Stories and Photographs of the Chugach Region*
Compiled by: John F.C. Johnson
*Portions of Chugach Legends: Stories and Photographs of the Chugach Region authorized for use on this site through October 2005.
The rebirth of this book of legends started in 1982, when I wrote to the National Museum of Denmark seeking their permission to use old stories that were recorded by them from my grandmother's uncle. My own quest to find my roots and then to share my findings with others has led to the production of this book: My true goal was to enable both the young and old to feel the same sense of pride that I felt by knowing who and where we came from. I believe these legends to be the basic building blocks that form and unite our culture. Outside the Chugach culture, these narratives show that the story of Alaska people does not begin with the arrival of the Russians. Rather, oral tradition reveals that the Chugach migrated into and settled Prince William Sound (also called Chugach Bays thousands of years before.
Without present knowledge and pride in our own past, we face the darkness of an uncertain future with the only constant being change itself. These legends illuminate the past and help guide us into the future. The spirits of our ancestors live on in these stories. You can sense their presence and their messages in each one.
I would like to dedicate this book to all the elders of the past and present. May their wisdom guide us and give us strength and their spirits be with us and inspire us in the days ahead.
/signed/ John F.C. Johnson
These legends, stories, and photographs of the people of the Chugach Region of southcentral Alaska comprise a collection that touches the heart and spirit as well as the mind. They illustrate traditional beliefs and situations of a unique group that blends Yupik Eskimo, Aleut, and several Indian groups (Athabascan, Tlingit) cultures. Republication of these stories helps foster and maintain self-awareness and a sense of place critical to continued self-esteem and identity as a people. Their retelling serves many diverse purposes. They can guide us through the inevitable personal crises of a useful life and provide an opportunity for parents and grandparents to pass along language, culture, and personal values. Taken as history they can communicate not only actual events and lifeways, but also the spiritual aspects of long-ago realities.
Archeological evidence shows that the Chugach people have survived and prospered for thousands of years. Oldest legends teII of the last ice age when Prince William Sound was largely covered by glaciers. Three major Alaska Native culturesEskimo, Indian, and Aleuthave inhabited the region. We do not know how long man has occupied the region but the archeological record infers a six-thousand-year history of habitation on Kodiak and Afognak islands.
The migration of the people has not been firmly established. Their language, Aluutiq, is closely related to the Yupik of the central Bering Sea people. Other evidence suggests cultural ties to the people of the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska. The Chugach called the early inhabitants of the sound "Auxkerulut" and themselves "Suk," "Cuatit," or "Suaciq." Subgroups of the Chugach include:
In addition to these groups, the Yalegmiut inhabited a major settlement at Yalik Bay in the Kenai Peninsula fjords. This area is now used by the people of Port Graham and English Bay. Many ancestors from these two villages originated in Prince William Sound. Port Graham's Native name, Paluwik, was also the name of one of the most important prehistoric village sites in Prince William Sound until the 1700's. In the early 1800's Russian priests and fur traders convinced people from Tatitlek, Nuchek, Yalik Bay, Aialik, Nuka Bay, Port Dick, and Windy Bay to resettle at the Russian Fort Alexandrovskythe present site of English Bay.
In prehistoric time the Tlingit people from southeast Alaska settled at Katalla, Chilkat, and Kayak Island, south of the Copper River delta around Controller Bay. Also, Eyak migrated down the Copper River valley to settle at Alaganik and at Eyak Lake near concentrations of Eastern Chugach people. The Eyak also settled at Katalla, where they adopted the Tlingit culture. Finally, the Aleut people came into Prince William Sound from the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula area, where they were the first Alaskans to contact the Russian explorers.
Many of these stories came from a collection in Prince William Sound by the First Danish-American Alaska Expedition of 1933. Headed by the late Dr. Kaj Birket-Smith of the National Museum of Denmark, the author, and Dr. Frederica de Laguna of the University of Pennsylvania, results of their studies were published in 1953 as The Chugach Eskimo. The National Museum of Denmark and Dr. de Laguna graciously granted their permission for republication here, most identically to the original stories.
De Laguna and Birket-Smith recorded legends from three key sources:
Chief Makari (Makaka) Feodorovich Chimovitski was born in the village of Nuchek. His ancestry reflects the cultural diversity of the regiona grandmother from Kodiak Island, a great-grandfather from Yakutat, and a great-grandmother who was the daughter of a Chugach chief from Mummy Island near Cordova. Makari's traditional name was Alingun Nupatlkertluqoq Angakhuna. His older brother (Peter) was the last chief to die at Nuchek. Makari possessed many of the spiritual powers which usually accompanied the position of chief. He could predict weather changes from observing animal behavior and once saw land otters with human faces. His daughter (Matrona) once saw dwarfs and people with pointed heads. Makari eventually became one of the chief storytellers and recordkeepers of the entire Prince William Sound area. He reported these stories at age 86.
Paul Eliah Chimovitski, Makari's brother, also participated as a storyteller. His Aleut name was Tyiktlun.
Stepan Britshalov, the third contributor, grew up in the village of Chenega. His Aleut name, Atlutaq, came from his great-grandfather who lived on Wooded Island. The elder Atlutaq was known as a great whaler and hunter. He would hunt brown bears with a club and chase foxes until they dropped from exhaustion.
Others contributed stories to round out geographic coverage of the Chugach Region Alaska. Excerpts from Fireweed Cillqaq and Alexandrovsk magazines, published through grants from the BilinguaI/Federal Programs Office, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, supplied stories from Port Graham and English Bay, respectively. Their credits appear under the names of individual stories.
The photos resulted from a search among several sources as credited on each photo. Many have never been published before and offer a fresh look at life in the region as captured by observers of that day. Some faces and places may be familiar, which is why we named them when we could. Relatives of several victims of the Chenega tidal wave resulting from the great Alaska earthquake of 1964 told us how pleased they were that many of the photos of their old village have been included.
The following stories, virtually word for word as they were told by the narrators, are based both on prehistoric and historic events and beliefs. Elders of the region reviewed this compilation and expressed great joy at their resurrection and the memories they revive. Ten concentrate on historic settlements and events. One tale of an early sighting of Russian explorers shows the fine line between myth and reality in the audience's mind. The hunters returned from Green Island reporting strange beings with smoke coming out of their mouths, shining suckers all the way down their bodies like cuttlefish, bandaged heads, and legs ending in hooves. The more mythical stories (umixkuaq) also reflect events of the past as well as spiritual beliefs and teachings.
To understand people is to know and respect their beliefs. Every group of people shares beliefs that largely govern their behavior. Some beliefs concern physical phenomena, explanations of their existence, and how they function. Others pertain to matters sacred or spiritual. Rarely are trivial things held and passed on from generation to generation. As old stories evolve and new ones are created to acknowledge the changing environment, the storyteller is constant in his mission to bring the past and future together in the mind of the present. It is in this ancient tradition that we publish this book.
HOW THE DIFFERENT VILLAGES STARTED IN PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND
There was an old village in Port Fidalgo. A man there had five nephews, twelve sons, and two wives. He was sick and ready to die. He had a fine spear with a throwing board which he gave to his youngest nephew. Then he died.
The nephews and the sons all went into one house. The sons were dividing the dead man's things among themselves and the nephews. They gave each some bows or arrows or spearsall the dead man's hunting implements. The nephews were talking of the throwing spear. The oldest son said that his father wanted to give it to the youngest nephew, but the oldest nephew said: "No, he gave it to me." Then they started to fight for the spear and were hitting each other with it. The oldest son seized it and threw it into the fire. Then they all quarreled and left.
They went all over [the Sound]. Some of the sons went to the Cordova side, some went to Trhetla near Taukhtyuik and to all different places. Most of the nephews with their families went to Palutat. They pulled their baidarkas up and piled their hunting tools all together. Then they sat up against the wall with their knees doubled up under their chinseverybody, men and women, the women holding their babies. They died that way and dried up. You could see them there long afterwards.
The sons and some of the nephews went to all the different places in the Sound, I don't remember all the names. That is how all the different villages started.
THE FIGHT BETWEEN THE CHUGACH AND THE KODIAK ESKIMO
One summer the men from Qilangalik left their wives on the refuge rock at Hinchinbrook Island, while they went hunting for fur seals. While the women were alone a war party came from Angiarhtalik on Kodiak Island. The women did not want the enemy to see that there were no men with them, so they made themselves moustaches of bear fur and brandished spears, but one woman leaned over, and her moustache fell off. Then the Kodiak Eskimo realized that there were no men present. They made a ladder out of spears and climbed up onto the rock. Some of the women were killed; others they carried away to be slaves or to be their wives.
In the middle of winter the men from Qilangalik went to Angiarhtalik to avenge their wives. They arrived while the inhabitants were eating supper. They sat down under the window, looking in, and let the snow cover them. The people inside were eating land otter. After that they wanted to play dice with a land-otter humerus. A man threw it. "Tell us the truth about what is going to happen." Every night the Kodiak Eskimo played this game to find out if the Chugach were coming; before the dice had always fallen at "one." This time the bone stuck upright on the elbow end. "Is that the truth that the Chugach are going to close us in?" The man threw it again, and the bone stuck the same way. "Is that the truth that they are going to kill us?" An old man said: "Do not mention the Chugach. They are like ducks, they may come any time." So the man threw the bone again, and every time it stuck on the end. Then he got disgusted, spat on the bone and hurled it out of the window. "I don't believe you, you old bone. You cannot tell the truth." But the old man said: "Do not talk about the Chugach. They are like the birds, they may come any minute." They were outside listening to everything that was said. The bone fell between them. A young man inside the house got up and closed the window, saying: "I am going outside to see if they are there." The women were all sitting around the fire. The young man went out [and returned] and fell down in front of the fire, but nobody paid any attention, because he always did so to make people believe that the Chugach had arrived. They were all afraid of them. They heard him bubbling. The men outside had speared him, and his blood was running out. The women cried: "Look, his blood is running out. The Chugach have speared him already." So they all started to run into the sleeping rooms, and most of them ran into the bath house and closed the door. They heard the men outside, saying: "Do not kill the old man who was sticking up for us." They killed all the men but did not harm the old man and the women. They found the old man hiding by the bath-house rocks. The Chugach chief said: "Do not bother him, he was sticking up for us, take care of him." Poor fellow, he was all shivering. They recognized their own wives but [some of them] did not take them back. They took young girls, and some took their wives back. They carried off a lot of young women as slaves. They also took the old man and treated him well. He was always served first when they were eating. They returned to their home before spring and lived just as they did before. When the old man got [very] old, they took care of him and buried him with all kinds of expensive furs. After that they never left their women alone, but they always left a couple of young men to look after them, when they were out after fur seals.
THE LITTLE PORPOISE
There was a little porpoise, Mangaq. He was going to take away all the ghosts and evil spirits from Arhuartulik [the head of Cordova Bay]. He had a one-hole baidarka and started off with it. He was killing all the ghosts off. One of them was called Kaparshushik; his wife was Akatageli. She lived on one side of the bay, and he lived on the other. When anyone came to the head of Cordova Bay, he would call: "Don't go on that side, Akatageli will get you." And she would say: "Don't go that way, Kaparshushik will cut you up." Akatageli used to rip up the baidarkas with her woman's knife, and Kaparshushik would kill the people with a stone thrown from a seal pelvis. Another spirit at the head of Cordova Bay was the chief. His name was Shuigriliq. The Little Porpoise killed the chief, too, but before he died, he said: "When you go back you will meet a whale, and he will get you."
When he returned in his baidarka, he saw the whale floating right by Nugaq [North Island]. The Little Porpoise had a copper [-headed] spear with which the spirit used to kill people. The whale flipped its tail and tipped the baidarka over. The Little Porpoise's parents were living at Iralik [near Makaka Point on Hawkins Island]. They worried because he did not come home after so many days. There were other people living at Nagaulik. The parents of the young man went out to look for him, and the Nagaulik people told them that they had seen the whale tip him over with its tail; they had seen it from their place. He had been gone for a week, and the parents were looking for their son every day. Finally they found him on the beach called Shuklurunilinguq, just above Makaka Point.
Then the father and mother rolled him over and set him up. He drew a long breath and told his mother he was tired. One side of his face was eaten up by sand fleas. Then he said to his parents: "I killed all the spirits at the head of Cordova Bay. I met a whale coming back, and hit him with my weapon, but he flipped his tail and tipped me over." He had killed the whale, but he did not know it. That young man killed all the spirits. Formerly anyone passing North Island at the head of Cordova Bay had disappeared. Now they were not afraid of the spirits any more. After he came to life, the Little Porpoise used to go out hunting.
RAVEN, THE BEARS AND THE WHALES
There was a village with many people who were hunting brown bears. They were clever people who used to take a silver salmon and cut it in half, shaking the tail part under a rock while another man was lying behind with his spear. When the bear jumped after the salmon, he stabbed it with his spear and killed it.
There was a place near the village where many bears were living, but by and by they became fewer and at last very few were left. Then the bears looked around for somebody who was more clever than the villagers and were pleased to let Raven into their house, where they gave him food and told him that they were looking for clever people. Raven said: "You are looking for clever people? I know where there is one. He likes to eat dried salmon eggs." Then the bears went to the man, and Raven was in the bears' house when they brought him in. Raven said: "I know why you are getting so few. The humans use to take salmon tails and wave them under the water and kill you with their spears." The clever man said: "If you see a salmon tail wave, do not bite it, but bite higher up, and you will bite off the arm." After that he left.
[Some time afterwards] the bears went after Raven again, brought him back and told him that they had bitten a man's arm off and wanted to cause him pain. Raven told them: "Take the arm and hang it up with the hand under the smoke and get some yellow cedar and burn it. Then the man will always feel pain and not recover."
Then the villagers looked for Raven and asked him why the man was feeling pain after the bears had bitten his arm off. "Do you think we could find that arm?" they asked. Raven said: "I know where it is." "Do you think we could get it?" Then Raven went to the place of the bears, making deadfalls all the way to their house. Inside the house they had built a great fire of yellow cedar wood, and the arm was hanging over it. When they had tied the arm, they had used tree roots, but Raven said: "You ought to use grass roots. The man is very sick and suffering, but the grass roots will cause him more pain." So they changed the string. Raven was going in and out every few minutes, and the bears wondered why, but he told them: "When people get old they cannot hold their water as when they were young." The bears were eating, and Raven was watching them while he said: "Slack the line a little."
Then Raven seized the arm and flew away with it. The bears pursued him, but they were all killed in the deadfalls except two very old ones; if they had been killed also, there would have been no more bears. Raven brought the arm back to the house and fetched some water, because it was quite dried up. Then he told the young people to go into the woods and get pitch from the trees. After that, Raven told them to place the sick man alongside the fire, took the sore arm and said: "Now I am going to sing a song." He made circles around the fire, and in every corner he put his beak out and called for help. Meanwhile, he told the people: "Keep your eyes closed!" And every time he made a circle he put his beak outside so that all the bushes theresalmonberries, wild currents, and blueberriescould help him singing. At last Raven said: "Are you sure you have your eyes closed? Now I am going to fix the arm." Then he put pitch on the man's arm and put it in place, but he said: "One of you had one eye open, therefore I have put the arm on crooked." That is the reason why people have crooked [i.e. flexible] arms.
After that the chief of the village said: "We will give you anything you ask for, because you have cured the arm of that man." Raven was single, and the man who had the arm bitten off had a young daughter, so Raven said: "I should like to have that girl."
Afterwards he took his baidarka and went away with her, when he met two blackfish. Every time they came up from the water, he said: "You have not got a wife like I have, dressed all in marten skins." Next time the blackfish came up again, one on either side of the baidarka, and said: "We have all kinds of dried fish and want to give you some." Raven asked: "How do you eat dried fish?" They told him: "That is the way we eat it: hold your head back and keep your eyes closed." He did so, but when he opened his eyes and looked where his wife had been sitting he only saw the snip of her marten-skin coat as the whales dived with her.
Then he went home and said that the blackfishes had stolen his wife. He took a walk on the beach where there was a sandspit and found a little smoke house. As he entered he found an old, old woman inside. The old woman was holding the tides. Raven wanted to know how she did so, but the old woman [only] answered that she could do so. She let the tide fall, and Raven went out looking for the blackfish but found nothing but a sea-urchin. After that he again went to the house of the old woman, and a little bird was right in front of him. Raven asked what she was doing. The little bird answered: "I am just walking here, but I can lift the water." "Can you lift the water, then do so," said Raven. It was high water, and the bird put her feet into it and lay on her back lifting the water and told Raven to enter. Then the bird let the water down again, and Raven went under the water.
Raven arrived where the blackfishes lived who had stolen his wife. There he met a blue crane who was the watchman of the blackfishes. As soon as the crane began to shout, Raven gave him a copper spear to keep quiet. Therefore, the crane has a long beak. The blackfishes came out and wanted to know what he saw, but Crane said: "I was so sleepy that I saw the dirt falling from my eyes, therefore I shouted." So the blackfish went into the house again. Crane told Raven: "When those two were out hunting they brought back the girl dressed in marten skins." Then Crane took the girl out of the house to Raven who went away with her.