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The Pacific Eskimo: Encyclopedia Arctica 8: Anthropology and Archeology
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

The Pacific Eskimo

(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,

EA- Anthrop. Birket-Smith: The Pacific Eskimos

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.

EA-Anthrop. Birket-Smith: The Pacific Eskimos

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

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

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

EA-Anthrop. Birket-Smith: The Pacific Eskimos

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

EA-Anthrop. Birket-Smith: The Pacific Eskimos

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

EA-Anthrop. Birket-Smith: The Pacific Eskimos

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.

EA-Anthrop. Birket-Smith: The Pacific Eskimos

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)

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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