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A Living Heritage

The Alutiiq Story

By Tina Pamintuan | HUMANITIES, May/June 2001 | Volume 22, Number 3

Picture yourself on a shore with the tide beginning to fall, says Roy Madsen, an Alutiiq in Kodiak, Alaska. "You gaze into the clear waters of the stream at the multicolored stones in its bed, and at the bits of seaweed and twigs that are being carried off to unknown destinations. Those bits and pieces are our Alutiiq culture as it has been pushed, shoved, jostled, and propelled from the time of our earliest ancestors to the present day."

An NEH-funded exhibition on that heritage opens June 23 at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak. "Looking Both Ways" examines the extensive change brought about by contact with other cultures. The multilayered heritage of the Alutiiq blends Russian, American, and Scandinavian blood and traditions into native culture. "Our central question is 'What does it mean to be Alutiiq?'" says Dr. Aron Crowell, exhibition curator.

In 1761, Russian fur- trading vessels landed on Kodiak Island in search of sea otter and seal pelts. Arsenti Aminak was a young boy when he witnessed the approach of a Russian ship for the first time. Ninety years later, he described the experience: "When we saw the ship far off, we believed it was a giant whale and curiosity drove us to examine it more closely." The Russians, with their strange clothing and customs, were a source of wonderment. "The people aboard it wore buttons on their clothes. We thought they were squid but when we saw that they took fire into their mouths and blew out smoke—we knew nothing of tobacco—we could only believe that they were devils."

Aminak's people called themselves Sugpiat, a word meaning "real people" in their native language, Sugcestun. The Russians, however, called them Aleuts, which most likely has its origins in the name Alut, a Siberian village on the Kamchatka Coast. Like the inhabitants of Alut, these southern Alaska natives were coastal people who hunted whales. Today, most descendants of the Sugpiat refer to themselves as Alutiit (singular, Alutiiq).

From the early 1760s until 1784, contact between natives and fur traders was limited and sporadic. Traders' tactics ranged from making payments to native leaders and trading cheap goods, to seizing hostages and using force to coerce native hunters. The Alutiit resisted the landing of ships on Kodiak Island by attacking them repeatedly. In 1763 the natives attempted to scale one such ship, the Sv. Andrean i Nataliia, and to use flaming bundles of grass and birch bark to burn it. Although the natives' wooden shields proved effective against Russian muskets—which required significant time to reload and were prone to malfunction in damp conditions—they were repelled by the Russians. Eventually the Russians succeeded in trading beads for a cargo of sea otter and fox furs before they left Kodiak Island the following spring.

In 1784, an incident at Refuge Rock became a turning point in Native-Russian relations. A crew led by Grigorii Shelikhov attacked a group of natives on a small islet off the shore of Kodiak Island. Shelikhov's crew was more numerous and better armed than previous fur-trading expeditions. Seventy-one Russians stormed the rock with muskets while others fired cannons from shore. Nearly five hundred native men, women, and children were killed and hundreds more were captured. This confrontation precipitated Russia's conquest of Kodiak Island and the natives who lived there. Hostages were taken to the newly established Three Saints Harbor in southern Kodiak Island, the first Russian settlement in Alaska.

The Russians established a policy of forced labor. According to the Russian-American Company charter of 1821, at least half the male population between the ages of eighteen and fifty were eligible to serve during the hunting season. In practice, almost all natives, including women and children, were eligible for work. The nominal payment for service was usually in the form of clothing or food made by those not sent on the hunt—native men, women, and children who were not compensated for their labor.

Death at sea among hunters was common, as was death from malnutrition and disease such as smallpox, influenza, and measles. The most destructive effect of Russian colonization was the population loss due to these epidemics, which often led to the abandonment of villages. By the mid- nineteenth century, the native population had diminished from nine thousand at the time of the Refuge Rock incident to three thousand.

Russian Orthodox priests who saw the conditions in which the local people lived interceded on their behalf and tried to improve their treatment. By baptizing the Alutiit, the priests changed their status to that of Russian citizens. "In a way, the original priests who baptized us were able to save us from extermination," says Sven Haakanson, Jr., anthropologist and director of the Alutiiq Museum. "As soon as we became Russian citizens, they had to pay us and treat us as Russian citizens."

Haakanson suggests that the foreign religion may have been easier for natives to accept because of the similarity of Orthodox and native pantheons. "We have one overarching deity and several deities that surround our world," says Haakanson, "which is similar to Russian Orthodoxy where you have one God, but then many saints with different themes."

The blending of the Orthodox Church and native ways was facilitated by the Church's attitude toward the Alutiiq language. The Church's policy reflected the Russian attitude in general: natives were not forced to learn Russian, nor was their indigenous language suppressed. Native believers were able to read Orthodox texts in their native language. An 1848 primer of the Gospel of St. Matthew shows the gospel printed in both languages, side by side.

Russian Orthodoxy was absorbed into native culture. Lucille Davis, an Alutiiq elder, was taught traditional midwifery as a young woman. She recalls that the Russian Orthodox cross was embroidered on traditional cloth pouches used to hold a baby's "bag," the dried amniotic sac. These pouches were used to reassure children during crying fits and moments of discomfort.

After Russia sold its Alaskan interests to America in 1867, the loss of financial backing from the Russian government forced village churches to become self-supporting. With the departure of many Russian priests, the upkeep of the church and facilities fell to native people. Natives became more active in taking leadership roles in local churches and some Alutiiq men joined the priesthood.

Whereas the Russians left much of the indigenous culture intact, the American government followed an aggressive policy of dismantling the Alutiiq culture. The attempt to replace native and Russian ways with American ones included establishing non-Orthodox Christian churches in Orthodox regions. Russian Orthodoxy, which had become intimately associated with native culture, was regarded as "un-American." At the Baptist Mission on Woody Island, children were taken from their parents and placed in the mission orphanage, where they were forbidden to attend Orthodox services.

Forced acculturation was also effected under the guise of formal education. "Looking Both Ways" incorporates the first-person narratives of Alutiit such as Martha Demientieff, who grew up in the Bristol Bay area. She describes her experiences in a Roman Catholic mission school: "At that time it was very easy to understand the objective of school, because it was to 'civilize' you." Part of this process was learning English. Teachers urged parents not to let their children speak their native language at home, and some children were physically punished for speaking it in school.

Olga Sam, an Alutiiq elder, remembers the painful dilemma the English-only policy presented. "Sometimes after I learned English my mom would say something to me in Aleut, and if I didn't understand she'd get so mad. She'd say, 'You are not Americaniq, you're my Alutiiq!'" Today, very few speak their native language. In the twenty-five remaining Alutiiq villages, the majority of speakers are over the age of sixty.

Given the historically rocky relationship between natives and social scientists, the organizers of "Looking Both Ways" sought the input of members of the Alutiiq community as well as anthropologists in creating the exhibition. Beginning in the 1930s, anthropologists and archaeologists came to Alaska to study Alutiiq ways. Initially, natives tolerated their questions and intrusion into daily life, but the lack of communication between natives and scientists gradually changed the community's attitude toward researchers.

In some of the worst cases, anthropologists used unscrupulous methods to obtain data. In the 1960s, Haakanson's mother had all of her healthy teeth removed by an anthropologist who was tracing the origins of the Alutiiq by studying their physical characteristics. According to Haakanson, the scientist used his title of "doctor" to convince her that his methods were legitimate. "He told her, 'Your teeth are going to fall out anyway, so you may as well take them out,'" explains Haakanson, who is also an anthropologist. "At that time, any outsiders who came in—especially ones with the title of doctor—were supposed to know more than us."

By the 1980s, the community regarded anthropologists with suspicion. "Resentment had built over the anthropologists' definition of who Alutiiq people were, as if their version of Western science was the only truth," says Gordon Pullar, anthropologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and co-editor of the exhibition catalog.

Today, collaborative participation in the anthropological study of Alutiiq heritage is emphasized. However, Haakanson says that much of this work still places natives in the traditional role of "subject," where they take no active role in describing their own cultural identity. "One would think that we were beyond this exclusionary approach, which is a clear example of how natives are not in control of their history and what is said about them."

By presenting native perspectives on history, "Looking Both Ways" offers an Alutiiq contribution to the understanding and description of native heritage. "Now we can show the rest of the island that we have something to be proud of," says Haakanson. "We have a heritage, something that was ours and still is ours."

"Often people write about native people as if they were historical artifacts, but we wanted to talk about the contemporary meaning of heritage," Crowell says. "Culture is something people live."

About the Author

Tina Pamintuan is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Funding Information

"Looking Both Ways," which received a $244,555 grant from NEH, opens June 23 at the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska. The exhibition travels to museums in Homer and Anchorage, Alaska; Seattle, Washington; and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.