Stewardship of Our Land
Respect and care of our homeland, or stewardship, is a signifiant value for the Alutiiq people. The Alutiiq relationship to their ecosystem is established in their oral tradition and cosmological stories and is strongly reinforced through their lived traditional harvest practices. As summarized in the Alutiiq curriculum unit produced by the National Museum of the American Indian Indigenous Geography project from Pinart,
According to a legend recorded by an anthropologist, our animals came from the body of a young woman. One day she lay down and gave birth to all the creatures of the sea and land. As she delivered, her two uncles threw the animals into the water or onto the land—wherever they were meant to go. The woman was married to a star, a spirit man from the sky world, who told her that they would have to kill some of their animal children to feed themselves. (Manosa, 2005)
Stories that reference the origin of animals and land formations all establish a close relationship to human actions and an interdependence that manifests in family terms.
Traditionally, in order for a hunter to be successful, his own behavior at all times was important, but equally important was the behavior of his family. Like many other Indigenous peoples, the Alutiiq followed strict rules or taboos about proper behavior and its relationship to success in hunting. If the land, waters, animals, people and tools were well-respected and the rules for appropriate behaviors followed, then good fortune would be assured. Without this respect for other life and the lands and waters we share, the balance of nature is lost and difficult to regain—a lesson many are beginning to realize worldwide as pollution and over-harvest or habitat destruction is perpetrated across our globe. For example, Elders described these traditions of honor and respect for the land when they talk of their own Elders’ teachings:
The Elders used to say, “Don't throw anything into the creek. If you keep the creek clean, lots of fish will keep coming.” They never threw anything into the creek. They said that if they threw something into the creek, the fish would disappear in Karluk...Now the fish are trying to return, but I don't think they will ever be the same (June 6, 1997, Leer Conversation with Julie Knagin and Clyda Christiansen, Tape 6, Side A)
Avoiding pollution and maintaining proper care of waste is a tradition that has not been respected within our homeland by newcomers, particularly during the past century of military installations and their subsequent pollution during World War II, followed by the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. We can see the ramifications today of our local history of pollution and poor resource management in lower fish runs, high cancer rates, unusual animal behavior, and radical climate shifts—all of which our Elders attribute to what happens when we do not pay respect or follow the rules our ancestors tried to pass on to us through their stories and actions. Respect for the environment and our responsibility as stewards of it is an ancient tradition, particularly among traditional harvest cultures whose people understand the interrelatedness of their care of the environment as the home of the animals and plants who sustain the people.
Alutiiq traditions of right behavior and avoiding contamination of the environment also extend to the power of women. Specifically there are a number of traditional beliefs around the power that women hold when menstruating, and the need to respect prescribed taboos to protect the life of hunters and their success in hunting. Elder Lucille Antowak Davis talked often of the beliefs she was raised with as the daughter of one of last traditional chiefs of Karluk. She tells a personal life story about how as a girl she went with her father to trap fox at Karluk and recalls what she learned on this first hunt with him (L. Davis, 2000). He told her, “‘Pretty soon when you hit your teens you’re not going to go with me no more because you’re going to dirty the ground where I trap.’ Menstruating women could not cross the bridge over the Karluk River, for fear that the salmon would cease swimming upstream” (Crowell et al., 2001, p. 142). Traditions of the power women hold, particularly when menstruating, are common among Indigenous peoples. They indicate a strong belief in the reproductive power women possess, as well as the ability animals have to be highly sensitive to humans, conscious that in order to give themselves up in a hunt they expect to be respected.
We also see a display of animal stewardship that leads to magical results in the story “The Grouse Girl,” when the old lame man “took [the grouse] in his hand, began stroking her, and finally decided to keep her as his pet. Before retiring, the lame man made a nest for the bird near him, and then all turned in for the night” (Golder, 1903b). He is later rewarded for his kindness.
Afognak Alutiiq Elders 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. 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.
Afognak Elder, John Pestrikoff (August 10, 1999), tells a story about an old couple at Terror Bay (Quluryaaq) near Uganik Island on the west side of Kodiak Island, known as the chiefs of that area, who “would allow people to hunt in their territory, and controlled how many animals were caught” (Leer Transcripts of Tape 1, Side A). Pestrikoff describes how “hunters couldn’t pass by without stopping there and getting permission.” However, these Elders had more power than just a social understanding that they granted permission to the hunters of the area. They were able to limit the luck of hunters who did not obey their quota decision. Pestrikoff attributes this ability to shamanistic practices that the couple used to control harvest within the area (August 10, 1999, Leer Conversation with John Pestrikoff and Dennis Knagin, Tape 1, Side A). Through this power they were able to ensure each hunter only caught their allowed quota.
Pestrikoff goes on to describe how the couple once gave two hunters permission to hunt, saying “‘Alright, go ahead. You can catch so many,’ they instructed them, so many fox, so many land otter...” After the hunters had gotten their limit, the couple told them “don’t get any more than we gave you permission to get.... You won’t catch anything after that. After you have caught [your limit] you can come back here’... So those two went hunting and caught their limit. They tried to hunt for another [animal] but couldn’t catch a thing.” When the hunters returned to report back to show the couple what they had caught, the couple said, “You were gone a long time.” The hunters had to admit that they had tried to catch more than allowed. The couple admonished them and said, “‘Yes, remember we told you, you wouldn’t be able to get any more than that.’ So they sent them on their way back home” (July 28, 1998, Leer Conversation with John Pestrikoff, Tape 3, Side A; and August 11, 1999, Leer Conversation with John Pestrikoff, Tape 4, Side B). The couple was able to protect their territory by controlling how many and what kind of animals other hunters were able to catch through a combination of their accepted role as territorial chiefs of the area and their spiritual influence over the animals within their familiar environment.
Clearly, the Alutiiq maintained a delicate ecological balance within their homeland and guaranteed the appropriate care and use of the land and its resources through an established practice of resource management. Elder John Pestrikoff’s stories of the old couple who were stewards of their territory tells of a tradition of resource protection where Elder caretakers successfully monitored visiting hunters, who would defer to their instructions before doing any hunting (August 11, 1999, Leer Conversation with John Pestrikoff, Tape 4, Side B) in a way that arguable surpasses our state mandated resource management system today.
Go to other Physical Sphere value:
Nunapet (Our land)
“Ties to our Homeland”
Nunapet Carliarluki (Taking care of our land)
“Stewardship of animals, land, sky, and waters”
Unguwacirpet (Our way of being alive)
“A subsistence lifestyle respectful and sustained by the natural world”
Excerpt from Alisha Drabek, Ph.D. (2012) dissertation: