Long before Alaska was a state, before it was a territory of the United States, even before it was called Russian America, it was home for many people. Those people were the ancestors of today's Alaska Natives: the Eskimos, Tlingits, Athabascans, and Aleuts.
This book will tell the history of the people who lived on the western part of the Alaska Peninsula and on the long chain of islands, which stretches for 900 miles westward from it. In their own language, they are called the Unangan, or Unangas people. Today they are usually known as the Aleuts.
EARLIEST KNOWN HISTORY
The Aleuts have lived in the Aleutian Islands for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found ruins of old houses and old tools that prove that many people lived there long before any white men came. In fact, the earliest site in the Aleutians which shows human occupation dates from about 6400 B.C. (8400 years ago). It is on Anangula Island, off the western tip of Umnak Island. The people who lived there may not have been the actual ancestors of today's Aleuts: their tools were much different from those of the later Aleuts. But they had adapted to the island environment of their home.
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The people of Anangula lived there long enough to build permanent houses, and to raise fifty generations of children. Then the site seems to have been abandoned. Perhaps the ash from one of the many volcanic eruptions that occurred covered and killed the plant and animal life that the people depended upon. After the abandonment there was a period of time 3000 years long when the site was not inhabited.
Then, about 2000 BC (4000 years ago), people moved into the area where the present-day village of Nikolski is located, about 5 miles across a bay from Anangula. Archaeologists have found their remains at what is called the Chaluka Mound. This time people stayed. Those first inhabitants of Chaluka were the ancestors of today's Nikolski residents. Nikolski has existed for 4000 years in the same location.
The eastern islands, those nearest the Alaska Peninsula, were the first to be inhabited. People probably came from southwestern Alaska, perhaps moving along the coast until they reached the islands. Through the centuries, people became more adventuresome, moving west to new uninhabited islands, until finally the whole Chain was inhabited from Unimak to Attu. By the time the first Russians came to the Aleutian Islands in 1741 there were hundreds of Aleut villages tucked away in sheltered bays throughout the islands. There were between 16,000 and 20,000 Aleuts living and thriving in the rich environment.
There was one invention, one skill, which allowed the Unangan people to expand westward and to increase in number over the centuries. This was the manufacture and use of boats. When the Russians first saw Aleut hunters maneuvering their sleek skin-covered boats ("iqax" in the Aleut language) they were very impressed. They considered the Aleuts the finest boatsmen in the world - for not only did they travel far distances, but they also traveled in all weather conditions. The Aleutian Chain is known for its violent storms, strong winds, dense fogs, and swift currents. But through them all the early Aleuts traveled and hunted in their iqax.
There is an Aleut legend, which describes one particular adventure by an expert boatsmen. It goes like this:
THE LEGEND OF THE FUR SEAL ISLANDS
(Reprinted from Slaves of the Harvest by Barbara Boyle Torrey, Tanadgusix Corporation, St. Paul Island, 1978.)
Long ago, when history was still recorded in song instead of in books, there was an Aleut chief on Unimak Island whose name was AhKahNeKak. He had a son named Igadik who spent much of his time in his kayak (or iqax) hunting the whales, otters and fur seals that roamed the Aleutian waters. Igadik became highly skilled in hunting and navigating at sea, and often spent days on the open ocean, hunting for sea mammals that provided his people with food, fuel and clothing.
Each spring Igadik watched the fur seals swim north through Unimak Pass heavy with unborn babies, and every fall they swam south again with their new pups. But although his ancestors had continually explored the waters north of Unimak Island, no one had ever learned where the seals' birthplace was. One day Igadik was caught in his kayak by a fierce storm that blew out of the south, and he was forced to run before the wind for several days. When the storm was finally exhausted, he found himself in a deep fog, further north than anyone in his village had ever been before.
Through the fog Igadik could hear familiar sounds of birds and seals. Their voices seemed to be calling from a land hidden in the mist. He pressed forward blindly until the sound surrounded him. Suddenly in front of him loomed a great dark coastline. As he cautiously drew nearer to the stony beaches, his unbelieving eyes saw millions of fur seals, nursing their newborn pups. There were so many seals on the beaches that he had to search for a long time to find a place to land.
For a year Igadik lived in this misty island he had discovered, gathering fur seal skins to take home to his village. On very clear days he could see another island to the south which was often clothed in fog and surrounded by high cliffs with all the brilliant colors of wild flowers. In the winter the wind blew the mist away leaving the snowy volcanic islands sparkling in the icy sea.
Finally, when the north wind was beginning to blow strongly again, Igadik knew it was time for him to return to his father's home. He loaded his kayak with the furs he had caught and set his course due south. After several days of running before the wind, he sighted the familiar volcanoes of Unimak Island and soon he could see his father's village built out on a narrow spit of land.
The people in the village held a great feast to welcome him home and the feast lasted long into the night. That evening, many songs and dances told and retold the story of Igadik's discovery of the misty fur seal islands, which he called Amiq. In the years to come, these songs were sung many times and each new Aleut generation passed them on to their own children. In this way, the discovery of Amiq by Igadik, the son of the Unimak chief, was always remembered by the people of the Aleutian Islands.
Eventually strangers came from the west and spent many years searching for the same fur seal islands. The descendants of Igadik kept the location of the islands secret in hopes that the strangers would be unsuccessful in their search and would return to their own homes. But after many years of searching, the strangers, too, found the fur seal islands and their rich animal life. They, of course, didn't realize that the islands were already named and therefore, in their ignorance the strangers gave a second name to the islands. They named them after their navigator Gerrassium Pribylov.
UNANGAN LIFE IN PRE-CONTACT TIMES
Just as the earliest Unangan people gradually became more adventuresome as they struck out for new islands, so the later people became more inventive as they settled into villages. By the time they had contact with the first Europeans in the 1700s, they had learned to use all of the many resources, which the islands provided.
In this chapter you will be learning about the "pre-contact" life of the Aleuts; that is, their life before they had contact with the Russians. You will learn it through the eyes of two fictitious characters, "Stephan" and "Anna." The stories and information that follow are based on legends and facts about Aleut life, which have been written down over the years since contact. "Stephan" and "Anna" were not actual people; but the lives of boys and girls in the Aleutians were probably very much like their lives as they are described in this book.
The story begins in a village, which has been inhabited for hundreds of years. There is good reason for this: it is near a salmon stream and a sea gull rookery, or nesting place. There is a high hill above the village where a lookout can watch for whales. And the bay is rich in kelp, sea urchins, and the animals that eat the sea urchins, sea otters.
About 90 people live in this village, divided into 3 houses, or barabaras. Each household is made up of a large family. Each household has belongings and the rights to hunt and gather in certain areas.
The people know that they do not really own the land; no one can own a piece of the world, which was made for all creatures. But the people do have the right to use parts of the world as long as they are respectful to the creatures' souls and as long as other people agree to their right.
There are no signs, no written maps, no deeds. But there is a general knowledge in the village, and in neighboring villages, of which families have the use of which salmon streams, berry areas, or bird nesting grounds.
It's fall time now. The people have returned to their winter settlement from the summer fish camps. They are preparing to host a large party for all the villages on the island, and everyone has been busy getting extra food.
"We got another seal for the party," Stephan said as he lowered himself into the barabara. He was excited; this seal meant that they would have lots of food for their party. Every get-together was important; but to Stephan this one was especially so. For the first time he was to dance with the men and sing his own song. He had worked on the song for many days while hunting in his iqax. The words seemed to come easier to him when he was out alone on the water. Now Stephan knelt over the stone lamp to get warm. His mother, carrying her skinning tools, smiled at his increasing hunting skill and climbed past him up and out of the barabara. When he was warm again, Stephan stood up and looked around the barabara and tried to imagine it decorated for the party and full of people.
He chuckled quietly as he remembered the party his family had given several winters ago. His Uncle Nicholas had been the host. The family had spent days getting the house ready. They had set up the huge puppets they used in their plays. They had practiced their songs and dances and cleared the center of the barabara for their performance. Most important of all, they had taken away the sturdy notched driftwood log they used as a ladder and put up the party ladder instead.
This ladder was not made of wood; it was made of sealskin rope. Slippery seal bladders were tied onto the rope from its bottom to its top. Clattery sticks were tied to the ends of the bladders.
Nicholas and his family had waited inside the barabara as the guests arrived from the island to the east. They had held their drums, ready to begin. The greeters had led the guests to the top of the barabara and pointed out the entry. Then they had waited.
The first to approach the barabara was the chief of the visiting group. The hosts below waited until they saw his left foot touch the top bladder.
Every one of the guests had to come down the party ladder. The chief was successful; but others were not so lucky. Whenever anyone fell to the ground there was loud laughter and much teasing.
Stephan thought of that party and chuckled again. Perhaps he would sneak some of the precious seal oil from his mother's pouch and smear it on the top bladder this year. Then even the chief would enter the barabara with a thud!
The boy stood up and stretched his legs. He looked around the barabara again. No one was paying attention to him. He began to hum his song under his breath. He must get it perfect!
It was something anyone could do.
Anna hiked her two-year-old sister up higher on her hip and continued to pick her way along the rocky shore. She was headed for the big stone outcropping at the point. It was low tide and she knew she could find mussels and sea urchins there.
Anna hummed as she went. She could feel her grass basket bobbing up and down on her back. Her sister jabbered in delight as the sea gulls swooped and dived in the wind. Today Anna felt secretly proud of her position as the oldest girl in the family. She was in charge of her little sisters. She was learning to weave baskets from beach grass and had, in fact, woven the large gathering basket on her back. It was very loosely woven, of course; all beach-food-gathering baskets had to be loose so the water would drain out. And, she was becoming very good at cutting fish for drying -her aunt had praised her work just the other day. If only she could learn to make her seam stitches tinier and more even, she might begin to feel that she was growing up! There was so much to learn!
Sometimes, like today, Anna knew that she was making progress. She knew that her mother was pleased with her efforts at becoming an adult. Other days, Anna felt like a child and wanted to act like a child. She would watch her little sisters play with their dolls and toy lamps and wish she had that carefree life again. She would watch her brother Stephan go out in his iqax and remember the fun they had when they were younger, racing to the point.
For now, though, the task was to gather some beach food, berries, and yarrow. The beach food was for variety. Even though fishing season was just ending and they had plenty of food, they had all agreed it would be nice to have something different.
Before the Russians came, the Aleuts felt that the land and sea gave them everything they needed to survive. But life was not always good hunting and fun parties. The Aleuts lived off the resources of the land and sea, but they also had to live by the laws of the environment. Sometimes that meant hardship or even death.
That fall, Stephan and Anna's family relearned that bitter lesson. One evening their Uncle Nicholas, returning from a hunt, climbed down the notched log into the barabara. He slipped out of his gut rain parka, shook it and hung it on a peg above his sleeping bench.
"No sign of him", he said, shaking his head. Stephan and Anna's mother looked hard at Nicholas. Seeing his solemn face, she turned and walked slowly to the big stone pot in the middle of the barabara. She added more hot rocks to the stew to heat it up and stirred it with her bone ladle. Her lips were pressed into a tight line. Anna and Stephan looked at each other with unspoken dread.
Their father had paddled away from the village that morning with Nicholas. The day had been unusually clear and calm. The sun had shone brightly, showing off the deep red on the autumn hillside.
Then, Nicholas related, the men had paddled their iqax far out to sea, following a sea lion that kept surfacing and diving. The day had been so calm that they had not paid as much attention as usual to the weather. The sea lion had led them on, out into the open sea.
By the time the men noticed the darkening sky to the south, they were far from shore. The wind came up quickly. They prepared to lash their iqax together but a fog wrapped itself around them and they lost sight of each other. After a long struggle against the wind and waves, Nicholas had made it to shore near the village. So far, Stephan and Anna's father had not arrived home.
The adults and other children who lived in the family's barabara listened to Nicholas as he explained what happened. Then they went on with the tasks they were performing. The aunts cooked, wove mats and baskets, or cared for their children. The uncles worked at their benches, repairing harpoons or carving new harpoon heads. They all knew that this had happened many times before, to almost every hunter at one time or another. Perhaps the man had put to shore some distance away and was waiting out the storm there. He might be forced to stay for several weeks at some other part of the island. That would not be unusual. Or he might have drowned. That would not be unusual either.
They all knew the possibilities. And they knew that, either way; the only thing to do was wait and be patient. Better not to fill up the air with worried talk. Better to go quietly about the daily tasks.
For Stephan, Anna and their family life began changing quickly just before the winter festival was to occur.
Their father never returned from his hunting trip with Nicholas. Because Stephan, Anna, their mother and sisters lived in the family barabara they did not go hungry. There were still their four strong uncles and cousins who could hunt well, and Stephan quickly took his place among them. Anna worked especially hard to help with the younger children while her mother was mourning. Still, there was one less hunter in the family. The sadness the family felt made them decide to cancel the winter festival.
That same year the Russians first came to the village. Even more than the death of their father, this event was to bring change to Stephan and Anna's lives.
THE RUSSIANS LEARN ABOUT ALASKA
While Stephan, Anna, and their family were pursuing their lives in the Aleutians, other events were occurring in Europe. One country in particular was to figure in Stephan and Anna's lives: Russia.
The ruler, or czar, of Russia from 1672 to 1725 was Peter I, also called Peter the Great. He was a brilliant and a curious person, always desiring to know more about the unknown portions of the world. The land that is now called Alaska was completely unknown to Europeans in the early 1700's. In fact, Peter did not even know for sure how far east the Siberian portion of Russia extended. So, he sent explorers east to chart the shores of his domain and to learn what lay beyond them.
Bering's original directive from Peter was to map the East Coast of Siberia. When he returned to Russia from that successful trip, he was ordered by the Russian Senate to make a second trip. This time he was to travel beyond the Bering Sea. It was called the Northeast Ocean thenand discover what lay on the other side. Bering and Captain Alexis Chirikov sailed two ships from the coast of Siberia in 1741.
Bering and Chirikov did see land in Prince William Sound and Southeastern Alaska, and quickly began their return Journeys to Russia. Chirikov sighted several of the Aleutian Islands: perhaps Unalaska, Adak, and Attu. Several hunters from one of the islands paddled their iqax out to inspect his ship. After examining each other from afar, the two groups separated, the Unangas returning to their homes, the Russians sailing back to the coast of Siberia.
When Russians learned of Bering and Chirikov's trip, they credited the senior officer, Bering, with discovering a new land. Of course, Bering had not really discovered Alaska. Others had known of its existence for thousands of years: the Athabascans, Tlingits, Eskimos, and Aleuts who had been living there. But the Russians gave it a new name, "Alyeshka," and they claimed the new land as part of the Russian Empire.
RUSSIANS CLAIM THE LAND
In those days, as today, a claim on land was only good if other people recognized and agreed to the claim. We have seen that Aleut families had already claimed the use of the good land in the Aleutian Islands, fishing streams, bird nesting grounds, places for their homes, centuries before the Russians came. But the Russians did not recognize their claims. In fact, they did not even know about them in most cases.
When Russians claimed the land we now know as Alaska, they wanted other European countries, not the Aleuts, to recognize their claim. They did not even consider the opinions of the Aleuts because they knew that they could force the Natives to live by their laws. The Russians had guns and the Aleuts did not.
TRADERS AND TRAPPERS FOLLOW
In the meantime, many Russians were very excited about the new "discovery". Soon after the explorers returned to Alaska, other Russians sailed east to follow their route. These men were fur trappers and traders who were used to hunting in Siberia. They came to "Alyeshka" to find more furs because animals in Siberia were becoming scarce. Their goal was not to explore, but to become rich. The first part of Alaska they came to was the Aleutian Islands. There many of them spent several years trapping sea otters, fur seals, and foxes, and then returned to Russia to sell them.
Stephan and all the villagers long remembered the first time the Russians came. Years later, whenever he told the story to the young children, there was a hush in the barabara. His story, memorized after years of retelling, was always the same:
"The first time the Russians came was the year our father died. Our family had just gotten back from our fish camp around the point. We were fixing up the barabara for winter, weaving new grass mats and putting up fish. Gregory was the lookout that day. He saw something way out in the bay. He did not know if it was a whale or an enemy boat from the Western Islands. Then when it got closer, he thought it was a big white bird. It was those sails on the Russian ship. He thought they were wings".
There was always soft laughter in the barabara at this point as each person recalled the familiar story of the first meeting.
"Then what happened?" one of the children would ask; though she too knew the story by heart.
"Then, as the ship got closer to the village, everyone could see that it was a boat with people inside it. I remember thinking that the boat was a strange shape, and that the people on it wore strange clothes. Some of them had orange or yellow hair. That was very odd to us back then. We had never seen a white man before. We all hid in the hills and watched as the Russians came ashore.
"Before long a little rowboat landed near the salmon stream. The captain of the Russian boat left some gifts at the barabara entries. Uncle Nicholas was out hunting that day, so there was no one to tell us what to do. At first Anna wanted to run down to shoo the men away. She was so mad! We convinced her to stay up in the hills for a while longer.
Finally, Gregory agreed to go down and meet the strangers. We held our breath as he got within sight of the Russians. He went to the entry of our barabara and picked up the gift. He took some salmon off the drying racks and gave it to the Russians in return. It all seemed pretty friendly.
"Before anyone knew what was happening, the Russians began setting up camp by the stream.
"We decided to get rid of the Russians before they started any real trouble. We attacked them one cloudy night. But they must have been expecting us because their guns were ready when we snuck into their tents. That was when our cousin Joseph was killed.
"Things got even worse. The next day the strangers captured Gregory's son. Through sign language we learned what they wanted: furs. They agreed to give the boy back at the end of the winter if they were given many sea otter and seal furs in return.
"We had seen the power of their guns and knew that all of our children could be taken just as easily as Gregory's son. So we agreed. It meant hunting every day. We could not understand what the strangers wanted with the furs. There was so much meat from the carcasses that year that it rotted on the beach. We couldn't prepare it fast enough. The Russians didn't make any clothes out of the skins; they just salted them and put them on the ship.
"We became worried about the spirits. All the rotting animal bodies were sure to offend them. Sure enough, after a time there were no more sea otters in our bay. We had to go all around the island for the furs.
"Finally spring came and the furs had all been paid to the Russians. But they did not return the boy. They sailed away with him and we never saw him again. I suppose they made him into an interpreter.
"After a time we settled back to life and tried to satisfy the angered spirits. We thought we would never see Russians again."
The people of Stephan's village did not know that every year more and more Russian ships sailed from the Russian port of Okhotsk east to the Aleutians. Each one of the ships was filled with men and guns. Soon the village became a regular stopping place for ships.
A RUSSIAN TRAPPER
We'll leave Stephan and Anna now and look at the Russians who were sailing east to the newly found islands of Alyeshka. This chapter will tell about an imaginary character named Ivan. Like Stephan and Anna, Ivan may never have actually existed. However, his experiences are like those of many real Russians of his day.
The year is 1756. This is a time of unrest in Russia. While some people in the cities are very rich, most are very poor. Many people are serfsalmost slaves to rich masters. They farm for their masters and give them the first part of every crop. They are not allowed to leave the land without permission. In exchange, the masters allow them to live on the land.
Some people are beginning to wonder why they must stay poor. They are looking for ways to become free and to live the way the rich people live.
In the first part of the story, Ivan, like many other poor Russians of his time, is looking for a way to become free and rich.
Now the caravan was in Okhotsk, a frontier town on the east coast of Siberia. This was the very town from which Bering had sailed on his trip to the islands across the Northeast Ocean. Ivan could feel the excitement of the town. Shipbuilders were building ships to take hunters east to the islands of Alyeshka. Traders and ship owners were signing crew on. They wanted men who could both sail and hunt. But if they had to make a choice, they chose a hunter. In spite of the dangerous trip across the ocean, the owners were having no trouble finding men to work for them. Once a man returned to Russia, the furs he brought back were sure to bring him lots of money.
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Ivan was caught up in the excitement. Although he knew he would be badly beaten if his master the caravan leader found him, he slipped away from his camp by the horse corral on his first night in Okhotsk. He wanted to sail east. This was the chance of a lifetime! He could make money of his own. For the first time in his life he could be free! Ivan pretended he had grown up on the trapline in Siberia and a shipowner hired him as a cabin boy and hunter. The ship sailed at dawn.
A month after Ivan's ship left port at Okhotsk, the captain sighted land. They had reached the most western of the islands of Alyeshka. The ship continued sailing east, in search of a good port to unload the hunters. Even though the worst part of the trip was over, the captain still had to worry about hidden rocks close to shore. He had sailed the islands before and knew how careful he must be in finding a good landing place.
After another week and a half of sailing east, the captain was satisfied that he had found a good port. It was in a quiet bay, protected from the waves of the Northeast Ocean. A clear stream entered the bay at its head. This meant there would be plenty of fresh water. And, there was a village near the stream. This was proof to the captain that this was a good place to land. He knew that people would only build a village where there was plenty of food. And that meant that his hunters would find many animals and make a rich catch.
He ordered the men on board to go ashore and set up camp beside the stream. Ivan shouldered the captain's trunk and lifted it down to the small longboat. He looked at the little village of sod houses. His mouth was suddenly very dry. He swallowed hard. Not a single villager was in sight.
Even after paying for his keep, Ivan still had some money left over of his own. He was at last free to do as he wished. Ivan chose to sign on for another hunting trip to Alyeshka - and then another. The captain of his ship might return to a village where a successful hunt had been held before, or he might try out some new place. Sometimes he would divide the crew into smaller groups, dropping each group off at a different village. But first he found some way to convince the islanders to hunt for him. He might capture a small child and hold him hostage. Or he might shoot one of the men who came out to meet the boat as an example of his power. Or he might offer presents to the men in return for promises of furs. Different captains worked in different ways, but all were after the same goal: furs. The Aleuts could buy back their children or their lives if they brought the Russians their furs.
Ivan was not personally cruel. Yet, he did not protest any of these cruel actions done by his captains. After all, he had been a serf himself before he became a hunter. He had been beaten by masters who did not like the way he did his work. He had been forced to buy his freedom.
Even now he was often treated cruelly by the ship captains. So Ivan did not think that the treatment the Aleuts received was unusual. He lived in a world where the rich and powerful ruled over the rest, so he did not even think about whether the Aleuts were treated justly or not. That word had no meaning for Ivan. Justice and fairness were not a part of his Russian world.