Sea mammals were a staple in historic Alutiiq diets, and a lecture this week will cover the traditional methods and rituals of hunting them.
Alutiiq Museum Curator of Archaeology Patrick Saltonstall says Alutiiq people hunted whales, porpoises, fur seals, and sea otters, and used a variety of projectile weapons.
“They’d hunt them with throwing boards. They’d use it to project a dart. They also used spears or lances which would be thrown by hand, and then they used arrows as well. Basically, the arrows, the harpoons shot with arrows, tended to be for smaller mammals, and as you got to the hand-thrown lances, that would be for whales and sea lions.”
Whale hunting was particularly swathed in mystery and tradition.
“Whalers were considered shamans basically, and they would have a cave where they kept the human remains that they’d use to make their poison along with monk’s hood, and they would reenact the hunt in their cave. There was a lot of ritual that went with hunting whales.”
Saltonstall says the hunters would use the remains of important people and boil the fat down to put on their spear tips along with the poison.
During the whale hunting season, he says the rest of the community deemed the whalers “unclean” and kept their distance. He explains how that set the Alutiiq people apart from some other Alaska Native cultures.
“If you go the Inuit or … the Inupiat up in northern Alaska, they would hunt whales, with a whaling captain, it would be a communal affair. The Alutiiq are very different. It’s much more of an individual and secret, and you would only have one or two people hunting the whale, but I don’t know why that is.”
Saltonstsall says the Alutiiq method also proved to be more effective than the technique colonizers tried to introduce during the Russian period.
“Every whale, the Russian recorded – you know they had the Alutiiq catching whales for them and they had a 40 percent recovery rate with their poisoned spears, which is actually – you know, the whales they struck, and that’s actually really high. And when they tried to do it with “modern techniques,” the recovery went down and so they went back to using the slate lances with poison.”
You can learn more about whaling and other traditional hunting methods at the lecture Thursday. It’s the second installment in the Alutiiq Museum’s fall lecture series, and it’ll begin at 7 p.m. in the Kodiak Public Library.