Thursday, April 26, 2012

Kayak Piece

The Baranov Museum Hosted a Historical Writing Workshop in the fall of 2010. This is a version of what I wrote as a teacher / participant in the class.

When we study kayaks of Alaska, we often see them through the eyes of early Russian explorers. Baidarka is the Russian name for kayak, and it is not only the Russian language that filters our insight into this miraculously living boat. We construct an image of the kayak through the written words of awe-inspired and baffled Russian sailors, Naval Officers, and Missionaries. The kayak was “so light that a seven year old child could easily carry” one, noted Veniaminov, or St. Innocent of Alaska, a missionary who learned several Alaska Native languages and travelled by dog sled and reindeer around the North he loved. Lisyansky, famous or infamous depending on who you’re speaking with for his defeat of key Tlingit clans during the battle of Sitka, addressed the kayak in more practical terms: “At first I disliked these leathern canoes, on account of their bending elasticity in the water, arising from their being slenderly built; but when accustomed to them, I thought it rather pleasant than otherwise.” We gain insight and even awe about the kayak from these observations, but we have to dig through them like a midden pile to find salvageable truth about these man-made sea creatures that could approach even 10 knots of speed. Today’s kayak can go 5 knots at the fastest.

Veniaminov noted the kayak’s elasticity in water, and attributed it to their slender size. If we allow ourselves to approach the kayak with that same elasticity of imagination spiced with the ancestral memories and stories of Alaska Native peoples, we find ourselves awash with the elegance of nature. The elasticity emerges from dozens of joints constructed from animal bones; driftwood collected patiently over a period of years, each grain lovingly noted; female sea lion and sea otter skins oiled until their transparency reflected the ocean waves; thorough sinew stitching completed with the meticulous prayers of survival. The kayak was never complete and like any living creature required grooming, new skins, new oil on old skins, and patched punctures. The delicate creature-in-becoming offered the privilege of stepping into another world, an animal world, that of seal or salmon or whale. One Alutiiq elder from Old Harbor described her grandfather’s story of sitting in his kayak, holding his paddle between his teeth as the other end vibrated in the water, responding to waves and sea creatures. That was his sonar, his livelihood.

The Alutiiq kayak features a unique bifurcated bow that one can explain in many practical ways; the “bulb” effect in which waves are broken by a protrusion, and hull flexibility, a theory that is not particularly backed by any scientific evidence. Local children in the Baranov Museum consistently catch another, deeper meaning when examining the Kayak on exhibit. That looks like a salmon! Or That is definitely a Humpy or That is like a breaching whale! I smile at the immediate wisdom of the young. A sailor named Sauer integrated the practical and animal explanation in 1802, stating that “the head of the boat is double to the lower part, sharp, and the upper part flat, resembling the open mouth of a fish, but contrived thus to keep the head from sinking too deep in the water.” An unknown and unnamed Russian noted that “the entire stempost represents the head of an otter with its mouth open.”

It is perhaps too easy for me to create a gaping gulf between Alaska Native boat-builders and early Russian explorers in my desire to understand the kayak of yesterday. One Alutiiq elder I encountered in a language class seamlessly resolved this tension with her simple statement we have many Russian words – that’s now a part of our language. The grace of her acceptance of another language and culture despite the devastating changes amongst her people reminded me of a kayak dancing with the waves.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Discovering Kodiak through the Census

Kodiak village in 1910. Kodiak Historical Society, P-4.
Last Monday, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released the 1940 census to the public. This is cause enough for celebration for historians and genealogists, but when the website received millions of hits on the first day, we were given another reason to rejoice (“Look! Look! People are gobbling up history!”).

I used the 1940 release as an impetus to do Kodiak census research. Through SLED (Statewide Library Electronic Doorway), all Alaskan residents have free access to Heritage Quest, a genealogy database that contains Alaska census records. I’ve had a hard time accessing the records from 1930, but I spent the last few days cropping, saving and printing the Kodiak census returns from 1910 and 1920. This is the slog work of history, but the payoff is well worth it.
"Babushka" Parascovia Gregorioff of
Afognak Village. Kodiak Historical Society.

Now that they are printed, these census records have already proved to be handy. Today a researcher was looking at our collection of travelling icons. One hung in the house of Afognak resident Pariscovia Gregorioff, grandmother of the museum’s first curator, Eunice (Von Scheele) Neseth. I browsed through the 1920 census return and found Mrs. Gregorioff. In 1920 Mrs. Gregorioff was a 68 year old widow who lived alone in a rented home and didn’t speak English. Unlike most of her Afognak neighbors, Mrs. Gregorioff was classified “IN” instead of “MXD”; either she or the enumerator identified her as Native rather than of mixed European/ Native descent. Her occupation was listed the same as that of all the women’s: none.  We know this isn’t true, as Mrs. Gregorioff was a midwife who assisted in birthing dozens of children over the course of her long life. This information, albeit incomplete and containing oversights, helps me as the curator of collections to better understand the significance, use, and value of the small bronze icon that once adorned Mrs. Gregorioff’s rented wall.

As a whole, these census records provide an unparalleled snapshot of Kodiak’s past. Unlike manuscripts, journals, and other printed materials which are usually individual accounts of the past, censuses are the record of the entire community, including those who didn’t leave behind other records. When looking at the records, line by line, patterns emerge that give one a good sense of the character of the archipelago in 1910 and 1920.
Englishman H.P. Cope doubled as the
first postmaster in Kodiak and the census
enumerator in 1910.
Kodiak Historical Society, P 284.

For example, I’ve often heard that Afognak was a more substantial village than Kodiak in the past. The 1920 census shows just this: Afognak definitely had a larger population than “Kodiak village,” but it also had a less diverse economy. In Afognak, a few people are listed as working in the general store (there were several stores in town), at the fish hatchery, “public school,” “ranch” and in mining (both copper mining and one occupation written as “gold”). But the vast majority of men are shown to be working for “sal. cannery.” While the preponderance for “fishing” and “sal. cannery” is also very high for Kodiak village during the same 1920 census, there are more places of employment and occupations listed. Kodiak contained salesmen, cooks, machinists, carpenters, a plumber, fox farmers, and servants, for example. As a result, even though Afognak had a larger population, Kodiak was still the economic hub of the archipelago.

However, as seen in the example of Mrs. Gregorioff’s occupation, census records can be deceiving. Most notably for Kodiak, the 1920 census is smaller than the 1910 census.  This goes against what one would think- that the population of the region would grow in that 10 year lapse. Going through the returns page by page provides several explanations. First, it seems that the 1910 enumerator and town postmaster, H.P.  Cope, took more care in counting. Miners Point at Uganik Bay, the few people living at Long Island, the handful of men on Tugidak Island- all were counted.

A Karluk beach seine gang, ca. 1910. The fishermen hailed
from Scandinavia and Italy, while the cannery workers were
Asian and Latin American. Kodiak Historical Society, P-60.
But, more importantly, the 1910 census was taken after the salmon season had started, while the 1920 census was taken before the cannery crews had been transported north. That is why the largest census return for the region in that year was…. Karluk. H.P. Cope travelled to the salmon canneries at Alitak, Karluk and Larsen Bay and enumerated the fishermen as well as the canning crews. The results show a veritable smorgasbord of ethnicities laboring on the Karluk Spit. Aside from the Alutiiq villagers, there are dozens of individuals from Italy, Norway, the Philippines, Mexico, Hawaii, China, a smattering from Germany, Holland, Korea and Chile, all enumerated (and separated) by bunk house.  While this is not news, what’s exciting are the individuals that emerge, like 27 year old Eulogiro Serinas from the Philippines, the Chilean Ivan Fernandez, and 58 year old Gee Yip from China.

Can you imagine finding your Italian great grandfather listed as living in Karluk in 1910? I’m sure that some family researchers have had that very surprise.