Glorious treatment of Alutiiq culture

Catalog of traveling museum exhibit offers intelligent essays and hundreds of graphics

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

"Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People" edited by Aron L. Crowell, Amy Steffian and Gordon Pullar (University of Washington Press, 272 pages, $24.95 paper, $49.95 cloth, glossary, bibliography).

"Looking Both Ways" is a catalog to accompany an exhibition of the same name which tours Kodiak, Homer, Anchorage, Seattle and Washington. The tour began in 2001 and will end in 2003. The book was published in January.

Catalogs of ethnographic objects are a delight to browse through, especially when they are accompanied by intelligent essays.

Exactly who Aleuts are has been in debate for some years. Sometimes they were told they were Koniag or Pacific Eskimo, Ocean Bay people or Kachemak people. Sometimes they were considered Russian, sometimes Sugpiaq. Tired of the ambivalence and confusion, at least one expressed the desire to be left alone and called simply "hardworking American."

This volume, and the exhibition it accompanies, are the joint results of a broad collaborative effort that began in 1995. Both attempt to sort out the thread of Alutiiq identity and show its debt to formative influences from around the North Pacific. To do that, the book includes brief quotes from Native informants, essays by Alutiiq writers, elders and storytellers. The sites and results of recent digs at Afognak, Unalaska, Karluk, Old Harbor and elsewhere are photographed and analyzed. The lowest levels at the Malina site on Afognak have been dated at 5,000 years old.

The editors are highly qualified for this ambitious task. Aron Crowell is Alaska regional director of the Arctic Studies Center, national Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Amy Steffian is deputy director or the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak. Gordon Pullar is director of the Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development, College of Rural Alaska, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Pullar admits that when he returned to Kodiak Island in 1983 to assume the presidency of the Kodiak Area Native Association, he "had little idea of what it meant to be Alutiiq."

The contributors they have rounded up include Frederica de Laguna, who worked in Prince William Sound during the summers of 1930 and 1933; scholar and author Lydia Black; Patricia Partnow of the Alaska Native Heritage Center; John F. C. Johnson of the Chugach Heritage Foundation; Don Dumond, who did archaeological research on the northern Alaska Peninsula in the 1960s; Rick Knecht, director of the Museum of the Aleutians; and anthropologist Sven Haakanson Jr., familiar to many from a National Geographic documentary and the first village-raised Alutiiq to earn a doctoral degree (Harvard, 2000).

Subjects covered include Alutiiq culture, language and identify, midwifery, plants, whaling, petroglyphs, shamans, the spirit world, intertidal life, hunting hats, sea mammals, raven and other creatures of myth, skin boats, subsistence, masks, shams and Russian conquest and Russian Orthodoxy.

This book is gorgeous to look at for its hundreds of color photographs of paintings made in 1818, artifacts, masks and other objects. Maps, diagrams and historic black and white photographs help to flesh out the text. Best of all, it is a glorious treatment of a culturally diverse, adaptive and resilient people who were ignored and marginalized for decades. It deserves attentive reading, and should be in every high school library in Alaska.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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