Celebrating Culture, Connecting Community
Old Harbor Alliance Aurcaq Carving Workshop
Growing up in a rural village, Melissa Berns didn’t have a close connection with her culture. “Back then, there was a kind of shame associated with our culture. We knew we were Alutiiq but we didn’t know what that meant,” she says.
Today, through opportunities such as the Aurcaq carving workshop held in Old Harbor in April, youth are experiencing – and enjoying – their culture, while participating in healthy, positive activities. Among these youth is Melissa’s son.
“He’s always watched me skin sewing and beading, and he would ask for my knife and make spears out of sticks,” Melissa says. “To have an instructor teach him was very beneficial. It was eye-opening for him. He’s been doing more carving since the workshop – all the kids have.”
The week-long Aurcaq carving workshop, which was hosted by Old Harbor’s community and regional entities, kicked off a series of community events taking place throughout Great Lent. Aurcaq, a subsistence-focused marine mammal hunting game, is historically played only during the six weeks of Orthodox Lent. In years past, the Orthodox faith was strictly followed and the faithful were forbidden to hunt, gamble, eat red meat, or drink alcoholic beverages during Lent. The game of Aurcaq was believed to provide a social outlet for hunting and gambling at a time it was not allowed.
Alutiiq master carver and teacher Andrew Abyo came to the village to share traditional techniques used to carve Aurcaq game sets. Each participant completed a full set that they could take home to continue this tradition with their family and friends.
“The participants got to take a finished piece home and continue playing,” Melissa says. “They didn’t have to stop just because the workshop was over.”
In addition to exposing youth to the traditional game, the event planning team also wanted to encourage positive interactions between youth and adults. Traditional foods were a significant part of the week, which included nightly family-style dinners featuring sikyuk, salmon, alaciq, seal, sea lion, goose, clams, boiled cod, goat, deer and all of the fixings. At the dinners, elders, parents and children shared stories and visited about their daily activities, much like their ancestors did in years past.
“The workshop was a good mix of kids and adults working together. It helped bridge that gap,” Melissa says, adding that a total of 53 participants from 32 households participated throughout the week.
As the workshop finale, a community potlatch and Aurcaq tournament was held at the school. Youth and adults alike took great pride in their finely carved whales and laughter was heard throughout the evening. Instead of going home with material possessions won through gambling, there was a gain in cultural pride and the knowledge of an almost lost art, which can now be shared with generations to come. As the tournament concluded, smiles were seen on the faces of young and old, who repeatedly asked, “When are we going to do this again?”
“Activities like these give kids a sense of pride and a positive way to connect with their families and community,” Melissa says. “We can also pass on messages about respect, pride, and caring for yourself and your neighbor. Through these types of programs, we can perpetuate our art and build stronger leaders for the community.”
The Aurcaq carving workshop and tournament was supported by the Old Harbor Alliance’s grant through Alaska Children’s Trust, Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor’s Tribal Youth and Office on Violence Against Women Programs, Kodiak Area Native Association Family Violence Prevention Program, Koniag Inc., Old Harbor School and Old Harbor Native Corporation. The Aurcaq carving workshop is one of many workshops and events held throughout the year to perpetuate Alutiiq culture through the arts.
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Melissa Berns is active in the community of Old Harbor and volunteers with youth programs as Nuniaq Alutiiq Dance Instructor, Nuniaq Traditional Camp Planner, Alutiiq Week Organizer and Old Harbor School Programs. Melissa perpetuates the continuation of Alutiiq Cultural Arts by teaching Subsistence Harvesting and Processing, Alutiiq Basket Weaving, Skin Sewing and Beading through youth programs year around.