A new film has Aleuts talking through the pain. Long-silent Aleuts revisit the suffering of World War II camps in a new documentary film set to air on Public Television this month.
Flore Lekanof was a teenager in June 1942 when the Japanese attacked Dutch Harbor to try to divert American forces from the naval battle at Midway.
He’d just come from church when the news started to spread throughout his village of St. George. Then came chaos and confusion. He and other Aleuts in the Pribilof and Aleutian islands had little time to prepare for evacuation, to assemble one bag apiece before boarding a troop ship and sailing away from the only life they’d ever known. He didn’t know how long they’d be gone or even where they were going. He certainly didn’t know his sister and grandmother would die there.
Harriet Hope was 5 when Unalaska got its orders to go. She remembers being dressed in her Sunday-school coat and gloves and her mother holding her up at the rail of the ship taking them all away. She remembers watching her house get smaller and smaller and her father, a white postmaster left behind to help with the war effort, jumping up and down, waving his arms over his head to say goodbye. It would be 3 1/2 years before she’d see home again. And it would never be the same.
HURTFUL AND HUMILIATING
Hope and Lekanof were among the 881 Aleuts sent by the federal government to internment camps during World War II. With their homes suddenly in a war zone, the evacuation was meant to get them out of harm’s way.
But that’s not how this rescue mission unfolded. Spread out among five isolated camps in Alaska’s Southeast, 1,500 miles from home, in strange rain-forest land that felt suffocating to those accustomed to treeless, windswept tundra, the Aleuts were left to languish from neglect, malnutrition and disease. Among the most deplorable conditions were at Funter Bay on Admiralty Island, where Lekanof and others from the Pribilofs ended up and many died.
Those from St. George moved into a decrepit old gold mine and those from St. Paul to an equally dilapidated, abandoned cannery. With light pouring in between cracks and people falling through dry rotted floors, these places were vermin-ridden and incapable of being heated. Survivors speak of constantly being cold and hungry and sick.
An estimated one in 10 died in the camps, a death rate not far behind the percentage of American soldiers who perished in prisoner of war camps in World War II. And then those who survived returned home to find their houses and churches ransacked and plundered, not by Japanese invaders but in many cases by their own country’s military forces who lived in them and helped themselves while residents were away.
For decades, what was done to the Aleuts by their government was too hurtful and humiliating to talk about. And, as Hope says, to speak up would have seemed unpatriotic.
HOW THE FILM CAME ABOUT
The Aleutian Pribilof Heritage Group commissioned Anchorage-based SprocketHeads LLC to produce this documentary, with Carolyn Robinson as executive producer and Steven Rychetnik as director of photography. Marla Williams, a former Alaska print and broadcast journalist now based in Seattle, was the writer, director and producer.
Actor Martin Sheen narrated gratis. Two weeks ago, this crew learned the film had been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 30th annual American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. The winner was to be announced this weekend.
Lestenkof was 10 when he and his family were sent to Funter Bay, where his mother died. He was among those who helped break the silence years ago. And now with the heritage group he heads having commissioned this film, the story will reach a much wider audience. Yet watching it himself is still too difficult.
“I think there was a great reluctance on the part of the people to talk about their experience in the camps,” he said the afternoon of the premiere in a Midtown coffee shop. “Too painful. I think it’s still painful for a lot of people. It’s certainly not comfortable for me to talk about because I pretty much erased it out of my mind, you know. For years.”
Others had a hard time watching too. Jenny Alowa, an Anchorage School District social studies teacher who grew up on St. Lawrence Island, was among those at the Bear Tooth screening. The film made her cry. And she wasn’t the only one. “It’s a sad story in our Alaska Native history,” she said. “It’s a very important story, and it’s got to be told. It comes from the heart of the people. “Hopefully it will be healing.”
THE BIGGER STORY
“Aleut Story” started off as something entirely different. In 1999, Lestenkof’s wife, Sherry Valentine, head of the heritage group at the time, had the idea of creating a short documentary on restoration of the six Russian Orthodox churches damaged or destroyed during the war. These churches were ransacked and looted of precious icons, and St. Nicholas church in Atka was burned to the ground along with much of the village as part of a military policy of leaving nothing behind to aid the enemy.
The restoration and reconstruction project was made possible as part of hard-won settlement in 1988, which created the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Restitution Trust. While rebuilding the churches was a spiritual and symbolic rebuilding of community, it was only one piece of the story. It soon became evident it was time to talk more openly about the rest of it.
PBS got involved. Then came major grants from the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Restitution Trust, the Rasmuson Foundation, the Paul Allen Family Foundation and others. “It grew into a much larger project than originally envisioned,” Lestenkof said.
The 90-minute documentary opens with archival footage and photographs of Aleut evacuees, with survivors woven in telling what happened to them and their families. Historians, academics, politicians and others on the periphery try to make sense of it. Then the film takes viewers along as a handful of elders return to Funter Bay 60 years later to tend the graves of those left behind.
There on the dock they sing a Slavonic hymn of deliverance, the same one sung when the evacuees first arrived in 1942. Even with all the stories, some of the most powerful moments in the film are the long, pensive silences as survivors remember.
“I think that’s part of listening to someone,” said Williams, the film’s writer and director. “You aren’t quite comfortable with it. That’s the point. It’s not comfortable to talk about this. It’s not comfortable to think about this.” A tremendous amount of research went into the making of this film — hundreds and hundreds of pages of documents coming from all kinds of sources, from major national archives to a slip of paper that tumbled out of one survivor’s photo album as she told her story.
From territorial records, letters, logs and Western Union telegrams to the 1995 book When the Wind Was a River: Aleut Evacuation in World War II by Dean Kohlhoff. How could this have happened? “In general there was a feeling that they simply wouldn’t notice if they were living in substandard conditions,” Williams concluded. “These camps, in particular Funter Bay, defied even that.”
Camp bosses kept detailed logs of daily life, she said, “including logs that read like this:
” ‘July 19, ’43: Every man, woman and child in camp is sick except for me and the cook.’ And then the next day, ‘Every man, woman and child is sick except for the cook.’ Now the agent is sick. And the next day, ‘Every man, woman and child is sick in camp.’ Period. Then you read the next day, ‘So-and-so has died.’ And the next, ‘So-and-so and so-and-so have died.’ And this litany goes on day after day. And then you read, ‘We’re starting to get better. Seems the flu is over. And now this fellow and this fellow are building coffins.’ “
Federal fish and wildlife agents were in charge of the Funter Bay camps where Lekanof, Lestenkof and others from the Pribilofs were held. That story is among this film’s many layers — how the Aleuts were used as slavelike labor for the government-run sealing operation in the Pribilofs until they began a fight for justice after the war.
More than other camps, those at Funter Bay were kept under tight control, since the government didn’t want to lose such a lucrative work force. “There’s always a silver lining to anything bad that happens,” Lestenkof said. “Because of their exposure to the outside world they were able to organize and fight for some of their rights.”
A SLOW RECOVERY
The first gathering of internment survivors didn’t come until the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dutch Harbor. Among those who came to Unalaska for the event was a Jewish woman who’d survived the German concentration camps, Hope said. She’d become a grief counselor and invited internment survivors to meet with her.
“I thought, what a wonderful opportunity,” Hope said. “This is what we need. I called all the elders and told them she was there. And I said … ‘you don’t have to talk; we can just listen and see what she has to say.’ Two people showed up. They weren’t ready.
“Our culture has been disrupted so many times, we have this feeling we don’t really want to talk to anybody from outside,” she explained. “We don’t feel we can trust.” But they were ready by the time Williams showed up with the camera crew. That’s because, according to Hope, Williams did it right.
She spent time with people before launching into the project, attending lots of senior lunches in several Aleut communities, talking with people about everything from her hopes for the project to arthritis. She didn’t come to take their stories, then go away. “That was the magic step she took,” Hope said, “coming out here, getting to know us.
“Williams, Lekanof and Hope flew to Anchorage for the premiere of “Aleut Story” at the Bear Tooth and to take part in a panel discussion the following night. The three also met with members of Mediak, an Alaska Native teen media club sponsored by Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Koahnic Broadcast Corp., to encourage them to seek out and tell important stories of their own.
“Our people haven’t talked about this all this time, all these years and … just give me a second,” Hope said, dabbing her eyes as she spoke to the kids. “The elders, they started talking …” As students looked on, Williams asked Hope why she and other survivors decided to go so public even though talking about it hurts.
“It’s something we trustees felt strongly about, that we needed to get the story told to the rest of the world,” Hope said. “And we felt it needed to start with us.” “But were you prepared for what we put you through in terms of making the film?” Williams asked. “No. But it was something we felt we had to do. And God put you there.”
Williams stood in the back of the theater during both screenings. She said it felt like “surround sound” watching people watch her work. Not entirely comfortable. But she wanted to get some sense of whether survivors in the audience thought she got it right and if the film resonated with others more removed. She asked people in the lobby, in the women’s restroom, wherever they happened to be, why they had stood in line on such an exceptionally cold night to see the film.
Some said because they were Aleut. Others had friends who were Aleut. And then there were those who came because they’d never heard of this and couldn’t understand how that could be. Allison Warden felt that way. “I had no idea,” she said. “It’s not something I learned in school.” “In this case, two things made it difficult to get the story out,” Williams explained.
“First of all, geographic isolation from most of America. And the second thing we do have to confront and admit is there’s a certain amount of racism.” From all sides, that may be the hardest to face up to. “One thing that came out of it,” Hope said, “is that everybody agrees that something like this should never be allowed to happen to another group of American citizens.”
“You can kind of guess there was a lot of anger. I was very young when I was taken away; my anger is for what my parents went through.” “But it’s been 60 years now this anger has been there, and unfortunately what I’m seeing looking at our young kids at home is it’s being passed from generation to generation. It’s got to stop somewhere. “It’s helped me, and I imagine it’s helped a lot of the others survivors, to tell the story and let it go.”
The documentary will air on public television stations thoughout the United States. To find out when it will air in your area, go to www.PBS.org, then scroll to the bottom of the page and enter your zip code. ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Reporter Debra McKinney can be reached at [email protected]