Photo courtesy of Teal Hansen

Shorebirds is the theme of the month for Cordova. Bird enthusiasts flock to our shores to witness the annual returns. The early springtime is spent listening to the little tweety birds wake up and become active. In recent weeks, we’ve heard the hummingbirds return and have seen them show off with their nosedives and aerial acrobatics. Our family puts out birdseed, sugar water and birdhouses, and we stick post-it notes to the windows to prevent head-on collisions. The local bird population provides us with entertainment; however, birds have been more than just entertainment throughout the history of my people.  

When I think of birds, some of the first childhood memories that pop into my head is the flagging tape that my Gramma i would cover her large windows in. Or how, in the 1980s, my dad would wait for my big brother at the six-mile bus stop with a shotgun, and they would walk across the street to the marshlands to go bird hunting. I remember my first time shooting a shotgun, practicing for bird hunting. I was small for my age and so scared of the kick, raising and lowering the gun with nerves and shaky arms. When I finally got the courage to pull the trigger, there was a misfire click, and the BBs slowly rolled out of the barrel, hitting the ground with a cute noise. We laughed and laughed. I think of my little sister making best friends with the harvested ducks in Controller Bay and protecting them from further processing. I think of my Aunt Terri’s murderous pet geese that would chase us all around the property at their six-mile house, forever instilling a fear of geese in me and my sisters. I remember the crows that lived in the woods outside of Gilbert’s house that had a grudge against my big sister and would divebomb her every time she walked home from school; she is still terrified of all birds. I remember calling out, “DOUBLE EAGLE,” when I saw two eagles together and expected good luck for a time. I think of walking the barrier islands and harvesting seagull eggs every spring. 

Traditionally, birds held a symbolic, spiritual and vitally important resource for our land’s First Peoples. Raven and Eagle are among the strongest moieties for the Eyak, Tlingit and other Northwest Coast cultures. Raven is one of the most important characters in oral tradition for a lot of Alaskan cultures. Raven is a creator, a teacher and a greedy trickster. For the rest of this article, I will provide traditional knowledge on the importance of birds for the Sugpiaq people (Alutiiq/Chugach) of the Prince William Sound.  

Birds were a valuable resource for all necessities of daily life, and not only for their fresh winter-time meat. Bones would be used as sewing and tattoo needles, in jewelry and for other fine tools, like awls. Bird skins were used to make parkas and blankets, commonly seen in museums made with eagle down, cormorant necks and puffin, but also made with duck skins. Puffin beaks were strung up and decorated parkas, boots, hats, shaman aprons and made into rattles. Feathers were used for arrow fletching, regalia decoration, bedding, mats, the seams of waterproof gut-skin clothing and for various ceremonial and spiritual reasons. Large wings could be made into brooms. Bird imagery is seen represented on bentwood visors and spruce root woven hats. Bird figures were carved into men’s ceremonial bowls, most commonly the merganser and loon. Flying formations were depicted in ravenstail and spruce root weaving patterns. Bird calls and mimicry are sung out and danced during celebration and ceremony. Each item helped the Sugpiaq communicate with the spirit world. 

Sua, literally meaning “its person,” is this spirit or essence and is characterized by its human conscience. To have a spirit is to have a person inside and this spirit can take human shape. Each animal’s skin retained the essence of its animal owner and could transfer that essence to whoever possessed it. The Sugpiat pictured an animal’s spirit as a human form covered in animal skin. Through careful harvesting, processing and sewing, people passed an animal’s nature into garments made with its skin. As a result, skin parkas provided both physical and spiritual protection. Skin clothing were animals transformed into helpers. Sugpiat legends state that by putting on or taking off skin, people become animals and animals become people. Birds became an even more important resource for clothing after our coastal people were banned from wearing furs. The feathers from seabirds are best because they shed water.  

In the Sugpiaq universe, most birds were thought to have homes under the ocean in the spirit world. Every hunter had at least two helping animal spirits, one for land hunting and one for sea hunting. Most often, these helper spirits were birds. The frequent use of bird imagery in Sugpiaq art symbolizes this guiding relationship. Each hunting hat, while also practical, was a work of art and reflected the owner’s personality, achievements and social status. Hunting hats held magical powers and helped the wearer become a magical being. They hid the hunter’s face and transformed him into a mystical being with the power to kill sea mammals. It is said that hunting hats are highly prized, and hunters resisted when outsiders tried to acquire them. The hats have powers to attract sea otters, and by parting with their hat, they also part with the luck in getting the animals.  

Advertisement

Birds were harvested with bows and arrows, bird nets, snares, clubs or bird darts. Methods were also vast. They could be driven into traps or nets, baited, called in or harvested from a kayak. A snipe, a common shorebird, could be hunted at low tide at night. People would drive the birds into a net. The shorebirds would be skinned, and their small bodies could be added to soups and stews or roasted. Many customs were followed in the harvest of animals. These customs showed respect for the animals and the spirits they called on and ensured future returns. The remains of sea birds were returned to the water, but those of land birds were left on land. Hunters took great pride in only harvesting puffins that were not bringing back food to their young.  

Eggs were a diet staple. The Sugpiat would repel down cliff faces to collect eggs from nets that could be eaten year-round. Kodiak elders remember cooking eggs and other fresh foods in hollowed-out cottonwood logs on the beach. Fire-hot rocks would be placed in water in the log for cooking. (A large 20-inch by 27-inch cooking bowl made from a tree stump collected from Makaka Point is on display at the Ilanka Museum.) Now that seagull egg gathering is around the corner, listen to our elders and follow traditional harvesting methods. When there are three eggs, leave them alone. When there are two eggs, take one. When there is one egg, take it. Seagulls are indeterminate layers. When they achieve a clutch of three eggs, their hormonal system stops – they won’t lay any more eggs. If they have laid two eggs and come back to only find one, they will proceed to lay two more. They can do this up to 16 times until they reach a clutch of three. 

In addition to promoting hunting success through large public ceremonies that honored the spirit world, Sugpiaq hunters collected amulets or charms for personal protection and assistance. Hummingbirds, their nests and eggs were considered lucky. The birds would be dried and carried in a bag to promote hunting success. Ivory carvings attached to bentwood visors commonly depict the heads, beaks, eyes and wings of birds. Other talismans include eagle feathers, raven feet, bird skulls and loon skins. 

Unlike the Tlingit, Sugpiat masks primarily depict humanoid faces. The only exception to this is sometimes seeing a beak-like mouth carved into the face. Masks were often surrounded with feathers. Hunting hats, animal skin wearing and masks were means of transformation and spiritual communication. 

In addition to food and resources, birds help mariners with important environmental information. Hunters, boaters and shamans watch the birds to read the weather. My dad has always said, “Eagles fly high, it’s a good day; seagulls fly high, run away.” 

Sea birds can help find schools of fish, mark currents, help avoid rocks and lead boaters to land in the fog or when out at sea. They would help whalers find where struck whales have drifted ashore. Birds also warn us about environmental changes. It is said that the birds went silent before the 1964 earthquake. The health and behavior of birds reveal the health of the environment.  

Sugt’stun words for different birds, Prince William Sound dialect: 

Anglluqauliq – Kingfisher  

Angyaq – Grouse 

Atatak – (a duck like a sawbill, but salt water) 

Ayusaq – Arctic Tern 

Culuk – Feather (also refers to body hair) 

Kuigem ayakutaa – Sandpiper 

Kutskalaq – Eagle  

Lituuyuutaaq – Sparrow 

Naruyaq – Seagull 

Ngaqngaaq – Puffin 

Qalngaaq – Crow 

Qanitiirpak – Raven 

Qapugnaq – Golden-Eye Duck 

Qategyuk – Ptarmigan  

Qugyuk – Swan 

As always, the information reported here is my interpretation and understanding based on years of learning from various sources. Specific knowledge and tradition varied by location and family and have evolved over time.  

Teal Hansen is the cultural coordinator for the Native Village of Eyak. 

This story originally ran in the May 10 issue of The Cordova Times.

Advertisement