Aleut (Unangan) Native Communities Index
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Aleut (Unangan) Native Communities Index

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Aleut (Unangan) Native Communities Index

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Aleut Index

Some archeologists suggest that contemporary Aleuts (pronounced "uh-loots") are the descendants of a population which first established itself at Anangula Island more than 7,000 years ago. At the time of European contact, the Aleut population inhabited all of the major Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula as far east as Port Moller, and the Shumagin Islands to the south of the Alaska Peninsula. The total Aleut population is estimated to have been between 15-18000 at the time of contact. Foreign diseases eventually reduced the population to one-tenth of this number. Further declines led to a 1910 Census count of 1491 Aleuts. Today, there are once again approximately 18,000 Aleuts and mixed-blood aleut people.

The people of the Atka region called themselves Unangas (the plural form is Unangax), but all other Aleut subgroups called themselves Unangan. In addition, each group was divided into a number of different tribes, such as the Qawalangin of Unalaska. It is thought there were originally nine named sub-divisions of the Aleut people.

The Russians gave the name Aleuts (originally from the Koryak or Chukchi languages of Siberia) to all the Native peoples of the Aleutians, Kodiak and up along the Alaska Peninsula, resulting in confusion even today. Because of this, the Yupik people bordering Unangan territory also became known as Aleuts, or in Yupik, 'Alutiq.'

Today, the Aleut inhabit the Aleutian archipelago, a 1,300-mile-long volcanic island arc extending from the Alaska Peninsula west nearly to Kamchatka.

Alaskan Eskimo groups were subdivided into territorial groups, or "societies," which at the local level comprised a number of smaller associations of extended family groups, or bands. The location and composition of modern villages and communities often reflect these traditional territorial associations, although the history of interaction with commercial whalers, traders, missionaries, and government schoolteachers is also a factor.

The winter dwelling was a large semi-dugout that was partially below ground, with room for up to 40 related families. These dwellings, called barabara (pronounced ba-RAB-u-ra) had stall-like quarters for the individual nuclear families. Sod or peat was piled around the outside walls for insulation; the entrance was through a roof hole and down a notched log ladder. In summer, each family lived in its own hut.

House utensils included wooden buckets and implements as well as beautifully woven wicker baskets (from the fiber of dune grass). Larger volume containers were more likely to be made out of light, flexible and waterproof materials such as cured sealskins with the flipper and head holes tied shut, or from the bladders and intestines of large sea mammals. Walrus intestines were also used to fashion waterproof parkas (called kamleikas) and a type of gut shirt used during damp summer weather. In addition to sea animal products, the Aleut menu included a large number of native plants as well as kelp.

The Aleut originally lived in patrilineal clans, several to a village. The clan elder was a man, and his sons and nephews were privileged in the group. Men could have multiple wives, and wives could have multiple husbands. In this society, there was no strict patrilocal custom. Before the coming of the Russians, there was considerable interclan warfare over fishing and hunting grounds. The taking of slaves was common and mistreatment and torture of prisoners endemic. In general, warfare and violence were a common occurence throughout the Beringia area even before the coming of the Russians.

Aleut medical practices, in addition to the spiritual intervention of shamans, (shamanism came from Russia), included bloodletting to release the "bad blood" thought to cause illness (some ethnographers believe that the idea of bloodletting was also borrowed only in the 18th century via Russian contact). The Aleuts had considerable knowledge of human anatomy, since they mummified the corpses of important people by removing the viscera, washing the body in a cold stream, and stuffing it with oiled sphagnum moss for preservation. The bodies of children might also be treated in this way. Mummies were wrapped in sealskins, tightly tied, and laid to rest in caves or even in a special compartment of the family dwelling.

During mourning, the bereaved abstained from food and sex, gave away large numbers of possessions and occasionally even resorted to suicide (although the Aleuts generally didn't have the casual attitude toward suicide found among the Chukchi and some Eskimo groups). A man or woman mourned the death of a spouse for 60 days unless the loss had occurred at sea, in which case the mourning lasted only 30 days.

The Aleut were known to be excellent basket makers, 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, the continuum of a craft begun in prehistoric times and carried through to the present. 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. The Aleut word for grass basket is "qiigam aygaaxsii."

Hunting, weapon-making, boat building, and weaving are some other traditional arts of the Aleuts. 19th-century craftsmen were famed for their ornate wooden hunting hats, (pictured above) which feature elaborate and colorful designs and may be trimmed with sea lion whiskers, feathers, and ivory. At sea, Aleut men wore wooden hunting hats. The shape of the headgear indicated a man's rank; a short visor was worn by the young and inexperienced hunters, an elongated visor by the rank-and-file, and open-crown long-visored hats by important mature men.

The Aleut and Alutiiq cultures were heavily influenced by the Russians, beginning in the 18th century. The Orthodox Church is prominent in every village, Russian dishes are made using local subsistence food, and Russian words are part of common vocabulary although two languages, Unangax and Sugcestun, are the indigenous languages. The territory of the Aleut and Alutiiq stretches from Prince William Sound to the end of the Aleutian Islands. There are also over 700 Aleuts in Nikolskoye on Bering Island, Russia. Approximately 100 of the Russian Aleuts still speak the language fluently.

In 1942 Japanese forces occupied Attu and Kiska Islands in the western Aleutians, and later transported captive Attu Islanders to Hokkaido, where they were held as POWs. Hundreds more Aleuts from the western chain and the Pribilofs were evacuated by the United States government during World War II and placed in internment camps in southeast Alaska, where many died from exposure, a flu epidemic and other illnesses spread by cramped quarters, and a shortage of food.

Aleut is only one branch of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. Linguists estimate that the Aleut language separated from the earlier Eskimo languages 4,000 years ago. Its territory in Alaska encompasses the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, and the Alaska Peninsula west of Stepovak Bay. Aleut is a single language divided at Atka Island into the Eastern and the Western dialects. About 300 Aleuts still speak the language. Many Aleut people also speak Russian.

A Russian Orthodox linguist named Ivan Veniaminov worked with Aleut speakers in 1824 to develop a writing system and translate religious and educational material into the native language. In modern times the outstanding academic contributor to Aleut linguistics was Knut Bergsland, who from 1950 until his death in 1998 worked with Aleut speakers such as William Dirks Sr. and Moses Dirks - now himself a leading Aleut linguist - to design a modern writing system for the language and develop bilingual curriculum materials including school dictionaries for both dialects. In 1994 Bergsland produced a comprehensive Aleut dictionary, and in 1997 a detailed reference grammar.

What's New:

Are Eskimos and Inuit the same people?
I answered a letter a while ago, from someone at a museum in Alaska. They wanted to know why Inuit (which I am of) dislike being called "Eskimos." After all, many Alaskans don't mind being called Eskimos, and even seem to dislike the term "Inuit" when southerners apply it them, however well-intentioned. I am not surprised by the confusion.

Alaskan Native Cultures
There are three types of Alaskan Natives with different cultural and linquistic history. They are Indian, Eskimo and Aleut. These are further defined by eleven distinct cultures.

Eskimo / Esquimaux
Eskimo is the term used when speaking of Inupiaq and Yupik people collectively or to mean all Inuit and Yupik people of the world.

Did you know Aleuts were sent to internment camps during WWII?
Long-silent Aleuts revisit the suffering of World War II internment camps in a new documentary film set to air on Public Television this month.

Native Village of Akhiok profile
Akhiok is located at the southern end of Kodiak Island at Alitak Bay. It lies 80 miles southwest of the City of Kodiak, and 340 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Former Chief Pete J. Peter explains Gwich'in culture
Our way of life is to respect the mother earth and it's animals.

Unangan (Aleut) Heritage
Several thousand years ago, before European explorers discovered the shores of the Aleutian Islands, they were inhabited by the “Unangas” (Aleut people).

Alaskan Village Profiles
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