Tradition and Transcendance in Russian America An
Archaeological Approach to Identity in Colonial Contexts
Historical archaeologists have been increasingly drawn to the concepts of ethnicity, class and
gender in understanding the formation and transmission of cultural identity during the North American
contact period. These research emphases, adding to earlier empirical studies of pearlware and square-cut
nails, take inspiration from a growing number of anthropological and historical works which demonstrate
the complexly entwined nature of social phenomena. A variety of case studies across time and space
suggest that ethnicity, as but one aspect of identity, is fluid, exists without geographical boundaries, and is
both culturally and historically situated (Barth 1969; De Vos and Romanucci-Ross 1975). If
ethnicity is so transitory, then how can historical archaeologists begin to understand the material
dimensions of ethnic identity, as I define it, the means by which people perceive and represent their
kinship, shared history and social boundaries? And how does identity formation and expression exist
within hegemonic relationships, when people not only identify themselves in relation to others, but are also
subjected to classification by dominant groups?
The complexities involved with culture change and ethnic identification create major
methodological and operational problems for historical archaeologists (Schuyler 1980; McGuire 1982). A
variety of approaches to identity in colonial contexts have used a combination of textual, oral historical
and archaeological methodology to make sense of both variability, and similarity, within the archaeological
record. Studies ranging from the Yukon gold rush, to the Spanish colonization of Florida , to the slave
communities in New England and the American south have focused variously on commonalities of
architecture, material culture, foodways and the frequency of artifact types as ethnic indicators (Ascher and
Fairbanks 1971; Otto 1975; Deetz 1977, 1993; Baker 1980; Schuyler 1980; Deagan 1983; Pyszczyk 1989;
Stevenson 1989). While archaeologists continue to struggle to recover identity in the archaeological record,
with time it has become clearer that while the "building blocks" of ethnicity may change, the way they
are re-arranged may be a clue to not only cultural predispositions (Bourdieu 1977), but also, ethnic
identity(Leach 1954; Deetz 1977; Deagan 1983; Ferguson 1992). In this paper I present three
arguments: 1. That identity is a relational and situational process, serving to distinguish one group from
another on one or more axes of ethnicity, class and gender, 2. That identity is most visible during times of
social and economic upheaval, when individuals may serve to gain or lose social or economic privileges
within complex sociopolitical relationships, and 3. That identity is archaeologically visible, particularly
through examinations of the spatial arrangements of household architecture and the organization of
gender-related tasks. The following paper focuses on the nineteenth century provisioning post site, the
Afognak artel, to discuss the symbolic role of material culture in both transmitting, and trancending,
Alutiiq identity within the context of Russian colonialism in the North Pacific.
Based on the results of over six decades of archaeological research, scholars have argued that the
Alutiiq of the Kodiak archipelago have been present as a north Pacific indigenous culture for the last 7,000
years (Clark 1984; Knecht 1995). When the Russians first arrived on the archipelago and settled at Three
Saints Bay in the mid - 1780s, they classified these people as "Aleut", and later, "Kaniaga," based on what
the Aleuts of the Aleutian chain called their traditional Pacific enemies; later, anthropologists variously
termed these North Pacific people "Koniag" or "Pacific Eskimo." Since the early 1990s, the native people
of Kodiak now formally distinguish themselves as "Alutiiq", although some elders continue to identify
themselves as Aleut, and many of the "Alutiiq" have both Russian and American surnames as residues of
the colonial period. Despite what may be seemingly confusing to the outsider, it is clear that these native
people share a common cultural tradition, an ancestral Alutiiq language, and the firm belief that they are
neither Eskimo nor Indian. After two hundred years of colonization, the Alutiiq people continue to exist as
a discrete identity; while they may have added new elements to their cultural and technological repertoire,
these elements have been combined in traditional ways. I believe that we can trace the roots of Alutiiq
identity through examining the material remains of the Kodiak archaeological record; what is
Alutiiq is the Alutiiq way of doing things. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Russian
American period, when identity maintenance and transformation was the key to Alutiiq cultural survival.
While anthropologists and historians have attempted to produce comprehensive accounts of
Russian American Company colonization in the north Pacific, surprisingly little is known of the actual "on
the ground" mechanics as to what extent the Russians were successful in incorporating indigenous peoples
into a growing global economy; neither are we certain, on either a regional or local basis, how these native
peoples responded to the conditions imposed upon them (Gibson 1987; Fitzhugh and Crowell 1988).
Archaeologists have argued that at the time of Russian arrival in the late seventeenth century, traditional
Koniag culture (this term being defined by archaeologists), was at the culmination of a steady trend of
increasing socio-economic complexity since the initial occupation of the archipelago, circa 7000 BP.
Tracing Alutiiq prehistory through Ocean Bay and Kachemak phases, scholars have argued for a cultural
continuity in houseforms and material culture from the earliest times through to the Koniag period, 1200
AD to the time of Russian contact. The Koniag period, demarcated for its apparent growth in population
on the basis of the number of recorded settlements and the complexities of house size, was a time during
which there was a shift in emphasis from a sea mammal hunting economy to one based mainly on the
procurement of anadromous fish (Clark 1984; Knecht and Jordan 1988). This change in subsistence was
accompanied by a striking increase in items associated with personal adornment and ceremonialism, taken
to be the archaeological correlates for what has been described by regional scholars as social stratification
with a redistributive economy. Koniag society consisted of chiefs (anayugak) and classes of
nobles, who inherited their positions, commoners, some who achieved their status by ascription and other
by hunting skills (umialiks), and slaves; villagers were ranked between the free classes and stratifed
between free and captive classes. Warfare, trade, intermarriage, feasting and ceremonialism not only
encouraged interactions between settlements, but also reinforced status distinctions and enabled the accrual
of coveted luxury items and resulting prestige.
When the Russians arrived in the late eighteenth century, they aimed to strategically transform
Koniag traditions by introducing changes in space, economic and societal organization on the social
geography of the archipelago. In its early years, the Russian American Company eradicated native villages
and forced relocations of natives not only on the Kodiak archipelago, but also to other locations in the
North Pacific (Shelikov 1981; Dymytryshyn and Crownhart-Vaughan 1979). The Company introduced
changes in the built environment by introducing new methods of construction and settlement layout
(Shelikov 1981; Senkevitch 1987; Lidfors and Peterson 1990). Russians changed the intensity and order of
the Koniag seasonal round in order to maximize sea mammal hunting, a practice which disrupted both the
traditional division of labor, as well as the ecological carrying capacity of the archipelago (Lisianski 1968;
Pierce 1976; Black 1977; Dymytryshyn and Crownhart-Vaughan 1979). Russians introduced new trade
items, materials and technologies to the archipelago, and with them, a new system of economic exchange
based on barter, wage labor and debt (Federova 1971; Dymytryshyn and Crownhart-Vaughan 1979). And
lastly, the Russians imposed a new social organization on the Koniag by not only choosing new native
leaders (toions) as Russian American Company employees, but by re-classifying the Koniag on the
basis of sex, age and occupation. The Russians enforced and maintained these new social and economic
categories by means of a policy to classify all natives based on "Dependent", "Semi-Dependent",
"Independent", and "Creole" categories.
Despite these great social and economic changes in the north Pacific, a critical analysis of
archaeological data demonstrates that the Alutiiq continued to express their distinct ethnic identity through
household architecture and task-related artifacts during the Russian American period. It may be that the
very Russian dependence on the natives for survival may not only have encouraged Alutiiq cohesion, but
in fact, created it. The evidence comes from the recently excavated Russian American Company
settlement and provisioning post, the Afognak artel. Established in the late 1790s by Gregorii
Shelikhov, the founder of the Russian American Company, the artel consists of at least eight
structures now positioned on a forested beach ridge (Shelikov 1981; Pierce 1977; Woodhouse-Beyer
1995a, 1995b, 1996, 1997). Excavation of the structures has revealed a large timber-planked house
(Structure 2), likely the household of a Company officer, and a number of other structures associated with
Alutiiq workers' quarters and storehouses.
A number of social historians and anthropologists have posited that architectural space both
reflects and molds social relations, ideologies and power relationships (Foucault 1980 ; Spain 1992;
Massey 1994); following this research, historical archaeologists have further argued that spatial
organization is both product and producer of daily behavior, including social and economic relations
(Leone 1988; Rotman and Nassaney 1997). While historical sources claim that Gregorii Shelikhov brought
not only a Russian toolkit of material culture, but also architectural plans for settlements, the actual "on the
ground" archaeological data indicates that Russian hegemony was not total. This may have especially been
true in the smaller, more isolated settlements such as the Afognak artel.
Psychologists and anthropologists have long known that a person or group's identity gains
relevance through social dynamics and creative expression (Harris et al. 1995); historical archaeologists
have documented architectural form in relation to socioeconomic and ethnic difference and maintenance
(McGuire and Schiffer 1983; Kent 1990; Hodder 1990). Like other colonial cultures, such as the Spanish,
British and French, the Russians expressed their overlordship through establishing planned communities in
North America and continuing architectural traditions of the motherland (Senkevitch 1987; Lidfors and
Peterson 1990; Canny 1987; Zuckerman 1987). The Russian American Company typically built houses for
Company managers and supervisors which were larger, positioned in higher locations relative to the rest of
the community, and were constructed with luxury materials, such as hewn timber logs, bricks, and glass
windows. The Russians chose to architecturally distinguish themselves from the Alutiiq at the expense of
efficiency and comfort. The Russian log houses were tremendously inefficient for surviving the rigors of
the Kodiak seasons; not only did builders have to select straight spruce timber, but the trees needed to be
felled. Kodiak winds necessitated frequent household maintenance and the heavy rains rotted the houses
from the inside out as evidenced from the "Supervisor's House" (Structure 2) at the Afognak artel.
Despite its seemingly advantageous large size, timber construction and higher location, the house had
major drainage problems due to its positioning on rainforest soils. In short, to the Russians, the symbolic
aspects of the structure outweighed the utilitarian ones; their construction choices not only expressed
Russian ethnic identity relative to that of the Alutiiq laborers, but it also was a constant reminder, to both
the Russians and the Alutiiq, of what the Alutiiq were not. (McGuire and Schiffer 1983).
Throughout its time of influence in the north Pacific, the Russian American Company was
chronically undermanned and undersupplied; it is more than likely that the Alutiiq, in addition to other
native peoples, were requisitioned as laborers to help build Company settlements. By Russian plan, native
barracks were generally separate from Russian quarters. The native barracks were built in the traditional
pre-contact barabara style, of semi-subterranean sod and driftwood construction, and at the
Afognak artel, were advantageously set upon the well-drained beach gravels. The difference in
construction between the Russian and native artel structures was an overt Russian strategy to
express status distinctions (Feister 1984; Monks 1992; Staski and Reiter 1996). While these native houses
were smaller than the earlier Koniag pre-contact structures, the continuation of Alutiiq houseforms implies
that the Russians allowed Alutiiq traditions to persist. Living within similar material and architectural
surroundings no doubt encouraged a sense of corporateness among the Alutiiq laborers, just as it did
among the slaves of the American south and the Irish under British rule (Zuckerman 1987; Canny 1987;
Stevenson 1989; Ferguson 1992).
Not only did the Alutiiq at the Afognak artel continue to live in their traditional houses,
but their daily life and material conditions truly differed from that of the Russians. For many historical
archaeologists, material culture not only evidences past human behavior, but the artifacts themselves both
reflect and create social relationships (Deetz 1977; Hodder 1982; Leone 1988). The Russians depended on
the Kodiak natives for their labor to support the north Pacific fur trade; it was the Alutiiq who were
reknowned for their expertise and skill in hunting sea mammals, particularly the sea otter (Gibson 1987).
While the Russian American Company aimed to change the traditional Alutiiq division of labor, it is clear
that these changes really were an intensification of traditional tasks. Evidence from the Afognak
artel is more than suggestive.
To identify particular artifacts with ethnic groups is not a new phenomenon in archaeology; such
studies must prove spatial and chronological correlations (Wilkie 1996; Stine et al. 1996). Strong
ethnohistorical and archaeological evidence from the artel suggests that artifacts associated with sea
mammal hunting and fishing are Alutiiq (Lisianski 1968; Davydov in Pierce 1976; Gideon in Black 1977).
Correspondingly, at the Afognak artel, all of the harpoons, socket pieces, fish hook shanks and sea
otter darts were found in spatial contexts that were clearly Alutiiq (House 5, Midden 5) or outside
structures that may have been jointly used by the Alutiiq and Russians (Midden 2, Midden 7). All items
associated with sea mammal hunting are of traditional form and material; the association of these tools
with ethnohistorically-identified Alutiiq male tasks suggests that these items, and others, deserve further
attention for their potential engendered meanings. Some of the harpoons are even distinguished by
traditional Alutiiq ownership marks, such as those seen in earlier Kodiak archipelago collections. In order
to be paid for their quarry, laborers needed to prove that the weapon that killed the animal was theirs.
Payment was also ethnically relative - during the early nineteenth century, Russians paid the laborers in
lengths of beads; ethnohistorical texts and archaeological data confirm that the Alutiiq were highly
selective for red, white and black, suggesting that beads themselves, while of European material and form,
may be indicators of ethnic identity (Davydov in Pierce 1976; Gideon in Black 1977; Hammel 1983;
Schapiro 1988; Crowell 1994; Stine et al. 1996). Therefore, on a daily basis, through hunting and payment,
the hunters were reminded of their status as Alutiiq laborers within the Russian American
In both Alutiiq male and female cases, while the "lexicon" of Alutiiq occupations and tasks
remained the same, and indeed, were intensified, the "grammar" of the material culture changed.
Researchers of gender relations and the North American fur trade now also focus on women as powerful
agents in both the formation and maintenance of native identity and survival. It was native women who
were most incorporated into the Russian American sphere; women's intensified activities in the productive
and maintenance areas of skin-processing, gathering and fishing actually "fed" the fur trade (Gibson 1987;
Perry 1973; Woodhouse-Beyer 1995). While Alutiiq men were off to the hunt more than ten months of the
year, it was the Alutiiq women who maintained the artel settlements. They passed on Alutiiq
traditions to their children by molding Alutiiq tasks and values through their everyday activities. As the
Russians failed at their attempts to promote agriculture and were chronically undersupplied, it is likely that
women also continued to prepare native foods.
Archaeologically, how are these processes evident in the archaeological record of the Afognak
artel? In the Supervisor's House, we have identified several spatially discrete areas in which
ethnohistorically-identified Alutiiq woman's tasks, skin processing and sewing, are archaeologically
visible. In addition to traditional ground slate ulus (women's knives), sinew thread and
hammerstones, we have also found copper alloy thimbles. Left behind at the artels, Alutiiq women
had more access to luxury goods than their male counterparts; elsewhere, I suggest that changes in gender
relations in the Russian American period led to socioeconomic change for the Alutiiq. This led to more
opportunities for women to gain status within both Russian and Alutiiq ideologies. Therefore, while Alutiiq
material culture may look like what some have described as acculturation or assimilation, these "new"
artifacts continue to be utilized within traditional Alutiiq comptetion for status.
While nowhere on the site do we find evidence of traditional cottonwood bowl and spruce baskets,
we do find ceramics - nearly all of which are teacups and saucers; several scholars have noted the
association between tea services and women's status acquisition (Burley 1989; Wall 1991; Jackson 1994).
On one example, a pearlware plate, there is even evidence of Alutiiq use - it was repaired in the traditional
Alutiiq manner - by drilling holes. While Alutiiq women also were left in charge of children while the men
went hunting, a toy bow and a starter labret recovered in the area of the native barracks are evidence that
Alutiiq mothers continued to transmit Alutiiq traditions. The Alutiiq case study adds to an increasing
number of contact period studies which demonstrate that women, more than men, were the conservators of
the traditional culture even while incorporating new goods(Deetz 1963; Deagan 1983; Burley 1989).
Alutiiq identity in Russian America was not only transmitted through architecture and artifacts,
but also through interactions between people. Through intermarriage with Russian officers, a practice that
was encouraged by the Russian American Company, Alutiiq women not only had access to luxury goods,
but had the power to produce a new socio-economic class - the Creoles. Creoles were educated at the
expense of the Company, and often served as skilled laborers, clerks and middle-level managers. While the
Creole population of Russian America was small during the first years after contact, they steadily increased
in number. In 1818, Russians numbered 450 and the creole population at 280; by the 1860s, Russians in the
colonies numbered a mere 66, while out of 1081 natives, 431 men and 481 women were classified as
Creoles (Workman and Clark 1979). Creolization, and the formation of creoles as a sort of ethnic buffer
between full-blooded natives and Europeans, effected profound changes on concepts of citizenship and the
allocation of resources, power and prestige (Cohen 1974). Being a Creole in Russian America certainly had
its advantages, and to express oneself as a Creole meant access to power and resources that the other Aleuts
It is through the process of creolization, in its more general usage, that the Alutiiq culture
maintained its old identity by combining diverse elements in new forms. This hybridity took place all over
the Russian American sphere of influence, but most particularly at its margins and frontiers, the smaller
Company settlements and artels. I believe we can identify this process at the Afognak artel,
where some houses are native in form, but combine new and old elements. House 7 is of sod and driftwood
construction and contains a native style hearth, such as the ones commonly recovered at a nearby
prehistoric site dating 300 years before Russian arrival. Yet the structure also contains a Russian-style
chimney and artifacts that are wholly Eurorussian. Directly outside the structure is an associated midden
which contains a number of traditional harpoons found together with items of Eurorussian manufacture;
one artifact displays a mixing of cultural elements: an incised slate stone with Cyrillic writing and an
Alutiiq-style head. This architectural and material culture hybridity, especially when viewed in the context
of the other clearly Russian and native houses at the artel, does acquire greater significance
through a survey of the relevant texts. Interestingly, one of the first planned Creole villages in Russian
America was located directly across the river at Afognak Village, established in 1840 - the same time that
the Afognak artel was abandoned (Workman and Clark 1979; Dymytryshyn and Crownhart
William Sturtevant, speaking of the Seminole, coined the term ethnogenesis to explain the
emergence of an ethnic identity in opposition to a dominant group (Hill 1996). Ethnic groups use
ethnogenesis as a creative adaptation to avoid demographic collapse or enslavement. The term
ethnogenesis has been substituted for earlier foci of acculturation, which has been criticized for its view of
cultures as bounded and static, and cultural change as linear. I see the term as no different from
creolization: when two groups come into contact to exchange cultural materials, they select certain cultural
elements and combine them in dynamic ways. Doing so, they may revitalize traditional culture, forge new
alliances, and even appropriate European symbols of power. There is an ongoing, relational struggle to
maintain and recreate identity, particularly in regard to other cultural groups doing the same.
In conclusion, I believe that the Alutiiq, who before Russian contact had, to our anthropological
understanding, no geographical or social unity beyond the settlement per se, came to identify themselves as
Alutiiq in relation to larger socio-economic and political processes during the Russian American period.
This identification was the result of their classification by the Russians as Aleuts and Creoles, as well as e
ever-present architectural and material culture reminders that they were not Russian. In the face of
incorporation by a larger entity, an Alutiiq community was created that went beyond that of space and
settlement alone. A common identity was forged from selected traditional and Eurorussian traits that were,
within both Alutiiq and Russian ideologies, deemed advantageous to possess (Herskovits 1962; Hodder
1992). While the Russians strove to enforce and legitimize their dominance through metaphors and
boundaries of space, material culture and classification systems, what they achieved was to actually
promote the unity, the "we-ness", of those they had hoped to assimilate.
As archaeologists we must aim to approach our future investigations of ethnic identity with rigor.
Archaeological research should be designed to investigate sites both extensively, and intensively as well as
to target sites at both the community and household levels (Deagan 1983; Psyzczyk 1989; Stevenson 1989;
Cusick 1995). These studies might be more productive if situated within historical or political contexts
when ethnic identification determined survival. Examination of historical texts and oral histories may
identify material culture traits and patterns important in ethnic identification; in turn, archaeology may
illustrate the ways in which identity may vary within and between groups as well as overlap with gender
and class variables. I believe that as archaeologists the onus is upon us to work on ways to separate out the
many layers of variability in the archaeological record in order to investigate the material correlates of
ethnic identity; yet if we view ethnicity as dynamic, we should not expect a one to one correlation between
material culture and ethnic identification; we must expect that artifacts will have different meanings
depending on their social and historical contexts (Upton 1996; Praetzellis et al. 1987). It is likely that we
will never know from archaeology how people, particularly minority groups, actually perceived themselves
in relation to colonizing groups; in other words, no text exists that explains whether native people utilizing
European-style houseforms and material culture perceived themselves to be Alutiiq; however, as
archaeologists we can investigate the material culture building blocks which may have been
instrumental in forming and maintaining ethnic identity through contextual studies of site and text.
Today the Alutiiq of the Afognak Native Corporation have used the findings of archaeology to
both recover aspects of the Alutiiq tradition as well as to set a course for Alutiiq culture in the present and
future (Jones 1997). I do not subscribe to the theory that this development represents what some have
called "invented identity" as from my situated understanding, this would assume that identity is a bounded
and continuous "entity". The contemporary Alutiiq root their identity in both the past and the present -
with an eye to the future. Today the Alutiiq still actively maintain their cultural boundaries by selecting
certain Alutiiq symbols, building blocks if you will, - the lighting of the oil lamp, the practice of traditional
crafts, and the tradition of subsistence, particularly, salmon fishing. To view the Alutiiq is to see a people
with a strong sense of community based on conceptions of shared kinship and history; Alutiiq identity is a
product of survival strategy, an ongoing process of self-definition and transcendance.
Quyana, Afognak Native Corporation, for supporting my ongoing research. I am grateful for the graphics
produced by Amy Steffian (Curator, Alutiiq Museum). Finally, acknowledgements to the Wenner gren
Foundation for Anthropological Research (Grant 6051).
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