views updated May 21 2018


ETHNONYMS: Aleutian, Alyoot


Identification. The origin of the name "Aleut" is unCertain. It is possibly derived from the Olutorski tribe, on the Olutorsk River, in northeast Kamchatka, and was applied by early Russian fur hunters to residents of the Aleutian Islands. But it may instead be derived from the Chukchee word for "island," aliat. Finally, it is possible that "Aleut" comes from the name the westernmost Aleuts, on Attu Island, used to refer to themselves, "Aliut," which was then extended eastward by the Russians. Today, Aleuts infrequently refer to themselves with the Aleut word "Unangin" (or "Angagin"), meaning approximately "we, the people."

Location. At the time of initial Russian contact in 1741, Aleuts occupied all the Aleutian Islands west to Attu Island, the western tip of the Alaska Peninsula, and the Shumagin Islands south of the Alaska Peninsula. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Aleuts were settled on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. Today, some thirteen Aleut villages remain, mostly in the Pribilofs and eastern Aleutians.

Demography. At contact, there were an estimated twelve thousand to fifteen thousand Aleuts, but this number quickly and dramatically declined in the first decades of Russian Occupation. Today fewer than two thousand live in several small communities in the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, while approximately another fifteen hundred reside elsewhere in Alaska or other states.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Aleut language belongs to the Eskimo-Aleut (or Eskaleut) language family. Eastern, Central, and western dialects existed until quite recently; now only the first two are spoken to any degree, and those mostly by adults.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence is clear that Aleuts have lived in the Aleutian archipelago for at least the last four thousand years. Although the oldest archaeological site in the Aleutians dates to eight thousand years ago, it is not certain that the cultural, biological, and linguistic affiliations of its occupants were Aleut. Very few sites are known from between eight thousand and four thousand years ago. Because of their Residence in a geographic cul-de-sac, Aleuts had only infrequent and largely inconsequential contact with other peoples Except their Eskimo neighbors to the east on the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island, with whom Aleuts both traded and fought.


Prior to Russian contact, Aleuts maintained coastal villages and seasonal subsistence camps. Prime village locations had safe access to the sea, a number of important food resources close at hand, and often lookout locales from which offshore resources or attacking enemies could be spotted. Villages varied a great deal in size, from just a few families in one or two houses to many families in several houses. The homes were semisubterranean, roofed over with rafters of driftwood and whalebone, and covered with a layer of sod. With the coming of the Russians in the mid-1700s and the Americans a Century later, the Aleut population dwindled and settlements were consolidated. By the early twentieth century, houses were nearly all above-ground frame structures in which Nuclear families lived.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The sea was the direct and indirect provider of virtually all of the Aleuts' Subsistence needs. These gatherer-hunters depended on a broad spectrum of plentiful resources, including marine mammals (like sea lions, harbor seals, and sea otters), marine invertebrates (like sea urchins, clams, and mussels), birds and eggs (like murres, puffins, ducks, and geese), and fish (like cod, halibut, and several species of salmon). Plant foods, primarily berries, provided only a small part of their diet. With Russian contact came a few imported foodstuffs, but the major Economic changes resulted from the subsequent loss of population and most of the men being forced to work for the Russian fur hunters as procurers of sea otter and other animal pelts. Beginning in the late 1700s, some Aleuts were relocated seasonally, eventually resettling permanently on the Pribilof Islands north of the Aleutian archipelago. The Pribilofs are the breeding grounds of the northern fur seal, and Aleut labor was crucial to Russian efforts to harvest these pelts. In the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, Aleuts from the Aleutian Islands found seasonal employment in the Pribilof fur seal harvest, and others pursued fox trapping, commercial fishing, and traditional Subsistence activities. Today, many Aleuts continue hunting, gathering, and fishing for the traditional food items, but all are involved to some degree in the Western cash economy. Many work away from their villages at seasonal construction and fishing, since employment in the villages is generally limited.

Industrial Arts. Prior to Russian contact, Aleut material culture consisted primarily of tools manufactured from local stone and sea mammal and bird bone. Other important raw materials included grass for baskets and matting and driftwood for boats, houses, masks, and other carved objects. Today, traditional crafts are limited mostly to the very finely woven grass baskets made by just a few women for sale.

Trade. Aboriginally, trade within the Aleutian region was apparently confined largely to items of localized availability: amber, obsidian, and walrus ivory. During the Russian period, Aleuts became increasingly dependent on metal tools and, to a certain extent, imported foodstuffs.

Division of Labor. Although traditionally there was general division of labor by both age and sex, a feature of the Aleut food economy was that most members of a community could make an important contribution to their families' food supplies. Thus, though younger, able-bodied Aleut men traditionally did all the hunting at sea, few other subsistence pursuits were restricted to only one group. This basic pattern continues to the present: men are still the only ones who go out in their skiffs to hunt, while all members of the Community fish, collect marine invertebrates, gather eggs, and so on.

Land Tenure. Prior to Russian contact, land, strictly speaking, had much less value than coastline, and Aleuts likely maintained rights to hunt, fish, and gather along specific portions of the coast. With the 1971 passage of the Federal Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, each Aleut village selected a certain amount of land within the Aleutian Islands region to own, and the regional Aleut Corporation likewise was given title to certain lands.


Kin Groups and Descent. Prior to contact, Aleut kinship was likely matrilineal, though the ethnohistoric information on this is not altogether clear. It is doubtful that kin groups beyond the matrilineage, such as moieties or phratries, existed. Within a few decades of Russian contact, this system ceased to function.

Kinship Terminology. The pattern of precontact Aleut kinship terminology has not been adequately determined.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Precontact Aleut matrilineages were likely exogamous, with a boy's preferred marriage partner being the daughter of his mother's brother. Polygamy occurred, with polygyny more common than polyandry. Postmarital Residence was flexible; a couple might live matrilocally at first and then patrilocally, perhaps after the birth of their first child.

Domestic Unit. Aleut houses (barabaras ) were multi-family units. Although some houses were occupied by Perhaps a pair of related nuclear families, others were larger and served as home to dozens of individuals from many related families. By the later Russian period and today, nuclear family households are the norm.

Inheritance. The aboriginal pattern of inheritance is unclear. Some material possessions might be buried with the deceased individual; others could be passed on to family Members or friends. It is possible that the house was passed down to the eldest daughter. Contemporary inheritance patterns have not been described.

Socialization. Traditionally, as today, children depended on close relatives for their care and training. Although Generally permissive, parents provide discipline in various ways, including telling stories of the dangerous "outside men." Schools in most communities extend through high school, though relatively few students attend college.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Aboriginal Aleut society was ranked, with the highest status going to those individuals having the greatest wealth (including Aleut and Eskimo slaves), the largest families, the most local kin support, and the closest proximity to important subsistence resources. This system changed rapidly and radically with the coming of the Russians. Many Russian men married Aleut women, they and their families remaining in Alaska after it was sold to the United States. The children of these marriages, often termed "Creoles" in the literature of the times, frequently received special education and assumed skilled technical positions with the Russian-American Company. Today, no Creoles per se exist; however, those Aleuts who have gained experience outside the villages through formal education, military Service, or other means serve in positions of leadership on the Regional or village level.

Political Organization. Aboriginally, villages were probably the basic political unit, though larger, regional, political affiliations did exist. With the tremendous population Decline and resettlement during the Russian period, these Political entities were essentially abolished. In the 1960s and 1970s, regional Aleut organizations were formed. Today, the Islands Association represents Aleuts on a regional basis, and similar village-based for-profit and nonprofit corporations operate in each community.

Social Control. Prior to contact, Aleuts maintained social control through the informal pressure of ridicule and gossip, with village leaders deciding upon more formal punishments.

Conflict. Aleuts traditionally warred among themselves as well as against neighboring Eskimo peoples to the east on the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island. Personal revenge and the capture of slaves were likely the primary motivations for warfare. In the first decades of the Russian period, Aleuts often attempted to defend themselves against foreign violence and hostility, but were subdued by the late 1700s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Because Russian contact quickly devastated much of Aleut culture, we know relatively little about the group's traditional religion. It was animistic, with spirits of humans, animals, and natural entities requiring placation. Russian Orthodoxy was introduced by the early Russian fur hunters, and the first missionaries arrived at the end of the eighteenth century. By the mid-1800s, Russian Orthodoxy had likely replaced virtually all the precontact Aleut religion.

Religious Practitioners. Shamans were the aboriginal specialists in dealing with the supernatural. They cured the sick, foretold the future, brought success in hunting and warfare, and performed other similar tasks. With Russian Orthodoxy came priests, though from the beginning the church emphasized native involvement and leadership, and to this day there has been a large proportion of Aleuts educated and trained as priests. Today, most Aleuts are members of the Russian Orthodox church.

Ceremonies. Prior to contact, Aleut ceremonies were likely held in the winter. Through singing, dancing, drumming, and wearing masks, the people entertained themselves and honored deceased relatives. Social rank was likely bolstered through bestowal of gifts. Today, Aleut ceremonies are those of the Russian Orthodox church.

Arts. Artistic expression took many forms, among them singing, dancing, storytelling, and carving in wood, ivory, and bone. Except for grass baskets made for sale by some Aleut women, few traditional arts survive today.

Medicine. Traditional Aleut medical knowledge was extensive. Aleuts were aware of the similarities of human anatomy to that of sea mammals, and they sometimes autopsied their dead to determine the cause of death. Sickness was treated in various spiritual and practical ways, including forms of acupuncture and bloodletting. By the mid-1800s, aboriginal spiritual aspects of healing were lost. Today, Aleuts can obtain limited medical care in their home communities or obtain full care by traveling to larger cities.

Death and Afterlife. Aleuts believed that death stemmed from both natural and supernatural causes. The dead were treated in a range of ways, including mummification and cave burial of high-ranking men, women, and children, burial in special stone and wooden burial structures, and interment in small holes in the ground adjacent to habitations. Spirits of deceased individuals continued to "live," although details of any notion of an afterlife or of reincarnation are scanty.


Lantis, Margaret (1970). "The Aleut Social System, 1750 to 1810, from Early Historical Sources." In Ethnohistory in Southwestern Alaska and the Southern Yukon: Method and Content, edited by Margaret Lantis, 139-301. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Lantis, Margaret (1984). "Aleut." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 5, Arctic, edited by David Damas, 161-184. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Laughlin, William S. (1980). Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Veniaminov, Ivan (1984). Notes on the Islands of the Unalashka District. Kingston, Ontario: Limestone Press.



views updated Jun 08 2018


ALEUT. The Aleuts (from the Russian word Aleuty) consist of Near Island Aleuts, Kodiak Island Alutiiq (or Sugpiak, the "real people"), and Unangan Inuit (including some Dillingham Yupik and Cook Island Athabascans). They are indigenous to southwest Alaska, from Prince William Sound in the east, across the Alaska Peninsula, and extending west through the Aleutian Islands. They traditionally speak the Aleutic language, which has common roots in Proto-Eskimo-Aleut with the Inuit languages spoken throughout arctic Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. Historically their societies consisted of hereditary common, slave, and noble (from whom the leaders were chosen) classes. Men tended to hold positions of political power, while women retained power and influence as shamans and healers, and it is speculated that elite family lines were matriarchal. Living in partly subterranean sod houses, they built relatively populous settlements, and had an economy based on hunting sea mammals, including whales. They rarely ventured inland, but traded along the Alaskan coasts, and seem to have traveled regularly throughout the North Pacific, including coastal Siberia, possibly for more than ten millennia.

In 1741 the Aleuts came into contact with Europeans following the arrival of a Russian expedition led by the

Dane Vitus Bering, who estimated their population to be 20,000 to 25,000. Immediately the Russians enslaved them largely for their ability to hunt sea otters. The early Rus-sian fur hunters exhausted the resources of each place they landed, leaving after massacring villages and devastating wildlife populations; by 1825 the Aleut population was below 1,500. Many Aleuts were converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, which remained a dominant influence after the American purchase of Alaska in 1867.

In 1971 Congress passed the Alaska Native Settlement Claims Act (ANSCA) as a way of returning 40 million acres of land to Alaskan Natives and creating an infrastructure for economic development and the management of natural resources. While the political pursuit of ANSCA united Native people throughout Alaska, its passage caused the 23,797 Aleuts (according to the 1990 U.S. Census) and their traditional homelands to be divided among five Native corporations: Aleut Corporation, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Chugach Alaska Corporation, Cook Inlet Region Incorporated, and Koniag Incorporated.


Crowell, Aron L., Amy F. Steffian, and Gordon L. Pullar, eds. Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Altuiiq People. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2001.

Fortescue, Michael, Steven Jacobson, and Lawrence Kaplan. Comparative Eskimo Dictionary with Aleut Cognates. Fair-banks: Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska, 1994.

Jefferson FayeSina

See alsoAlaska ; Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act .


views updated May 23 2018

Al·eut / əˈloōt; ˈalēˌoōt/ • n. 1. a member of a people inhabiting the Aleutian Islands, other islands in the Bering Sea, and parts of western Alaska.2. the language of this people, related to Eskimo.• adj. of or relating to this people or their language.


views updated May 14 2018

Aleut Branch of the Eskimo people who occupy the Aleutian Islands and Alaska Peninsula. They are divided into two major language groups, the Unalaska and Atka. About 4000 Aleuts live in scattered villages throughout sw Alaska.