Sheridan Glacier Lake is shown during the first week of solid freeze, Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023. Photo by Kinsey Brown for The Cordova Times

For those who participate in subsistence and seasonal traditional harvesting, the winter is a time for rest, recovery, and socialization. We have celebrated holidays with different origins and histories in the last several months. Halloween originated from the Celtic festival of Samhain, the American holiday of Thanksgiving with biased truths, most recently Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, and soon Russian Christmas, to name a few. Each holiday has a different history and cultural origin adapted to contemporary society or evolving religions. Since we are in a season of holiday cheer, I’ll stick with this theme and talk about the activities our land’s original stewards participated in during the winter.  

For the Sugpiaq/Alutiiq people, winter is a social season filled with festivals and gratitude. The summer months were spent subsisting and harvesting the plants and animals the region provides. As the days get darker, fishing and hunting gear is set aside for different tasks, like mending tools, sewing clothing, playing games, gathering with family, and preparing and partaking in the many winter celebrations. Neighboring communities were invited to socialize, give thanks to the year’s harvest, and honor their ancestors. Some had a more spiritualistic or shamanistic component than others, but all celebrations held by our ancestors included elaborate feasts, songs, and dances. Guests and hosts would don their most beautiful clothing and use elaborately made dishes and utensils to honor the spirits, ancestors, and animals that sacrificed themselves to provide sustenance, clothing, shelter, tools, and other materials.  

Cultural bearer and NVE Tribal Council member Kanisha Tiedeman Lohse, comments on what winter means to her, as this is where she is currently spiritually present: 

“Winter is a time of rest and internal creativity. A time to acknowledge the light within – our soul. A time to celebrate birth and death. With winter coming, it is a time to release old traumas, letting them die away, and letting the earth take care of you. Knowing that we are moving from this transitional space with the light of the earth, and come the spring, we’ll be rebirthing anew. Winter is a time to digest and metabolize what has happened in the past, really moving inward and acknowledging it. Giving it that power and lending it that honored space.  

Winter is a time of creation. A time to work with furs, hides, and beads – and our ancestors wove this reflection into their creations. Our people would pass down knowledge, lessons, and tell of historical events by telling stories…and embodying the storytelling by singing it, dancing it, teaching it to our people, and sharing it with neighboring tribes. I think it is a super powerful and beautiful way to share with the drumbeat and the symbology of the drumbeat. Connecting yourself with others through food, story, and by acknowledging those who came before us and how they celebrated. Feeding themselves physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually…and bringing this forward into our time. Winter is a time to move inward, to nurture yourself, to bring our roots down into the earth and giving thanks for the abundance in the universe.” 

Kanisha’s message was so beautiful that I didn’t want to paraphrase any of it.   

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Dominique Desson categorized Sugpiat ceremonial activities into two types: 1. celebrations that were not regularly scheduled, like unions, a boy’s first successful hunt, when a new qayaq (kayak) was built, to establish or strengthen relationships, ritualistic preparation for war, and the great Feasts of the Dead to honor those who passed; and 2. winter festivals that were regularly scheduled, like the Bladder Festival. 

Because the host village provided all the food and (most of the time) gifts for the guests, much like the potlatches of their dAXunhyuu (Eyak) and Lingít (Tlingit) neighbors, only the wealthiest villages were able to host these festivals, like Nuuciq (Nuchek), Paluwiik (Palugvik), Chenega, and the Sukllurmiut (Montague Island People). The Sugpiat from the Prince William Sound to Kodiak Island built large sod-covered, single-roomed structures for community activities, one in each community and maintained by the wealthy. According to the Kodiak Alutiiq Museum, this was where men gathered to socialize, plan war parties, discuss politics, and lead community festivals. Women and children joined in the festivals, of course, but did not visit the community houses regularly.  

To announce a feast, celebration, or festival, messengers in two-man qayaq (kayaks) were sent all over the Sound to invite people. When the messengers returned home, the paddlers would announce that nobody was coming to the feast and pretended to act sad, when the guests were just beyond the nearest corner. Later, the host village could hear the distant pounding drums as the visitors arrived. The Kodiak Alutiiq Museum reports that members of the host community would don their finest clothing on the festival day and wait on the beach for guests to arrive, greeting them with songs as they approached and then rushing into the water to help the boats ashore. According to Kaj Birket-Smith, who visited the area with Frederica de Laguna in the early 1930s, whichever village arrived first would begin the dancing, with only two sets of villages performing in one night. Drums, rattles, and whistles would aid a song or performance along with other regalia, resources, or purposeful artwork, like feathers, masks, and face painting. I love this little tidbit Birket-Smith threw in, “If no Yakutat were present, the inhabitants of Nuchek often imitated their dances, which seem to have been greatly appreciated.” Of course, this information is assumed to be recalled during peace between the two cultures.  

Winter festivals started in November and December and lasted until January or February or until all the food put aside for the occasion was consumed. Desson writes, “Winter festivals were masked hunting rituals performed to ensure the help of the spiritual world in obtaining game during the next hunting season.” The festivals included various performances to attract or appease the different spiritual entities in the Sugpiaq universe. The spiritual beings they worshipped or feared, if left unappeased, could send illness and death, or bring bad weather or low returns. The performances, which followed the purification rights of the hunters, focused on making yourself attractive to the animals.   

As always, the information reported here is the interpretation of a few. Specific traditions likely would have varied in different locations, would depend on those who attend, would depend on the purpose of the celebration or festival, and would have evolved over time. Additionally, the Native informants for the sources cited below may have had fragmented information, but that does not mean the information is wrong. It is just a product of history. 

Resources: Kanisha Tiedeman Lohse, cultural bearer, NVE Tribal Council Member; “The Chugach Eskimo” by Kaj Birket-Smith, National Museum of Copenhagen 1953; “Masked Rituals of the Kodiak Archipelago” thesis by Dominique Desson, UAF 1995; and The Kodiak Alutiiq Museum.  

Teal Hansen is the Cultural Coordinator for the Native Village of Eyak. 

The Native Voices Column is a Cordova Times column that highlights and uplifts the experiences and culture of the many Native populations that make up our community through guest contributions to the paper. If you are interested in submitting something about your Tribe, Village or a Native topic that is important to you, you can email us at [email protected]. The Cordova Times covers and is distributed on the historical and unceded territories of the dAXunhyuu (Eyak people), the Prince William Sound Sugpiaq, and the Yaakwdáat Lingít. 

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