Culture & History: Internet Directory

Alutiiq Peoples

The term "Alutiiq" is used to refer to both the language and culture of the group of Alaska Native people indigenous to the Kodiak Island Archipelago, the southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula, Prince William Sound, and the lower tip of the Kenai Peninsula. In Russian colonial times, most Alutiiqs were originally categorized as Aleuts. The Russian settlers eventually realized that Alutiiqs were different from Aleuts, and referred to them by area as Kadiaks or Chugashes.

Archeological Studies

Some archaeologists believe that the ancestors of the present-day Native Alaskan residents of the Alutiiq culture area have continuously inhabited the area for at least 7,000 years. Archaeologists have identified several distinct cultural traditions in the Kodiak Island area. These are:

Ocean Bay (ca. 4500-1400 B.C.)
Kachemak (ca. 1400 B.C.-1200 A.D.)
Koniag (ca. 1200-1784 AD)

The "Ocean Bay" tradition was first identified with a site near the present-day village of Old Harbor on the south end of Kodiak Island.

The name "Kachemak" was first used by archeologist Frederica de Laguna in 1930 to describe assemblages from Kachemak Bay.

Koniags were the people inhabiting Kodiak Island at the time of European contact. The Chugach were the people living in Prince William Sound when the first Europeans arrived. The Koniags and Chugach lived in sod houses in their permanent winter villages. In summer, they moved to temporary fish camps. They hunted sea mammals such as whales, seals, sea lions, and sea otters. The Koniags were more dependent on salmon which was a major dietary staple of all Alutiiqs. They dried salmon for use in the winter. Hunting was done with harpoons and clubs, and fish were speared, gaffed, harpooned or hooked. Salmon were caught in weirs built across rivers.

Both men and women wore long hoodless fur or bird skin parkas, and hooded rain parkas made from strips of intestine. Men's lips were pierced to allow the insertion of small plugs called labrets. Women's chins were tattooed at puberty. Sea hunters wore bent wood hats in the shape of a cone, decorated with amulets and painted designs.

The Russians Arrive

Soon after Vitus Bering first stopped in the Aleutian Islands in 1741, Russian hunters and merchants established a colonial presence in what is now Alaska to profit from the furs of sea otters. The Russians exploited Native labor for their colonial venture. They sold the valuable pelts of sea otters to a Chinese market and to fellow Russians. Following the decline of sea otters in the Aleutian Chain, the Russians turned toward the rich waters of the Kodiak region.

Although Kodiak Natives successfully repelled an initial trading visit by the colonists, the Russians' muskets and cannons soon enabled the colonials to dominate the Alutiiqs by force.

1784: The Russians Settle Kodiak

In 1784 Grigory Ivanovich Shelikhov founded a Russian settlement on Kodiak Island at Three Saints Bay, near the present-day village of Old Harbor. The settlement provided a means of restricting the British fur trade and to continue in the sea otter hunting industry.

The local native population was used as laborers in the sea otter hunting industry. Alutiiq men were organized into work groups and forced to hunt at sea in large fleets of bidarkas, while women, old men, and children were made to work on shore. By the end of the Russian colony in 1867, the pre-contact population of perhaps 8,000 on Kodiak Island had dwindled to around 2,000.

In 1793, the Russians decided to move the capital of their colony from Three Saints Bay to the northern part of Kodiak. They established a new center of government, which they named Pavlov Harbor ("Paul Harbor"), at the site of today's city of Kodiak. Pavlov Harbor's central position in the colonial empire lasted until 1808. A contingent of Russian Orthodox clergy arrived in Kodiak in 1794 to convert Alaskan Natives to Christianity. A lasting legacy of the Russian era is the Russian Orthodox religion.

1867: US buys Alaska for $7.6M

The Russians sold Alaska to the United States in 1867. Soon after the sale, a number of American entrepreneurs arrived to continue sea otter hunting until the near demise of this animal led to a ban on hunting it in 1911. The Americans attempted various other industries, including trapping, whaling, cattle ranching, and gold mining. A number of tiny islands around the Kodiak Archipelago and off the Alaska Peninsula were deemed suitable for fox farming. The farms were largely owned by trading companies which hired Native men to hunt and fish to provide food for the foxes. The salmon fishing industry, which had both high risks and high profits, enjoyed the most dramatic and lasting success of the new commercial efforts.

1912: Mount Katmai Erupts

The residents of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak were disrupted by the volcanic eruption of Mount Katmai in June 1912. The volcano covered Kodiak with eighteen inches of ash, clogged salmon streams and killed vegetation. Commercial salmon fishing was halted that year. In subsequent years, however, the ash served as fertilizer for bumper-crop gardens. Halibut fishermen from the Northwest Coast, many of them Norwegian immigrants, began stopping in Kodiak in the early twentieth century. By the 1920s, herring and cod boats also fished in Kodiak waters. In 1938 and 1939, the U. S. Congress allocated funds for the construction of a Navy base at Kodiak. During World War II, the military presence increased dramatically. Kodiak became a base for as many as 15,000 servicemen. After the war, the Navy base remained in Kodiak and later became a Coast Guard base. In the postwar years, salmon continued to be a major fishery.

1964 Good Friday Earthquake generates Tsunami

The Great Alaskan Earthquake of March 27, 1964, and the tsunami that followed it, caused great destruction to Kodiak. Three Native villages, Chenega, Kaguyak, and Afognak, were destroyed. Twenty-three people died in Chenega, about a third of the population of the village. There were eleven deaths in the Kodiak Island area. The town of Kodiak was greatly damaged, as was the village of Ouzinkie. Old Harbor was practically demolished and had to be substantially rebuilt. Residents of Afognak were relocated to a new village, Port Lions, and Kaguyak villagers were moved to the existing community of Akhiok. While a considerable portion of Kodiak's fishing fleet was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami, the rebuilding of Kodiak city hastened its emergence as the "king crab capital." The canneries near Old Harbor and Ouzinkie, destroyed in the earthquake, were never rebuilt. As a result, processing was increasingly consolidated in the town of Kodiak. Some fishermen, both in villages and in centers such as Kodiak and Cordova, were able to buy bigger and more modern boats with disaster loans.

Cultural Revitalization

In the Kodiak, efforts toward cultural revitalization began to gather force in the early 1980s, aided greatly by the development of an energetic cultural heritage program within the Kodiak Area Native Association. The program made great strides in fostering Alutiiq pride and achievement. Some projects included oral history programs, arts and crafts programs, elders' conferences, and educational outreach. KANA worked closely with archaeologists conducting research on the island and coordinated local Native youths' involvement in archeological excavations. It encouraged the development of an Alutiiq language dictionary, grammar, and school curriculum.

1989: Exxon Valdez Spill

Both commercial and subsistence fishing were strongly affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill which occurred on March 27, 1989. When the Exxon Valdez tanker hit Bligh Reef, it spilled almost 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. Response teams were unable to contain the oil before it was carried by currents throughout the entire area, ending as far south as Ivanof Bay on the Alaska Peninsula. The oil first hit Kodiak area beaches in mid-April. The salmon season was closed due to the fear of oil contamination of fish. Settlements from the oil spill have helped preserve a variety of Kodiak's public lands, adding acreage to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, Afognak Island State Park and Shuyak Island State Park.

Dig Afognak

In 1994, the Afognak Native Corporation instituted a program called Dig Afognak that allows tourist participation in archaeological excavations and also offers instruction in Alutiiq cultural traditions. The Kodiak Tribal Council has promoted a tour package which includes learning about Alutiiq culture and performances by the Alutiiq Dancers.


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