Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum Releases Book About Karluk Archaelogical Site

The Alutiiq Museum recently published a book called “Kal’unek” with the University of Alaska Press. The nearly 400-page volume focuses on archeological discoveries near the community of Karluk and delves into the site’s lasting effects on those involved.

The museum’s director of research and publication, Amy Steffian, says the site at the mouth of the Karluk River — Karluk One — opened to excavation in 1983 when few people knew about Kodiak Island’s Alutiiq history.

The Alutiiq Museum's newest publication,  “Kal’unek”. The book focuses on archeological discoveries near the community of Karluk. (Image courtesy of the Alutiiq Museum)
The Alutiiq Museum’s newest publication, “Kal’unek”. The book focuses on archeological discoveries near the community of Karluk. (Image courtesy of the Alutiiq Museum)

“Many people would not even claim their Native heritage because there was so much disenfranchisement and disrespect, and there was this sense that the prehistoric culture … was impoverished,” Steffian says. “[It was thought] that these were poor people who suffered and who didn’t have a vibrant artistic life, and certainly when we set out to study this site, it became pretty clear that that was false.”

Steffian says it became extremely exciting to the Alutiiq community to see the objects coming out of the ground and to have access to them. She says the book is really about two different stories.

“It’s the story of the site and its contents and it provides an ethnography; it talks about how people lived [hundreds of years ago] … but it also tells how this kind of anthropological, archaeological study, when done in partnership with the community, when done with support and involvement, can be a very powerful experience,” she says.

Steffian says that the museum worked on “Kal’unek”with the help of many contributors, from researchers to people who had excavated the site. She says they’ve built a picture about Alutiiq life using a variety of resources, from oral history to Russian texts. Many of the artifacts are especially well-preserved.

The museum’s director, April Laktonen Counceller, says the freshwater that leaked into the site helped prevent oxygen from touching the artifacts until excavators could unearth them.

Counceller says she was involved in the project through the Kodiak Alutiiq New Words Council, which draws on the knowledge of Alutiiq elders. She says the members who had helped create words for modern technology turned their attention to ancient objects.

“By creating words for items where the words were once lost, we were able to kinda put our mark back on that prehistory and say, ‘This is our prehistory,’” she says. “Our people have long been discussed by outside archeologists and anthropologists. For the elders, it was really important to claim ownership over the past by giving back new words to those old items.”

She says they didn’t always invent new words or combine existing ones. For instance, they use applied the modern word for “knife” to an ancient one.

“That helps show the cultural continuity,” explains Counceller. “That we don’t need to come up with a completely unrelated word. We can use an existing word so that people can leverage the language they already have.”

Counceller says there are many more words listed in the book. Steffian says “Kal’unek” is a thorough study of Alutiiq culture and that “the goal was to make it a joint project where everyone was involved and people of all heritages and interests had access to the material.”


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