Woody Island (Tangirnaq)

Woody Island (Tangirnaq)

Located east of Kodiak, Woody Island was home for centuries to Alutiiq people who called themselves Tangirnarmiut, "the people of Tangirnaq." Like other Alutiit, the Tangirnarmiut were hunters and fishers, and relied on the land for edible plants and berries. In 1802, a Russian naval officer named Davydov wrote about a festival at Woody Island. This is one of the earliest written accounts of an Alutiiq winter ceremony:

"The spectators consisted of native inhabitants, dressed in their finery. The women were wearing their best dresses such as: cloth, parkas, or those made from marmot skin or eider-down, almost all had bones through their nostrils, or beads threaded onto sticks, while on their arms and legs, their necks, and in their ears were as many beads as they could fit in, or all they had. Everyone was very pleased with the performance. During the rest of the festival the women kept bringing in food and serving it to people. They only had to look away for a moment and one of the young boys would grab the dish and run away; then the women would start chasing, and everyone roared with laughter" (Davydov 1977:110).

Life on Tangirnaq changed radically when Russian fur traders came to Kodiak Island in 1784. The Tangirnarmiut were forced to hunt sea otters and produce food for the Russians. Starting in 1804, a string of epidemics began taking many lives at Tangirnaq and other Alutiiq villages. The most destructive was the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1835-1840. Some historians believe that two-thirds of the Natives living in southern and western Alaska had died from smallpox by 1840.

As a result of this vast loss of life, 30 or more villages in the Kodiak archipelago were joined, or consolidated, into just seven villages. Woody Island was one of these consolidation centers. The Russians built houses, community buildings and storehouses in each community to shelter the survivors migrating from other areas. They also gained a firmer hold on the way of life at Tangirnaq. By 1852, the Russian-American Company had developed yet another business on Woody Island - the ice export business.

Ernest and Ida Roscoe founded a Baptist orphanage and church on Woody Island in 1893. This provided a home for some children who needed one. But it also led to many conflicts with Native families over the custody of their children. The Baptist missionaries sometimes brought children to the orphanage, even against their parents' will. They also discouraged the practice of Russian Orthodoxy, which was the faith of most Woody Islanders at that time.

World War II brought more changes to Tangirnaq. A communications station was built in 1941, along with houses for the many families who joined the men employed there. Beginning in 1942, a great number of the island's trees were cut down by the Army to support the war effort in the Aleutians. Finally, in the 1960's, the public school was closed and children began to attend school at Kodiak. For a while, people remained on Tangirnaq, preferring to travel to and from Kodiak for school and work. However, when ferry service was discontinued in the 1960's, most residents moved to Kodiak permanently. While no one lives there now, a number of people still hunt and fish the lands and water of Tangirnaq. They, along with others, will always consider Woody Island to be their home.

Arctic Studies Center, Department of Anthropology
National Museum of Natural History
Smithsonian Institution
Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository
Alaska Native Heritage Center