LOOKING BOTH WAYS: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People of Southern Alaska

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Alutiiq Villages
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Our History

"You've got to look back and find out the past, and then you look forward." - Sven Haakanson Sr., Kodiak Island Elder, 1997

For almost 250 years, the Alutiiq people have endured powerful forces of change. Russian traders first came by ship in the 1760s in search of sea otters and other furs. Alutiiq warriors drove away most early Russian expeditions or forced them to trade on equal terms. But in 1784, Grigorii Shelikhov began his conquest of Kodiak Island and built a Russian outpost at Three Saints Harbor.

Alutiiq people were forced to work for the Russian fur companies. Men hunted sea otters and women sewed clothing and gathered food. Little time was left to meet basic needs in the villages. There was hunger and death from smallpox and other new diseases.

Over time, life in the Russian colony became less harsh. Russian customs, language, and Orthodox religion were gradually accepted. People of mixed Russian and Alutiiq heritage - known as Creoles - served as teachers, managers, explorers, and clergy.

The United States took control of Alaska in 1867. American companies continued the fur trade and built stores, salmon canneries, and mines. Starting in the 1890s, the government established public schools where the Alutiiq language was forbidden. Children were to be American - not Alutiiq. Scandinavians began coming to the region during the late 19th century to work as trappers and fishermen. They married into local families, adding another strand to Alutiiq culture.

In 1912, a huge volcanic eruption near Mt. Katmai forced residents to flee villages on the Alaska Peninsula and to resettle at Perryville and New Savonoski.

Alaska became a state in 1959. A few years later, in 1964, a large earthquake rocked the Gulf of Alaska region, and the villages of Afognak, Kaguyak, Old Harbor, and Chenega were destroyed by tidal waves. Earthquake survivors built the new villages of Chenega Bay and Port Lions. Another disaster struck in 1989, when oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill reached almost every Alutiiq community.

Through these centuries of change, Alutiiq people have adapted and survived. Contemporary communities are working together to learn about the past and to plan for the future. Arts, language, oral history, museums, archaeology, and education are all part of a growing movement to preserve Alutiiq culture. Today people speak of the Alutiiq Nation with pride.

The Russian outpost at Three Saints Harbor, 1790. Hundreds of Alutiiq hostages were held at the settlement to guarantee peace with local villages. This engraving shows the arrival of a Russian ship. Courtesy of the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, Alaska and Polar Regions Department, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

"Port Dick, near Cook's Inlet," engraved from a 1794 watercolor by Henry Humphreys, showing Alutiiq sea otter hunters in a fleet of kayaks. Courtesy of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

"Woman of Prince William Sound". Painting by John Webber, 1778. Courtesy of the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and Horden House Rare Books, Sydney.

"Toion from Igak Bay, Kadiak Island." This portrait, painted by Mikhail Tikhanov in 1818, shows front and side views of the same Alutiiq leader. The Russians made Alutiiq chiefs, whom they called toions, responsible for fur and food production. Courtesy of the Scientific Research Museum of the Russian Academy of Arts.

Salmon canneries at the Karluk River mouth, 1906. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries (Cobb collection, 2388).

Refugees evacuated from Kodiak following the Katmai/Novarupta volcanic eruption, on board the U.S. Customs Service cutter Manning, June 1912. Courtesy of the Kodiak Historical Society (P600-6.7 N).

Instructor Lydia Robart leads students in a dance at Núciq Spirit Camp, 1998. At the camp, students learn traditional arts and skills and participate in professional archaeological research. Photograph courtesy of John F.C. Johnson and the Chugach Heritage Foundation.


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