I spent the past week in Fairbanks for the Alaska Anthropological Association’s (AkAA) 2020 annual meeting. The weather there was sunny and clear but the temperature remained below 0ºF…brrrr.
It was great to connect with researchers who work in Alaska and start to build a network with both current students and professionals, many of whom attend or work at the University of Alaska campuses or the National Park Service. I also got the chance to hang out with some of my friends and colleagues from the Alutiiq Museum!
Of course, conferences are also a chance to learn about ongoing research projects in the discipline. Two sessions that I found especially interesting were one on traditional place names (i.e. the names that Indigenous communities have for locations, land features and places in their languages) and one on community-based participatory research in Alaska. There was also an amazing talk by Princess Daazhraii Johnson, the producer of PBS’s Molly of Denali, about the need for Indigenous narrative sovereignty. Johnson’s words about the power of storytelling and positive representation really hit home for me as I begin to research the lives and stories of Sugpiaq ancestors.
I presented in a session entitled “Recent Archaeological Research of the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Archipelago.” Overall, I was really happy with my talk, which discussed the framework for the Old Harbor Archaeological History Project, emphasizing the community-oriented nature of the project, and my plans for the next season of excavation. After my presentation, I was pleasantly surprised that so many fellow students came up to me to talk about how to make archaeological research more relevant and engaging. Many of the archaeology talks at the conference were devoid of storytelling or even any real mention of people – something that both I and the students I spoke with noticed. I think this points to a need for more engaged (and engaging!) archaeological research and reporting. Archaeology should also strive to be socially and culturally relevant, especially for descendant communities, who have the most to gain or lose from the process of research and dissemination of results.
All in all, the conference was a much needed intellectual and motivational boost as I turn back to working on my NSF dissertation funding proposal this week. I have been struggling to put all the pieces of my project together in a convincing way (and all the bureaucratic paperwork and budgeting that goes along with a proposal scares me), but I think that I can finally see a way through. It certainly helped that I was able to meet with the NSF program officer for Arctic Social Sciences to discuss my dissertation project at the AkAA conference!
Here’s to a productive and illness-free end to winter quarter at the UW!
This post is a combined work of diary entries about my personal experience doing archaeology at Ing’yug, a Sugpiaq/Alutiiq village on Sitkalidak Island, and an imagined fictional narrative (italicized paragraphs) about a girl that lived in the village in the early 1800s.This story came out of an assignment for Writing in Archaeology, a class taught by Sara Gonzalez at the University of Washington.Writing this short fictional piece allowed me to think about the archaeological materials in a different way, while also foregrounding my own sensorial and emotional experience at Ing’yug.
were dropped off on the beach as the sun was starting to go down. All the
excitement leading to this moment of arrival fell away as I watched the boat
depart. We were alone at Tanginak. It took us the rest of the daylight hours to
organize our gear and begin setting up our camp – our home for the next three
weeks – a quarter-mile uphill from the beach. I was unsettled that evening in
my tent. Everything was new and the sounds were unfamiliar. Had I made a giant
mistake in coming here? In following this career path? Wait, is that rustling
sound a bear?
was afraid that night. She could hear her mother, aunties and grandmother
whispering amongst themselves by the central stone lamp, discussing the Russian
man who had visited their village that day, remembering Awa’uq. She had not yet
been born the last time that Russian men came to her island twenty years ago,
but she knew the stories well. Her grandmother had gathered her clan and
kayaked down the lagoon to their place of refuge after being warned of an
impending threat. A threat unlike their usual war partners from the chain or
the peninsula. Little did Grandmother know that their place of refuge would be
the final resting place for so many of her people. Since the massacre, the men
had been taken away and an unknown sickness swept through the islands. What did
Mother and Grandmother know about this man who visited today? Were they bracing
for another tragedy?
I fell asleep and awoke the next morning with a new energy. Seeing our
surroundings in the morning light put things in a better perspective. Here we
were surrounded by Sugpiaq history and the lives of ancestors. We had slept
atop the oldest archaeological site on the archipelago and, from that vantage,
could see traces of Sugpiaq life stretching from 7,500 years ago to the present
resting among the fireweed, salmonberries, pushki and nettles. I had not
expected all this interconnection, although I should have. I had been so
focused on a particular time and a single village, Ing’yug, that I had
overlooked how Ing’yug was wrapped in a thick cloak of multigenerational,
multimillennial lives and activities. Our presence here was merely a drop in
Russian man’s visit ended up being just another oddity and no immediate
consequences or changes came to her life. She continued with her early spring
routines and duties – gathering shellfish from the beach at low tide, cleaning
and preparing the latest batch of fox furs that the boys brought in, and
assisting her mother and aunties with preparing, storing and distributing food.
On special nights all the families in the village would gather in the qasgi, a
large house set behind the beach ridge and invisible from the shore. Of the few
adult men who still lived at Ing’yug year-round, the eldest ones resided
primarily in the qasgi, and every so often would host a feast and encourage
dancing, singing and storytelling. This is where she learned the history of her
people. The tales of weavers, warriors, whalers, shamans, healers, and midwives
filled her being with a sense of pride. “There are not so many of us now,” the
elders would say, “some of the dance masks and songs had to be retired and
there are some stories that not even we know anymore. Their owners were lost.” From
this, she understood that her knowledge was a valuable gift and a marker of
perseverance, of survival.
slowly became familiar with Ing’yug, our small team uncovering the sedimentary
layers of its history in little squares, but the village was not yet ready to
share what it had witnessed. We found very few artifacts, or ancestral
belongings, but there was an abundance of charcoal-stained soil, fire-cracked
rock and animal remains – evidence of a significant residence by Sugpiaq ancestors.
It was not until the final day of excavation that we uncovered belongings – a
slate ulu and a stone lamp, lying upside down on the floor of a house. Touching
and holding artifacts, objects, belongings is powerful as you share a moment
with those who made, used and discarded them – uniting those pasts and this
passed and she became a mother, then a grandmother. Leader of her family. A
revered source of knowledge. A skilled seamstress, fish processer, dancer and
beader. Life in Ing’yug had become more tenuous. More Russian visitors came and
went, more of her people were removed or succumbed to the sickness, the Church
came to stop the dances. Yet, here she still was, making do, surviving. One
day, word came that everyone in the village would be relocated to Nuniaq on the
Sitkalidak Narrows. There was no choice. The Russian company men had already
decided. As she left her ciqlluaq in Ing’yug for the final time, she made sure
to turn the stone lamp upside down so the spirits wouldn’t escape.
Being a new mom in
graduate school is definitely challenging, especially when field work is a
major component for my discipline. Thanks to OHAHP and my personal hero and
champion, Hollis, my then-ten-month-old son and I got to test the waters of mothering
in the field. Like most fears, the expectations were nothing close to reality.
Wyatt and I had an absolute blast and I fully intend to continue bringing my
family on my adventures! For all the people in academia wondering about
work-family issues, especially graduate students and early-career
professionals, I’d like to share my experiences and offer some advice about
parenting in the field.
A brief background:
Wyatt and I spent five and half weeks on Kodiak, Alaska. Three of those weeks
were spent at a remote field location where we assisted with an archaeological
survey of a contact-era Alutiiq village. Our team consisted of the project lead
Hollis Miller, our advisor Dr. Ben Fitzhugh, me and Wyatt. Hollis’ partner
joined us during the second week, but for most of the survey it was just the
four of us and the wildlife!
One of my biggest
takeaways from our first field experience is to not be afraid (or feel guilty)
to ask for help! Often, when people talk about having children in the field
both parents are there supporting each other. As a graduate student, my partner
is the main source of our income and cannot leave his job for extended periods
of time. I’m very fortunate to have an amazingly supportive advisor and
colleagues, as they were able to help me care for Wyatt and, honestly, for
Being upfront about
the team’s expectations and all our mutual goals was crucial, and we figured
out the unknowns as we went. Wyatt didn’t yet sleep through the night and he’s
big for his age. My body was in pain, sometimes excruciating pain, all the
time. I was exhausted, not newborn exhausted, but pretty dang close. I couldn’t
go to the bathroom without having to ask someone to mind Wyatt, and on occasion
someone had to mind Wyatt while I ate. Honestly, I entirely underestimated the
physical requirements of doing fieldwork with an infant. Everywhere I went,
near or far, I was automatically packing an additional 22 pounds with me before
even thinking about gear.
Mentally, I grappled
with feelings of guilt almost nonstop. I felt guilty for not being able to do
more for the team, that my (our) presence was a detriment to the work the team
was doing, that I had to ask for help, and I even felt guilty about how this
might be bad for my son. Mom-guilt comes in many terrible flavors, but near the
end of our trip I realized that I felt guilty because I was doing the thing
women aren’t supposed to do. I was selfishly having my cake and eating it! I
was maintaining a productive, successful career AND a happy family. I still
feel the guilt, but now I just imagine it as a badge of honor I have chosen to
wear with the hope that one day making room for families in the field, in the
lab, at work (or wherever moms, or parents more generally, need them) becomes
In addition to the
guilt, I dealt with a lot of frustration and disappointment. Being in the field
is my happy place. I love excavations. I knew it wouldn’t be the same with
Wyatt there, but I really wasn’t prepared for how much pain I was going to be in.
My body is different after pregnancy – stronger in some ways and weaker in
others. These changes exacerbated the aches and pains I felt from lugging bub,
bub’s gear, and my gear all the time. However, there were a few days Wyatt
either took an epic nap or Ben stole him for a couple hours and I would find my
old groove and the pain would just disappear.
I think the most
overwhelming feeling I have in regard to the trip is gratitude. Negative
feelings and thoughts, even pain – those things are all temporary, but the work
we were doing and the memories I made on this trip are important and priceless.
I’m grateful to Hollis for the opportunity, her companionship, and for always
being my champion. I’m grateful to the Haakanson and Clough families for treating
Wyatt and I like family. I’m grateful to the people of Old Harbor for all that they
shared with and taught me. I’m grateful to my advisor for putting up with my
selfishness without batting an eye, and I’m grateful to the O’Dell Cross
family, Patrick Saltonstall, and the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak for their
hospitality and friendship. There are a million more things I am so very
grateful for, but most importantly I am grateful to my son for completing my
life and my husband, Ken, for encouraging my dreams.
Notes on gear: Wyatt was carried using a hiking backpack carrier 95% of the time and a soft preformed carrier or in arm the rest of the time. I shipped baby food (pouch style) ahead of us and, other than running out, this worked really well for many reasons. I packed very few toys or formal playthings. Wyatt was more interested in watching the world around him and happily played with bull kelp and other treasures from the beach.
The main item I wish
I had lugged out with us was a playpen. I decided last minute not to mess with
shipping and dragging one around, but it would have been nice to have a place
to just set Wyatt down at the site. Luckily, the tent we used for our kitchen
tent had three rooms and we were able to setup a makeshift playpen.
Finally, always bring
more baby wipes! They’re useful for adults and kids alike. I’m already a
believer that kids should be filthy at the end of the day, so I had very
realistic expectations about Wyatt’s appearance. I made sure that the important
areas were kept clean and dry, but otherwise he fit in with the rest of us
working in the field.
I think the last, and
most important, piece of advice I can offer is to remember to enjoy your time.
Wyatt grew so much in the weeks we were out in the field. He started to notice
birds, learned to wave, and figured out how to suck straws! Remember to take
notice of how your little one is growing.
As the OHAHP team began planning the 2019 field season, I was most anxious about remote camping on Sitkalidak Island. I had done some camping before, but only in established campgrounds in national parks where there were latrines, water pumps and road access. Sitkalidak is far more isolated. No human communities reside there on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, but it is home to the renowned Kodiak brown bears and, since the past year, a herd of bison that is owned by the Old Harbor Native Corporation. I had no clear vision of how we would sustain a safe and functioning camp.
Thankfully, Ben has numerous years of experience setting up and running remote camps, so he led Erin, Wyatt and I in making Tanginak our home for 3 weeks.
In order to minimize food smells (which could attract bears or other wildlife) near our sleeping areas, we set up our personal tents at a distance from the cooking/eating tent. We also washed dishes at a third separate location and stored bear-attractant foods in a sealed container in a spring. That spring was also our source of fresh water, which we filtered using a hand-pumped spigot. The spring has been running for thousands of years and is likely where Alutiiq ancestors living at Tanginak got their water as well! One of the things I love about archaeology is how it makes plain that landscapes and places connect us through time, even as we write new meanings onto them – the Tanginak spring is but one example.
It is a lot of work to run a remote camp – keeping things clean, sharing cooking tasks, pumping and carrying water, etc. – especially with just three adults. The close social quarters also created some moments of tension. Despite the challenges, however, it is hard to beat living in such a beautiful place and I am eager to return to Tanginak next summer – hopefully with a larger field team, including students and community members from Old Harbor!
Feel free to comment or reach out on social media if you have any questions about living at Tanginak or about the OHAHP. I would also love to hear your camping stories and tips!
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.
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.
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.
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.
As I mentioned in other posts about OHAHP’s 2019 field season, we found very few artifacts while digging test pits at Ing’yug on Sitkalidak Island. This surprised the team, because the village was occupied recently and the houses were relatively well-defined on the surface, indicating little post-occupation disturbance. So, why didn’t we find many artifacts and what could that mean about life in the village of Ing’yug?
We know that Sugpiaq/Alutiiq ancestors at Ing’yug were affected by the arrival of Russian fur trader Gregorii Shelikhov in 1784, as he laid siege to Awa’uq (refuge rock on the Pacific side of Sitkalidak Island), took hostages and conscripted Native men into hunting parties. Those left in the village of Ing’yug would have been primarily women and children, whose first thoughts were likely about survival and getting enough to eat. As of yet, we don’t know how many people lived at Ing’yug either before or after Shelikhov’s arrival, but I can imagine that the population loss sustained at initial contact would have made it difficult for residents to meet all of their subsistence needs. In such a traumatic situation, ancestors at Ing’yug likely expended all their energy on collecting foods that were easily accessible nearby, while crafts and tool making became secondary – leading to fewer preservable artifacts in the archaeological record.
Another possibility is that when the village was abandoned, people took their tools and belongings with them, leaving little behind for future archaeologists to uncover. While this practice is likely, it would not totally explain the dearth of artifacts, because we did not even find many broken tools or flakes (and no glass trade beads). These items would have been left behind or were easily lost on the floors and in the corners of houses, but even they were largely absent.
Other possible explanations have to do with events that happened since the village was abandoned. Notably, we noticed that some areas of the site, especially a large house behind the main beach berm, had evidence of pot-hunting. Pot-hunting (also sometimes called looting or subsistence digging, depending on the context) includes any intentional digging in an archaeological site that is done without a permit or proper documentation of the ground disturbance and findings. At Ing’yug we found numerous pits that had been dug by pot-hunters, which made it difficult for our team to place test pits in undisturbed locations.
Another post-depositional event that could have affected the placement and preservation of artifacts in the village is a tsunami, like the one that hit Kodiak in 1964. The 1964 earthquake and tsunami severely damaged or destroyed several Alutiiq villages on Kodiak, including Kaguyak, Old Harbor and Afognak. The beach berm that supports Ing’yug has a swale cut through it, which may have been caused by the 1964 tsunami. The tsunami could have done some other damage to the site or displaced artifacts. That being said, the OHAHP team doubts that a tsunami disturbed the site badly, because the stratigraphy of the site is largely intact, including a thin layer of volcanic ash that was deposited by the 1912 Katmai eruption.
It is also possible that we simply missed most artifacts when digging our test pits! What other explanations can you imagine?
Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that our team uncovered nothing of value in our 2019 field season. We gathered great data from middens about diet, mapped and documented house structures and the stratigraphy of test units, and found a handful of stone artifacts (mostly on the last day of excavation). Excavating a house structure in its entirety will certainly provide even more information that we missed by only digging scattered test pits. I know there is so much more that Ing’yug has to tell us about Sugpiaq/Alutiiq ancestors during this tumultuous period of their history. We just need to be patient and listen.
During our excavations at Ing’yug this summer, we frequently encountered animal bones and shells. These bones and shells are often piled together with other household refuse in what archaeologists call a midden or trash dump. Middens are usually located near houses (as people did not want to walk far to throw away their trash) and offer archaeologists a view into what people in a particular house were eating and discarding in the past.
[Side note: Studying trash is such an effective way to learn about people’s lives, that there is a whole field called garbology that examines modern day trash to learn about behavior and social identities!]
In the case of Ing’yug, a Sugpiaq/Alutiiq village site on Sitkalidak Island, the middens we found are composed of mussel, clam, scallop and urchin shells, sea mammal, fish and bird bone, and LOTS of fire-cracked rock. Hot rocks were used for cooking, smoking fish and steam bathing, but the rocks crack and are less able to hold heat after a while – meaning that they have to be replaced. The broken rocks are tossed into the midden along with the remains of animals that were eaten and/or used for skins. Often, archaeologists also find broken tools or other discarded artifacts in the midden, however, our limited excavations this summer revealed few artifacts among the animal remains and fire-cracked rocks.
The 2019 OHAHP team spent a couple days excavating a trench into a huge midden mound in front of a housepit at Ing’yug. This midden was very well-preserved and contained whole shells and bones amidst large fire-cracked rocks, demonstrating that Sugpiaq ancestors were eating many varieties of shellfish, seal, various fish, sea birds and even humpback whale! While we did not uncover whale bones in the midden, we found some barnacles from genus Coronula, which only grow on humpback whales. It is likely that whales were butchered where they beached and then meat was brought into Sugpiaq villages.
I hope that data from the middens at Ing’yug will be able to tell us not only what people were eating in a given moment, but also how diet changed over time. For instance, do we see a shift in diet following the Russian invasion of Kodiak? With substantial pressure placed on villages to provide tribute to the Russian American Company, Sugpiaq communities had less time to provision themselves – could that result in eating more easily accessible foods, like plants and shellfish, rather than foods that required traveling, like sea mammals? Analysis of dated midden deposits will help the OHAHP team answer that and other questions!
Feel free to reach out to Hollis on Facebook or Twitter (links to the right under “Follow”) if you have questions or comments!