
Click image for a larger view.

One of the key issues explored in Looking Both Ways is the relationship between history and contemporary cultural identity. The scars of contact with the West are deep. Alutiiq communities experienced terrible mortality during the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries as the result of smallpox and other introduced diseases, and the present population is still less than half of its original size. People suffered under Russian conquest and harsh colonial rule and perhaps equally under administration by the United States after 1867. The government sought to acculturate Native people and students were physically punished for speaking Alutiiq in school. After two hundred years of intensive cultural contact the very meaning of what it means to be Alutiiq has become an issue of concern and debate.

root hat

Alutiiq spruce root hunting hat with image of hunting spirit, Kodiak Island. From the collections of the National Museum of Natural History, 1884. (Photo by Carl C. Hansen. Courtesy of the Arctic Studies Center).
Click image for a larger view.

One of the bright spots is that Alutiiq people have never been displaced from their original territories. Strong ties to the land and commitment to a subsistence lifestyle have carried through to the present day. The harvesting and sharing of wild foods is an active and essential element of Alutiiq culture and identity. Clear title to land and its resources was achieved by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Efforts to foster cultural discovery and revitalization include construction of the Alutiiq Museum in 1995, arts and language programs, and professional archaeological excavations sponsored by Alutiiq organizations and corporations. Human remains and burial artifacts taken from the region in the past are being returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a matter of great symbolic importance to Alutiiq communities.


Reference:

Crowell, Aron L., Amy F. Steffian, and Gordon L. Pullar. Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People. University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks. 2001.

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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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