Published on December 3, 2012 by Amy
The Aleuts (self-denomination: Unangax̂, Unangan or Unanga) are the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, United States and Kamchatka Krai, Russia.
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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 a Russian-American company.
After the arrival of missionaries in the late eighteenth century, many Aleuts became Christians 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 exploit the people.
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.
Prior to major influence from outside, there were approximately 25,000 Aleuts on the archipelago. However, barbarities at the hands of 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, Japanese forces occupied Attu and Kiska Islands in the western Aleutians, and later transported captive Attu Islanders to Hokkaidō, 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. 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.
Aleuts constructed “barabaras” — partially underground houses. According to Lillie McGarvey, a twentieth-century Aleut leader, barabaras have the properties of “keeping occupants dry from the frequent rains, warm at all times, and snugly sheltered from the high winds common to the area”.
Hunting, weapon-making, building of baidarkas (special hunting boats), and weaving are some of the traditional arts of the Aleuts. Nineteenth-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, the continuum of a craft dating back to 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 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 word for grass basket is qiigam aygaaxsii.
The Aleut language is in the Eskimo-Aleut languages family. It is related to the Inuit and Yupik languages spoken by the Eskimo. It has no known wider affiliation, but supporters of the Nostratic hypothesis sometimes include it as Nostratic.
In Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash, the character Raven is an Aleut harpooner seeking revenge for the US’s nuclear testing on Amchitka.