Friday, July 16, 2010

Unangen People (Aleuts)

The Native population of the Aleutian islands dates back by archaeological finds to about 9000 years ago. Since the glaciers receded about 10,000 years ago, this certainly makes them the indigenous people here.

For many years they lived in this harsh climate taking fish, seals, and otters from the sea, and having as neighbors the Eagles and Ravens. On some islands there are bears, but not on Unalaska, and it is on the Unalaskan natives that I'd like to focus.

In the late 1700s, the Russians came to the islands and instituted a very harsh oppressions of the native people. They were forced to hunt the fur bearing seals and sea otters, and the native population dramatically decreased due to their enslavement, mistreatment, murder and disease. When the Russian Orthodox Church became involved, conditions improved somewhat, but were still very bad.

When the United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867, they continued to utilize the Unangan to procure furs. Although the Unangan were now technically American Citizens, in practice they remained under foreign domination.

A huge change came to the islands with World War II. First there was a huge influx of soldiers and sailors, then Dutch Harbor was bombed in June 1942. Shortly two of the other Aleutian islands were captured by the Japanese, and it became clear that the US could not provide protection for the people living on the islands. So with only 24 hours notice, 880 Unangan were told to pack one suitcase and board a ship to be taken to safety. Strange--the Caucasian spouses of the Unangan were not allowed to go with their families. Were they not also endangered??

The Unangan were not told where they were being taken, because they had been snatched up so quickly that not even the ship crew knew where they were going. Those from Unalaska ended up for the short term on Sedanka Island to live temporarily in tents. From there they were shipped to an abandoned cannery near Ketchican nearly 2000 miles from their homes in the wet rain forests.

According to one survivor, "The overcrowded conditions were an abomination. There were 28 of us forced to live in one, designated 15' x 20' house. There existed no church, no school, no medical facility, no store, no community water or sewage system, no skiffs or dories, no fishing gear and no hunting rifles." The camps were dilapidated, dangerous and unhygienic, food was scarce, and they faced disease and deprivation. The people, used to treeless wide open mountain peaks, were severely demoralized by the closely growing large trees pressing in on all sides. They could not recognize plants needed for medicine to treat illnesses in this strange place. The refugee camps claimed one our of every 10 Unangans.

When the Unalaskans were sent home in the spring of 1945--the last of the Unangan to return--they found little remained of their villages, homes or personal belongings. Homes had been looted and vandalized, ransacked or neglected; furniture stolen, plywood pried from walls to line foxholes. What was intact had often been ruined by exposure to the elements.

The Unalaskans at least were allowed to return. For the people from four of the villages there was no return home. The government would not allow it because of the small population and total absence of supporting infrastructure that had been present when they left.

While in the camps, the Unangan had been made to feel ashamed of speaking their native language and clinging to their usual ways. When they returned, they did not resume speaking their native language or practicing their traditional ways.

Today the schools are trying to help the children recover the language while there are still a few native speakers still alive. Sharon Svarny-Livingston teaches the medicinal use of plants which she has been able to learn about from the elders. (She also gave us the tour of the Russian Orthodox Church.)

Her mother, Gert Svarney, is a master carver and basket weaver who is now 80. She was 12 when she was relocated from Unalaska, and has vivid memories of leaving, and of returning to find things in such disarray. She still helps pull in the fish nets.

Sharon's Daughter, Laurissa, is learning to weave baskets. She has obtained traditional face tattoos like those pictured in early drawings from the 1800s and has her nose pierced as well, although she does not wear the long traditional nose beads. She works at the Ounalashka Corporation.

There are other families of Unangans here, and many have married "outsiders." Many have left--dispersed to Anchorage, Seattle and beyond. The struggle to maintain culture remains. The Unangan population is now only 7% of the population in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. If you see a person of color here, now they are more likely to be Philippine, the largest minority.

The Unangan families still set their nets at the end of Iliuliut Bay, and catch red salmon as seen in the hand of the nearest fisher. Some days are better fishing than others, and they share with whoever is there helping.

We often hear about the relocation of the Japanese from the west coast during World War II. We don't hear about the Native peoples of the Aleutian Islands--Aleuts (Unangans) who suffered perhaps more because they lost not only their freedom, but their culture.

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