Our Way of Living
Harvesting, hunting, and eating wild foods are fundamental to the Alutiiq way of life. Fresh fish, game, shellfish, and plants provide more than half of the diet of many villagers.
Yet s˙gucihpet, "our way of living" means much more than calories and taste. Sharing subsistence harvests with relatives, Elders, and those in need weaves the fabric of community life. Families work together to gather and prepare the bounty, and each generation learns by doing. Respect for the land and for all living things is an important cultural value.
Fishing sets the pace of the year. In summer, five varieties of salmon gather in the bays or swim upriver to spawn - king, red, chum, pink, and silver. Ancestral salmon fishermen used harpoons or nets with stone weights and wooden floats. Today, nets are used for both subsistence and commercial fishing. By fall, salmon fill freezers and hang in the smokehouses, a wealth of food preserved for winter.
Seals, sea lions, and beluga whales are prized foods in villages today. In earlier times, hunters in kayaks used poisoned darts to kill humpbacks and other large whales. Sea mammals gave the Alutiit much of what they needed to survive: skins for clothing and boat covers, intestines for waterproof garments and bags, sinew for thread, whale baleen for lashings, and seal stomachs for storage containers and floats. Sea mammal fat was used to preserve plant foods, make clothing waterproof, and provide fuel for lamps.
The forest, tundra, and coast are stocked with edible plants - berries, greens, grasses, roots, and seaweed. Some plants have medicinal properties as well. Wild cranberries are good for colds and sore throats. The cow parsnip has edible stems, and its roots can be used to treat aches and infections.
A favorite traditional recipe is akutaq ("ice cream"), which you make by mashing berries together with ingredients that may include seal oil, Crisco, dried fish, salmon eggs, sugar, and potatoes. Berries are also eaten fresh, with fish or meat, and in jams and pies.
Skin boats were once an important part of traditional subsistence. Built to carry one, two, or three hunters, kayaks are lightweight and silent. Paddlers kneel in the boats and use their whole bodies to steer in rough water. A traditional kayak was built to fit its owner, like a tailored suit of clothes. Men carved, bent, and lashed together the pieces of the frame; women stitched the seal or sea lion skin covers with strong sinew thread. "I remember the ladies sitting in the houses, laughing and sewing. You know, everybody helped everybody," remembers Bobby Stamp, an Elder from Prince William Sound. Today the art of kayak building is undergoing a revival in the Alutiiq region.
Some traditional Alutiiq garments were working clothes for a harsh environment, like the waterproof kanagluk parka stitched from seal or bear intestines. Others were finery for ceremonies and feasts. Women worked with skins, membranes, feathers, fur, and hair to create traditional dress, nearly forgotten skills that have found new life in the hands of contemporary artists.
Clothing was also a map of social life. A chief's elegant fox or sea otter parka marked his station, as did the slave's plain coat of birdskin or seal. Styles of decoration and design reflected the village, gender, and age of the wearer.
Clothing had spiritual significance as well. Animals took off their skins, humans put them on, and clothing connected both in spirit. People put on clean, new garments to please the animal spirits.
WRIST CLIP | WORK BOARD | WHALING DARTS | WHALING CHARM | THROWING BOARD | SQUIRREL PARKA | SNOW GOGGLES | SKIN BAG | SINEW LINE | SINEW BOW | SEWING TOOLS | SEWING BAG | OTTER ARROW | LANCE HEAD | KNIFE | KAYAK MODEL | IVORY AMULETS | HUNTING HAT | HUNTING BAG | HOOF CARVING | HARPOON | HALIBUT HOOK | GUNNEL BOARD | GOOSE SNARES | FISH CARVING | CONTAINER | CHILD'S BOOTS | BOAT MODEL | BLUBBER HOOKS | BENTWOOD HAT |