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Forms of Alutiiq Storytelling

There are several forms of verbal and visual storytelling within the ancestral Alutiiq tradition:

Unigkuat (plural) are legends, myths, or origin stories that explain how the world came to be the way it is and why. Jeff Leer’s recent unpublished Alutiiq dictionary files define unigkuaq as a “legend passed down from generation to generation; thing of the past” (Leer, n.d., U). Leer also raises the issue of connotation with using the term “myth” as a translation for unigkuat, given that in English myth implies a story that is not based in fact. His notation questions this translated word choice when he writes, “is the terminology ‘myth’ correct? (implies a value judgement).” In looking deeper into the meaning behind the word unigkuat, it appears to be etymologically and metaphorically related to the adverb “unegkut” — “those out there...toward the open sea,” and the verb roots “unegte-” — “to remain, stay behind” or “unite-” — “to be left (behind); to be left over; to remain” (Leer, n.d., U). These word roots provide us a glimpse into the Alutiiq perception of what a story is, where they originate from, and their function as a trace of what once was. Today it is generally accepted by Alutiiq Elders today that unigkuat stories are “fairy tales,” but likely in the pre-Christian era they would have held more spiritual significance and been revered as biblical stories are today within Christian society.

The general term used for all other types of stories in Alutiiq culture is Quliyanguat (plural). Leer in his most recent unpublished Alutiiq dictionary files defines quliyanguaq as a “story, tale, history” (Leer, n.d., Qu). Quliyanguat can also be legends but are more frequently true life stories telling how heroes dealt with challenges in life or significant occurrences. The Alutiiq word quliyanguat is etymologically related to the verb roots “quliyar-” — “to tattle, snitch, tell,” “quliyangar-” — “to be a tattle-tale, snitch, informant,” “quliyaqe-” — “to talk it up, to talk favorably about it,” and “quliyanguaqe-” — “to tell the story of it; to tell about it; to have it as an account” (Leer, n.d., Qu). It is also etymologically and metaphorically related to “qule-” — “above” (Leer, n.d., Qu), which clearly implies that stories come from above. Within the Alutiiq tradition it is commonly understood that stories or messages from the sky worlds were carried by little birds, which serve as a link between the animal spirit world and human existence.

Another form of storytelling, frequently combined with dance motion, are atuutet. Leer defines atuun or atuuteq as a “song... [or] music” (Leer, n.d., A). Atuutet, or songs, are a combined form of verbal and visual storytelling when performed together with dance motions, gestures, or “lliilet” (Leer, n.d., Ll). The word atuutet is etymologically linked to “atuute-” — “to sing with or for him/her” (Leer, n.d., A) and related to “atuu-” — “to be usable, serviceable, wearable” (Leer, n.d., A). There are a number of traditional Alutiiq songs that tell stories that continue to be used today. For example, as documented in Pinart’s (1872a) journals, there are many mask songs that embody the stories of archetypal characters from Alutiiq spiritual life.

The Alutiiq traditionally used gestural sign language or Lliilet within dance or “lliiler-” — “to dance (in the aboriginal style, with hand motions)” (Leer, n.d., Ll), which Elders today typically define as “motioning.” Beyond the dance motion gestures common across Alutiiq, Yup’ik, Inupiaq, and Inuit traditions, the Pacific Northwest tribes also share a traditional form of sign language used to communicate with outside traders. In fact, recently members of the Kodiak Alutiiq community recovered a chapter from a book The Graphic Arts of the Eskimos: Based Upon the Collections in the National Museum that catalogs traditional sign language used in the region in the 1800s, as well as other chapters on pictographic depictions (Hoffman, 1897). “Dr. Hoffman’s special studies were largely concerned with sign language, pictography, secret societies, primitive ritual and primitive art, in all of which subjects he contributed notable papers to governmental and other scientific publications” (Chamberlain, 1900, Jan-Mar). The signs inventoried in this book not only were used to communicate, but the signs themselves are metaphors that assist us in understanding how different words may have been perceived.

From 1871 to 1879 Dr. Walter James Hoffman (1897), an assistant ethnologist for the Bureau of Ethnology worked with an Alutiiq man named Vladimir Naomoff who he describes as “an intelligent Kadiak half-caste...offspring of a Russian father and a Kadiak mother” who worked for the Russian American Company (p. 750). After Alaska was transferred to the U.S., Naomoff “continued in the service of the Alaska Commercial Company, of San Francisco, California, visiting the various settlements of natives on the mainland and inland to the Copper River Indians [Kutchin or Kenai], a tribe of the Athabaskan linguistic family.” This is how Naomoff spoke Russian, English, Alutiiq and several other native dialects, and made use of sign language to communicate and trade with other Natives. Hoffman (1897) cataloged the gestures that Naomoff taught him in the summer of 1882 in San Francisco, California. The hand signs collected were also verified by a Mahlemut native from St. Michael’s. The recent Alutiiq Language class at the Kodiak High School has begun to reintegrate these signs into their communications.

While stories are typically understood to exist within verbal, written and in body language realms, stories also are embodied within cultural objects of stone, wood, bone or textiles. The Alutiiq have a rich heritage of graphic symbolism, as do many other cultures, which conveys stories through petroglyphs, incised pebbles or talking rocks, transformation sculptures, talismans, dolls, weaving patterns, story knifes, and masks (Steffian & Counceller, 2009; Roberts, 2008; Knebel, 2003). These images or forms are an important form of Alutiiq literature, although not explored in depth in this dissertation beyond references to images that relate to oral and written stories and in Chapter 8. As explored in Chapter 8, cultural objects are often paired with or representative of an oral story or its motifs. For this reason, it is important for cultural reclamation efforts to incorporate explorations of symbolism and story motifs imbued in cultural objects, as they help illuminate the ancestral worldview that oral stories may not be fully able to convey significance across cultures or across generations.


Excerpt from Alisha Drabek, PhD's dissertation on:

Liitukut Sugpiat'stun (We are Learning How to be Real People):
Exploring Kodiak Alutiiq Literature through Core Values