A picture of the Kal’unek cover. Via the Alutiiq Museum
One Kodiak Island settlement has served as both a rich archaeological resource and fueled the Alutiiq heritage renaissance now underway in Kodiak. The Alutiiq Museum recently published a book called “Kal’unek” with the University of Alaska Press. The nearly 400-page volume focuses on archaeological discoveries near the community of Karluk and delves into the site’s lasting effects on those involved.
The Alutiiq Museum’s Director of Research and Publication, Amy Steffian, says the site at the mouth of the Karluck river – Karluk One – opened to excavation in 1983, when few people knew about Kodiak Island’s Alutiiq history.
“Many people would not even claim their Native heritage because there was so much disenfranchisement and disrespect, and there was this sense that the pre-historic culture that had preceded the people that live today was impoverished,” says Steffian. “That these were poor people who suffered and who didn’t have a vibrant artistic life and certainly when we set out to study this site, it became pretty clear that that was false.”
Steffian says it became extremely exciting to the Alutiiq community to see the objects coming out of the ground and have access to them. She says sharing that was the second part of the book.
“It’s really two stories. It’s the story of the site and its contents and it provides an ethnography, it talks about how people lived 600 years ago, 400 years ago in that time period, but it also tells how this kind of anthropological, archaeological study when done in partnership with the community, when done with support and involvement, can be a very powerful experience.”
She says that the museum worked with many contributors on “Kal’unek,” from researchers to people who had excavated on the site.
“And also with members of the community who’d cared for the collection in the museum as volunteers or as paid employees and we asked everyone to write about a thousand words that summarize their experience so that we could tell the story not only of the site and its history, but of the impact of this research on the community broadly,” says Steffian.
And she says they’ve built a picture about Alutiiq life using a variety of resources, from oral history to Russian texts. As far as the artifacts go, they stand out for being especially well-preserved.
Executive Director April Laktonen Counceller explains the fresh water that leaked into the site helped prevent oxygen from touching the artifacts until excavators could unearth them.
“Thinking about a 500-year-old house where the grass that they used to keep the floor dry and clean still being green and then within just a couple of hours, the oxidation happening,” she says. “Of course, they didn’t collect probably the dirt and the grass, but they collected the more resilient items like the wood masks and the baskets. I mean, it’s just amazing the types of things that survived.”
Counceller says she was involved in the project through the Kodiak Alutiiq New Words Council, which draws on the knowledge of Alutiiq elders. She says the members who had helped create words for modern technology turned their attention to ancient objects.
“By creating words for items where the words were once lost, we were able to kinda put our mark back on that pre-history and say this is our pre-history,” she says. “Our people have long been discussed by outside archaeologists, anthropologists. For the elders, it was really important to claim ownership over the past by giving back new words to those old items.”
She says they didn’t always invent now words or combine existing ones. For instance, they use applied the modern word for knife to an ancient one.
“That helps show the cultural continuity,” explains Counceller. “That we don’t need to come up with a completely unrelated word. We can use an existing word so that people can leverage the language they already have.”
Counceller says there are many more words listed in the book.
“Kal’unek” stands out as a thorough study of Alutiiq culture and, as Steffian says, “the goal was to make it a joint project where everyone was involved and people of all heritages and interests had access to the material.”