Aleut / Unangan

The Aleut are are the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, United States and Kamchatka Krai, Russia. They call themselves Unanga, meaning “original people.” The plural form, Unangan translates to “seasider.”

Russian fur traders gave the name Aleut to the Unangan in the mid-18th century. This term was adopted by other Europeans who learned from the Russians.

The Unangan Aleuts are not to be confused with the Alutiiq, a nearby Southern Yupik group, who were also referred to as “Aleuts” by the Russians, and are still often called Aleuts today.

The Aleut language belongs to the Eskimo-Aleut language family.

While English and Russian are the dominant languages used by Aleuts living in the United States and Russia respectively, the Aleut language is still spoken by an estimated 150 people in the United States and 500 people in Russia.

The language  includes three dialect groupings:

Eastern Aleut, spoken on the Eastern Aleutian, Shumagin, Fox and Pribilof Islands

Atkan, spoken on Atka and Bering islands

The now extinct Attuan dialect.

Attuan dialect and speaking tribes:

Sasignan (in Attuan dialect) / Sasxinan (in Eastern dialect) / Sasxinas (in Western dialect) or Near Islanders : in the Near Islands (Attu, Agattu, Semichi).

Kasakam Unangangis (in Aleut, lit. «Russian Aleut») or Copper Island Aleut : in the Commander Islands of Russian Federation (Bering, Medny).

? Qax̂un or Rat Islanders : in the Buldir Island and Rat Islands (Kiska, Amchitka, Semisopochnoi).

Atkan dialect or Western Aleut or Aliguutax̂ (in Aleut) and speaking tribes:

Naahmiĝus or Delarof Islanders : in the Delarof Islands (Amatignak) and Andreanof Islands (Tanaga).

Niiĝuĝis or Andreanof Islanders : in the Andreanof Islands (Kanaga, Adak, Atka, Amlia, Seguam).

Eastern Aleut dialect and speaking tribes:

Akuuĝun or Uniiĝun or Islanders of the Four Mountains : in the Islands of Four Mountains (Amukta, Kagamil).

Qawalangin or Fox Islanders : in the Fox Islands (Umnak, Samalga, western part of Unalaska).

Qigiiĝun or Krenitzen Islanders : in the Krenitzin Islands (eastern part of Unalaska, Akutan, Akun, Tigalda).

Qagaan Tayaĝungin or Sanak Islanders : in the Sanak Islands (Unimak, Sanak).

Taxtamam Tunuu dialect of Belkofski.

Qaĝiiĝun or Shumigan Islanders : in the Shumagin Islands.

The Pribilof Islands boast the highest number of active speakers of Aleutian. Most of the Native elders speak Aleut, but it is very rare for younger people to speak the language fluently.

The Aleut population has dwindled drastically since European contact.

Тhe Aleut people were distributed throughout the Aleutian Islands, the Shumagin Islands, and the far western part of the Alaska Peninsula, with an estimated population of around 25,000 before contact with Europeans.

In the 1820s, the Russian-American Company administered a large portion of the North Pacific during a Russian-led expansion of the fur trade.

They resettled many Aleut families to the Commander Islands (within the Aleutsky District of the Kamchatka Krai in Russia) and to the Pribilof Islands (in Alaska).

These continue to have majority-Aleut communities.
The number of Aleut has dwindled to about 2,000, because they suffered high fatalities in the 19th and early 20th centuries from Eurasian infectious diseases to which they had no immunity.

In addition, the population suffered as traditional lifestyles were disrupted. People of partial Aleut descent, many of whom identify as Aleut and continue the culture, may number around 15,000. Russian traders and later Europeans married many Aleut women.


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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).


Rough, windy seas surround these remote, rocky, majestically beautiful, volcanic islands; inhabitants who live there experience some of the most inclement weather in the world. Despite the tempestuous surroundings, the Unangas adapted to the environment and became excellent navigators of the sea, skillfully harvesting its unlimited bounties as their main livelihood.

They were designers and craftsmen of sea vessels called “baidarkas” which are well known for excellent maneuverability over the ocean no matter what weather conditions prevailed. The one to three man vessels would travel for long periods at sea before returning to the shore; males were trained at a very early age to sit for many days with their legs straight out before them in the enclosure of the baidarka. Historically, it is recorded that if the men were appropriately outfitted with “kamleikas” (waterproof garments) in a properly constructed baidarka, they could roll completely over in the sea and become upright again without being tossed from the baidarka.

When the Russian explorers landed in 1741, it was estimated that there were as many as 20,000 Unangas spread out in hundreds of small villages throughout the sheltered harbors of the Islands. Their homes were called “barabaras” which in the very early days were semi-subterranean homes covered by earth and grass with entries through the roof. Some were built large enough to house several families; the larger dwellings were divided by attaching several small rooms to a large group room in the center.

The women were expert and artful grass weavers, this is confirmed by the preservation of ancient Aleut baskets, sleep mats, wall dividers, hand mitts and foot coverings that have been recovered and are displayed in museums, today. Some of the baskets were woven so tightly that they were able to contain water; this leads us to believe that hand mitts and grass foot coverings were woven tightly enough to repel water, keeping the hands and feet dry.

In addition to skillfully manufacturing the family clothing from materials of their surroundings, the women made waterproof garments from the intestines of sea mammal. They were called “kamleikas” and were used by men going to sea. Kamleikas were also used as ceremonial garments; these were of a special design and had colorful ornamentation made from bird feathers, soft animal furs and other dyed materials.

Today, the Aleut people have the conveniences of modern dwellings and technology, as well as many other present day amenities. They hold fast to their traditional culture and values by teaching past and present Aleut customs to their descendants so that, they too, can culturally teach and train the following generations.