Awa’uq: Reflections

One Sunday during our stay at Tanginak, we took a hike down the beach of Fox Lagoon to visit Awa’uq, about five miles from our camp. Awa’uq is a refuge rock off the Pacific coast of Sitkalidak that is the site of a massacre of Alutiiq people by the Russian fur trader Gregorii Shelikhov in 1784. In the Alutiiq language Awa’uq means ‘to become numb’, so named after the massacre that left hundreds of Alutiiq people dead while the Russian force suffered no casualties. This event marked the beginning of the Russian occupation of Kodiak and enabled Shelikhov to leverage control over Alutiiq leaders by taking survivors as hostages.

View of Awa’uq and the connecting rocky spit from the shore.

Refuge rocks were important landmarks in the Alutiiq past – safe places with temporary settlements for people to hide during raids, which were common across the Gulf of Alaska prior to European colonialism. The geography and geology of refuge rocks – steep cliffs, limited access, low visibility of settlements from the water – made them difficult to attack. In the case of Awa’uq, the sea-facing side of the rock is very steep and the rock is only connected to the mainland by a rocky spit at low tide.

Map showing the location of Awa’uq in reference to Tanginak Anchorage (base map from Google). They are about 5 miles apart.

Getting to see Awa’uq in person was breathtaking. I could feel the weight of what had happened and better imagine the retreat to refuge. During our visit this summer, we walked to Awa’uq, but Alutiiq ancestors from the village of Ing’yug would have travelled by boat – making the toting of provisions and children quicker and easier than our own journey. I imagined families hurrying across the connecting spit at low tide, climbing up to the top of the rock by a (now) rotted rope, and monitoring the sea from the great vantage. I also saw the ridge across the spit where Shelikhov placed his cannons and how exposed the rock was from that angle.

Rope that was used to climb on top of the rock during the 1990s excavations. The rope is now mostly rotted, but we still climbed up at the same spot. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

When we got to the top of the rock it was too overgrown to really see much, but I could sense the topography of house pits crammed together under a thick blanket of pushki, nettle, salmonberry and fern. A house on Awa’uq was excavated by archaeologists in the 1990s, but we didn’t spend long looking for it as we were wary of the rising tide and our narrowing window to cross back to the beach. I can imagine that it is as easy to feel trapped on this rock as it is to feel safe, perhaps something that Alutiiq ancestors pondered as they were awakened by the booms of cannon fire that August morning in 1784.

I was struck most by the views from Awa’uq – both looking out on the vast ocean and back at shore where vertical rock strata outcropped and were eroded in beautiful curving lines. The place somehow felt different than anywhere else on the island that I’d been, with both the elegance and devastation of geologic and human history so boldly on display. It’s a sight that’s difficult to forget.

View to the east from the top of Awa’uq. (PC: Ben Fitzhugh)

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