Published on October 13, 2010 by John
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Alaskan Aleut Indian Dancers
Almost 100 in number, the Aleutian Islands extend westward about 1,200 miles into the Pacific Ocean from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. They are a partly submerged continuation of the Aleutian Range, a volcanic mountain chain. The climate of the islands is cold and damp, with thick fog. Few trees grow in the ALEUT7 rocky soil, only bushes, grasses, and marsh plants called sedge.
These rugged, barren islands were the ancestral home-land of the Aleut. The name, pronounced a-LOOT or AL-ee-oot, may have been either a Native word meaning “island” or a Russian word meaning “bald rock.” The name Alaska was taken from an Aleut phrase, alaeksu or alaschka, meaning “mainland.” The Native name for Aleutian Islands people is Unangan, or “the people”. Another people grouped in the broad category of Aleut (and formerly included among the INUIT by some scholars) used the Native name Alutiit (or Alutiiq in the singular form). Subgroups included the Chugachmiut in Prince William Sound, the Unegkurmiut on the lower Kenai Peninsula, and the Qikertarmiut on Kodiak Island.
The Aleut dialects resemble those of the numerous Inuit bands, indicating a close relationship between the two peoples. But the Aleut dialects are different enough for scholars to classify them as a distinct group. Dialects of both peoples are considered part of the Eskimaleut (or Eskaleut) language family.
Some scholars do not use the word Indian for Aleut and Inuit but apply the phrases Native peoples, indigenous peoples, or Native Americans, because, in terms of their ancestry, both the Aleut and the Inuit are more closely related to Siberian peoples in Russia than to the other Native American peoples in this book. The Aleut and Inuit came to the Americas much later than did the other Native peoples, from about 2500 B.C. to 1000 B.C., and they came by boat and not over the Bering Strait land bridge (see PREHISTORIC INDIANS).
Two main groups of Aleut established permanent vil-lages on the Aleutian Islands’ coasts: the Unalaska, closer to the mainland, and the Atka, farther west.Lifeways Aleut culture resembles that of the Inuit, and scholars classify the two peoples in the Arctic Culture Area (see ARCTIC PEOPLES). But because of their location, the Aleut also had cultural traits in common with NORTH-WEST COAST INDIANS, with whom they traded objects and shared ideas.
Aleut economy was based on the sea. Aleut hunted the mammals of the ocean, such as sea otters, seals, sealions, walruses, and whales, and they ﬁshed, especially for salmon and shellﬁsh. They also hunted birds and gathered roots and berries.
The Aleut lived in barabaras, large communal houses built over pits, with roof beams made from driftwood or whale bones and walls made from chunks of sod.The smokehole in the roof or a separate passageway facing east served as a door. The houses were heated and lighted with stone oil lamps.
Aleut kayaks, or baidarkas, were made much like Inuit kayaks—oiled walrus or seal skins stretched over light wood frames. They were short, with the bow curved upward and the stern squared off. Sometimes the bows were shaped like a bird’s open beak. Usually there were two cockpits—the rear one for the paddler and the front one for the harpooner. The harpooner used a throwing board for extra leverage in ﬂinging the harpoon in addition to a stabbing harpoon. The Aleut also used larger open boats known as igilax.
Aleut clothing was efﬁcient for rain and cold. It came in double layers and was made mostly from gut—especially seal intestines—as well as from hide. Hooded parkas of varying lengths—extending to the hip or below the kneeserved as outer garments. Hunters wore wooden helmets with long visors that were decorated with ivory and sea lion whiskers. The Aleut added intricate decorations to their clothing by using hair bristles and animal skin dyed different colors. The Aleut also crafted elegant baskets, as did the Northwest Coast Indians, using rye grass growing on the beaches. The stems of the grass were split with the ﬁngernails to make threads, and some of the threads were dyed to make intricate woven designs.
Another cultural trait that the Aleut had in common with Northwest Coast Indians was their type of social organization. The Aleut were more concerned with rank and wealth than the Inuit were. The toyons, or village chiefs, and the nobles under them demonstrated their rank through their possessions, such as shells or amber
Under the chiefs and nobles were commoners and slaves.Unlike the Northwest Coast Indians, the Aleut did not practice the potlatch, an elaborate feast during which gifts were exchanged.
The Fur Trade
Russian tradersand trappers forever altered the Aleut way of life. In 1741, Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator in the service of Russia’s czar, Peter the Great, sailed from eastern Russia to the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska. Bering’s reports of plentiful sea mammals in the region soon brought the sailing ships of the promyshlenniki (Russian for “fur traders”). They had previously worked their way across Siberia, trapping animals for their pelts. Now they had a whole new domain to exploit.They came ﬁrst to the Aleutians, which were especially rich in sea otters. And they took advantage of the Aleut to make their fortunes in fur.
The traders would sail to a Native village; take hostages by force; pass out traps to the Aleut men; then demand furs in exchange for the release of the women and children. The women and children also were forced to work,cleaning the furs the men gathered. If the men made any effort to rebel or failed t o deliver furs, the traders might execute individuals or destroy entire villages.
The promyshlenniki worked eastward along the Aleutian chain. The ﬁrst organized resistance came from the Unalaska Aleut on the Fox group of islands, when, in 1761, they wiped out a party of traders. The next year, they managed to destroy a ﬂeet of ﬁve ships. The Russians responded in 1766 with an armada of warships, manned by European mercenaries and armed with can non. They bombarded many of the Aleut villages, destroying houses and killing many.Aleut resistance was only sporadic after that. The promyshlenniki established their ﬁrst permanent post in North America at Three Saints on Kodiak Island in 1784.
Russian ofﬁcials and businessmenbegan regulating and restricting the behavior of the traders more and more, leading to somewhat better treatment. Supposedly the Aleut and Inuit were to be paid for their work. But the traders consistently cheated them by charging them fees for food, protection, and other inﬂated or made-up expenses. In 1799,the czar granted the charter of the Russian American Company, creating a monopoly that competed in the 1800s with the British-run Hudson’s Bay Company for the world fur market.
Those Aleut who had survived the violence of the past years and the diseases carried to them by Europeans were essential to this huge fur operation. They were, after all, some of the best seamammal hunters in the world. Another people, the TLINGIT, would take up the mantle of resistance against the Russians.Russian missionaries would further change the culture of the Aleut. In 1824, the Russian Orthodox priest Veniaminoff began his work among them. The Aleut came to trust him and converted to his religion because he fought for their rights. In 1867, Russia sold the territory of Alaska to the United States, and the Native peoples came under American control.
World War II proved a trying time for Aleut peoples. The Japanese attacked the Aleutians and captured the island of Attu in 1942, removing villagers to Japan. The United States regained control the next year and evacuated Aleut families from other islands to abandoned canneries on the mainland. Without enough food or fuel for heating or medical attention, many died. On returning, Aleut survivors found most of their villages destroyed or their possessions stolen by U.S. military personnel.
The majority of Aleut now live in protected Native villages, many on the mainland. These have been organized, along with a number of Inuit villages, into Native regional corporations to manage money and land conveyed by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association was founded in 1986 to help Aleut with health, education,and employment needs. Many Aleut work as commercial ﬁshermen or in ﬁsh canneries.The oil spill of 1989 of the Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska’s coastal waters proved a major economic setback for those Aleut peoples depending on the sea. Some Aleut still practice the Russian Orthodox religion. Aleut elders are working to teach the young their traditional songs, dances, and crafts.The Museum of Aleutians in Unaluska is dedicated topreserving the cultural heritage of the Aleut.
Source: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES by CARL WALDMAN