Meeting the Aleutians

July 13, 2008 at 11:09 pm | Posted in Alaska, Naming | Leave a comment
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After another long break – not my choice, for sure – I’ll try to continue with this huge and quite impossible project. I was reading I don’t know what on the Internet and I ended up in the Wikipedia page for the entry “aleut”. Their lands remind my a “tail” of an exotic animal, just where Alaska finishes. You can see that in the map of this older entry. It would be amazing to travel there! This is what I found out:

The Aleuts

The Aleuts (self-denomination: Unangax̂, Unangan or Unanga) are the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, United States and Kamchatka Krai, Russia. The homeland of the Aleuts includes the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, the Shumagin Islands, and the far western part of the Alaska Peninsula. During the 19th century, the Aleuts were deported from the Aleutian Islands to the Commander Islands (now part of Kamchatka Krai) by the Russian-American Company.

History

After the arrival of missionaries in the late 18th century, many Aleuts became Christian by joining the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the earliest Christian martyrs in North America was Saint Peter the Aleut.

In 18th century, Russian furriers established settlements on the islands and exploited the people. (See Early history)

There was a recorded revolt against Russian workers in Amchitka in 1784. It started from the exhaustion of necessities that the Russians provided to local people in return for furs they had made. (See: Aleuts’ revolt)

In 1811, Aleuts went to San Nicholas to hunt. There was argument over paying the Nicoleño for being allowed to hunt on their island, a battle began almost all of the native men were killed. By 1853, only one native was left. (See Island of the Blue Dolphins)

Prior to major influence from outside, there were approximately 25,000 Aleuts on the archipelago. Barbarities by outside corporations and foreign diseases eventually reduced the population to one-tenth this number. Further declines led to a 1910 Census count of 1,491 Aleuts.

In 1942, during World War 2, Japanese forces occupied Attu and Kiska Islands in the western Aleutians, and later transported captive Attu Islanders to Hokkaidō, where they were held as prisoners of war. Hundreds more Aleuts from the western chain and the Pribilofs were evacuated by the United States government during WW2 and placed in internment camps in southeast Alaska, where many died. The Aleut Restitution Act of 1988 was an attempt by Congress to compensate the survivors.

The World War II campaign to retake Attu and Kiska was a significant component of the operations of the Asian theater.

Culture

Aleuts constructed partially underground houses called barabaras. According to Lillie McGarvey, a 20th-century Aleut leader, barabaras keep “occupants dry from the frequent rains, warm at all times, and snugly sheltered from the high winds common to the area”.

Traditional arts of the Aleuts include hunting, weapon-making, building of baidarkas (special hunting boats), and weaving. 19th century craftsmen were famed for their ornate wooden hunting hats, which feature elaborate and colorful designs and may be trimmed with sea lion whiskers, feathers, and ivory. Aleut seamstresses created finely stitched waterproof parkas from seal gut, and some women still master the skill of weaving fine baskets from rye and beach grass.

Aleut basketry is some of the finest in the world, and the tradition began in prehistoric times. Early Aleut women created baskets and woven mats of exceptional technical quality using only an elongated and sharpened thumbnail as a tool. Today, Aleut weavers continue to produce woven pieces of a remarkable cloth-like texture, works of modern art with roots in ancient tradition. The Aleut term for grass basket is qiigam aygaaxsii.

Language

While English and Russian are the dominant languages used by Aleuts living in the US and Russia respectively, the Aleut language is still spoken by several hundred people. The language belongs to the Eskimo-Aleut language family and includes three dialect groupings: Eastern Aleut, spoken on the Eastern Aleutian, Shumagin, Fox and Pribilof islands; Atkan, spoken on Atka and Bering islands; and the now extinct Attuan dialect. The Pribilof Islands boast the highest number of active speakers of Aleutian.

In popular culture

In Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, the character Raven is an Aleut harpooner seeking revenge for the US’s nuclear testing on Amchitka. The Aleut tribes are also the subject of the Sue Harrison’s Ivory Carver Trilogy that includes Mother Earth Father Sky, My Sister the Moon, and Brother Wind, in addition to being the subject of Irving Warner’s 2007 historical novel about the Attuans held as prisoners of war in Japan, “The War Journal of Lila Ann Smith”.

The entry on Wikipedia is quite short, but the books listed on the bottom look like interesting summer readings. Maybe it would be a good idea to start gathering the titles of books and novels related with the subject of the blog, as I already do with the links. What do you thing?

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