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Catalog of historic Alutiiq treasures released

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Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2012 2:36 pm | Updated: 10:24 am, Sat Jun 29, 2013.

KODIAK, Alaska - For the past decade, some of the biggest finds in Alutiiq history research haven't come from archaeologists; they've come from researchers trawling the depths of European archives.

While European and American settlement eradicated much of Kodiak Island's native culture, the past decade has seen researchers rediscovering rich troves of artifacts taken to Europe by 17th century and 18th century explorers.

This month, the University of Alaska Press has released a catalog of the richest of those troves - the Alutiiq collections of the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Also known as the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, the Kunstkamera has the biggest collection of Alutiiq artifacts in Europe.

"When you go through this catalog, it's breathtaking to see the pieces, to actually be able to understand how they were made, from the spruce root hats to the kayaks, anyaks and masks," said Sven Haakanson, director of the Alutiiq Museum.

The 400-page, hardbound book was a long time in coming.

Work on it began in 2006 and required extensive fundraising and a bit of international diplomacy.

"First, we had to had to go over there to build a relationship with the Russians," Haakanson told the Kodiak Daily Mirror (

Museums don't grant large-scale access to their collections without a good reason; part of their mission is to preserve their collection. In Kunstkamera's case, its collection of Alutiiq artifacts has survived the Bolshevik Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, the fall of the Soviet Union and the turning of - in the case of the oldest artifacts - more than 200 years of history.

The photographs compiled by Kunstkamera staff paid with funding raised in Alaska. Koniag Inc., Chugach Alaska Corp., the Rasmuson Foundation, Cook Inlet Region Corp., Bristol Bay Native Corp. and others each contributed money or time to the book. That funding also reduced the cost of the book, lowering its shelf price from more than $100 to $50.

Each artifact in the catalog is pictured on a white background in images clear enough to allow crafters to see how a hat is woven or a kayak constructed. Most images are accompanied by translated source documents that explain what the artifact was used for.

On page 116 is a model of a three-hatch kayak taken from Kodiak Island in 1804. Its accompanying description was written in 1812 by a Russian naval officer named Gavriil Davydov, who said, "On various occasions the Americans paint their faces, but at those times, in addition to this superstitious rite, they have another that has been recognized through experience. It consists in eating either nothing or very little before a departure because it is completely true that a hungry man paddles more strongly and more easily and can endure this work longer."

To an outside observer, this might seem just like a history lesson. To the Kodiak Alutiiq, it's an instruction manual.

Shortly after the book's release, Haakanson received a call from an Alutiiq dancer who found an image of a chief wearing a blanket from the Chugach region of mainland Alaska.

She asked Haakanson whether it would make sense for a dancer to use that blanket today. "It's a drawing from 1818, so our people had that then," he said. "This book is already getting out there and people are using it for inspiration. For more, that is the ultimate reason, to get the information back into our community members' hands."

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