Published on September 18, 2012 by Amy
The Aleut people live in one of the harshest parts of the world, so warmth is a priority. Both men and women wore parkas below the knees. The women wore the skin of seal or sea-otter and the men wore bird skin parkas, the feathers turned in or out depending on the weather . When the men were hunting on the water they wore waterproof parkas made from seal or sea-lion guts, or the entrails of bear, walrus, or whales. It had a hood that could be cinched, as could the wrist openings, so water could not get in. Men wore breeches made from the esophageal skin of seals. Children wore parkas made of downy eagle skin with tanned bird skin caps. They called these parkas “Kameikas” for raingear in the English language K (Aleut Corp. Web.).
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Sea-lions, harbor seals, and the sea otters are the most abundant marine mammals. The men brought home the skins and prepared them by soaking them in urine and stretching them. The women undertook the sewing. Gut sewing involved turning the intestines inside out and using a bone knife to remove the muscle tissue and fat from the walls of the intestine. The gut was then cut and stretched and fastened to stakes to dry and then made into waterproof parkas, bags, and other receptacles. On some trips the men would take several women with them and their duty was to catch the birds and prepare them for future use. They caught Puffins, Lunda Cirrhata, Fratercula Corniculata, Guillemots, and Cephus & Murres .
One parka took a year to make and would last two years with proper care. It took 40 skins of tufted puffin and 60 skins of horned puffin to make one parka. All parkas were decorated with bird feathers, beard bristles of seal and sea-lion, beaks of sea parrots, bird claws, sea otter fur, dyed leather, and caribou hair sewn in the seams.
Women made needles from the wingbones of seabirds and the thread was made of sinews of different animals and fish guts. A thin strip of seal intestine was also used and was twisted to form a thread. The women would grow their thumbnail extra long so they could split the threads as fine as a hair. Vermilion paint, hematite, the ink bag of the octopus and the root of a kind of grass or vine were used to color the threads.
The interior regions of the rough, mountainous Aleutian Islands were unable to offer much support to the Aleutian people. From the land they could only meet a few needs, such as stone for weapons, tools, stoves or lamps and grass for their woven baskets. For everything else, the Aleuts turned to the sea.
In order to hunt sea mammals and to travel between islands, the Aleuts became experts of sailing and navigation. While hunting they used small watercrafts called Baidarkas and during travel they used their large Baidaras.
The baidara (large skin boat) was a large open walrus skin-covered boat used by Aleut families to travel from island to island, as well as, transport goods for trade and warriors to battle.
The baidarka (small skin boat) was a small boat covered in sea lion skin that was used for hunting because of its sturdiness and maneuverability. The Aleut baidarka resembled that of an Eskimo Kayak, however, it was designed to be much more aerodynamically fast which was perfect for sea hunting. A baidarka came in only two models, a one person and a two-person seat. The deck was made with a sturdy chamber, the sides of the craft were nearly vertical and the bottom was rounded. Most one-man baidarkas were about sixteen feet long and twenty inches wide, whereas a two man was on average about twenty feet long and twenty-four inches wide. It was from the baidarka that Aleut men would stand on the water to hunt from the sea.
The Aleuts hunted small sea mammals with barbed darts and harpoons slung from throwing boards. These boards gave precision as well as some extra distance to these weapons.
Harpoons were also called throwing-arrows when the pointed head fit loosely into the socket of the foreshaft and the head was able to detach from the harpoon when it penetrated an animal, and remain in the wound. There were three main kinds of harpoon that the Aleut’s used: a simple harpoon, with a head that kept its original position in the animal after striking, a compound (toggle-head) harpoon in which the head took a horizontal position in the animal after penetration, and the throwing-lance used to kill large animals.
The simple Aleut harpoon consisted of four main parts: the wooden shaft, the bone foreshaft, and the bonehead (tip) with barbs pointed backward. The barbed head was loosely fitted into the socket of the foreshaft so that when the animal was stabbed, it pulled the head away from the rest of the harpoon. The sharp barbs penetrated with ease, but could not be pulled out. The bone tip is fastened to a length of braided twine meanwhile; the hunter held the other end of the twine in his hand.
The compound harpoon was the most prevalent weapon of the Aleut people. Also known as the toggle-head spear, it was about the same size as the simple harpoon and used to hunt the same animals, however, this harpoon provided a more efficient and lethal weapon. This harpoon separated into four parts. The longest part was the shaft with the thicker stalk closer to the tip of the harpoon. The shaft was fitted into the socket of the fore shaft and a bone ring was then placed over the joint to hold the two pieces together, as well as, protecting the wooden shaft from splitting. Connected to the fore shaft of the harpoon is the toggle head spear tip. This tip was made of two sub shafts that break apart on impact with an animal. The upper sub shaft held the razor stone head and attached to the lower sub shaft with a small braided twine loop. Once the tip penetrates the animal the upper sub head broke off from the rest of the shaft, however, since it was still connected with the braided loop it rotated the head into a horizontal position inside the animal’s body so that it could not get away from the hunter.
The throwing-lance may be distinguished from a harpoon because of the fact that all its pieces are fixed and immovable. A lance is formerly a weapon of war and it was also used to kill large marine animals after it has already been harpooned. The Throwing lance usually consisted of three parts: a wooden shaft, a bone ring or belt, and the compound head that was made with a barbed bonehead and a stone tip. The length of the compound head was equivalent to the distance between the planes of a man’s chest to his back. The lance would penetrate the chest and pass through the chest cavity and exit from the back. The bone ring was designed to break after impact so that the shaft could be used again for another kill.
While English and Russian are the dominant languages used by Aleuts living in the US and Russia respectively, the Aleut language is still spoken by several hundred people. It is a dying language, and it is not known by many Alaskan Natives. The language belongs to the Eskimo-Aleut language family and includes three dialect groupings: Eastern Aleut, spoken on the Eastern Aleutian, Shumagin, Fox and Pribilof islands; Atkan, spoken on Atka and Bering islands; and the now extinct Attuan dialect. The Pribilof Islands boast the highest number of active speakers of Aleutian. Most of the Native elders speak it, it is very rare for an everyday person to speak the language fluently. Only about 150 people speak Aleut.