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LOOKING BOTH WAYS: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People of Southern Alaska

Introduction
About the People
Alutiiq Villages
About this Project
Supplemental Reading

Object Categories
Ancestors
Our History
Our Way of Living
Our Beliefs
Our Family


Our Beliefs

"Everyone comes: men, women, and young girls, as well as the little ones. In the qasgiq [ceremonial house], the men sit on benches, the women on the floor beneath the benches .. The Elders beat the drums and start to sing songs in honor of their ancestors .." - Russian Orthodox priest Gideon, describing a Kodiak Island dance, 1804-07

Winter hunting ceremonies were part of Alutiiq spiritual life until the late 1800s. With masked dancing, songs, and whistles, Alutiiq people invited spirits from the sky and undersea worlds to come to the ceremonial house. Each dance began with the purifying smoke of burning herbs. Songs were sung to honor the ancestors and dancing followed, to the beat of drums and puffin beak rattles. Each dance portrayed a spirit as it traveled through the universe and helped with hunts for whales and other animals.

Ceremonies and feasts marked other occasions - a boy's first successful hunt, a girl's first menstruation, or completion of a new kayak. The Feast of the Dead, held in Prince William Sound, remembered ancestors with feasting and gift giving. Alutiiq leaders showed their wealth and generosity by hosting the ceremonies and inviting guests from other villages.

Shamanism

Many stories are told about Alutiiq shamans (kala'alet). They could change into animal form, dive into the earth, or fly through the air. Shamans could cure illness, read minds, foretell the success of hunting, and quell storms. Some, however, used their powers to harm others.

Both men and women could become shamans, and boys raised as women (ahnaucit) often took up the calling. Shamans were assisted by charms and by their personal helper-spirits.

The Alutiiq Universe

In traditional belief, the universe had five sky worlds, one above the other, and five underworlds, each inhabited by different beings.

Every object and creature had a human "owner," called a suk or sua. Lam Sua, the "person of the universe," was the purest and most powerful. Nunam Sua (person of the land) and Imam Sua (person of the sea) watched over the animals. An animal's own suk might reveal itself as a brightly shining human form that stepped out of its covering of feathers or fur.

Contemporary Faith

Russian Orthodoxy is the oldest Christian faith in the Alutiiq region, and the most widespread. The first Russian missionaries came to Kodiak Island in 1794. Other faiths include Evangelical, Catholic, Protestant, and Mormon. Christianity has largely replaced indigenous beliefs, becoming part of what "being Alutiiq" means to many people.

A ceremony called "starring," or Sláwiq, takes place following Russian Christmas (January 7). Participants sing hymns in Slavonic Russian, Alutiiq, and English while carrying a "Star of Bethlehem" from house to house. This custom, originally from the Ukraine, represents the journey of the Three Wise Men. In some villages, comical masked dancers called maskalatalhít portray assassins sent by King Herod to find the infant Jesus. Maskalatalhít play whistles and dance to guitar and accordion music.

Although based on Biblical stories, Sláwiq and maskalataq merge with ancient Alutiiq traditions. Feasting, processions, masks, and whistles, which call spirits or mimic their voices, can all be traced to the winter ceremonies of pre-Russian times.



Dancers with masks and puffin beak rattles. This scene represents a Kodiak Island hunting ceremony in the early to mid-19th century. Illustration by Mark Matson, 1999.

Drummers at a winter ceremony on Kodiak Island, mid-19th century. Illustration by Mark Matson, 1999.

Rock art images of drummers from Kodiak Island and Afognak Island. From Archaeology of the Uyak Site, Kodiak Island, Alaska (R. Heizer, 1956) and Petroglyphs on Afognak Island, Kodiak Group, Alaska (D. Clark 1970).

Young women dance at a midwinter ceremony in the 19th century. Illustration by Mark Matson, 1999.

The Russian Orthodox cemetery and chapel at Karluk, on Kodiak Island. The chapel was built in 1888. Photograph by Patrick Saltonstall, 1995.

"Starring" (Sláwiq) at Chignik Lake, Alaska Peninsula, January 1992. Carolers carry bright spinning stars through the village at Russian Christmas (January 7), stopping at each home to enjoy a feast of holiday foods. Photograph by Patricia Partnow.




OBJECT LINKS
STAKE DOLLS | SPIRIT MASK | SKIN HAT | SHAMAN BRACELETS | SHAMAN'S WHISTLE | SHAMAN'S RATTLE | SHAMAN'S HAT | PEG CALENDAR | MASKS | MASK | LARGE MASK | HEADDRESS | ERMINE CAP | EARRINGS | DRUM | DANCE CAP | DANCE BELT | BOX PANELS | BIRD MASK | BEAK RATTLE |


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