This Unangan ceremony was held to honor those who perished in the Killisnoo Internment camp during WWII. The memorial service marks the end of a journey that began for the Unangan people thousands of years before, when their ancestors crossed from Asia to Alaska.
It might be said that the history of the Aleutian archipelago, and the indigenous people who settled there, has been shaped by geography. While this is true for all peoples, everywhere, in the case of the Unangan and the land they settled, this has been a stark reality. From the violent formation of the Aleutian Arc, to the prehistoric migration from Asia, and the conquest in modern times by powerful neighbors, the Unangan people have been obliged to conform to external forces.
The Commander Islands, on the far western end of the Aleutian Archipelago, are part of Russia. The five islands north of the archipelago, in the Bering Sea, are the Pribilof Islands. The two largest of these, St. George and St. Paul, are breeding grounds for the protected northern fur seal. As will be explained later in this blog, the seasonal migration of the seals had a profound effect on the destiny of the indigenous people of the Aleutian and Pribilof islands.
Northern Fur Seals Return to the Pribilof Islands to Breed
The World Wildlife Fund characterizes the Aleutians as a group of sedimentary islands capped by volcanoes. The climate is described as 'maritime': the heat of summer and cold of winter are moderated by proximity to water. According to the website weatherspark, which advises travelers about local conditions, temperatures on Unalaska, one of the largest of the Aleutian islands, range from from 30º to 56º F throughout the year. More significant than temperature, for travelers and those who depend on the sea for livelihood, are the winds that whip across the islands. The Aleutians are among the windiest places in the U.S.
The islands are virtually treeless, although there may be found on some islands shrubs, dwarf willow and crowberry.
Meadows, grassy areas and peat bogs are typical of lower elevations. The soil is not suitable for farming, other than small vegetable gardens. The indigenous people of the Aleutians have traditionally been dependent on the sea for food, clothing, and other aspects of daily life.
According to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the only native mammals on the Aleutian Islands are marine mammals. An exception to this is the red fox, which is endemic to some eastern islands in the archipelago.
The Arctic fox is an introduced species in the Aleutians. An analysis by the U. S. Geological Survey explains how this species not only endangered ground-dwelling birds native to the islands, but also had a profound effect on the landscape. Lush vegetation, which was characteristic of some areas, was dependent on bird droppings for fertilization. Once the birds were decimated by the predatory Arctic fox, grasslands withered and were replaced by 'scrubby' tundra.
The fox was originally introduced by fur traders, who bred the animal for its valuable pelts.
According to Nature Conservancy, the Aleutian Islands are the best seabird habitat in North America. Red-legged kittiwakes, Aleutian terns, red-faced cormorants and several auklet species nest only in the Aleutians. There are also birds that breed elsewhere but come to the Aleutians during warm months to feed. Among birds endemic to the islands are the Aleutian cackling goose and several species of rock ptarmigan.
The bird pictured above was threatened with extinction on what was formerly known as Rat Island. This island had been overrun by another introduced animal, the Norwegian rat. Conservationists went to work, and eliminated the rats. With the rats gone, birds returned, not only Leach's storm-petrel, but other birds as well. The name of the island is now Hawadax Island, which is a name chosen by the Unangan people.
Melting Sea Ice and Aleutian Ecology
The Aleutian Arc supports a rich abundance of wildlife. One factor that enables this wide variety to flourish is plankton, upon which many species depend, directly or indirectly. According to a report issued by The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, the amount of plankton present each year is related to the date at which winter sea ice retreats from the ocean cover. "Thus, any change in the timing of ice retreat during the late winter/early spring will likely have a major impact on ecosystem structure."1
A Clash of Titans: Tectonic Plates
The Aleutian Arc was formed by, and continues to be shaped by, the violent convergence of two massive tectonic plates. One plate must bow as it is submerged under the other (subduction). In this case, the dense Pacific Plate is forced under the lighter North American Plate. The submerging plate falls into the mantle of the earth and melts into magma. The magma rises, solidifies and forms islands. In the case of the Aleutians, a string of volcanic islands were produced, 57 in all.
The clashing together of the plates is experienced as a violent shaking--earthquakes--along fault lines.
The illustration shows the movement of the plates that formed the Aleutian Arc. A dynamic representation of the plates, fault lines and volcanic activity, may be seen here
Ring of Fire
The Aleutian Islands form the northern perimeter of the Pacific Ring of Fire. It is estimated that 75% of the world's volcanoes occur along the Ring. The perimeter of the Ring is made up of the "Pacific, Juan de Fuca, Cocos, Indian-Australian, Nazca, North American, and Philippine plates". 2
People of the Aleutian Archipelago
Who were the first people to settle the Americas? How did they arrive? Where did they settle? These questions are still open. One thing is fairly certain: some these people crossed a land bridge on the Bering Sea that connected Asia to North America. Known as Beringia, this bridge has a fascinating history all its own.
Migration of Early Peoples
An article published by the US National Park Service explains that, as the last Ice Age was coming to an end, some 10,000 years ago, frigid conditions caused glaciers to form in northern regions of the globe. Water was drawn into the glaciers and sea levels fell. In some places the decline in sea level was as much as 300 feet. One area affected was the Bering Sea, where a grassy plain rose out of the water. This land mass stretched 1,000 miles, north to south, and connected Asia to North America. It was across this bridge, evidence suggest, that the first people of Alaska crossed from Asia.
The Bering land bridge was more than a path. It was a place, many scientists suggest, where life flourished. Animals grazed and flora grew. People settled. The idea that a settled community existed on Beringia is called the Standstill Theory. Recent DNA analysis of fossils gives strength to this theory.
The flow of life across the Bering land bridge went in both directions, creating forward and back migrations. The land bridge supported life, according to Julie Brigham-Grette, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, for 15,000 years.
In time, as the earth warmed, waters rose again. The Bering Sea covered the land once again and only scattered island chains remained above sea level. Among these islands were the Pribilof and Aleutian achipelagos. It would be thousands of years, though, before the earliest humans arrived.
Current evidence suggests that the indigenous population of the Pribilofs and the Aleutians, the Unangan people, benefited from a series of migrations over thousands of years.
Image credit: U. S government, NOAA. Public domain
The GIF shows that changes in the Bering Sea land bridge over time, as waters rose and fell.
Tracing Clues of Early Migrations
DNA, archeological artifacts, and language offer clues about the ancestors of the Unangan. The dates of various migrations into Alaska, and specifically into the Aleutians, are debated.
It was long accepted by the mainstream archeological community that the earliest migrations of people into Alaska occurred 14,000 years ago. However, recent discoveries have pushed that estimate back by at least 10,000 years.
The giant beaver is one of many animal fossils found at Beringian archeological sites. These sites include Crow Flats and Bluefish Caves. Other animal species found include mammoths, camels, bears and sloths. Some of the animal bones showed evidence of having been cut by human tools. Therefore, dating the bones helps to determine the period in which humans occupied Beringia.
It is believed that settlement of the Aleutian Islands occurred later than settlement of mainland Alaska. Settlement in the Aleutians began on the eastern islands, or so the evidence seems to show, and then extended west. The Pribilof Islands, which are north of the Aleutians, were not settled until the eighteenth century.
Possible Migration Routes and Cultural Diffusion
A genetic profile of the Unangan was worked up by Max Planck Institute and a report published in the June, 2019 issue of Science Daily. This report revises earlier theories about Unangan origins. According to the analysis of the Institute, there was a series of migrations, but one of the most significant occurred 5,000 years ago, when a people known as the Paleo Eskimos arrived in Alaska. The influence of this migration extended not only to Alaska and the Aleutians, but also further south, to the indigenous populations of North America. "The ancestors of Aleutian Islanders and Athabaskans derive their genetic heritage directly from the ancient mixture between these two groups."3
Thus, the Unangan people of the Aleutian Islands have a blended heritage, which benefited from early and later migrations.
Archeological Evidence: Anangula and Aleutian Traditions
The archeological evidence that tells us about prehistory on the Aleutian Islands is comprised mostly of stone tools. From examining these artifacts, archeologists deduce that the first residents of the Aleutians emigrated from the Alaskan mainland about 9000 years ago.
The earliest signs of human habitation in the Aleutian Islands have been found at Anangula, on Umnak Island. These artifacts, stone tools, are so distinctive and of such significance, that the period they represent has been called the Anangula tradition.The tools include "... a variety of skin scrapers, knives, and burins (gouging tools)".4
The Anangula Tradition seems to have lasted for a few thousand years. Then, the distinctive tool style changed, although the style of other artifacts did not. Those that remained consistent included "...roof-entry semi subterranean houses (see the discussion of houses below), large stones for grinding paint pigments, stone bowls and oil lamps, and pumice abraders."5
The change in tool style took place about 5,500 years ago. The Anangula Tradition was replaced by a new archeological period, which is known as the Aleutian Tradition. Artifacts from this later period yield rich clues about the people who lived in that time. The artifacts include spearheads, harpoons and personal items.
Language may be used as map to trace a people's history. The traditional term for the indigenous language of the Aleutians is Unangax. The word 'Aleut', it is believed, is Russian in origin. The Unganan language is part of the Eskimo-Aleut family. According to Alaska State University linguist Anna Berge, there is a shared origin between Unangan and Eskimo languages. However, today these languages are distinct, and not mutually intelligible.
Dr. Berge suggests that the morphology of Unangax indicates geographic isolation of the Aleutian Islands from Eskimo groups. The isolation, though, was not complete. There are enough similarities to suggest repeated contact between the Unangan and their Eskimo neighbors.
Within the Unangan people themselves, dialects arose but usage was sufficiently similar to allow communication between different island groups. Today Unangax is a language in danger of extinction. According to the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, there are only 109 people who speak the language fluently.
First Foreign Contact: The Russians
The story of contact for indigenous people has been told with wearying familiarity across the globe. The grim saga begins with conquest. It is followed by subjugation, and often the introduction of annihilating disease. Russia's early interaction with the Unangan followed this grim pattern.
First contact with the Aleutians occurred in 1741, when two explorers from Russia, Vitus Bering and Aleksei Chirikov, came upon the chain. Bering landed on a western portion of the archipelago. He perished, though others in his crew survived. Chirikov landed on what would one day be Sitka Island. From these two voyages came the information that the islands could be a source of valuable furs. Hunters and traders soon descended on the islands. Russian Orthodox missionaries followed in very little time.
Traditional Unangan culture was tied to the sea. It centered around hunting and harvesting sea animals. All parts of the animal were utilized: fur became clothing, skin covered lightweight kayak frames, bone became tools, flesh became food.
With Russian contact, the modern era of the Unangan people began. Battles were fought between invaders and the invaded. The Unangan were kidnapped and forced to work at slaughtering sea mammals and harvesting their skins for trade. Disease raged through the indigenous population. It is estimated that before the time of contact the combined population of Aleutians may have been in excess of 25,000. By 1800, the population had declined by 80%.
In 1786 the Pribilof Islands were 'discovered', as were the seals that used the islands for breeding grounds. Fur traders quickly set about exploiting this rich source of pelts. A new era of enslavement began for the Aleutian people. They were forcibly transported to the Pribilofs and compelled to work.
A culturally transformative effect of contact with Russia was the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church. To this day, the Church exerts a powerful influence on the Unangan.
Transfer of the Aleutian Islands to American control occurred in 1867.
All but the Commander Islands became U. S. territory. According to the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, there were no significant changes between the Russian and American periods. The Russian Orthodox Church continued to exert its hold.
The lure of the fur trade continued, as did the desire to profit from this trade. According to Helen Corbett and Susanne Swibold, authors of "Endangered people of the Arctic: Struggle to Survive", after control of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands passed to the United States, the Unangan people became wards of the United States government. They did not enjoy Constitutional protections granted to U. S. citizens.
Citizenship was finally granted in 1924, to the Unangan and all native Americans born in the U. S. However, the Unangan living on the Pribilof Islands were not free from government control. Forced labor continued. Not until Congress passed the Fur Seal Act in 1966 were Pribilof residents freed. Though the act was passed to protect the seals (!!), its passage had the effect of ending forced labor on the Pribilof Islands.
WWII: Japanese Invasion and U. S. Internment Camps
The proximity of Japanese Territory to the Aleutian Islands can be seen easily on the map. On June 3 and 4, 1942, Japan bombed a U.S. naval base on Unalaska. On June 7 and 8, they invaded two islands: Attu and Kiska. The naval weather station on Kiska was overtaken. The indigenous civilians on Attu were captured and transported to Japan as prisoners of war.
The invasion by Japan began another tragic episode in the history of the Unangan people. The Aleutian Islands represented a critical strategic weakness for the United States. In order to shore up defenses against further attacks, and prevent the Japanese from gaining more footholds in U. S. territory, dramatic action was taken. Unangan civilians were hastily evacuated from their homes on the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands. These civilians were sent to internment camps.
Years later, the internees testified about their experience.
Philemon M. Tutiakoff:
"The overcrowded conditions were an abomination. There were 28 of us forced to live in one, designated 15'x20' house. There existed no church, no school, no medical facility, no store, no community facility, no skiffs or dories, no fishing gear and no hunting rifles." 6
Alice Petrivelli (who was interned at Killisnoo):
"We got to Killisnoo and most of the houses were in disrepair. The only decent house there they gave to Mr. and Mrs. Magie [Magee], the teachers, the only one that had the stove...later on, the men were able to repair the homes and eventually everybody had their own little apartment. Like we lived in a two room place, which was - well, summertime it was all right but wintertime it was icy cold and I remember being hungry. Some days were okay because we were able to get clams and crabs and fish, but a lot of the time we had nothing. Well we did not have guns. We were not able to go out and get our own food". 7
There were deaths, especially among the young. According to the U. S. Park Service, of the 83 evacuees from Atka who were interned at Killisnoo, seventeen died.
The U. S. National Archives offers a fairly detailed record of how the evacuation of the Aleutian Islands proceeded. Many months before, in January of 1942, the peril of a Japanese invasion was clearly understood. A representatives of the Navy wrote to Paul Gordon, of the Division of Territories at that time:
"It is felt that the evacuation of all white women and children from Unalaska would be to the best interest of the present military situation." 8
It would be difficult to avoid the suggestion that racism likely played a role in the failure to evacuate the Unangan in a timely fashion.
A hasty evacuation of the indigenous people was arranged only after the Japanese had actually seized territory in the Aleutians. Disinterest in the well-being of the evacuees was evident from the first instance. For example, as a crowded steamer left Unalaska with evacuees and sailed toward the internment camps, a doctor on board from St. George Island felt no responsibility toward the passengers. A nurse who was present testified:
"...He did not come to assist even at the birth of a St. George baby or its subsequent death of bronchial pneumonia"9
The Unangan Return
As the evacuees had been obliged to leave almost all their personal possessions behind, they returned with very little. Most found on their return that their homes and possessions were gone. The military had followed a 'scorched earth' policy on the islands so the Japanese would have little resources if they did occupy the islands. Additionally, it was evident that U.S. personnel stationed on the islands, for the most part, had little regard for what they found.
Again, a witness statement:
"...Clothing had been scattered over floors, trampled and fouled. Dishes, furniture, stoves, radios,phonographs, books, and other items had been broken or dam-aged. Many items listed on inventories furnished by the occupants of the houses were entirely missing. . . . It appears that armed forces personnel and civilians alike have been responsible for this vandalism and that it occurred over a period of many months.." 10
Many communities that had existed before the war disappeared. Some were consolidated into larger communities. In some instances, people were not allowed to return. In others, they chose not to return.
Attu islanders who were taken prisoner by the Japanese did not fare well. Many died in captivity.
In May of 1943, the U.S. waged a battle to reclaim Attu Island. It is estimated that 1,000 U.S. soldiers and 2,000 Japanese soldiers fell in this fierce struggle, in which U. S. forces were victorious. The Battle of Attu was the only one waged on U. S. soil during WWII.
Today Attu Island is uninhabited, except for wildlife. A memorial stands to honor those who fell in battle.
I began this piece after coming across an article about the Battle of Attu. Before that, I knew little about the Aleutian Islands. However, the saga of the Unangan, and their determination to preserve their culture moved me. And so this post was born. Some of the references cited here are rich with information that could not be included. Especially gripping were reports from the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, the National Archives and the National Park Service.
1 The National Academies Press: The Environmental Setting The Physical Environment
Some Sources Used in Writing the Blog
Geology Page: Aleutian Islands
National Park Service: Charles House
US Army Center of Military History: Aleutian Islands 1942-1943
National Park Service: Evacuation and Internment
Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association: History
American Journal of Human Genetics: Analysis of Mitochondrial DNA Diversity in the Aleuts of the Commander Islands and Its Implications for the Genetic History of Beringia
US National Part Service: World War II Aleut Relocation Camps in Southeast Alaska - Chapter 4: Killisnoo Herring Plant, pt. 1
LiveScience: What Is a Subduction Zone?
Timeline: [To protect indigenous Alaskans from Japanese bombs, the U.S. gave them… internment and death] (https://timeline.com/indigenous-alaskans-japanese-bombs-internment-wwii-cebe47860665)
Alaska Magazine: The Pribilof Islands
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Refuge History - 1900-1945
U.S. Geological Survey: Jurassic phase, Alaska-Aleutian Range batholith, undifferentiated
National Park Service: A Survey of Human Migration in Alaska's National Parks through Time
NPS Bering Land Bridge: Other Migration Theories - Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
The National Academies Press: Decline of the Steller Sea Lion in Alaskan Waters: Untangling Food Webs and Fishing Nets
World Wildlife Fund: Aleutian Islands
U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Marine Mammals of the Aleutians Islands
U. S. Forest Service: M127 Aleutian Oceanic Meadow--Heath Province
Nature Conservancy: Alaska Stories
Human Biology: Origins of Linguistic Diversity in the Aleutian Islands ](https://www.jstor.org/stable/41466704?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)
Journal of Historical Linguistics: Re-evaluating the reconstruction of Proto-Eskimo-Aleut
National Geographic Resource Entry: Ring of Fire
Smithsonian National Postal Museum: As Precious as Gold
Encounters: Alasak: The Alaska Fur Trade
Arctic Anthropology: Animal World of the Aleuts
The World of Elephants International Congress, Rome 2001: On the significance of modified mammoth bones from eastern Beringia
Robert Welch University: Quest of a Hemisphere, Chapter 21