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Spheres of Wellbeing 




Our Subsistence Lifeways

The subsistence way of life, or traditional harvest as some Elders prefer, is a pervasive, all-encompassing way of life where its practitioner maintains a regular interdependency with the natural world, living off the land, as a source for food, shelter, clothing, transportation and fuel, through hunting and gathering practices used to gather and process resources firsthand as passed down through the generations. However, this way of life is integrated into a person’s overall way of being and touches all aspects of life: spiritual, mental, ethical, physical and emotional and social. A traditional subsistence way of life is based on “sustained interaction with the [SIC] immediate environment over generations” as Merculieff (1990) describes in his explanation of his own Unangan upbringing (p. 4), which is at the core of all Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and practices. The collective survival skills developed by peoples who sustained themselves on a specific landscape for millennia has an inherent richness that cannot be fully understood in a short period of time, and can only be learned by living on that landscape for decades alongside Elders. Further, Native cultural traditions and primary food sources are intimately tied to subsistence ways (McLean, 1998). The subsistence way of life is not to be confused with the modern U.S. governmental term ‘subsistence’ for the practice of merely engaging in hunting and resource gathering, which has spurred some Elders to request calling their more comprehensive and spiritually-based practices “traditional harvest lifeways.”

There are many associated ways of knowing that enable and sustain traditional harvest lifeways. For example, as Ross (1992) points out in his chapter Being Indian is a State of Mind, a true subsistence hunter does not go after his prey, he receives it (p. 77). There are core skill sets and understandings necessary to live in close daily connection and interaction with the land and sea, which enable a person to make accurate predications for successful hunting and gathering results, and to engage appropriately with their environment. Ross (1992) explains that “[t]he ability to make accurate predictions rests on the accumulation of individual memory, observation and pattern-thought skills” (p. 78). “Observational skills had to be accompanied by a storing of those patterns in memory and by a skill at comparing those stored patterns, in their incredible diversity, with the ever-changing patterns of the day at hand” (Ross, 1992, p. 74). These observational skills are used to draw conclusions or predictions, by sensing and imagining the environment, weather, and the animal or plant behaviors within that environment to know where and how to position oneself on the landscape to receive. Ross (1992) emphasizes that these observational skills actually develop another thought process not generally acknowledged or appreciated within western culture. Over time, these skills developed into established practices and rituals that carry this Traditional Ecological Knowledge, as well as the respect for engaging with nature appropriately.

Stories about Alutiiq hunting traditions appear within many archived collections, including recordings of Kodiak Island Elders who met with Jeff Leer in the late 1990s to share their knowledge of traditional lifeways. One of the most well known traditional stories about specialized subsistence practices is Ar’ursulek - The Whaler, as told by Ralph Demidoff (1962). The Alutiiq form of whaling was a unique practice where, “whalers summoned spiritual power for the hunt through special songs, talismans, and complex, secret rituals” (Crowell et al., 2001, p. 166). The Demidoff story is a 75 stanza story of a young initiate observing and learning the whaling practices.

As among other Indigenous cultures, the Alutiiq people have closely observed environmental conditions and animal behaviors as indicators to foretell events and guide their safe travel for hunting and gathering. During a conversation among several Kodiak Alutiiq Elders, they talked about how animals can sense future events, such as an impending earthquake or a death in the community (June 7, 1997, Leer Conversation with Julie Knagin, Dennis Knagin, Clyda Christiansen, and Kathryn Chichenoff, Tape 8x, Side A). The Alutiiq people learned how to read the messages animals give, as they were taught by their Elders the meaning behind the animals’ behaviors. Some Elders recalled sea lions charging up the beach toward someone as a sign that that person was going to die soon. Others recalled what a bad sign it was for a bird to fly into a house, foreboding death as well. As times have changed, however, and we encroach into animal habitats or feed them, many wild animals no longer behave in their natural manner, and therefore the messages they once gave us are now confused. As one Elder says, “This is why people used to say that it was bad to feed wild animals.”

Beyond reading animal behavior, the Alutiiq believe strongly in an animal’s ability to read human behavior and communicate. Elders tell about how killer whales and porpoises specifically can understand people, and have frequently told stories that demonstrate the animal’s ability to form bonded relationships. I also remember hearing from my great-aunt how she used to talk to the birds and get information from them about what was coming, and I have heard this same story from others. “Elder Phyllis Peterson reminds us, that wherever the animals came from, bears (taquka’aq) are very different. They were once people. [She says,] ‘...My grandpa used to tell me...people run away a long time ago. They wanted to be bears...The bears, talk to the bears, they’ll understand you’” (Manosa, 2005). These communications tell us of the Alutiiq perception of animals both as kin to humans and as messengers. For the Alutiiq, the environment is full of messages and ways to understand what is happening or what is to come through our interactions with animals and the natural world.

Within Alutiiq tradition, weather watching or being able to forecast the weather is also an important observational skill for survival, particularly in knowing when travel is not safe or when it is the appropriate time to harvest a particular resource. Elder John Pestrikoff of Port Lions and Afognak calls an individual who possessed this skill a llaatesurta, or weatherman, who could “watch the sky and forecast the weather” (July 30, 1998, Leer Conversation with John Pestrikoff, Tape 9, Side A). As researcher Craig Mishler (2001) reports, he was impressed by “the special sensitivity local people have to wind direction and wind speed, things largely ignored or misunderstood by outsiders and mainlanders” (p. 150). He provides numerous examples in his essay of how the Kodiak Alutiiq can use their observation and knowledge about the direction of the winds and the weather to determine appropriate times for hunting and gathering. He explains that “[f]or subsistence purposes, especially the gathering of shellfish, one must know about the complex interaction between winds and tides” (p. 150).

Alutiiq knowledge of the weather, tides, and animal behavior has been gathered over millennia through observation and stories passed down through the generations. Today, Alutiiq people still use some of this knowledge to be successful hunters and fishermen in our modern context. However, as our language contains much of this rich knowledge, we stand to lose a great deal of these understandings our ancestors relied upon if we are not successful in sustaining the language. Our Elders admit that while they know of some traditions their Elders practiced, they no longer know the ones that haven’t been practiced since the last generation of Elders passed on. Many of these traditions are only hinted at in the artifacts or stories we have, in the descriptions by judgmental colonial observers, or in our comparative understanding of our Yup’ik or Inupiaq relatives’ traditions. Being a good hunter, gatherer and cook are highly valued skills in Alutiiq culture. To this end we see characters go to great lengths to meet these expectations in stories such as “The Sinew Rope” (1909) or “The Boy Who Became a Mink” (1903b). The ability to live off the land is still an important value for Alutiiq people as summertime harvest is a major occupation so that we can enjoy year-round traditional foods.

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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