What it means to be Alutiiq

State museum exhibit examines Kodiak-area Native culture

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2003

When Alutiiq elder Olga Sam was growing up in Perryville on the Alaska Peninsula, the teachers at her English-only school would slap her hands with a ruler if she lapsed into her Native language.

"Sometimes after I learned English my mom would say something to me in Aleut, and if I didn't understand, she'd get so mad," Sam says in writing that accompanies "Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People," an exhibit at the Alaska State Museum. "She'd say, 'You are not Americaniq. You're my Alutiiq!' "

In Sam's quote lies the essential question faced by exhibit co-curators Aron Crowell and Amy Steffian when they began developing "Looking Both Ways" six years ago. Crowell is with the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center and Steffian is with the Alutiiq Heritage Museum and Archaeological Repository.

What does it mean to be Alutiiq? And how do you pinpoint the identity of a culture that has been shaped by its independence, as well as its contact with its Unangan, Yupik, Athabaskan and Tlingit neighbors and its battles with colonizing Russians and Americans?

"Looking Both Ways" tries to say that Alutiiq identity is "a layering of the old and new." In its small but packed space on the museum's second-floor, it does that visually and with the words of elders.

Sam's quote, taken from a reunion of Alutiiq elders in Kodiak in 1997, is displayed kitty-corner from a case of archaeological artifacts. A few of the objects - a sewing needle, a microblade and the pieces of a harpoon - date back to 3,300 to 4,600 B.C.

"The objects go back in time, but Alutiiq elders can talk about them with expert knowledge," Crowell said. "That case has had a large appeal to audiences, just in the sense that there are layers of history there."

The Alutiiq people can trace their ancestors and historical sites back almost 10,000 years. The population always has been centered on Kodiak Island. Villages are spread from Prince William Sound to the Kenai Peninsula and on to the Alaska Peninsula.

The Alutiit are separate from the Aleut, or Unangan, of the Aleutian Islands. Both Alutiiq and Unangan cultures were given the name "Aleut" when Russian traders showed up in 1760. Before the Russians, the Alutiiq referred to themselves as "Sugpiat" or "real people." Alutiiq is singular, while Alutiit is plural.

"Looking Both Ways" combines the collection of Kodiak's Alutiiq Heritage Museum with artifacts from the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian's materials were acquired from 1879 to 1894 by William J. Fisher, a German collector and fur trader. Many of Fisher's pieces never have been displayed.

The project received a $244,555 grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities and brought Alutiiq elders from three Native corporations to Kodiak in 1997. The elders helped choose the themes of the exhibit, what needed to be told, what items would be on display and what items were too spiritually significant to touch. When the elders began speaking Alutiiq, Steffian said, some realized they were related.

The reunion also helped smooth the relationship between the Alutiit and the Smithsonian. That story dates back to the 1930s, when Smithsonian collector Ales Hrdlicka excavated Alutiiq skeletal remains near Larsen Bay, population 180, and shipped them to Washington, D.C. The Alutiit fought for years to get the remains back and finally won in 1991. That battle led to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

"Looking Both Ways" premiered in Kodiak on June 22, 2001, and has traveled to Homer and Anchorage. It will be on display at the Alaska State Museum until Sept. 15. It opens Oct. 10 at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Parts of the exhibit are romantic and stylish, such as the "Qanganaq," a replica of a man's ground squirrel parka from the Ugashik Alaska Peninsula. It was restitched by contemporary artists from 1883 models.

Other parts of the exhibit are tragic. Jerry Laktonen was an Alutiiq fisherman until the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. With nowhere left to fish, he began carving masks. His basswood mask, "Joe Hazelwood," commemorates the 10-year anniversary of the spill and comments on the ship's captain.

"People have wept," Steffian said of the Native reaction to the exhibit in Kodiak and Homer. "It's an amazing connection, to sit in front of an object and think, 'My grandmother could have made that.' This is the first time in 150 years that they were seeing some of these things."

"It would be interesting to know what the number of Alutiiq people are down in Juneau," Crowell said. "And it may be interesting for some of the Tlingit to see references to their own culture in Alutiiq objects."

Except for their trade with other Alaska Native cultures, the Alutiit were a fairly autonomous culture until Russian fur traders showed up in the early 1760s. Alutiiq warriors fended off military advances until the Awa'uq Massacre of 1784. The Russians slaughtered 500 men, women and children on Refuge Rock, a small outcropping of Kodiak Island, then captured and enslaved the Alutiit on Kodiak Island, according to the catalog accompanying the exhibit.

Under forced labor, Russian control and the inevitable spread of disease, the Alutiiq population dropped from 12,000 in the 1750s to 3,000 by 1830.

The Alutiit adopted many Russian customs and some of those linger today. The Russian Orthodox Church tried to preserve Alutiiq culture, but Americans, who took control of Alaska in 1867, were not as kind.

Forced acculturation drove out the Alutiiq language in schools such as Sam's. Whole villages were forced to adapt or resettle after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta Volcano near Mount Katmai, the 1964 Gulf of Alaska earthquake and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

"Looking Both Ways" will have its official grand opening May 11. For more information about the exhibit, visit www.mnh.si.edu/lookingbothways/.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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