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    The Pacific Eskimo

    Encyclopedia Arctica 8: Anthropology and Archeology

    The Pacific Eskimo

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    (Kaj Birket-Smith)




            The Pacific Eskimos include two important tribal groups on the southern

    coast of Alaska whose habitat may roughly be described as Kodiak Island to–

    gether with the north side of Shelikof Strait, and the shores and islands of

    Prince William Sound. In physical type they are said to be distinct ( vide

    ). Linguistically and culturally, however, they are closely related to

    each other, whereas in both respects they differ considerably from their kins–

    men in northern Alaska. Owing to the intermixture with Aleut elements which

    took place during the period of Russian colonization, it is a widespread fal–

    lacy among the present white residents of their country to regard them as Aleut,

    and even the natives themselves often commit the same error. It is true that

    their culture closely approaches that of the Aleut, from whom they are never–

    theless linguistically plainly distinct. The inhabitants of Kodiak are often

    incorrectly known as Kaniagmiut, a hybrid word the stem of which is apparently

    their Aleutian appellation (Kaniag or Koniag) combined with the Eskimo suffix

    - miut , e.e., "people of ..." The natives of Prince William Sound are commonly

    called Chugach, probably a corruption of shuket , their own word for "men" or

    "human beings." The term Chugachmiut is, of course, incorrect. The following

    subdivisions may be mentioned:

            I. Kodiak Eskimos. On Kodiak and the adjacent islands (Afognak, Trinity,

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    etc.) as well as the opposite coast of the mainland from Cape Kuprianof to

    Iliamna Peak in Cook Inlet, the head of which is occupied by the Tanaina, a

    tribe of Athapaskan stock. The archaeological remains in Cook Inlet have,

    however, a clear Eskimo stamp, and it seems indisputable that this region was

    once inhabited by Eskimos akin to the Kodiak and Chugach groups. The poula–

    tion of Kodiak itself was called Quqtarmiut ("island people"), but no doubt

    there were several local units and the names of which have not been recorded.

            II. Chugach Eskimos of Prince William Sound, their western boundary being

    Port Graham at the mouth of Cook Inlet. At the Copper River Delta their terri–

    tory is interrupted by the Eyak, a Na-Dene tribe distantly related to the Atha–

    paskans and Tlingit. On the other hand, both Kayak Island and Controller Bay

    originally belonged to the doman of the Chugach "tribes:" (1) Tyanirmiut, from

    Port Wells to Montague Strait, including the west coast of Montague Island;

    (2) Shuqlurmiut on northern Montague Island and the east coast of Knight Island;

    (3) Kangirtlurmiut in the northern part of the Sound west of Columbia Glacier;

    (4) Tatitlarmiut from Port Valdez to Porcupine Sound; (5) Atyarmiut in Gravina

    Bay; (6) Alukarmiut in Sheep Bay; (7) Nutyirmiut on Hinchinbrook Island from

    Hawkins Cut-off to Hook Point; (8) Palugvirmiut or Trhatlarmiut on the north–

    east part of Hinchinbrook Island, Hawkins Island and the head of Cordova Bay.

    A subtribe, Tyitlqarmiut, lived on Controller Bay east of the Eyak territory

    and also used to visit Kayak Island.

            In 1796 the number of the Kodiak Eskimos was stated to be 6,510, but since

    then it has been constantly decreasing. The Chugach numbered only 360 in 1818

    and at the present they do not exceed 200. Exact numbers cannot be given as

    the official census does not distinguish between different native stocks.

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    Exploration and Contact with White Man

            The first European to visit these regions was Vitus Bering in 1741. The

    remains found on Kayak Island by his expedition were undoubtedly of Eskimo

    origin, but neither here nor on Kodiak, which was sighted during the subsequent

    voyage westward, were the inhabitants encountered. It was not until 1763 that

    Stepan Glotov wintered on Kodiak, and not until 1783 that Grigorii Shelekhov

    established a trading post here which for many years was the geographical and

    commercial center of Russian activities east of the Aleutians. A few years pre–

    viously, in 1778, Prince William Sound had been discovered by Captain James

    Cook, and his remarks on the population, few and casual though they are, remained

    our chief source of information about the Chugach until recent years. The follow–

    ing two decades saw several British and Spanish expeditions in these waters, and

    in 1788 the Russians extended their settlements to Prince William Sound where

    a so-called redoubt was established on Hinchinbrook Island, but no substantial

    increase in our ethnographical knowledge was obtained until the early part of

    the 19th century when the results of Russian expeditions(Billings, described

    by Sauer and Sarychev; Lisianskii; Khvostov and Davydov; Lütke) brought some

    new information on the Kodiak Eskimos. Their observations were also utilized,

    together with personal notes, by H. J. Holmberg, a Finnish naturalist who in

    1855 published a rather comprehensive sketch of the inhabitants of Kodiak, and

    by Ivan Petroff in his survey of the population of Alaska, 1884.

            Samples of Kodiak mythology were collected by Pinart and Golder, and a

    comparative study on this subject has been written by Margaret Lantis. Ex–

    tensive archaeological work was carried out by Ales Hrdlicka. In Cook Inlet

    excavations were made by Frederica de Laguna who also, together with Kaj Birket–

    Smith, studied the archaeology and ethnology of Prince William Sound; only part

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    EA-Anthrop. Birket-Smith: The Pacific Eskimos

    of the material thus obtained has so far been published.

            Soon after the beginning of Russian colonization Christianity was in–

    troduced by missionaries of the Greek Orthodox Church. The old ceremonies

    disappeared, but otherwise Christian influence was quite superficial and the

    essential beliefs still survive. During the Russian period the change in

    material culture was also slight except for the introduction of foreign trade

    goods. After the cession of Alaska to the United States, however, old-fashioned

    habits disappeared at an ever-increasing rate, and at present very little is



    Physical Characteristics and Language

            Very few measurements of the Pacific Eskimos of the present day are avail–

    able, and even if the measurements were more numerous they would probably be

    of little value for the study of the aboriginal type, owing to the strong ad–

    mixture of Aleut and European blood. OneOn the other hand, there are considerable

    data on skeletal material. The early Chugach were mesocephalic (male index

    77.3) and mesoprosopic although very close to leptoprosopy (male index 89.8);

    the nose was distinctly narrow 9male index 43.0). The average stature appears

    to have been submedium. This is a type showing close affinity to the Eskimos

    of northern Alaska and Indian Point in northeastern Siberia. On Kodiak,

    Hrdlicka found entirely different conditions. The late prehistoric inhabitants

    were extremely brachycephalic (index 85.9), with very low-vavlted skulls, thus

    resembling the Aleut, whereas the finds from lower levels show a mesocephalic

    to dolichocephalic type (index 77.6) with somewhat higher skulls. Hrdlicka

    contends that this type bears more resemblance to the Algonkians of northeastern

    North America than to the Eskimos, but this view has been questioned. The fact

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    EA-Anthrop. Birket-Smith: The Pacific Eskimos

    remains, however, that a change of type has taken place without, apparently,

    having caused a corresponding change in language and culture, in the develop–

    ment of which no break is observable.

            The language of the Pacific Eskimos has never been subjected to expert

    study. A vocabulary and some grammatical notes from the Chugach dialect were

    collected on the Danish-American expedition of 1933 but have not yet been pub–

    lished. There is, however, no doubt of the Eskimo character of the language

    and its affinity especially to the dialects of Bristol Bay and the Kuskokwim–

    Yukon delta.



            All Pacific Eskimos subsist principally on sea mammals and fish. The

    annual economic cycle was, as a whole, less pronounced than among the Arctic

    Eskimos, hunting in open water being possible all the year round. Another

    characteristic trait was the economic importance of all sorts of shellfish gathered

    at ebb tide, for which reason periods of starvation rarely occurred as among

    so many other Eskimos.

            For traveling and hunting the open skin boat, called baidara by the Rus–

    sians, and the kayyak or baidarka (bidarka) with one or two man-holes were

    employed; the three-hole baidarka is a Russian invention. The paddler knelt

    in the Baidarka. Both single and double-bladed paddles were used, the latter

    on sea otter hunts when great speed was required. The baidara was sometimes

    equipped with a mat sail.

            The spotted seal was hunted singly with a barbed harpoon, whereas sea

    lion, fur seal, and sea otter were pursued by a group of baidarkas. For big

    seals the Chugach used a toggle harpoon. Both types of harpoons had a long and

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    slender shaft to which a float consisting of an inflated seal stomach was

    attached. Sea otter were hunted either with light barbed harpoons and a

    throwing board, or with harpoon arrows and bow. The arrows were kept in a

    wooden quiver. A lance with a blade of polished slate and a wooden club be–

    longed to the outfit of the baidarka. The club was also used for killing

    seals on the rocks; for this purpose they had a decoy made of a stuffed seal

    skin. The common method of whaling was carried out from the two-man baidarkas

    by means of lances with slate heads, but the Chugach also knew another method

    where the open skin boats and heavy toggle harpoons were employed as among

    the Arctic Eskimos. The whalers were highly esteemed, and during the whaling

    season they were strictly taboo. Their implements were hidden away until the

    proper season, and the weapon points were poisoned with aconite root or with

    an extract made of human fat and body juices, for which reason whalers were

    supposed to kill other people or steal the bodies of their deceased colleagues.

            The summer fisheries played a very important part. Halibut were taken

    with a composite and cod with a simple hook; the line was made of kelp. Her–

    ring were speared with a three-pronged spear, and salmon, of which five differ–

    ent species occur, were taken with barbed harpoons and gaff-hooks. Salmon

    weirs were built in the rivers. Fishing nets except dip nets were unknown.

    Brown and black bears and, among the Chugach, mountain goats were the only

    land animals of economic importance. Bows and arrows were used in land hunt–

    ing. The bow as a rule lacked sinew backing. On land, arrows were carried

    in a skin quiver. Several kinds of traps and snares were known, but pitfalls

    were not in use. Birds were caught with a gorge or killed with stones thrown

    by a special kind of throwing board.

            In the villages the houses were arranged in a row along the beach. Kodiak

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    houses were rectangular, with walls built of vertically placed planks covered

    with sod, and gut-skin windows. Inside there was a common room with a fire–

    place, and at the sides low, semisubterranean sleeping rooms, several families

    ;iving in the same house. There were also bathrooms, but it is not clear

    whether the bath originally was a steam or a dry-heat bath. An especially

    large house was used as a communal house, called kazhim by the Russians. Ap–

    parently the Chugach house was not dug into the ground and the walls were not

    covered with earth. Heavy, oval-pointed-stone lamps were used for lighting.

    Besides there were skin bags, wooden containers, baskets, and urine tubs in

    which the skins were cured. Pottery occurred on Kodiak, but not among the

    Chugach, among whom stone-boiling was in general use. The floor was covered

    with grass, mats, and furs.

            The ordinary dress was made of bird, ground squirrel, or sea otter skin,

    and in moist weather a coat of gut-skin was worn. The coat reached almost to

    the feet and was not provided with a hood, except in the case of the gut-skin

    coat. The head was covered with a fur cap or a conical basketry hat. Very

    often the natives went barefooted, although sealskin boots were known, and

    instead of trousers they had an apron or a genital covering. Needle-and-thread

    tattooing and painting of the face were generally employed, and ornaments were

    inserted into the lips and the septum of the nose. The hair was smeared with

    grease and sometimes sprinkled with red ochre and bird down. Dentalium and

    amber were considered the most precious ornaments. In wars, which were not

    at all infrequent, the body was protected by wooden slat armor.

            There were two types of Adzes, one an ordinary Eskimo "elbow" adz, the

    other one with a heavy, grooved head resembling the Northwest Coast type.

    Knife blades were made of slate, but there were also carving knives with

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    beaver-tooth blades. Some iron was in use even before the discovery, prob–

    ably obtained from wrecked Japanese ships.

            The social organization was characterized by a sharp class distinction

    between hereditary chiefs, commoners, and slaves, but no moiety or totemic

    system was known. Another feature emphasized by most early observers was

    the frequent occurrence of homosexual behavior, many young men dressing like

    women and performing women's work. Polygamy was common, but a sort of poly–

    andry also prevailed, the character of which is not entirely clear.

            Little is known about the religion of the Kodiak Eskimos, for the in–

    formation given by Pinart is so utterly different from anything else known

    from the Eskimos, including the Chugach, that it can scarcely be considered

    reliable. It appears, however, that Shlam-shus, the Spirit of the Air, oc–

    cupied a prominent position, with numerous other spirits of lower rank.

    During the winter elaborate ceremonies were celebrated, to some extent secret

    to the women and children, and on such occasions wooden masks were worn. The

    dances were accompanied by the sound of drums and rattles. The basic beliefs

    of the Chugach were very much like those of other Eskimos. They were of

    opinion that everything had its "owner" (shua). The "owner" of the sea,

    Imam-shua, and the "owner" of the land, Nunam-shua, were women who ruled

    over the sea and land games, respectively. The "owner" of the air, Tlam-shua,

    probably identical with Pikna, "he (or she) up there," is a rather vague

    figure. Animals and human beings had souls, which were identified with the

    breath, but the concepts of "owner" and soul were not kept apart as sharply

    as among most other Eskimos. Taboos and amulets were known, as were also

    shamans. When healing sick persons the shamans might wear masks represent–

    ing their assistant spirits. There were many ceremonies among the Chugach.

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    One of them was celebrated when visitors came to trade, another after a

    successful war. The most important, however, was the festival for the dead

    and the souls of the game killed during the previous season. Both the Kodiak

    Eskimos and the Chugach interred their dead, although a kind of primitive

    embalming by means of stuffing the body with moss was employed in the case

    of persons of distinction.


    Birket-Smith, K. "Early Collections from the Pacific Eskimo." National–

    museets Skrift
    ., Etnogr. Rækie. I. Copenh., 1941

    ---- " The Chugach Eskimo. " In preparation.

    Cook, J. & King, J. " A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean. " II. 2nd ed. Lond., 1785

    Golder, F.A. "Tales from Kodiak Island." Journ. Amer. Folk-Lore , XVI.

    N. York, 1903

    Holmberg, H.J. "Ethnographische Skizzen uber die Volker des russischen

    Amerika." Acta Soc. Scient. Fenn . Iv. Helsingf.,


    Hrdli c č ka, A. " The Anthropology of Kodiak Island ." Phila., 1944

    Khvostov & Davydov " Dvukratnoe puteshestvie v Ameriku. " St. Petersburg,

    1810. (Two Trips to America)

    Laguna, F. de " The Archaeology of Cook Inlet, Alaska. " Phila., 1934

    ---- " The Archaeology of Prince William Sound, Alaska. " In


    Lantis, M. "The Mythology of Kodiak Island, Alaska." Journ. Amer.

    , LI. N. York, 1938

    Lisianskii, U. " Puteshestvie vokrug sveta. " St. Petersburg, 1812.

    (A Trip Around the World)

    Litke, F. " Puteshestvie vokrug sveta. I-III., St. Petersburg, 1834–

    36. (A Trip Around the World)

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    EA-Anthrop. Birket-Smith: The Pacific Eskimos

    Oetteking, B. "Skeletal Remains from Prince William Sound, Alaska."

    Amer. Journ. Phys. Anthrop . N. s. III. Phila., 1945

    Petroff, I. "Report on the Population, Industries, and Resources

    of Alaska." 10th Census U.S. VIII. Wash., 1884

    Pinart, A. "Eskimaux et Koloches." Rev. d'Anthrop. II, Paris, 1875

    Sarychev, T. " Putshestvie po severo-vostochnoi Sibiri, Ledovitomu

    moriu i Vostochnomu okeanu
    . I-II, St. Petersburg, 1802.

    (A Trip to Northeastern Siberia, the Arctic Sea and the

    Pacific Ocean)

    Sauer, M. " Account of a Geographical and Astronomical Expedition. "

    London, 1802.


    Kaj Birket-Smith

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