views updated




Identification. Until the end of the eighteenth century the Aleuts inhabited the western tip of the Alaska Peninsula and the islands of the Aleutian Archipelago, a chain of volcanic treeless islands that extends in an arc from the Alaska Peninsula westward and separates the Bering Sea from the Pacific Ocean. At the end of the eighteenth century, when Russians penetrated their homeland, Aleuts settled the Pribylov (Pribilof) Islands in the Bering Sea and, between 1812 and 1829, the Commander Islands. The latter, now within the political boundaries of Russia, form a continuation of the arc of the Aleutian Archipelago. The island of Attu, the westernmost island of the Aleutian chain, is about 480 kilometers east of the Commander Islands and about 800 kilometers off Kamchatka Peninsula in Northeast Asia. Today, in the United States, the westernmost village is that of Atka (formerly Nikolskoe) on the island of Atka in the Central (Andreanov) Islands.

As an ethnonym, the term "Aleut" applies in modern literature to the inhabitants of the Aleutian Archipelago and their descendants elsewhere. In addition, the term is used for the inhabitants of the Aleutian Archipelago and their descendants and the inhabitants of the Commander Islands in Russia and their descendants by several socially, politically, and linguistically distinct populations: Kodiak Islanders, groups of Alutiig-language speakers of Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula, and several groups of Central Yupik speakers of the Alaska Peninsula (Bristol Bay area).

Location. The waters surrounding the islands are among the most dangerous in the world. The Pacific shores are rugged, cliffy, and inhospitable. For this reason, in precontact times, Aleut habitations were located, with very few exceptions, on the shores of the Bering Sea. The interior is mountainous, not suitable for human habitation. Much of it remains unexplored to this day. There are no fewer than forty-six active volcanoes from the Alaska Peninsula to the Rat Islands in the west. Volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis are frequent. The climate may be characterized as maritime. Although the average temperatures are mild (ranging from 4° C to 13° C, depending on the location along the chain), the constant winds and sea moisture make it feel much colder. The Aleutian Islands are known for their fog, rains, and frequent storms. Precipitation ranges from 73.2 to 84.9 centimeters annually. Sunny days are rare. In winter snowfall is moderate, but on occasion snowstorms may bring a snowfall of 2 meters or more with even deeper drifts. At higher elevations, the snows do not melt.

Terrestrial animals are few, and several species, among them polar foxes, ground squirrels, and reindeer, were imported into the archipelago within historic times. In the eighteenth century, when the Russians entered the area, only some species of mice and lemmings were present on most islands, though at the eastern end of the chain there were several subspecies of fox, and, on Unimak Island, bears, caribou, wolves, land otters, and porcupines.

Demography. Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1972, 3,249 persons were enrolled as shareholders in the Aleut Corporation. According to the latest data supplied by the Aleut Corporation, approximately 39 percent of shareholders reside in the Aleut region, another 20 percent within the state of Alaska, and 41 percent elsewhere in the United States, the majority in the Pacific Northwest. In Russia, according to the census data of 1979, there were 546 Aleuts in the Commander Islands, residing in Nikolskoe, a semiurban center on Bering Island.

Today most of the Aleut population is located in semiurban centers such as the city of Unalaska on Unalaska Island, and participates in the modern cash economy. Under the terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1972, the Aleuts formed thirteen village corporations in addition to the regional Aleut Corporation. The Aleut Corporation received entitlement to 26,400 hectares of surface lands in their ancestral region and 628,800 hectares of subsurface estate. Most of the Aleut Corporation land selections are located along the Aleutian chain from Port Moller on the Alaska Peninsula to the island of Atka, in the Shumagin Archipelago on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula, in the Pribylov Islands, on the site of the former village of Attu in the west, and at several historical and cemetery sites westward from Atka. The village corporations are Akutan; Atka; Belkofskii Corporation at King Cove, Alaska Peninsula; Chalika at Nikolskii on Umnak Island; Issanotskii Corporation at False Pass, Unimak Island; King Cove Corporation at King Cove, Nelson Lagoon; Sanak Corporation, Unga Corporation, and Shumagin Corporation, all at Sand Point, Popov Island (Shumagin Archipelago); and St. George Tanaq Corporation on St. George Island and Tnagusix Corporation on St. Paul Island, the two main islands of the Pribylov island group. (The villages of Sanak on Sanak Island and Unga in the Shumagin Archipelago are now abandoned, although their populations have resettled; only three persons remain in the village of Belkofski, the majority having moved to King Cove.)

Linguistic Affiliation. The Aleut speak a language of the Eskimo-Aleut (Eskaleut) Phylum. Today two dialects, the Eastern (or Fox Island) Aleut and the Atkan (or Central), survive in the United States. On Bering Island, Atkan is spoken by the descendants of the settlers from the Central (Andreanov) Islands, and a dialect derived from Attuan (or Western, of which only three speakers survive in the United States) is spoken by the descendants of the Aleut settlers on Mednoi (Copper) Island. In pre-contact times, the Qakhun, (inhabitants of the Rat islands) spoke a dialect of their own, of which nothing is known. It is hypothesized that the inhabitants of the Four Mountain Islands spoke Atkan or another, unknown dialect.

History and Cultural Relations

Archaeological evidence from Anagula Island in Nikolsk Bay, Unimak, eastern Aleutians, indicates that this area was inhabited perhaps as early as 8,000-9,000 years ago. Some researchers assert that there is a cultural continuity between these finds and other later finds in the area but this has not been satisfactorily demonstrated and is questioned by other specialists. It is generally accepted, however, that populations culturally ancestral to the Aleuts inhabited the eastern Aleutians for the last 4,000 years and the western end of the chain, the Near Islands, for about 2,000 to possibly 3,000 years, with a gradient of the currently accepted dates of occupation running from west to east across the central (Andreanov) and Rat Islands. Several archaeologists (e.g., McCartney 1984, 121, and Turner 1974) have noted, on examining the results of midden-site excavations, that there appears to be a technological, if not cultural, continuity for the last 4,000 years over much of the archipelago, whereas physical remains show a marked dichotomy. There are, however, stylistic variations in space, and art objects especially show marked regional differences, so that at present at least four artistic styles can be defined. It is possible that cultural uniformity inferred from a limited archaeological record is rather illusory. In particular, regional differences in bone carving are marked (McCartney 1984, 128). At contact, in the eighteenth century, Aleut themselves recognized several political subdivisions, and to this day informants maintain that there were corresponding cultural differences.

According both to Aleut traditions and to observations by the early Russian seafarers in the second half of the eighteenth century, interregional warfare and raiding were endemic. In the Near Islands the traditional accounts hold that shortly before the arrival of the Russians in the middle of the eighteenth century, there were devastating raids from the east in which the Near Islands became virtually depopulated.

There appear to have been maritime contacts with Asian, most probably Japanese, seafarers. It is not to be excluded from consideration that some European (possibly Dutch or Portuguese) shipping touched upon the Aleutian shores prior to the middle eighteenth century, though direct evidence for this is lacking. In any case, iron was known to the Aleuts in precontact times and is documented both archaeologically and historically. In fact, one historical source mentions that the Aleuts preferred Japanese shipwrecks because Japanese nails were longer and broader than those of Russian manufacture. Iron, obtained from shipwrecks or in trade, was then cold-hammered. The most frequently manufactured items were apparently iron fighting knives (daggers). These were reported for the Shumagin Archipelago at first recorded European contact, by the Russians, in 1741.

Aleuts had elaborate armaments, including rod and slat armor, shields, a sinew-backed compound bow, and a war lance. At sea, darts cast by means of an atlatl (also used extensively in marine hunting) were used.

Following the first Russian naval expedition to Alaska's Pacific shore in 1741, under the overall command of Vitus Bering, the Russians claimed Alaska. Beginning about 1745 Russian entrepreneurs penetrated the Near Islands and, using these and the Commander Islands (where Bering's crew wintered in 1741) as a base, advanced steadily eastward. By 1758, but possibly a decade earlier, they had arrived at the eastern Aleutians and by 1761, the Alaska Peninsula and Shumagin Archipelago.

In general, Russian penetration resulted in major changes in Aleut culture within a span of two to three generations. The object was trade for furs, primarily those of sea otters, but already in the 1750s polar foxes were brought from the Commander Islands to the Near Islands, and by 1761 to 1763 Aleuts were introduced to the use of the Siberian type of fox trap and began to trap for barter with the Russians. Use of salt and salt making also found their way into the Aleut cultural inventory very early, as did the wet-steam bath.

Early Aleut-Russian contact was characterized by a steadily growing fur trade, which seriously affected the indigenous economic system, and by sporadic outbreaks of violence and confrontation. The best-known and most extensively documented conflict occurred in the winter of 1763, encompassing the political unit of the Qawalangin (Imnak and Unalaska islands) and extending farther eastward to Unimak. Four Russian trading vessels were destroyed, and of their crews only twelve men (eight Kamchadals and four Russians) survived. This incident provoked a retaliation, after the survivors were picked up by other vessels, and justified a series of preventive strikes in 1766, in which one Russian skipper destroyed Aleut technological equipment. The Qawalangin then accepted defeat, although sporadic outbreaks of fighting continued for another two decades in other areas. Thus, the Four Mountain Island group population was attacked sometime after 1770, most probably in 1772, and resistance in the Krenitsyn Islands and the Unimak/Sanak area is documented through the decade of the 1770s. By this time, however, Aleut leaders were also forming alliances with particular Russian skippers, aiding them in their own intercompany trade conflicts over hunting territories. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, Aleuts sailed eastward with Russian skippers, participating in conflicts with the neighboring Kodiak Islanders and the Chugach on Prince William Sound and eventually supplying the Russians with cheap labor as well as armed manpower. It was at this time (1786-1787) that the first Aleut contingent accompanied Russian crews to the Pribylov Islands, where fur-seal rookeries were found in 1786. In 1799 Emperor Paul I granted a fur-trade monopoly to a single merchant company, thus eliminating competition. Consequently, the Aleut leadership lost any room for maneuver and the opportunity to exploit intercompany competition to their advantage. In the eastern Aleutians, impressment of able-bodied men became the rule. The old, the young, and the women remaining in the villages suffered privation. The Russian government's attempts to protect Aleut rights were ineffectual at this time. Because of circumstances outside of the control of the Russian American Company, its grip slackened in some areas. In particular, the western Aleutians, the Rat Islands, and the central Aleutians reverted to a subsistance economy. Small Russian American Company outposts were maintained on Atka and Attu, administered from Okhotsk. Contact with the outside world became minimal. A drastic drop in population apparently occurred throughout the archipelago, in all probability because of the new diseases and social and economic disruption, as well as relocation of relatively large groups to the Pribylov Islands, the Kodiak Archipelago, and the Alaska mainland.

In 1818 the conduct of the Russian American Company officials came under government scrutiny, and the Aleut population received some protection from abuses. Their status was equated to that of the free peasants in Russia, but they were freed from taxation. The Aleut settlements were obliged, however, to provide a number of young men for service to the company in lieu of the military obligation to which the Russian peasantry was subject.

This service, however, was limited in time, subject to the same regulations as those in metropolitan Russia governing military conscription, and the Aleuts were paid for their labor and catch according to an officially approved schedule of prices. In some areas, such as in the Central Aleutians, Aleuts did not enter company service but sold all their sea-otter catch to the company. Fox trapping became an industry. Throughout the nineteenth century Russians kept introducing a variety of valuable fox species to the Andreanov and Rat islands, where the foxes were regularly "harvested" by the Aleuts. The cash economy became an accepted fact of life, although traditional sea-otter hunting methods were employed throughout the Russian period. Aleuts permanently settled in the Pribylov and Commander Islands began to hunt fur seals. This enterprise was managed in the Pribylovs for several decades by a man of Aleut origin, Kassian Shaiashnikov. Beginning in 1805, the Commander Islands were exploited for the Russian American Company by a Russian crew, who were abandoned there until 1812. In that year they elected to stay on, and sometime between 1812 and 1824 they were joined by a group of Attuan Aleuts. In 1828-1829 the fur sealing enterprise there was reorganized and the islands were put under the jurisdiction of the Alaskan office of the company. At this time Attuans concentrated on Mednoi or Copper Island, whereas the crew for Bering Island was provided by volunteers from Amila/Atka and Rat islands. In 1866 a number of large families moved from the Commander Islands to the Pribylovs. Later on, after the sale of Alaska to the United States, the Commander Island Aleuts were joined by a group of Kodiak Islanders, who earlier had been living on Urup Island in the Kuriles. Also in the 1870s a group of Atkans and Attuans moved to the Commander Islands from the territory newly acquired by the United States.

Orthodox Christianity was introduced to the Aleuts by laymen at the earliest contact and spread with great rapidity. Today being Orthodox is an identity marker for most of the Alaskan populations who call themselves Aleut. With Orthodox Christianity came literacy. Some Russian traders took their godsons to Siberia and sent them to schools there. When in 1824 the first resident parish priest, Ioann Veniaminov, was appointed to the Aleutians (soon followed, in 1828, by the first Orthodox priest of Aleut descent, Iakov Netsvetov, in his mother's native Central Aleutians), literacy in the Aleut language was created. Veniaminov and Netsvetov translated into two Aleut dialects scriptures and church services and wrote compositions of moral content in Aleut. By the end of the Russian period, most Aleut men were literate in their own language and many also in Russian. During the Russian period, local affairs were managed by the Aleut leadership. By the end of the period, the Aleutsalong with that stratum of the population that could claim mixed descent, the Creolesprovided the backbone for the Russian activities in Alaska.

When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, American ventures, primarily the Alaska Commercial Company, continued to employ Aleuts as sea-otter hunters and introduced the use of rifles in the hunt. At Akutan and Kodiak, where commercial whaling stations were established, Aleuts were hired to man the whaling stations and hunt whales. This employment continued until the eve of World War II. Fox trapping also continued. For a short while, some of the Aleuts experienced an economic boom. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the population of sea otters was depleted (their hunting was prohibited in 1911 by an international convention), and the market for fox fur collapsed not too long before the outbreak of World War II. The only economic opportunities were provided by the fur-seal harvest in the Pribylov Islands, now a U.S.-government enterprise. The situation in the Pribylovs became very difficult, however. Aleut rights were not recognized, and the resident Aleuts were treated as indentured laborers. Local agents interfered in community affairs, in private affairs of individuals, and in the conduct of the church and the local church school (maintained by the Aleuts themselves). Only in the last several decades have the Pribylov Aleuts gained their citizenship rights.

During World War II, Aleuts were evacuated from their homeland to Alaska's southeast, where they were quartered in abandoned mining camps and canneries. The young were taken to boarding schools. The Aleuts lost nearly one-third of their population, mostly the old and the very young, to epidemic diseases. The cultural disruption thus created is felt to this day. In 1982 the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians recommended that survivors be paid compensation, which was finally paid to a few survivors in 1989-1990.


Aleut permanent winter settlements were usually located on spits in sheltered bays where skin boats could land; the location provided alternative escape routes by sea if the settlement were attacked. A freshwater stream and a refuge rock nearby, salmon streams and beaches where driftwood was cast ashore, and access to technologically important stones and minerals were essential In the east a simple settlement could consist of one to four semisubterranean longhouses (with roof entrances) that could shelter up to about 400 people. A group of settlements formed a loosely coordinated political unit. In the west settlements were considerably smaller, averaging about 60-80 persons; the dwellings were small, and centered on the kazhim, where the headman resided. Within two postcontact generations, the house styles and settlement pattern changed to small individual semisubterranean or wooden houses with windows, doors, and entry halls.


Human populations in precontact times depended exclusively on marine resources: seals, sea lions, and fish. Walrus were available in the extreme east and occasionally in the westernmost islands of the chain, the Near Islands. Fur seals were seasonally available in the straits of the eastern Aleutians during the spring and fall migrations. Fur-seal rookeries (breeding grounds) were in the Pribylov and Commander islands. Sea otters were numerous throughout the area. Ocean fish, primarily cod and halibut, were exploited, but the staple foods were the abundant salmon (red, silver, humpback, chum, and, in some localities, king). A variety of bird species provided subsidiary sources of food and material for male clothing. (Women's clothing and bedding were made of sea-mammal furs, primarily those of the sea otter and, where available, fur seal.) Technological materials were local stones and minerals, sea-mammal tissues, seaweed (kelp), and shore grasses, primarily wild rye. Wood was very important, but the only source of it was driftwood. Birch bark was also used, apparently obtained in trade from the Alaskan mainland, as were caribou hair and sometimes skins.

Today village corporations and the Aleut Corporation try to establish a solid economic base for the Aleut people as well as to create a mechanism to ensure a cultural revival. Several local corporations, notably Akutan, Ounalashka (Unalaska), and the two corporations in the Pribylov Islands (where the fur-seal harvest was stopped by the U.S. Congress several years ago), seem well on the way to establishing solid economic bases for their communities, based primarily on deep-sea fishing.

Kinship and Sociopolitical Organization

Prior to contact, Aleut society was based on shallow patrilineages linked by sister-exchange marriages and a local endogamous residential unit. Postmarital residence (usually following the birth of the first child) was patrilocal. Under this system, mother's brother was a man's potential father-in-law. A young man, apparently, was obliged to pay bride-price or perform bride-service. The marriages were polygynous, though polygyny coexisted with polyandry.

It is not known if ranking existed among the western Aleuts, but in the east ranking was well articulated, with classes of high notables, nobles, commoners, and slaves (mostly war captives). Judicial functions, war leadership, and trading roles were clearly defined. In the east social dialects (polite, everyday, and rude) existed and were used until relatively recent times. Today only the everyday language is in use, though older Aleuts are very well aware of the social dialects: the polite form ought to be used only by a socially inferior person addressing a socially superior person.

Today Aleuts recognize the nuclear family as the basic unit and reside in individual-family dwellings, though members of the older generation (grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles) are often coresident. Sibling bonds remain strong. Adoption, frequent in precontact times, is also practiced frequently today. Ranking has been abandoned, and democratic principles are adhered to in the conduct of village affairs. Age, traditionally respected, is a factor in exercise of authority, although young, often college-educated men and women are assuming leadership within corporation and village-council structures.

Social control is exercised informally by public opinion and through the Orthodox church, but recourse to the formal judicial mechanisms of the larger society is frequently sought. In fact, the overarching institutions assume an ever-greater role in this area.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Aleuts, with very few exceptions, are members of the Russian Orthodox church. Services are conducted in Aleut, Chukchee, Slavonic, and English. The resident clergy are, for the most part, Aleut. In communities where there is no resident priest, services are conducted by lay readers, all Aleut. The greatest church festival is Easter, closely followed by Christmas (celebrated according to the Orthodox calendar on 7 January) and Orthodox New Year. At Christmas, young men representing their families bring Christmas stars into the church to be blessed before the families visit individual houses with their stars. "Starring," also called in Alaska slavig or selavig, adopted from the Russians, is a widespread custom, transcending the social and religious boundaries. Between the Orthodox Christmas and New Year, masking takes place. Masking, sometimes associated with a dance or a ball, is usually followed by ritual cleansing in a steam bath before going to church and communion. As of old, commencement of any new enterprise (such as the building of a modern harbor on the island of St. George, to cite but one example) requires formal blessing by the bishop. New houses are blessed either by the priest or by the church reader.

The use of the Aleut language today is largely confined to church services, except in more remote or larger communities, such as St. Paul and St. George villages in the Pribylovs, where the language is still maintained by a segment of the population in everyday life.

Arts. Aleut men traditionally excelled in ivory-, bone-, and wood-carving arts, whereas the women worked in basketry and created exquisite garments of fur and bird skin adorned with gut-on-gut appliqué work and hair embroidery. Of these crafts, only the basketry, justly world-famous, survives. Aleut interest in the traditional arts persists, and several young artists are engaging in carving in various media. Their efforts are supported by the Aleut Corporation: the offices display their work as well as examples of traditional Aleut arts, which the corporation acquires. An Aleut Foundation has been established which, in the words of its president and chairman of the board of the corporation, Alice Petrivelli, "will continue to grow and become a significant part of the effort to teach and inform our young people, and instill pride in our Aleut heritage."


Bergsland, Knut, and Moses L. Dirks, eds. (1990). Unangam Ungiikangin kavux Tunusagin. Unangam Uniikangis ama Tunuzangis. Aleut Tales and Narratives collected 1909-1910 by Waldemar Jochelson. Fairbanks: University of Alaska, Alaska Native Language Center.

Black, Lydia T. (1982). Aleut Art. Unangan Aguaga-adangin. Unangan of the Aleutian Archipelago . Anchorage: Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association.

Black, Lydia T. (1984). Atkha: An Ethnohistory of the Western Aleutians. Kingston, Ont.: Limestone Press.

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

Liapunoiva, R. G. (1990). "Aleuts before the Russians: Culture and Demography." Pacifica 2(2): 8-23.

McCartney, Allen P. (1984). "Prehistory of the Aleutian Region." In The Handbook of North American Indians . Vol. 5, Arctic, 119-135. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Turner, Christy G. (1979). "The Use of Prehistory for Direct Comparative Baselines in the Study of Aleut Microevolution and Adaptation." In The International Conference on the Prehistory and Palaeoecology of Western North American Arctic and Subarctic, edited by Scott Raymond and Peter Schiedermann, 205-215. Calgary: University of Calgary.

Veniaminov, Ioann (1840). Zapiski ob ostrovakh Unalashkinskago otdela (Notes on the islands of the Unalashka District). St. Petersburg: Russian American Co. English-language ed. 1984. Translated by L. T. Black and R. H. Geoghegan. Edited by Richard A. Pierce. Kingston, Ont.: Limestone Press.