Traditional Arts, Skills and Ingenuity
Being able to outwit or solve problems through ingenious solutions is highly valued in Alutiiq culture. While trade was important for ancestral Alutiiq communities, essential and specialty items were necessary for survival and success in daily life. The Alutiiq Museum houses many examples of tools that demonstrate Alutiiq ingenuity at its finest. For example, within Alutiiq tradition there is an endless list of tools and processes that demonstrate this ingenuity, such as: flexible sea kayaks, hydrodynamic paddles, v-shaped halibut hooks, atlatls, waterproof gutskin rain gear and patching disks, as well as unique whale hunting practices using poisons and ocean currents, just to name a few. Although the Alutiiq do not produce these items today for the same purpose as our ancestors did, they still hold a purpose within education. As Joanne Mulcahy (2001) explains, “Today, village children carve a kayak, not for fishing, as their ancestors did, but to remind them of who they are, ritually re-creating ancestral spirit” (p. 132). Appreciating the ingenuity of our ancestors by studying and recreating cultural artifacts is one way to reconnect across time, but it also develops the process of learning to problem solve using local resources, which is an important skill set for survival.
Jim Dillard (2003a), a woodworker, teacher and participant at the 2001 Dig Afognak Academy of Elders/Science Camp, wrote a reflective essay in the Sharing Our Pathways newsletter on the ingenuity that he witnessed among Alutiiq Elders. He writes,
As several of the Elders were building a skiff in camp, I noticed that there were no plans, no blueprints, no sort of device to keep everything to scale. I was to learn that these items, had they been there, would have only hindered the process. All measurement was by the length of parts of the human body, an arm span, a hand span, nose to fingertip and so on. The finished project was beautifully balanced in form and was totally symmetrical—custom made. (p. 6)
When he questioned another Elder about how he had learned the trick he used to drill for and lock in place a dart head on another project, the Elder explained that, “...he had never really learned the method, as a matter of fact, he had never used that particular method before, but said, ‘That’s just what I happened to have.’” Dillard (2003a) concludes,
...I frequently saw similar incidences of on-the-spot ingenuity. From my experiences I learned not to limit myself so much to using only the “proper tool.” I have learned that common items found in any camp or boat can be used as effective tools. I discovered that an acceptable tool for a given job may be in my pocket or even on the beach right in front of me. I have begun to experience the special humor-laden pleasure of completing a job by improvisation. (p. 6)
The skill of Alutiiq people to make do is evident. Integrated into the children’s book A Red Cedar of Afognak: A Driftwoods Journey, that expands on Elder John Pestrikoff’s story about a red cedar log cast behind Afognak village centuries ago from a tsunami, has many examples of the types of ingenuity that Alutiiq people are known for (Drabek & Adams, 2004; August 1999, Leer Conversation with John Pestrikoff, Tape 4, Side A).
There are many examples of trickery within traditional Alutiiq stories and the ingenious ways that heros survive them. For example, in “The Sinew Rope” story the hero seeks out to change his luck in hunting by risking his own life to be captured by supernatural, cannibalistic people (Golder, 1909). Despite great suffering as they cut off one of his toes, he continues to play dead until he is able to narrowly escape with the magic rope, which later proves to be serendipitously the thing that makes him a renown hunter, thus bringing his journey to a successful close. In several of the stories, such as “The Unnatural Uncle,” “The Boy Who Became a Mink” and “The Sad Fate of Ucatngiak,” the heros are given a seemingly random assortment of objects which inevitably are the perfect fit for their escape (Golder, 1903b). Ingenuity and the ability to make do with what you have on hand or can find beachcombing are critical for both Alutiiq survival and comfort. As an island with limited resources it is understandable why this value would appear repeatedly as a common theme within Alutiiq literature.