An Alutiiq Dance

Child dancing

E ach fall, after the end of salmon fishing and the berry harvest, the Alutiiq people of southern coastal Alaska held a series of festivals and spiritual ceremonies that lasted throughout the winter months. Dances and accompanying songs addressed powerful spirits who could help or harm human beings, and appealed to the souls of animals upon whom life depended.

* Begin the Alutiiq Dance
Wearing masks and beautiful ceremonial dress, men and women danced their parts in the rituals, accompanied by the beat of skin drums, bird beak rattles, and piercing whistles that called the spirits to the dance house, or qasgiq (in Russian, kazhim). Gideon, a Russian Orthodox churchman, witnessed one of the winter ceremonies on Kodiak Island between 1804 and 1807. His description, translated from the Russian by Lydia Black, is illustrated here by artist Mark Matson.

* Highlights from the Fisher Collection
Alutiiq ceremonial garments, masks, and instruments shown with the drawings are from the William J. Fisher collection (1879-1884) at the National Museum of Natural History. The photographs link to data recorded by Fisher, Alutiiq (Sugcestun) language names corrected from Fisher's notes by linguist Jeff Leer, and research commentary by Dee Hunt.

* Download the Video (2MG)
Even today the Alutiiq people value their sacred dances and continue to perform the Alutiiq Dance, as shown in this video of the Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers. The Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers welcomed elders to the Alutiiq Museum in September, 1997, for a three-day cultural conference and planning meeting for the exhibition Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People.

* View the References
If you are intrigued and would like to learn more about Alutiiq Heritage and Identity, please review the references section of this site.

Research and text: Dee Hunt and Aron Crowell, Arctic Studies Center
Illustrations: Mark Matson
Photographs: Aron Crowell
Linguistic research: Jeff Leer, Alaska Native Language Center