Alutiiq items in Russian museum offer eye-opening view of early Alaska

Mike Dunham
This head is carved inside the figure of a river otter, likely owned by a shaman.
Hunting headgear in the image of a seal, from the book “The Alutiit/Sugpiat”
A watercolor portrait from 1818 shows an Alutiiq chief wearing a Tlingit style blanket.
Trade with Southeast influenced the style of hats in the Chugach region.
An elegant ivory figure of a sea lion adorns the top of a ceremonial staff made from a narwhal tusk.
Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology
This bowl, shaped like a merganser duck, has feet on the bottom.

As Sven Haakanson looked over Alaska material in a Russian museum a few years ago, he spotted an ornate box. The construction and formline image of a bear were straight out of Southeast Alaska.

"I assumed it was Tlingit," he said. "But they told me: No, it was collected in the Kodiak area."

Haakanson, a MacArthur Award-winning archeologist, director of the Alutiiq Museum and Archeological Repository in Kodiak and recipient of this year's Alaska Governor's Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities, had never encountered such a chest from his home island, 600 miles outside traditional Tlingit territory.

The box gave startling evidence of a thriving exchange of goods and ideas, a trading community that stretched from Canada to Bristol Bay long before Europeans arrived.

It's an epoch that almost vanished from memory as Native populations were assimilated and manufactured items replaced handcrafted items. Over the course of 150 years or so, nearly every artifact of pre-contact Alutiiq culture in Alaska was discarded, forgotten or allowed to decay. The fragments that survived in far-flung museums were few and not always well-documented.

Except in Russia.

From the 1700s through 1867, thousands of pieces were collected in Russian America and eventually housed at the Peter the Great Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in St. Petersburg, also known as the Kunstkamera.

"The stuff they have on display is amazing," said Haakanson. "Things we didn't realize we had, the wealth that was once here in Kodiak."

With the Koniag regional Native corporation, he began to explore ways to "get this information home." To make an exhibit would be prohibitively expensive, only a fraction could be displayed and many pieces were too fragile to travel.

"The next best thing was a catalog," he said.

This fall, after six years of work, "The Alutiit/Sugpiat: A Catalog of the Collections of the Kunstkamera" came out in English. The gorgeously illustrated 400-page book from University of Alaska Press is stunning in several respects, a contender for the title of the most beautiful volume of Alaska ethnography ever published.


In 1741, when Vitus Bering sailed across from Russia, the Alutiit occupied the area from the Alaska Peninsula to Prince William Sound. They spoke a dialect similar to the Central Yup'ik Eskimo language of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, but adapted their lifeways, clothing and tools to the warmer climate along the Gulf of Alaska. They traded, fought and sometimes intermarried with their neighbors -- Aleuts to the west, Athabascans to the north, and Tlingit/Haida to the east.

The new catalog presents overviews of scholarly, historic and contemporary observations about the Alutiiq world then and now, including fascinating reports from Russians on the scene before the ancient ways vanished. But its glory is the photographs, page after page of weapons, household items, apparel, masks, drums, rattles and ceremonial regalia.

There are three large, meticulously categorized sections comprehensively covering pieces collected on the Alaska Peninsula (the Katmais), Kodiak and the Chugach region. Taken together they display a wide and diverse range of influences drawn from an enormous geographic area.

Illustrations on bows and other items from the Katmais closely follow the art of Yup'ik and Inupiat people. Caribou and seal skins dominate coats, pants and boots, like the Athabascans. Their hunting visors are nearly identical to those of the Aleuts.

On Kodiak, bird skins and sea lion become common materials, often sewn into complex and fanciful designs. There are wooden helmets depicting animals. Geometric patterns dominate decorations.

In the Chugach grouping from Prince William Sound, the book contains a number of conical spruce root hats decorated with the formline designs associated with the Pacific Northwest Indian artistic style shared by several distinct tribes from Southeast Alaska to Puget Sound.

Pictures in the book indicate that the formline aesthetic migrated throughout the Alutiiq region, with Kodiak Islanders adopting the spruce root hats and ravens tail blankets worn by people on the Alaska Peninsula.

"You start to look at this and you realize how our own people were adapting the designs and inspirations from other cultures," Haakenson said.

Contemporary Alutiiq artists are already referring to images in the book to inform their own work, Haakenson said.

Practical items, like fishing hooks and battle axes, supply the bulk of the items in the catalog. They tell their own stories. Numerous models of open skin boats show a curious bulbous bow, the kind used by modern ship-builders to conserve fuel; Alutiiq craftsmen figured out the design 1,000 years ago, Haakenson noted.

Almost every tool is decorated. Some, like bowls in the shape of duck, seem more like art than kitchenware. And a few pieces cause the viewer to freeze in awe.

One such image is a human face carved into the interior of a ferocious looking otter carved from wood, most likely a shaman's possession. The face is remarkably realistic and non-stylized. It's anguished expression, reminiscent of medieval carvings of suffering saints, is chilling.

"That one gave me the heebie-jeebies," Haakenson said. Russian curators brought it to him at the end of a long week, "and I didn't even want to be near it!"


The catalog is the result of an enormous intercontinental collaboration. Several Native corporations and Alaska grant-writing agencies contributed to the photography of the collection and production of the book, which was done by Russian scholars and photographers.

The book finally came out last year in Russian, and Lois Fields, then a member of the Koniag, Inc. board of directors, learned that Haakanson was working to produce an English edition. Fields grew up in Kodiak in a family that spoke Russian, Sugpiaq and Norwegian, though the children were admonished to speak only English.

"I asked Sven if they had someone lined up to translate it," Fields said. "I knew it would take a lot of money, so I volunteered."

Fields, who lives in Washington state, studied Russian in college. She had recently retired from the U.S. Customs Service and was ready "to spend time on things I didn't have time for when I was working. This was my project."

It was invaluable to have someone from the region help with translation, Haakenson said. Fields was able to catch errors in the Russian commentary, like references to pine trees on Kodiak. ("Only if they're imported," she quipped.)

Each paragraph was a revelation for her. She read the names of people she knew. Found explanations of stone tools in a basket left by her late mother. "Ulu blades. Oil lamps. I finally learned what they were," she said. "I was like, Oh! I have one of those in my basement!"

Some of the localisms and colloquial terms caught her off guard, she said. "There were a lot of words that aren't in the four volume Russian dictionary I have," she said.

Katherine Arndt of the University of Alaska Fairbanks also worked on the translation.

Fields said the museum had produced a similar catalog of its extensive Tlingit holdings, but that book remains available only in Russian. The Alutiiq catalog is the first to be translated into English.

"I felt fortunate to get first crack at it," she said. "They really wanted to make their collection available to interested parties. They have so much more than we'll ever see, so many thousands of items that they can't even display them. We appreciate the fact that they preserved all this. Had they not done it, it would be gone."

The Kunstkamera is only one of several collections of Native Alaska items in Russia. Another catalog is in the works, this one focusing on baskets.

"Most people will never have the privilege to visit Russia," Haakenson said. "The catalog is one way we can bring our information and traditions back to a living context. The more I look at it and the more I have other people looking at it, the more we start to see. I'm looking forward to what comes out of this book."

The book's price, $50, may seem steep, but it's cheap given the scope and the number of full-color plates. It costs about half of what it might have without the subsidies from the corporations and nonprofit groups, not to mention the pro bono contributions of people like Fields.

"They wanted to give me some money, but I donated it back," she said. "I got 10 copies in payment. But I told Sven, if you need help on the next one, call me."



Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.