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Spheres of Wellbeing 



Ilaapet - Our Family & Kinship

One of the best stories to convey the value of family for the Alutiiq, and the lengths that people will go to save their family, is the true life survival story of the Skonberg family from Chignik. In 1947, just after Christmas, ten Skonberg family members and friends were crossing the Shelikof Straits in a storm, headed to Kodiak for a wedding (Skog, 1985). After attempts to seek shelter during the storm, they hit a rock pile on New Years Eve and their boat the Spencer went down. Stranded for five days until the Coast Guard could rescue them, they huddled together with no fire to warm them because the winds were too strong. Despite their attempts to build a makeshift shelter from hatch boards and bedding they had salvaged, the men on the outer ring of the huddle were badly frostbitten, while protecting the two women, a child and an Elder. Remarkably in their desperate situation the survivors were racked with worry about their other family members waiting for them at home who did not know that they were still alive. Six of the younger men had to have their legs amputated three weeks later without general anesthesia; they only had spinal anesthesia, leaving them awake. It took Dr. Bob Johnson four days to complete the operations, taking one leg in the morning and one in the afternoon. Despite the traumatic and life changing event, all survived and after six months of recovery most of the men went back fishing that next summer. As Bill Skonberg describes, “Well, we surprised everyone in Chignik when we came walking off the boat” (Skog, 1985, p. 30). In the face of life threatening situations, the closeness of family and selfless acts to protect and preserve one’s family members is a testament to this value that Alutiiq people hold dear. In a place where help may be slow to come or never arrive, survival requires this strong connection be maintained.

Within Alutiiq ancestral literature there are also many stories that emphasize the importance of family. The story of the swan maiden, known as “The Sad Fate of Uchatngiak,” is a story about family. When Uchatngiak’s cruel sister drives off his wife, she later flies back to take their son and Uchatngiak journeys to find them. When he finds them in Bird Heaven he gives up his freedom, and returns to his childhood state of captivity just to be with them.

A matrilineal society, Alutiiq family dynamics have been challenged through western assimilation, where now some families struggle with domestic violence. A balance in gender and family roles is an important aspect within a family’s state of wellbeing; although within our modern context, family structure and gender roles are frequently different than they once were. Regardless, the value of family, both immediate and extended, is extremely important in Alutiiq culture. In fact, no distinction is made between first, second or third cousins, as all are considered cousins, akin to siblings.

Knowing one’s genealogy is important as well. My great-grandmother used to tell my father long lists of all the people he was related to, and one day he asked why she was telling him all this. She said, “so you don’t end up marrying one of them.” Intermarriage between villages was common, as people were typically closely related to each other in each community, and so men typically found a mate outside of their home village.

Family dynamics are also often challenged in Alutiiq stories. For example in “The Unnatural Uncle,” while maternal uncles traditionally played a father role for their sister’s children the uncle in this story was noted as unnaturally jealous and cruel. In the sister sun, brother moon story told by Clyda Christiansen (Leer, 1997-1999), she tells of how the two were ashamed when they realized they were brother and sister in the steam bath. Stories such as those featuring evil characters or inappropriate behaviors often function as a release for young people to consider inappropriate behaviors without acting upon them.


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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