Reading #4

Theme 2: Industry

Period: Precontact

Like the information in Reading #3, the following material is based on accounts by 18th century European visitors to the Aleutian Islands. Since the people who settled on St. George Island had originally come from the Aleutians, in particular the Fox Island group, their precontact culture can be determined from records relating to the island chain.

Unangan villages looked out toward the sea, and the people’s minds were oriented toward the sea as well. In fact, the only land mammals in precontact days were foxes and, on some of the eastern Aleutian Islands, brown bears and caribou. Many land plants were important for medicine and food, but most important to the Unangan were the products of the sea.

The tidal area along the shore was very important. Shellfish such as mussels and chitons (today called "bidarkis," after the Russian name for "kayak," because they look like upside-down boats) could be gathered by anyone, young or old. Sea urchins were harvested for their eggs. Octopus were gaffed as they lay tucked in their shallow underwater caves. Seaweed was pulled ashore and dried.

Birds and bird eggs were abundant and were a very popular food item. Because most of the birds nested on steep cliffs, their capture required skill and daring. Men tied thick rawhide ropes around their waists, then lowered themselves down the sheer cliffs, collecting eggs in pouches and swooping flying birds from the air with long-handled nets.

Fish were also important. Most winter villages, and almost all summer settlements, were located along a freshwater stream where salmon spawned. Older men, past the age of hunting sea mammals, took their ulu{tan into deep water and dropped halibut lines, waiting for the bottomfish to bite. Other fish were caught in their season.

Sea mammals provided the most calories, but required a huge amount of energy to obtain. The Unangan had many different harpoon and dart heads, each specialized for a particular type of animal. They hunted fur seals, sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, whales, dolphins, and, when the creatures ventured as far south as the Aleutians, walrus. The men hunted in pairs or groups, and were particularly skilled at maneuvering through the water in their ulu{tan while fitting a dart to their asxun (throwing boards), then propelling the dart toward the animal with a quick and strong flick of the arm.

As important as obtaining the food in precontact days were the steps before and after the hunt. Before the hunt, an Unanga{ needed the correct tools and clothing. For this he needed both personal skills –– since each man was responsible for making his own hunting tools –– and a wife. Equally important, he must show the proper respect toward his prey by performing certain rituals, and by refraining from taboos such as making fun of the animal or boasting about his hunting ability. After the hunt, the man and his family needed to process the food so it could be stored for later use. This meant drying or smoking the salmon; preserving berries in seal oil; skinning the sea mammals and tanning and sewing the hides into clothing or implements; rendering the oil from a seal or whale and storing it in a bag; and butchering the meat and storing it in an underground grass-lined cache. It was said that a man alone could not survive; he needed a wife to supply him with the necessary clothing and to help him process the prey he had managed to hunt, fish, or gather.

Finally, in the middle of the winter, the people as a group had to remember to thank the animals they had caught the previous year, through a series of elaborate ceremonies. In this way they showed proper respect for the animals’ spirits, and ensured that the next year’s hunt would be successful.

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