The self-designation of the Alutiiq people is Sugpiaq ("real person"). The three traditional subgroups are the Chugachmiuts (Prince William Sound), Unegkurmiuts (lower Kenai Peninsula), and Qikertarmiuts or Koniagmiuts (Kodiak Island). There are many similarities to Unangan culture. The Alutiit lived and continue to live along coastal southern Alaska, between Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay. Kodiak Island was one of the most densely populated places north of Mexico. The aboriginal (mid- to late eighteenth-century) population was between 10,000 and 20,000 people. Alutiit spoke the Sugcestun, or Suk, dialect of the Pacific Gulf Yup'ik branch of Eskimo, an Eskaleut language.
The people recognized one or several chief deities, as well as numerous supernatural beings. Success in hunting required a positive relationship with the spirits of game animals. Human spirits were reincarnated through birth and naming. Trances, as well as certain masks and dolls, allowed contact with the supernatural.
A large variety of dances, ceremonies, and rituals, including masked performances, songs, and feasts, began in the early winter. Specific ceremonies included a memorial feast, a ritual to increase the animal population, the Messenger's Feast (a potlatch-like affair that took place between two closely related villages), life cycle events, the selection of chiefs, and preparation for the whale hunt. Wise men (Kodiak Island) were in charge of most religious ceremonies, although a dance leader might direct ceremonies and instruct children in dances.
Male and female shamans forecast weather and other events, and they cured disease. Berdaches were often shamans as well. Women also acted as healers through bloodletting and herbal cures.
Despite the existence of fifty or more villages or local groups, there was no strong central government. Most important decisions were made by consensus agreement of a council. Village leaders were chosen on the basis of merit, although there was a hereditary component. They were expected to earn respect and retained their offices by giving gifts and advice. Some controlled more than one village. Their primary responsibilities were to lead in war and guide subsistence activities. From the nineteenth century on, chiefs (toyuq) and secondary chiefs (sukashiq) were appointed by a consensus of elders.
Descent was weakly matrilineal. Women generally had relatively high status, although they did not participate in formal governing structures such as councils. Society was divided into ranked classes: noble, commoner, and slave. Slaves might be acquired through trade or war, especially among the Chugaches and the Koniags. High-stakes gambling was a favorite pastime.
Women were secluded in special huts during their menstrual periods and at the birth or death of a child. Seclusion during the initial menstrual period could extend for several months or more. Women's chins were tattooed when they reached puberty. Male transvestites were esteemed and performed the woman's role for life. Some girls were also raised as boys and performed male roles.
Marriage was formalized when gifts were accepted and the man went to live, temporarily, with his wife's family. A woman might have two husbands, although the second would have very low status. Men might also have multiple wives. Divorce and remarriage were possible. Babies' heads were flattened in the cradle, perhaps intentionally for aesthetic purposes. Children were generally raised gently, with no corporal punishment, but toughened with icy water plunges.
Corpses were wrapped in seal or sea lion skin and kept in a special death house. High-status people were mummified. Slaves were sometimes killed and buried with a person of high rank. Mourners blackened their faces, cut their hair, and removed themselves from society. Graveside ceremonies went on for a month or more. Pieces of the corpse of a great whale hunter were sometimes cut up and rubbed on arrow points or used as talismans on hunting boats.
Houses were semisubterranean, with planked walls and sod- and straw-covered roofs. A common main room also served as a kitchen and workshop. Side sleeping rooms, heated with hot rocks, were also used by both sexes for ritual and recreational sweats. Up to twenty people (several families) lived in each house. Winter villages were composed of up to ten or so houses. Some villages had large ceremonial halls (kashim). In fishing and other temporary camps, people lived in bark shelters or even under skin boats.
Salmon was a staple, although other fish, such as herring, halibut, cod, and eulachon (smelt), were also important. Sea mammals, such as whales, porpoises, sea lions, sea otters, and seals, were also key. Dead whales were not pulled ashore but were allowed to drift in the hope that they would come back to camp. The people also ate sea birds. There was some gathering of shellfish and seaweed, as well as greens, roots, and berries. Land mammals, such as caribou, moose, squirrel, mountain goat, and hare, also played a part in the diet.
Woven spruce root baskets were decorated with grass and fern embroidery. Men carved and painted wooden dance masks. Two-hatch skin kayaks were the main vehicle for transportation, whaling, and sealing. They were made of sealskin stretched over branches. The people also used some dugout canoes, umiaks, and plank toboggans pulled by dogs. The Alutiit acquired dentalia and slaves from the Northwest Coast. They exported caribou, mountain goats, and marmot parts. Messenger Feasts/potlatches also involved trade.
In cold weather, the Alutiiq people wore long parkas made of squirrel or sea lion fur and bird skin, rain parkas made of sewn eagle skin or eagle intestine, and boots made of sea lion, salmon, or bearskin. Men's conical bentwood or woven spruce root hats, worn at sea, may reflect a Tlingit influence. Men also wore Unangan-style wooden visors.
Women wore labrets and nose pins. Men also wore ornaments, such as sea lion whiskers, in their ears and noses. Other types of ornaments included coral, shell, and bone. Men braided their long hair, whereas women wore it tied up on their heads.
The Alutiiq people had been living in their historic territory for at least 2,000 and perhaps as many as 7,000 years when the Dane Vitus Bering, working for Russia, arrived in 1741. Although he may not have actually encountered any people, contact became regular in the 1760s and 1770s—and generally resisted by the Alutiit. The first permanent Russian settlement was established in 1784, on Kodiak Island. By that time British and Spanish seamen had also visited the area.
In part by keeping their children as hostages, Russians soon forced the Natives to hunt sea otter pelts and do other work for them. Disease and general oppression soon cut the Alutiiq population dramatically. Many people were acculturated to the Russian religion and customs when the United States gained political control of Alaska in 1867.
At that time there began a renewed push for acculturation in another direction. Children were soon sent to mission and Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, where they were forced on pain of punishment to accommodate the U.S. model. Economically, canneries and commercial fishing dominated the region from the late nineteenth century on.
Several Alutiiq villages suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 1964. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA, 1971) had a profound influence on the people. The act established twelve formal culture areas, of which three fell in Alutiiq territory. In 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil in Alutiiq territory, resulting in a tremendous loss of sea life, among other things.
Many villages remain accessible only by air or water. Most people are Russian Orthodox, many older people speak Russian (along with English and Alutiiq), and there are considerable other Russian influences. Most village social activities are church related.
Some Alutiit are more identified with the ANCSA corporate entities than with the original Alutiiq culture. Village concerns include protecting the local fisheries, road construction, and the construction of a boat harbor. Efforts to preserve the Native culture include the formation of the Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers, language classes, oral histories, and craft (woodworking and kayak-making) projects.