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Spheres of Wellbeing 



Traditional Alutiiq Education


8,000 B.P. - 1784

Prior to colonization, the Kodiak Alutiiq people lived in the Kodiak Archipelago for over 7,500 years in approximately 65 villages and seasonal traditional harvest camps according to archaeological evidence (Luerhmann, 2008; Clark & Black, 2002; Crowell et al., 2001). Education within Alutiiq culture, as in other Indigenous cultures, was integrated into daily life, rather than a detached classroom experience, so that children were raised not just in a culturally-appropriate manner in their homes but were trained by their Elders in life skills to thrive within the tribal economy and society. Some lessons learned were gender specific, based on the efficiency of living as a self-sufficient family and community, passing on subsistence, childrearing and household care traditions. Most lessons were taught through apprenticeship, watching and practicing alongside a technical expert to build skills, or as one Afognak Elder said, “learn[ing] by watching what is done and by doing what they are told to do” (Demidoff, 1962). Other lessons were taught via immersion and personal experience, as real life situations and curiosities motivated young people to make new sense of their world and ways of life (Cajete, 1994). Regardless of the context, Indigenous peoples, including the Alutiiq, maintained an intricate educational and traditional knowledge system supported through the oral tradition.

Indigenous methods of education encompassed practical, experiential learning within the context of seasonal life cycles. Competency was determined by performance within lived situations. The oral tradition played a primary role as the means for the passage of knowledge and values essential for survival and success in life. Our Alutiiq ancestors, like other Indigenous peoples, were fluent in their language but many also were fluent in the languages of neighboring tribes through trade, marriage, or extended expeditions outside the region. The Alutiiq were far from isolated prior to Russian invasion, as there are many stories of water voyages between the mainland and the archipelago, including forays to the Aleutian Chain, Cook Inlet, and Southeast Alaska. Language, or multilingualism, were vital for trade and intermarriage, as traditionally our families incorporated cultural diversity and a blending of cultural knowledge from neighboring tribes, indicated in our stories, tools and arts.

In fact, prior to colonization, Alutiiq culture and way of life passed through at least three major societal evolutions (Crowell et al., 2001; Clark, 1990, 1998). Starting 7,500 years ago, from 5500 BC to 1800 BC, the period known as Ocean Bay was characterized by nomadic tent living in pursuit of traditional harvest foods at multiple campsites throughout the year, followed by development of small single family sod dwellings about 5,000 years ago. Then 3,800 years ago, from 1800 BC to 1400 AD, the Kachemak period brought development of larger multi-room sod houses or ciqlluat, allowing for extended family living in seasonal communities as people began to develop fishing nets and processing tools to fish in new ways. Then 800 years ago, from 1400 AD to 1784, the Koniag period was marked by climate change and increased trade with other tribes, leading to creation of a complex class system and more elaborate ceremonies and arts. These economic and societal shifts within the Alutiiq pre-contact history contributed to development of traditional values and education practices still evident today. Knowledge of cultural phases in Alutiiq history informs us about trade, traditional harvest practices, and concepts of wealth, which were the foundation of the Alutiiq economy prior to Russian conquest.

As is now more widely recognized due to efforts by Alutiiq organizations and tribes, such as the Native Village of Afognak, Alutiiq Museum, Native Educators of the Alutiiq Region (NEAR), the Kodiak Alutiiq possessed a large body of knowledge about their environment, consistently passed down through the generations via stories and traditional initiatory practices. Elders today are still keepers of much of this traditional knowledge, having experienced some traditional education processes as young people. As Kawagley (2006) describes of our cousins the Yup’ik, there exists a rich, complex knowledge base within each Indigenous culture, as knowledge about their homeland has accumulated over millennia, continually refined and distilled as new generations acquired it to survive within their specific area of the planet.

For the Alutiiq, as a coastal maritime people, they possess an awareness of surrounding areas and a complex knowledge about ocean navigation, including methods of reading the stars, currents, tides, winds, and animal behaviors (Mishler, 2001; Crowell et al., 2001). This close awareness of their environment also included knowledge of weather and natural catastrophic event predictions, including ways to contend with the often harsh environment. They understood and perfected engineering methods that enabled them to develop tools specifically suited to their environment. The kayak and kayak paddle design indigenous to our region are excellent examples of the ingenuity of our ancestors, made specifically for the types of currents and weather of the Kodiak Archipelago (Crowell et al., 2001). Each hunter learned the techniques and skills for building and maintaining their kayak and paddle; they knew how to produce waterproof clothing specifically custom-made for each person, all built to fit their exact body measurements for optimal maneuverability. Like other Indigenous peoples, the Alutiiq used a mathematical measurement system based on individual body measurement lengths to ensure an exact fit. All of this and other examples of ingenuity show the complex scientific and mathematical concepts that influenced pre-contact Alutiiq communities.

To subsist and thrive in the Kodiak Archipelago, the Alutiiq acquired hunting expertise, including knowledge of animal behaviors and relationships, and developed appropriate hunting techniques like snares, traps, weapons, as well as herding as practiced by Alutiiq whalers. Elders also tell of traditional subsistence resource management practices that established protocols for requesting permission to hunt and instilled respect for territorial boundaries, including the proper allocation of resources to hunters within each territory (August 11, 1999, Leer Conversation with John Pestrikoff, Tape 4, Side B). These protocols were monitored by specific Elders acknowledged as the area’s chiefs or resource managers, maintaining an effective resource management system based on respect and spiritual influence prior to the American acquisition of Alaska and creation of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, which striped the Alutiiq of their rightful ability to manage their homeland’s traditional harvest resources and pass these practices on to future generations.

As the Kodiak Archipelago is home to a vast numbers of plants, and is the northern most point of the Pacific Northwest rainforest, the Alutiiq people gathered a medicinal expertise of plant lore and healing techniques that sustained the people in good health for millennia, before western conquerors brought devastating epidemics that upset the natural processes. Some of this knowledge still exists today with our Elders; and some of it has been recorded in publications on plant uses, medicines and poisons (P. Russell, 2011; Kelso, 2011; Schofield, 2003; NEAR, 2005; Garibaldi, 1999; Kelso & the Ouzinkie Botanical Society, 1985). However, a large body of knowledge is believed lost as traditional healers were killed or disempowered during Russian conquest and later assimilation during American colonization (Crowell et al., 2001; Fortuine, 1992).

Excerpt from Alisha Drabek, Ph.D. (2012) dissertation:
Liitukut Sugpiat'stun (We are Learning How to be Real People):
Exploring Kodiak Alutiiq Literature through Core Values


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