Alutiiq display combines then, now

Posted: Thursday, May 09, 2002

Echoes of the past mingle with Alutiiq voices of the present and hopes for the future in one of the most extensive Alutiiq exhibits ever assembled in Alaska, now on display at the Pratt Museum through September.

"Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People" features more than 130 artifacts surrounded by comprehensive posters and a video explaining Alutiiq history, traditions and culture. While the exhibit dives into a general history of these people, it also touches on some of the disastrous periods and includes personal stories from Alutiiq elders, including this one from Martha Demientieff.

"When I'm out there berry-picking, I have a picture in my mind of my ancestors we don't know how many thousands of years back, and I see their clothing and I see them picking the same kind of berries I'm picking, with the same feeling about this is for my children, this is going to be so good," Demientieff said. "And you feel pretty protected knowing that you're still walking the path that they walked ahead of you."

According to the exhibit, 8,000 or more Alutiiq lived in villages on Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula, Prince William Sound and areas around the Cook Inlet (including Nanwalek) before Russian contact. The Alutiiq, also known as Sugpiaq or Aleut, first settled in the region around 8000 B.C. and were descendants of Native Siberians. Some nose rings, lip ornaments and amulets in the exhibit are more than 5,000 years old.

Recorded history of the Alutiiq people, however, began in the mid-1700s, when the first Russian explorers and others arrived. Disease and battles between the newcomers and the Alutiiq people took its toll. By 1850, there were fewer then 3,000 Alutiiq survivors, a number that holds today.

Life changed for many Alutiiq people when the Russian-American Company began exporting furs and forced many into servitude to the company. More than 2 million furs were exported from the region before the sea otter populations started to drop off.

At the same time, Russian Orthodox missionaries settled in the area and soon protested the cruel treatment of Native workers. They recorded the Alutiiq culture, started bilingual schools and made the first attempt to write the Alutiiq language.

According to the exhibit, the actions of the missionaries endeared many Alutiiq people to church, and a melding of traditional Native rituals and Russian Orthodox beliefs began and is still present in Alutiiq ceremonies today.

Most of the artifacts in the exhibit were taken from Alutiiq villages during these initial contacts. While many today protest this taking, the objects would likely have been lost or deteriorated if they had not been stored in museums like the Smithsonian for the past century, said Gale Parsons of the Pratt Museum.

Today, "Looking Both Ways" opens a window to a time when the Alutiiq people lived exclusively from and with the land and sea. Artifacts allow us to study expressive wood masks used for ceremonies, gaze at tiny carved children's toys and the intricate detail of each stitch on boots, bags and clothing, and wonder at the mystical powers of the shaman's idols.

"What we have here are very special objects chosen out of a much larger collection," Parsons said.

The exhibit, curated by Aron Corwell of the Arctic Studies Center, was fabricated at the Smithsonian Institution in collaboration with the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and many elders.

Many items connected with hunting and gathering, including delicately carved halibut hooks, a bow and quiver and even woven line made from sinew fibers from whales, porpoises and bears, are in the exhibit.

Accompanying stories tell of a "cleansing ritual" Alutiiq hunters completed before going in search of food, linking the hunter's body and soul to the hunt. Others tell of heroic skill and bravery.

"The Alaskans (people of the Alaska Peninsula) like the Koniagas (Kodiak Islanders) always sent their best hunter alone against bears. He takes the bow and just two stone-tipped arrows," wrote G. Darydov, a Russian naval officer in 1802-03.

Central to the exhibit's discussion of dress and ceremony is a ground-length squirrel parka, a replica of a garment taken from the Alaska Peninsula in 1883 made by Susan Malutin and Grace Harrod of Kodiak Island. The festive jacket is sewn from ground squirrels, with accented strips of white ermine along the seams and mink and white caribou fur adorning the chest and sleeves. The garment would have been worn during winter ceremonies or presented as a gift to an honored guest.

Also featured in the exhibit is a case dedicated to shamans, tucked in the back of the room for the comfort of those who may not want to view it. A couple of personal stories shed light on why shamanism was and is a sometimes feared practice.

"Samanaqa (shamans) played games if they didn't like you, or if they were jealous of you. And if he didn't finish what he was trying to do to you, you would be that way. Maybe he did something to your mind. And he didn't finish it and that's the way you would be the rest of your life, you would lose your mind," said Lucille Antowak Davis, a Kodiak Island elder.

Legends say shamans could heal the hurt, foretell hunting success, quell storms and read minds, as well.

Elder Sven Haakanson Sr., tells a story of a girl who fell off a bluff and was brought back to the village screaming and crying. The shaman made her a drink of roots boiled in water.

"She calmed right down and was laughing while they straightened her out so she could heal," he said. "They studied their whole life to be shamans, to help people. So those shaman were real good."

After examining the entire exhibit, Parsons said people will likely have a much greater understanding of who the early people of this area and beyond were and what their lives were like.

"You can see how rich these cultures were and how little impact they had on the planet," she said.

Betsy Webb, also with the museum, said watching the exhibit evolve over the past few years and now arrive in Homer is heartening.

"Seeing cultural artifacts that came from this area 100 to 200 years ago come back to their place of origin is just magical," she said. "As a museum curator, it's so pleasing to see the early effort come to such a beautiful end for the public."

For those of Alutiiq decent, the exhibit adds to an already strengthening cultural awareness.

"Kodiak has one of the hardest and cruelest histories of cultural impact," said Ruth Dawson, president of the Alutiiq Heritage Foundation. "We lost elders, stories, songs, ceremony and our identity. But a number of events have rekindled Alutiiq heritage and the light of our ancestors' oil lamps is now burning bright."

Carey James is a reporter for the Homer News.

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