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The Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) People and Their Culture

The Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) People and Their Culture

By Gordon L. Pullar (Sugpiaq), 2009

(This is shortened version of a longer essay from the Smithsonian book Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)

Sea, Land, Rivers

The Sugpiaq homeland is large, spanning Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and the Alaska Peninsula. Our climate is wet and stormy but mild. Massive glaciers flow from the high coastal mountains, but the sea remains unfrozen. Spruce forests cover the eastern areas but dwindle in the west, so that much of Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula are treeless, windswept tundra. Along our coasts you can fish for salmon, halibut and crabs, hunt seals or sea lions, and walk the shore at low tide to collect shellfish and seaweed. Depending on the season you might search out an octopus under beach rocks, gather eggs on a seabird island, pick berries or go hunting in the hills for bears, caribou or deer.

Traditional Sugpiaq hunting depended on the qayaq (kayak) and angyaq (large open boat), both covered with seal or sea lion skins. Ancestral equipment included throwing boards, harpoons and arrows. Many communities today depend on commercial fishing for cash income, but in recent years that industry has faltered. Part of the problem today is the high cost of fuel for boats and home heating. An increasing number of people can no longer afford to stay in the villages and are migrating to cities such as Kodiak and Anchorage.

When the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in 1989 people were deeply shocked and depressed. Eleven million gallons of oil poured into Prince William Sound and then drifted west on the wind and currents, polluting fifteen hundred miles of shoreline. The huge spill coincided roughly with the geographic boundaries of the Sugpiaq culture area. Most sea life eventually recovered, but the communities that relied most heavily on fishing and coastal subsistence were disrupted for years and suffered deep economic losses. Today oil can still be found on the beaches, lying just below the rocks and sand. Its pollution still leaches slowly into the sea.

Community and Family

History has proven the Sugpiaq people to be highly resilient, despite the traumatic events of conquest and oppression. Russian traders in search of sea otter furs first conquered and then enslaved the Native population of southern Alaska. In 1784 a force led by Grigorii Shelikhov used guns and cannons to slaughter hundreds of Sugpiaq men, women and children on Kodiak Island. Men were forced to hunt otters in fleets of kayaks, sometimes paddling hundreds of miles and being gone from their homes for months at a time. Others had to provision the Russians with whales, fish and game. Women prepared plant foods, dried fish and clothing for the traders. During these years people suffered from disease and malnutrition. It was a dark, traumatic period when many thousands died.

After 1818 reform in the management of the Russian-American Company brought some relief. Alaska Natives officially became employees instead of slaves. Atrocities ended, and health care and education systems were put in place. Missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church were influential in seeking better conditions. The U.S. government took over Alaska in 1867. In the new government and mission schools, children were beaten for speaking either Sugcestun or Russian. Educational policies were aimed at bringing about the assimilation of all to American speech, values and beliefs.

This history created complex feelings about identity. During two hundred years of Western contact and cultural change, Indigenous identity had been devalued and even shamed. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 put a new twist on the situation. Anyone who had a one-quarter of Native blood was eligible to enroll, meaning that he or she would receive shares in the village and regional Native corporations. This was the first time for many that being Native had any positive benefits. The new opportunity generated tension when people redefined themselves and heard comments such as “He was never a Native before land claims!”

There was much turmoil, infighting, and litigation during the early days of ANCSA. The Kodiak Area Native Association (KANA), a nonprofit established to pursue land claims and later ran Native health and education programs, came under fire. When I became president of KANA in 1983, I was asked to rebuild the organization. Elders advised that the biggest reason for our problems was that people had lost touch with who they were. They didn’t know their history, and the traditional values of sharing and cooperation had been lost. We turned our efforts to cultural rebuilding through dance, traditional arts, kayak building, language renewal, archaeology, oral history, youth-elder programs and more. The idea was to build knowledge, pride, visibility and self-esteem as a pathway for healing. From the beginning we wanted to have a museum and cultural center that people would feel belonged to them and where they could celebrate their culture. The Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository opened its doors in 1995 and has realized the vision we held.

Ceremony and Celebration

Most Sugpiat have a firm belief that if not for the Russian Orthodox Church, the people would have been lost entirely. The population was in serious decline when Orthodox monks traveled to Kodiak in the 1790s. They were shocked at the conditions they saw, and the Church exerted its influence with the czar to ameliorate illegal practices of the Russian-American Company. That is why the Orthodox faith was embraced and why it has persisted so strongly to the present day.

Sugpiaq people recognized connections and similarities between their own spiritual concepts and those of the new religion. They believed in Lam Sua, the “person of the universe,” who as a supreme and all-knowing deity became equated with God. Their kassat (wise men) consulted with deities subordinate to Lam Sua and directed the performance of religious ceremonies. In these functions they were similar to priests who conducted Orthodox worship.

Traditional hunting ceremonies, held in October through March, were a means of communicating with sky gods and the spirits of animals. Performances and rituals wove together the arts of song, narrative, masking and dance. Visitors were invited from neighboring villages to share in rich feasts, gift giving and trade. These rituals continued in some communities until the late 1800s, coexisting with widespread Orthodox conversion. Over time, the Native practice of Russian Orthodoxy has absorbed certain aspects of the older winter ceremonies.

Cultural revitalization has taken hold in the Sugpiaq region since the 1980s, bringing new confidence and visibility to our people and culture. We have come a long way since the days when many suffered embarrassment and even shame to see the dance, regalia and cultural vibrancy of other Alaska Native peoples while not having our own to share publicly. We’ve listened to elders, encouraged Native language and arts, and reconsidered the meaning of events, some terrible and traumatic, that shaped who we are today. Sugpiaq young people have gained an appreciation for their rightful place in the world.

Tags: Sugpiaq, Alutiiq, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Sea, Land, Rivers: Harvesting sea urchins

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Kayak model

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Sea, Land, Rivers: Harvesting salmon

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Bow

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Sea otter charms

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Community, Family: Traveling by kayak

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Oil lamp

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Community, Family: Making a Kayak

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Bowl

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Sewing bag

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Ceremony, Celebration: Hunting ceremony

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Hoop rattle

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Ceremony, Celebration: Sugpiaq Elder

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Headdress

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Parka

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

The Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) People and Their Culture

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska

Map of Sugpiaq Territory in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center Alaska