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Thanks To The Aleut Dancers 

Scientists of relevant disciplines believe that during the last Ice Age the sea level was 500' lower than it is today, and that nomadic hunters from Siberia followed game across dry land to Alaska and settled the land 7,000 to 12,000 years ago.

They of the Aleut called the land Alyeska ( Great Land ); Referred to themselves as Unangan ( the people ). 

In small groups they settled island by island, defended territory from enemies, and developed a rich culture, happy until strange men with guns overwhelmed their world.

Russian explorers arrived in 1732 and named islands Kodiak, Aleutians, Pribilof Islands and the sea, Bering.

For over one hundred years the Russians enslaved them, and about 80% of the slaves were killed or died from disease.

This is the first of three short history subjects about three major groups of Alaska natives, Aleuts, Eskimos and Indians. Histories of the Alaska Natives line shelves in the libraries, and although written by professional researchers, are contradictory in several major areas of dispute; when they came and how they came.

I like to call these short stories, Canned or Fun Histories. Though written for children, adults enjoy them too. 

Although the subject is history,  the focus here is social customs,  what was their social structure, how did they hunt,  what did they eat, what did their home look like, how did they bury their dead, did they have a written language, and if so, what kind of genealogy records did they keep.  

When and where did they come from:

Many scientists of relevant disciplines agree that 7 to 12 thousand years ago in Alaska there was a waining Ice Age. As ice melted The Bering Sea level was rising. The land bridge connecting Siberia with Alaska was slowly being covered by the sea. Across the land browsed game which was following by a subsistence society  hunters and gatherers. Some of those Asian tribes settled Alaska and others continued on south and east where they settled Canada and the Americas.

On that migration model, the Aleuts migrated from mainland Alaska to Kodiak and then occupied the many islands of the Aleutian Island chain all the way to Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia.




Conflict #1: Based primarily on evidence collected from Archeological digs, some Anthropologists     calculate that the Aleuts arrived between 2,000BC and 7,000 years ago.  A plus or minus range of 3,000 years or 8,000 years does not inspire confidence in the methodologies used.  

Conflict #2: Based on personal interviews with Aleuts on Dutch Harbor and Unalaska Islands, they say their ancestors came long ago from Kamchatka Island; by boat ( umiak ) they moved island to island and left a small settlement on each good place; centuries later they reached mainland Alaska where they encountered warlike peoples, and those conflicts basically stopped that expansion.

Russian explorers came in 1732 and Fir Traders in 1784: 

Russian explorers came to Alaska and named the Aleutian Islands, Pribilof Islands and the Bering Sea. In 1784 Fur trader Grigorii Shelekhov  established the first Russian colony in Alaska at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island. Grigorii Shelekhov named Alexander Baranov as the first Governor. 

In 1800  Shelekhov founded the first Russian Orthodox church in Alaska. The Russian government supported the missionary work of the church and the church became the moral voice of the company. The church thereafter spoke out against Fur Company mistreatment of the natives, working them as slaves, and in the process probably saved thousands of lives.

Russians fur traders came and there were wars with the Aleuts and massacres were committed on both sides. Russian soldiers captured Aleuts and transported them as slaves to the Pribiloff Islands  to trap and hunt for firs. 

Around 1818 Russia was involved in a war at home. British, Spanish, and American explorers joined in the fur trade and moved into waters normally controlled by Russia. With so many in the business,  profits through sales of furs fell, and by 1860 Russia lost interest in Alaska.

Under the stewardship of President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward arranged to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7,200,000, about 2.5 cents an acre. Much of congress scoffed at the idea, dubbing Alaska as, "Seward's Icebox".  On Sitka Island October 18, 1867 the Russian flag came down and the American flag went up.

After the Russians left, many Aleuts in the Pribilof Islands, St. George and St. Paul opted to stay and form permanent settlements. As a result of 150 years abuse by the Russians, 90% of the Aleuts died of disease or overwork, leaving a population of less than 10,000 healthy individuals. Many natives in the Pribilof Islands today carry Russian surnames. I was unable to determine whether they are blood descendants of the Russian Fur Company employees, or whether the natives just adopted the names.

Aleut Housing: 

Photos provided by Alaska State Library Archives and Anchorage Municipal Library.

Austere and cold outside

Warm and cozy inside.

Fully functional and comfortable, but I visited a much neater layout at a cultural park just outside of the City of Kodiak. Though size can be scaled to the number of people who will live there, a typical family dugout was 20' by 40' by 6' deep, roof framed and supported by tree limbs, driftwood or whale bones if available, and covered with layers of sod. 

Inside the various rooms were partitioned off bare dirt walls for insulation were covered with animal skins. 

Light was often provided by whale oil burning lamps. The lamps helped keep the dugout warmer than most conventional framed homes. 

Photo provided by Alaska State Archives, Juneau, Alaska.

This is a small Aleut village on Attu Island consisting of dugout and framed homes. 

This photo is dated 1937 so the village looked like this when the Japanese attacked Attu in 1942.

The 45 resident Aleuts and school  teacher were taken by Japanese to an interment camp in Japan.

The following photo is of an old working Aleut village located at Old Harbor, Kodiak. 54 air miles from Kodiak City, this village is situated on the south-east coast of Kodik Island, not far from the original Russian settlement.

The racks of drying fish identify this as a fish camp where the Aleuts went during salmon runs in Sitkalidak Strait. They used fish wheels and nets to capture the fish in the ocean and on streams. 

This Aleut camp is 6,500 years old. The Russian Orthodox Church nearby is the oldest church in Alaska. Census of 2,000 showed a native population of 237 people.



Small Boats for Transport and Hunting: Skin On Frame Baidarkas

Permission to use in exchange for a link to website: Skin On Frame


The umiak ( Shown below ) was an open boat framed with whale bones and driftwood and covered with seal skins; The umiak was built to lengths permitted by available materials, but typically they held  about a dozen passengers, or a half dozen hunters. These were used by the Aleuts to transport game or families island to island, or to occasionally hunt whales or walruses .

The elders of Unalaska Island (Dutch Harbor) 700 miles south-west of Anchorage say their ancestors came from Kamchatka (Now Russia) in boats like this, hopping island to island and setting up villages on the best islands.

The kayak ( as is umiak ) are nouns normally associated with the two Eskimo cultures which will be  covered later. The Aleuts used the unique baidarka for warfare and subsistence.

Baidarka is a Russian word meaning small boat. The natives made them with meticulous detail and were artfully decorated. The baidarka is very light and a man can easily pick one up with one hand.  Due to it's unique design, it is very stable in rough water and much faster than an Eskimo kayak.

In the early 1980's I worked for the Aleut Corporation at Dutch Harbor as an electrician. One of the welders owned a two man sea going kayak. The conversation turned to stability and he told me that the most stable boat for the ocean that he knew of was an Aleut hunting boat called a baidarka. 

We mounted a three wheeler and crossed the bridge to Unalaska Island where we stopped at a small museum and viewed a model of an authentic baidarka. My button was pushed. I built surfboards down in California and I wanted to build a  baidarka with fiberglass over a wood frame. 

When I asked if anyone around knew how to build baidarkas, I was directed to a Quonset hut where some of the elderly men played cards. I introduced myself and told them I wanted to build a baidarka. Barely concealing an impulse to laugh, they were polite to this ignorant guy from California, but they were not initially supportive of my idea.  

One volunteered that it was illegal to get the materials to build a traditional baidarka, and if you did, it was illegal to hunt with them. From parts on their fishing boats and three wheelers they were familiar with fiberglass, but they didn't immediately grasp the idea of construction a baidarka out of fiberglass just for sport or amusement. Finally the oldest man told me that he built them when he was young and he would draw a diagram and I could pick them up the next day.

The plan he drew was amazing, an exploded drawing of the baidarka. It looked nothing like the model I had seen in the museum, so I was half convinced that I was the butt of an elaborate Aleut joke. But he had an old book which he opened and there it was, decorated out, a beautiful craft.

The differences between the two designs was in a word, dramatic. The drawing above shows a duel prow at the bow with a flat stern like a rowboat. The drawing had the same bow design, but there the similarity ended.  

Though in profile the prow configurations appeared similar, my plans from an end profile depicted a V shaped water channel in the lower prow that extended back to the stern of the boat. With an engineer eye I immediately saw the advantage to having the V under the boat, not just for less resistance to the water, but also extra strength added to the lower hull of the boat. 

The most dramatic difference was that starting about three feet from the stern, two *roster tail* type structures sloped up to a height of about one foot and terminated in a small flat deck on top. Fastened to the rear of each riser/fin was decorated with a wind streamer. 

I have no clue to the function of the fins or the streamers, but the designer assured me it was the best design, very stable, and very fast. And he wouldn't accept pay for drawing the plans.

One thing for sure with that baidarka, if you plan to perform an Eskimo roll with this baidarka, better   wear a dry skin diving suit or plan to get really wet and very cold.

One more thing about the baidarka; it was for centuries the premier hunting craft, a measure of pomp  circumstance went along with the hunting uniform. The headgear and how the hunter dressed depicted his social status in the village. The Aleuts had a class social system consisting of nobles and slaves, and a hunting hierarchy based on experience and evidenced by the type of hat worn. Depicted on the left are ceremonial hats, somewhat more decorated than hats used by hunters.

Young hunters wore a hat with short bill.

Experienced hunters wore a longer bill.

Most experienced hunters wore an open top hat with long visor and decorated with long sea lion whiskers



Aleut naming patterns:

They practiced a form of bilateral descent and followed instructions of their SHAMANS regarding the problems of life. After the Russians came, the Russian Orthodox Church was established, and naming patterns for children followed the Russian surname model, with a first and middle name. Today many Aleuts carry Russian surnames. More about the ancient model later. 


Aleut Food:

The Aleuts placed their villages at the mouth of rivers or creeks, close to the sea. They were skilled at harvesting resources from the land and the sea, sea lions, seals, otters, whales, fish, ducks, birds, eggs, blue fox and certain plants including seaweed. 


Death and Mummifying: 

Information on this subject is sparse, but a few facts are clear; They practiced surgery and a form of embalming; by removing organs from the body of the dead, stuffed the body cavity with grass, placed the body in a cold stream of water which removed fat and left skin and muscle. 

The process continued with bending the corpse into a sitting position, wrapping the body with layers of waterproof skins, then suspending the mummies in dry caves, away from moisture.

Clothing: Photographs by Alaska Pacific University and the Anchorage Public Library.      

The Aleut couple on the left are dressed for a special occasion, but that is not necessarily true for the man.

For his protection while hunting, he wore waterproof gut, highly decorated on the outside.

That according to cultural information was to honor the game that was being hunted.

No matter which native culture one investigates, all felt a oneness with their environment, and they honored the game that made life possible for them.

The Aleut ritual upon rising in the morning, standing naked on the roof of his abode, facing the rising sun, e inhaled light and air and said:

"I do not sleep. I am alive. I face you, the life-giving light, and I will always dwell with you."

For daily wear, depending on the season, the Aleut women stitched their clothing with the fur side in and the smooth side out. That was insulation and warmth. They collected dyes from their environment, the soil and plants, especially flowers, and applied the dyes to the smooth side of the pelt. Again, highly colorful clothing was probably used for special occasions.

There were three styles of hats used for hunting. The wooden hat on the left is highly decorated, making it a ceremonial hat, not an every day working hat.

To summarize, centuries ago native peoples came to Alaska, developed their society, learned how to build boats, how to hunt for, and in some ways, grow food. They learned to build their houses and how to make clothing.

The Aleuts in particular grievously suffered at the hands of foreign powers; Some interred in prisoner of war camps by the Japanese during WWI and found their communities damaged when they returned.

Other Aleuts during WWII, The thousand mile war in the Aleutians, were transported for their safety by US personnel to the mainland. They did not like the mainland. Some for the first time saw trees, and they didn't like trees. It rained a lot on the mainland, and they didn't like so much rain. Housing by their standards were cold and wet, and many died of pneumonia.

When the returned to their homes, at Sand Point, at Dutch Harbor, they found their homes damaged, in many cases stripped of personal belongings, and hunting rifles. Perhaps worst of all, their property was surrounded by a military reservation, wrecked and rusting vehicles, leaking fuel tanks, soil was contaminated. The hills were dotted with caves where military units lived and stored their ammunition. 

Years later the military came in and removed the old barracks, leaking fuel stations and rusting jeeps and other vehicles. The soil and water was cleaned up, a working power station left behind; there were benefits.

Today the Aleut have substantially accepted the name given to them by the Russians. Today except on special occasions, they wear Levies and tee shirts, or long sleeve plaid shirts, and the Nike shoes, always the Nike shoes.

They have broad band satellite TV and telephones, computers connected to cable internet, groceries from a store that rivals Safeway for freshness and variety.

The Aleutian Islands are governed by the Aleut Corporation and much of the land is owned by the corporation.  The economy is based on fishing first, transportation second, support for international movement of products to or from Alaska, Canada, and States of Washington, Oregon and California. Tourism is encouraged, but is not well supported. Hotels and restaurants expensive, transportation for people is rather austere.

They have Coast Guard stations close by, and world class tugboats; repair facilities for transportation ships, barges and fishing boats. One can have an electrical panel fixed, diesel engines repaired, and all types of repairs can be accomplished at Dutch Harbor.

 If anyone has new information for this history, please contact me at Webmaster  I thank everyone for contributing to this project, and I hope everyone enjoys this Fun History.

Author, Don Kelly, all copyrights are reserved 

© fun histories 2002