The Aleut, or Unangan in their own language, traditionally inhabited the lower Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian archipelago, a 1300-mile-long volcanic island arc of almost entirely treeless tundra extending from the Alaska Peninsula west toward Kamchatka. As the southern edge of the Bering Land Bridge, the eastern Aleutian Islands formed the initial route to the colonization of the Americas. The ancestors to the Aleut occupied this region for at least 10,000 years, and for most of that period they lived as sedentary hunter-
gatherers, occupying semi-subterranean dwellings in villages ranging from a few households to those supporting up to 1000 people in more recent times. By 4000 years ago, they were living in some of the largest villages ever seen in the Arctic. Early fur hunters, explorers, and priests estimated the Aleut population as between 12,000 and 20,000 people. Today, there are a dozen Aleut communities in the Aleutian region, including the Pribilof Islands and Russia's Commander Islands, where Russian fur traders relocated Aleuts to hunt for them in the 18th century. Two and a half centuries of widespread disease, social and cultural reorganization, and political hegemony has left the Alaska Aleut population at 2150, with another 300 Aleuts living in Russia. Aleuts comprise 2.2% of the total Alaskan Native population.
The Aleut were a ranked society, with hereditary nobility, a middle class of the nobility's kinsmen, commoners, and slaves, who were often war captives. They participated in trade and warfare over hundreds of miles with their closest neighbors, the Koniag of Kodiak Island, who today call themselves Alutiiq, and the Yupiit to their north, as well as between Aleut villages and islands. Villages consisted largely of kinsmen and several related nuclear families comprised a typical household, the chief often being the head of the largest extended family. Though usually an inherited position, chieftaincy relied on leadership abilities, consanguineal and affinal relationships, ability to mediate disputes and wage wars, and hunting prowess. The kinship system in Aleut society is difficult to determine because of sociopolitical heterogeneity throughout the islands and circumstances of contact. It is possible that there were multiple descent systems based on archaeological data of residence patterns. Review of the kinship terminology compiled by Knut Bergsland found that Aleut kinship resembled the Iroquois system, where there is some separation between parallel and cross-cousins. A mother's sister and father's brother were called my other mother and father, and parallel cousins were the same word for brother and sister with suffixes. Inheritance was through the male line. Polygyny and polyandry were also practiced. After Russian contact, Aleut kinship terms changed to reflect their Russian counterparts.
Except for a low intensity use of terrestrial mammals such as caribou, bear, and foxes on the Alaska Peninsula and first Aleutian Island of Unimak, the Aleut were, and continue to be, oriented almost entirely toward the sea. Aleut villages were located on bays and next to salmon streams where they had access to sea mammals and fish year round. All species were harvested for food and for making clothing and tools, such as seals, sea otters, whales, walrus, salmon, halibut, herring, and cod, among many. A variety of edible plants and wild berries were eaten. Intertidal resources were harvested as well, including sea urchins, clams, limpets, and mussels. Ducks, geese, cormorant, and other waterfowl were also hunted. All available wild species are still subsistence harvested today by the Aleut.
Clothing was made from fur, bird skins, or sea mammal intestines. Highly decorated wooden hunting visors were worn by the men, their shape indicating rank, and their toolkit consisted of the bow and arrow, fish spears and hooks, harpoons, bird darts, wooden shields, and bone or ivory armor. A woman's toolkit included skin sewing and beading needles made of bone and ivory, household utensils such as knives and bowls, and basketry items. Both men and women were adorned with labrets, earrings, and tattoos. Aleuts are well known for intricate basket weaving, a craft that is being revived today, and the modern kayak was modeled after Aleutian design. The Aleut had a broad knowledge of human anatomy and practiced a wide range of medicinal treatments such as acupuncture, bloodletting and massage, and the use of teas and tonics for curing certain ailments. They mummified many of the dead, although this practice may have been reserved for Aleuts of high rank.
Over millennia, the Aleutian region has been the center of a vast interaction sphere that, in addition to the Koniag and Yup'ik peoples to the north and east, included prehistoric Chinese, Japanese, and northeast Asians to the west. In 1741, Aleutian prehistory came to an end when two vessels of Bering's Second Kamchatka Expedition, commissioned by the Czar to determine the relationship and trading potential between Asia and America, sailed from Kamchatka. The St Peter, commanded by Vitus Bering, landed in the Shumagin Islands where crewmembers Friedrich Müller, Sven Waxell, and Georg Steller described the first encounter with Aleuts. The St Paul, commanded by Aleksey Chirikov, arrived near Adak Island and was approached by Aleuts in their baidarkas (kayaks). The czarist government, interested in securing rights to these new lands and reaping profits from the harvest of sea mammals, commissioned additional voyages in search of new areas to exploit. Russian stewards acutely reorganized the Aleut population and transformed a large number of them into producers for the Russian state. Aleut men were transported to new hunting territory that had previously been uninhabited and established settlements. Within a few decades of the Russian-American Company's establishment in 1799, the Aleut population had drastically declined by as much as 80% from disease, malnutrition, exposure, suicide, and punishment by Russians.
Russian Orthodox missions were established in the early 19th century, and instead of a total replacement of Aleut cosmology and religion, a Russian orthodoxy emerged with cultural elements that were distinctly Aleut. Most Aleuts were baptized and a few were ordained as priests. Traditional Aleut religion has been described as animistic shamanism with a concept of a creator and spirits who controlled the fate of humanity, but the belief system is largely unknown. In 1824-1834, the priest Ivan Veniaminov lived and carried out religious duties on Unalaska and eastward, all the while concerning himself with Aleut origins, language, and culture. In Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District, he criticized former explorers' accounts of the people and culture because of short-term visits, ignorance of the language, and too much emphasis on economic exploits. Despite its 1840 date, Veniaminov's Notes remains the most comprehensive ethnographic description of Aleut life. A detailed recording of language and customs was critical to communicate the gospel, but moral obligation to save their souls turned into mutual esteem and affection. Most Aleuts today are Russian orthodoxy and many villages have a church.
With the American purchase of Alaska in 1867, the treaty excluded Native peoples and made them wards, not citizens, of the US government, a status that continued through statehood in 1959 until the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. Hunting for furs continued under US rule until sea otters were almost extinct and the government banned the practice. Hunting for fur seals was eventually limited to the Pribilof Islands and controlled by the government, which is now a subsistence hunt. Mission schools established by various churches were replaced by federal schools in several communities, although older children had to board away from home. Medical care was sparse and the mortality rate remained high.
In 1942, the threat of the Japanese landing in the Aleutians prompted a forced evacuation of all Aleut villages west of Unimak Island (save for those of Attu Island, who were taken to a prison camp in Japan). Hundreds of men, women, and children were taken to southeast Alaska and housed in abandoned canneries, where many elders and children died from disease or malnutrition. Not everyone returned to their villages after the war, and those who did found that the American servicemen, not the Japanese, had ravaged their homes, burned villages (supposedly to prevent Japanese use), stolen personal items, and riddled, homes and churches with bullet holes using them as target practice. Several villages were no longer habitable and were permanently abandoned. Reparations for damaged or stolen personal property, church property, loss of lands, and human life were finally made in 1988 by the US government after many years of personal testimony and petitioning Washington DC.
Their success in this process is due in large part to the creation of pan-Aleutian organizations. The Aleut League was formed in 1967 to coordinate individual community groups and secure funding for education, health, and housing programs. Members of the Aleut League were instrumental in the passage of ANCSA in 1971. This act passed title of land to Natives and created regional Native for-profit corporations, of which the Aleut Corporation is one. The Aleut League and the Aleutian Planning Commission merged in 1976 to form the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association, the nonprofit companion to the Aleut Corporation. Each village also has a village corporation that manages their lands, and a tribal council, which provides social, educational, and employment services to the village and acts as an advocate on behalf of their tribal members.
After World War II, the United States continued to assume control over the western half of the Aleutians for military purposes, and the Atomic Energy Commission used the island of Amchitka for underground nuclear testing. The long-term effects of these tests on the environment, ocean, wildlife, and health of Aleuts continue to be investigated.
The Aleut have maintained a lifestyle and culture based almost entirely on marine resources since their arrival to the region. The modern Aleut economy is based on subsistence harvesting of most local species, commercial fishing, wage employment in local services, the Permanent Fund, and state and federal aid, but most are commercial fishermen. Eastern Aleutian villages (Sand Point, King Cove, Nelson Lagoon, False Pass, Akutan) are predominantly commercial fishing villages, including the large port at Dutch Harbor and Unalaska. The seafood industry has seen cycles of abundance and decline in salmon, crab, codfish, walleye pollock, shrimp, herring, and halibut. Central Aleutian villages of Atka and Nikolski also share in commercial fishing in smaller percentages, largely supported through community development programs of which the smaller of the eastern villages and Pribilof villages are also a part. Aleuts of St Paul and St George, the Pribilof Islands villages, annually harvest fur seals for subsistence and fish commercially. In the Commander Islands where poverty is widespread, Aleuts have been working to develop a commercial economy based on its natural resources with limited success.
The traditional Aleut language is derived from the Eskimo-Aleut language stock, and is thought to have been distinct by at least 3000 years ago (M. Krauss, 1980, Alaska Native Languages: Past, Present and Future, Alaska Native Language Center, Fairbanks).
At contact, there were at least a dozen dialects throughout Aleut territory, often coinciding with island groups and village clusters. Pan'kov, who was an Aleut chief of Tigal'da Island, and Veniaminov recorded the Aleut language in the Cyrillic alphabet. Waldemar Jochelson recorded spoken word and song on phonographic cylinders in the early 20th century and Aleuts helped him translate it into Russian. Knut Bergsland detailed Aleut grammar, dialects, created a dictionary, and compiled a book of Aleut personal names taken from Joseph Billings's expedition and other sources that were replaced by Christian names. Today there are only about 300 speakers spread throughout villages and in Anchorage, and these Aleuts take pride in being literate in their own language. Language programs are being revived in several village schools.
The term Aleut is not their original self-designation. It has been argued to be from the Koryak and Chukchi languages, and that Russians and their eastern Siberian crew gave it to Aleutian inhabitants, since Aliat in Chukchi means "island." Others believe that it came from the village of Alut on the coast of Kamchatka, whose residents were also whale hunters. Still others argue that it originally was the ethnonym of the inhabitants of the Near Islands, the westernmost in the Aleutian chain, distinct from other Aleuts culturally and linguistically. In the native language, there are multiple names for different groups. For example, Atkans called themselves Unangas, and called the eastern groups Qayakuris and the western groups na Mirus. Local groupings and inhabitants of different islands are known to have also used other names for themselves. The self-designation Unangan originally applied to the eastern Aleuts only, meaning "coastal people," according to some. In addition to Aleut being the most widely used name for all Aleutian inhabitants, it had also been the self-designation of the Pacific Eskimos of Kodiak Island and Prince William Sound who, since 1982, call themselves (and their Yupik language) Alutiiq.
Aleut villages are ethnically diverse. Major fish processing plants are located in several of the communities and claim an international seasonal work force, primarily Filipinos and Mexicans. Aleuts claim a strong Russian heritage, but perhaps less known is their claim of a Scandinavian heritage since numerous Scandinavian fishermen arrived after World War I for the cod fishery and introduced their own techniques of boat building and commercial fishing. Aleut society and culture has been continuously shaped by a history of foreign visitors, indigenous innovation, introduced lifeways and technology, a dynamic environment, and governmental policies over millennia.
See also Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA); Alaska Peninsula; Aleut Corporation; Aleutian Islands; Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association; Aleutian Range; Aleut International Association; Alutiit; Archbishop Innocent (Ivan Veniaminov); Eskimo-Aleut Languages
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Jones, Dorothy, Aleuts in Transition: A Comparison of Two
Villages, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976 Kohloff, Dean, When the Wind was a River: Aleut Evacuation in World War II, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995
Lantis, Margaret, Aleut. In Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 5, Arctic, edited by D. Damas, Washington, District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984 Laughlin, William S., Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land
Bridge, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980 Liapunova, R.G., Essays on the Ethnography of the Aleuts (at the end of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century), translated by J. Shelest, Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1996 MacLeish, Sumner, Seven Words for Wind: Essays and Field Notes from Alaska's Pribilof Islands, Seattle: Epicenter Press, 1997
Maschner, Herbert & Katherine Reedy-Maschner, "Raid, retreat, defend (repeat): the archaeology and ethnohistory of warfare on the North Pacific." Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 17 (1998): 19-51 Townsend, Joan, "Precontact Political Organization and Slavery in Aleut Societies." In The Development of Political Organization in Native North America, edited by E. Tooker, Washington, District of Columbia: Proceedings of the American Ethnological Society 1979, 1983 Veniaminov, Ioann, Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District , translated by L. Black & R.H. Goeghega, edited by R.A. Pierce, Alaska History, No. 27, Kinston, Ontario: The Limestone Press, 1984
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