Alutiiq Petroglyph

Alutiiq Petroglyph from Cape Alitak showing whaling.

KODIAK — As this column explores the lives and contributions of Alutiiq speakers, I’d like to share about the impact that Ralph Ierofei Demidoff has had on Alutiiq language and cultural education long after his passing. 

Ralph Demidoff was born October 17, 1909, and lived in Igwiq (Little Afognak or Selezneva)—a village in Duck Bay off Marmot Bay on southern Afognak Island, east of Afognak Village. Little Afognak was hard hit by Katmai eruption ashfall in 1912 and again by a flu epidemic in 1919, dwindling the village to only one family who later left in the 1930s. The Demidoff family left Little Afogank when Ralph was a boy and went on to live in Kodiak and Afognak. Demidoff worked as a fisherman most of his life. He entered U.S. military service in 1943 during World War II, and was living in Kodiak when he passed away in the 1960s.

Demidoff was descendant from a hereditary line of whale shamans. He was also a great storyteller, and a fluent Northern Alutiiq speaker. In 1962, when Demidoff was in his 50s, the linguist and ethnographer Dr. Irene “Litruaq” Reed interviewed him.  She shared recordings of his interview through the Alaska Native Language Archives (ANLA) in Fairbanks, Alaska. 

While many Alutiiq speakers have been recorded, what is unique about Ralph Demidoff’s is that he was recorded telling a lengthy traditional story in Alutiiq and also provided the same story line-for-line in English. The story he told, Ar’ursulek – The Whaler, is suspenseful and culturally fascinating as a unique piece of Alutiiq literature. Moreso, as a contribution to Alutiiq language revitalization, the bilingual transcripts of Demidoff’s story now function like a “Rosetta Stone”, sharing now rare Alutiiq phrases and sentence structures. Like the ancient Rosetta Stone carved in 196 BC with the same story repeated in Ancient Greek, Ancient Egyptian Demotic script and hieroglyphic script, helping to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demidoff’s story now serves as a crucial key in understanding complex Alutiiq sentences in the Northern Alutiiq style of speech.

During Reed’s visits to Kodiak, she audio recorded Demidoff telling The Whaler story in Alutiiq at his sister’s house. Demidoff also dictated the same story in English to his niece, Mary Sheratine, who assisted her uncle in preparing a transcription of the story line-for-line in English during this same time period. However, he left off the end of the story in his English version. 

 Years later, linguist Dr. Jeff Leer typed a transcription of the Reed recording of Demidoff’s Alutiiq story, which continues an extra five stanzas beyond the English version. During my own dissertation research, to facilitate reading the story in both English and Alutiiq I combined the 75 stanzas of both transcripts line-by-line and translated the last few stanzas where the English transcript left off.

As summarized in the Alutiiq Word of the Week for the word “Ar’ursulek” or Whaler, the story “shows how whalers passed their knowledge to the next generation. In this tale, an Alutiiq village was home to a great whale hunter. This highly skilled man would disappear for days and when he returned, a whale would wash up on the shore. A mischievous boy from the village dreamed of becoming a whaler, and so the expert hunter made him his apprentice.

“To train the boy, the whaler took him on one of his journeys far from the village. Here he gave the boy tasks, taught him about hunting rituals, discussed animal behavior, shared experiences from his own apprenticeship, challenged his courage, and most of all, instructed him to watch. The whaler told the boy, ‘Young hunting partners learn by watching what is done and by doing what they are told to do. But never by asking questions.’ This is the central message of the story. Unfortunately, the boy was disrespectful and did not follow instructions…In the end the boy failed as an apprentice and did not become a whaler.”

Demidoff’s story is an extremely valuable Alutiiq language resource as it provides us a unique opportunity to read a story rich in traditional knowledge and spiritual beliefs— available in both Alutiiq and English from the same fluent Alutiiq Elder.

Throughout the story there are many uncommon Alutiiq terms and Northern pronunciations that have helped broaden our second language Alutiiq speaking community’s knowledge base. Reading the bilingual transcriptions along with the audio recording is an amazing experience that offers an unparalleled Alutiiq language learning opportunity. 

The Native Village of Afognak, through funding from the National Park Service’s Tribal Heritage Preservation Project, posted Reed’s Demidoff recording along with the combined bilingual transcription on their library archive website (http://www.afognak.org/html/library/archived/selected-stories.php).

Dr. Irene Reed had “an illustrious 40 year career as an anthropologist-linguist-educator” (Duluth News Tribune, 2005). She helped develop the modern writing system for Yup’ik, which later informed the development of the modern Alutiiq writing system or orthography by Dr. Jeff Leer. She recorded many Alutiiq Elders during her visits that are now shared through the ANLA. She was a strong advocate of Native language preservation, and helped create the first bilingual Native language program in Alaskan schools. 

Reed served as former director of the UAF Alaska Native Language Center, and as professor of Yup’ik at UAF. Recordings of her interviews and notes are housed at UAF. While most of her Alutiiq work was within the Chugach Alutiiq dialect, in addition to her interview with Ralph Demidoff, she also collected Kodiak Alutiiq interviews with Nick Katelnikoff and Katherine “Kaba” Chichenoff on traditional medicinal practices, and recordings of Russian Orthodox church singing, which are identified within the ANLA. Also in this collection is a group of tapes from the mid-1980s that have not yet been cataloged, which may contain additional stories (ANLA Identifier CY961R1985b). 

Dr. Reed graciously contributed her research and knowledge back to Alaska Native communities until she passed away in 2005. I spoke with her on the phone about her research in the early 2000s when I worked for the Native Village of Afognak, before I became an Alutiiq second language speaker.  Little did I know then how much her work and Demidoff’s contribution would mean to me and our Alutiiq language revitalization efforts.

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