Journeys to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, the Sky Worlds

Author: Debra G. Corbett | Nanutset Heritage

One question I hear as an archaeologist working in the Aleutian Islands is “what was their religion like?” or “What did they believe”?  Everyone familiar with ancient Aleutian people quickly moves past the obvious fact they were hunters and fishermen to deeper questions about what gave their lives meaning.  Archaeology is a poor tool for this deeper understanding, so I began researching traditional religion (Marsh 1954).

It seems to me that the basic structure of the Aleut belief system is similar to those of the Yupik, Inuit, and Inupiaq people of Alaska, Canada and Greenland.  In my readings, it became obvious that spiritual beliefs permeate traditional folktales. Folktales from the Aleutians can help to explain what gave peoples’ lives meaning.

There is too much to cover here, but one tiny element of Aleut spirituality involved travels to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, a paradise-like sky world, warm, with light, food and lots of leisure time. The souls of the dead have a path to the Hakaadan Kuyuudax^ where they become birds and await their rebirth. Living humans can enter the sky world through a hole reached by climbing a bridge, or mountain or some other path.  Two Aleut stories explicitly describe a visit to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^.

Moon Man and his sister, Sun, share a house in Hakaadan Kuyuudax^{.  In The Moon’s Sister (story 15 in Bergsland and Dirks) Sun, has a human son who wants to visit his Uncle Moon.  She tells him to walk until he finds “daylight coming from above”.  Days later he finds the light, grabs it tightly, stops breathing (dying), and is pulled to the sky.  In the Sky, he encounters several Star Beings before arriving at his Uncle’s House.  He finds a rough grass mat and unrolls it releasing heat, the Sun, which burns his face. Moon arrives home in evening and the nephew becomes the Moon in his place.

Aleutian sunset

And he followed a path of light to the west.

A shaman’s journey is told in Tanang Awaa Alix^ Anĝaĝitaĝin (story 3, Bergsland and Dirks).  A boy wants to find a wife in a land from which no one returns.  His parents give him magic protectors.  He travels, ascending to the sky on a pathway of light: “up there he is walking along the daylight that is going west”. In Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, which is called Unimga or Unimax in this story, he faces a series of challenges. The first is a village of his dead relatives who help his quest.  Passing them he enters another house and fights a series of monsters, using his magic protectors and cunning.  He alone, of all those who had traveled to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, manages to return. This story matches more closely Shaman journeys in Eskimo tales.

Other stories provide more clues about Hakaadan Kuyuudax^.  The sky world has multiple levels, at least two, probably three or more.  The first is occupied by the Moon, Sun, and constellations.  This level also has at least one village occupied by the souls of dead humans.  The second level is occupied by several species of monster, including Giants, “demons”, people of incredible appearance, frightful animals, and small girls and boys.  If there is a 3rd level it too is occupied by giants.

sky from Mound 14

View of the sky from KIS-051 Mound site, Kiska Island: Google Earth. Accessed 7/19/2016.

As the Tiglax steams through the Aleutian waters, the researchers and crew on board sail through ancient land- and seascape imbued with sentient entities. When the rare sunset shines in the summer evenings, it is easy to imagine taking a journey upward and westward…


Further Reading

Jochelson, Waldemar. 1990. Unangan Ungiikangin Kayuk Tunusangin: Unangam Uniikangis Ama Tunuzangis:Aleut Tales and Narratives. Collected 1909-1910 by Waldemar Jochelson: Alaska Native Language Center.

Marsh, Gordon H. 1954. A Comparative Survey of Eskimo-Aleut Religion. Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska 3(1):21-36.


Gardening in the Aleutian Islands during the Russian Period

Author: Douglas Veltre | Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Anchorage |

(This material is largely based on “Gardening in Colonial Russian America: Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Perspectives from the Aleut Region, Alaska,” by Douglas Veltre, published in 2011 in Ethnoarchaeology 3(2):119-138.)

Russian fur hunters entered the Aleutian Islands region shortly after the 1741 voyages of Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikof.  Over the decades that followed, Russians extended their activities ever farther eastward and southward, so that by the early 1800s their presence extended to southeastern Alaska.  The early fur-hunting voyages were often of several years’ duration, with ships remaining in Aleutian waters until they had amassed a profitable number of sea otter, fur seal, and other furs.

Though the number of Russians in Alaska never exceeded about 800 at any one time, the Russian colonial period was a devastating time for many Alaska Native people, including Unangax^ (Aleuts).  As much as 90 percent of their population was lost through hostilities, introduced diseases, and accidental deaths.  In addition, traditional patterns of kinship, leadership, subsistence, technology, and religion were profoundly altered.

In 1974, I began three seasons of field research on the effects of the eighteenth century Russian arrival on the Unangax^ of Atka Island, in the central Aleutian Islands (Figure 1).  My primary focus was to investigate the archaeological visibility of contact: the changes in material culture, settlement use, food remains, etc. that could be taken as signs of the arrival of Russians in the region.  To supplement the archaeological findings and gain further insights on the contact period, I also researched Russian period documents and conducted oral history interviews with Unangax^ in Atka.

Veltre Fig 1

Figure 1: Korovinski and the village of Atka.  (Detail of a USGS map.)

Initial examination of several sites on the eastern portion of the island led to more intensive mapping, testing, and excavation at the site of Korovinski, on the Bering Sea coast, some 16 km (10 miles) from today’s village of Atka. Well known to today’s residents of Atka village through oral history, personal travel to the area, and written historical documentation, Korovinski was one of the ancestral villages to today’s village of Atka, which was formed around 1870.  Interestingly, it is one of the few old settlements in the state to be identified on modern USGS maps as a “site.”

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Figure 2: The Korovinski site area, looking east-northeast.  Korovin Lagoon is to the left, Korovin Bay to the right.

As my archaeological investigation was to show, Korovinski was the locale of a large pre-Russian Unangax^ village from about 2,000 to 500 years ago, at which time a major volcanic eruption sent its occupants elsewhere.  It was not until the middle of the Russian period, around 1820, that Korovinski was again occupied, this time by both Russians and Unangax^.  The settlement served as the westernmost office of the Russian-American Company, having jurisdiction from the central Aleutians to Kamchatka.  Remains of well over 80 structures (including houses, a barn, warehouses, and a church) are dispersed over both the western and eastern low-lying spits at the mouth of Korovin Lagoon (Figure 3).  In the years after Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, Korovinski residents moved to today’s village of Atka.

Of particular interest at Korovinski are extensive garden plots (Figures 4-6) defined by sod walls about 1 m (3.3 feet) high.  Inside these walls, individual plots are often clearly furrowed.  Probably built to keep out domestic animals, such as the cattle and goats that Russians brought to the Aleutians, the walls could also have served to mark the ownership of the crops: those belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian-American Company, and so on.  Altogether, the various garden plots on both the Korovinski spit and the eastern spit cover an area of just over 19,000 m2 (1.9 hectares or 4.7 acres).

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Figure 3: The locations of cultural remains at Korovinski.


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Figure 4: Garden plots at the end of the main (western) Korovinski spit. Low altitude oblique photograph, looking west.

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Figure 5: Detail of Korovinski spit gardens, with furrows visible in several of the plots. Low altitude photograph, looking down.

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Figure 6: Gardens and surface depressions on the eastern spit at Korovinski. (Aerial photograph by AERO-METRIC, Inc., Alaska Division, Roll 26B, Frame 22, May 12, 1986.)

While it is not possible to say with certainty that all of the garden plots on both spits were planted at the same time, I think it is likely that most were.  Estimates of the gardens’ productivity are difficult to state with precision; nevertheless, contemporary yield figures for Alaskan potatoes suggests that the Korovinski gardens might have produced from about 11,700 to 85,800 kilograms (25,800 to 190,000 pounds) annually.  As the Korovinski gardens were the largest in the Aleutian Islands region, it is likely that the Russian-American Company shipped some of the Korovinski potatoes elsewhere in the region to help support its fur-hunting endeavors.

During the Russian period, potatoes were fairly widely cultivated in the Aleutian Islands region and elsewhere in Alaska, but usually in relatively small plots that have been lost to time.  The Korovinski gardens are unusual because of their size as well as the fact that they have not been destroyed by subsequent development of the area.  Another example of surviving gardens plots is in Unalaska, on the property of the Russian Orthodox Church.  A view from 1840s by the artist Voznesenskii clearly shows gardens adjacent to the church (Figure 7).  The low furrows from this plot remain today as faint reminders of the Russian era (Figure 8).

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Figure 7: Gardens in Unalaska in 1843 by Voznesenskii (from Pavel Golovin, The End of Russian America, Oregon Historical Society, 1979, p. 125).


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Figure 8: Gardens furrows in the church yard in Unalaska today.