Aleut Culture

The History of the Unangan People  The people who settled along the Aleutian archipelago are often referred to as Aleuts. This name was given to them by Russian fur traders, but they prefer to call themselves Unangan, or coastal people. It is believed that the Aleuts migrated across the Bering land bridge from Asia between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago.

The Unangan people lived underneath the earth in semi – subterranean houses called ulax and developed specialized skills to enable survival in the harsh climate. They hunted marine mammals from skin covered kayaks, or iqyax. The Unangan subsisted for centuries and thrived as a culture until the Russian fur traders discovered the Aleutian Islands around 1750. At this time, the Aleut population was estimated at 12,000 to 15,000.

The fur traders from Russia occupied the islands and their people in their quest to obtain sea otters and fur seals. The population of Unangan, or Aleut people was greatly reduced after Russian occupation due to disease, war and malnutrition.

The Aleut people also suffered tremendous loss during World War II when the U.S. Government relocated most of the Aleutian Island residents to internment camps located in Southeast Alaska. Many Aleuts died in these camps further reducing their population. The U.S. Government eventually passed a Congressional Act in 1988 called the Aleut Restitution Act. The purpose of this act was to pay restitution to the victims of WWII internment.

Currently Aleut people still rely on the sea for their livelihood. Most live a subsistence lifestyle which includes fishing and hunting. It is believed that today the population of Aleuts is approximately 2,000.

About the Aleut Language (from the UAF Alaska Native Language Center)  Aleut is one branch of the Eskimo-Aleut language family. Its territory in Alaska encompasses the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, and the Alaska Peninsula west of Stepovak Bay. Aleut is a single language divided at Atka Island into the Eastern and the Western dialects. Of a population of about 2,200 Aleuts, about 300 speak the language.

The name Aleut itself is not of Aleut origin. It was introduced by Russian explorers and fur traders who conquered the Aleutian Islands and coastal areas to the east beginning in 1745. The people’s historic and traditional name for themselves is Unangan, probably derived from una, which refers to the seaside. The Russians used the name Aleut also to refer to the Pacific Eskimos, or Koniags, who inhabited Kodiak Island to the east (see the section on the Alutiiq language).

Although the early Russian fur trade was exploitative and detrimental to the Aleut population as a whole, linguists working through the Russian Orthodox Church made great advances in literacy and helped foster a society that grew to be remarkably bilingual in Russian and Aleut. The greatest of these Russian Orthodox linguists was Ivan Veniaminov who, beginning in 1824, worked with Aleut speakers to develop a writing system and translate religious and educational material into the native language.

In modern times the outstanding academic contributor to Aleut linguistics is Knut Bergsland who from 1950 until his death in 1998 worked with Aleut speakers such as William Dirks Sr. and Moses Dirks – now himself a leading Aleut linguist – to design a modern writing system for the language and develop bilingual curriculum materials including school dictionaries for both dialects. In 1994 Bergsland produced a comprehensive Aleut dictionary, and in 1997 a detailed reference grammar.

The following organizations are dedicated to preserving Aleut history and culture:

Aleutian Pribilof Island Association
The Aleut Corporation
The Aleut Foundation
Alaska Native Language Center