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The Aleutian Islands: Encyclopedia Arctica 12: Alaska, Geography and General
Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

The Aleutian Islands

THE ALEUTIAN ISLANDS

The Aleutian Islands, on the northern rim of the Pacific
Ocean, hold the waters of Bering Sea within the sweep of their great
tectonic are much like a leaky basket holds water. The rugged shores
of this island chain, as well as the partially submerged pinnacles and
rocks are washed incessantly by the heavy seas of the surrounding ocean
as the erratic currents ebb and flow through the island passes. Baro–
metric pressure of the atmosphere, setting up gravity gradients in the
sea surface, has as much to do with the surface currents of this northern
ocean as do the gravitational pulls of the sun and the moon. Wind driven
currents set in motion by gales only complicate the complex hydrography
of the ocean and give rise to a system of ocean movement which defies
prediction. The islands are usually hidden from view in summer by banks
of advection fog, moving in from the Pacific, borne by the prevailing cir–
culation of air out of the North Pacific Anticyclone. Succeeding families
of cyclonic depressions plague the rest of the year with gales, snow
squalls, and wind chill. This is not a region of the world where naviga–
tion of the sea or air is made easy by a sympathetic natural regime.
Neither is it a place where the ordinary routine of day-to-day living can
be called comfortable for the small military population required to guard
this rampart of our northwestern approaches.
The islands are formed on an ancient rift in the earth's crust
along which there has been extreme volcanic and seismic activity since
Tertiary Time. As an island chain there is a sag toward the 50th paral–
lel at about the 180th meridian. The east end of the catenary hangs from
the tip of the peninsula of Alaska at about 54°N and 164°N in the Fox
Islands while the west end is in the Near Islands at about 52°N and 174° [: ] .
These coordinates show the Aleutian Chain to be concave toward the Bering
Sea and, in effect to enclose it as a southern boundary. It extends from
east to west more than 900 miles and is broken into island groups which were named in sequence from the western extremity at Attu by the early
Russian fur men who accomplished their exploitation. Petropavlovsk, in
Kamchatka was the point of asiatic departure for most of these adventures.
They named the first point of arrival in the Aleutians, the islands in the
group associated with Attu, the Near Islands. East of the Near Islands
appear in order: the Rat Islands; the Delerof and the Andreanof Groups;
the Islands of Four Mountains; and, finally, the Fox Islands. The Sanak
Islands, and the Shumagin Islands belong to the chain geologically but these
groups are found today in the Gulf of Alaska. Events which transpired
during early Quaternary time caused a reorientation of the axis of the rift
along which the peninsula of Alaska was built, thus separating the last named
groups from contact with Bering Sea. These islands are now excluded geo–
graphically from being part of the Aleutian Chain. Politics, at the time
of the Alaska Purchase, excluded the Komandorski Group from the Aleutians.
They, however, are part of the chain in a geographical sense. The U. S.
Coast Guard in 1936 determined that a continuous submarine ridge extends
from Cape Wrangel, Attu, to Copper Island in the Komandorski Group, close
to the peninsula of Kamchatka.
Geology : The geology of the Aleutian Islands, as partially in–
vestigated by S. R. Capps, G. D. Robinson, and others of the U. S. Geolo–
gical Survey, has been published in the official papers of that institution.
These reports are not very extensive because the Survey has had much more
important work to do elsewhere in Alaska. What is known reveals a complex
of quaternary, tertiary and perhaps elder volcanics and sediments thereof.
These igneous rocks and the intrusives which permeate them illustrate the
continuous plutonic character of the activity along the rift upon which the
Aleutian Chain has been constructed. The geomorphology of the islands has
both destructive and constructive elements in the landscapes which have re–
sulted. At some ancient time, a land mass is supposed to have protruded
from the sea south of the present site of the islands. Granitic glacial
erratics emanating from some source, now obscure, are found on recently emerged sub-aerial platforms in several places. This source of granite
is supposed by some to have subsided into the Aleutian Trench. The south–
ern exposures of the islands, and the islands definitely on the Pacific
side of the composite festoon of the islands, contain the oldest rocks and
sediments. These exposures contain the destructive forms of landscape as
well. The northern exposures of the festoon contain the recent rocks and
the active volcanoes. On these exposures are formed the constructive forms
of landscape. Some very ancient rocks are reported in the structure of the
Aleutians, even so. Attu may contain early tertiary coal measures. Ilak,
a tiny patch above the waves in the Delerofs, is reported to be a granitic
exposure.
Many of the older rocks bear the unmistakable signature of heavy
ice action. The U-shaped valleys carved by deep valley glaciers are com–
mon in the Fox Islands as well as at Attu. Many low flat-topped small is–
lands occur which are ancient sub-serial platforms. These islands contain
horisons of wave-worked granitic boulders now cemented into conglomerates
by recent eolian sediments composed of volcanic materials. These ancient
boulders are considered by some to have been glacier-borne to their present
sites. Ocean-borne ice of a colder period, has bevelled the fore shores of
many islands into steep gravel and boulder beaches. In places, these
beaches have been elevated into benches which carry the evidence of the old
shore lines.
The Environment : The Aleutian environment is quite different
from most inhabited regions of the world. It is probably similar to Ice–
land and the Orkneys which, of course, have been occupied by enlightened
peoples since about the 10th century. The Aleutian Islands supported a
populous race of people, cousin of the Esquimo Eskimo , at the time of their dis–
covery by the Russians. These Aleut native peoples were exploited by the
Russian fur traders during the 18th and 19th centuries. They were decimated
by disease brought to them by contact and exposure with the new arrivals. Against such disease they had no protective traditional immunity. They
were impressed into the Russian service as virtual slaves, as hunters
of the sea otters and other fur-bearing animals. In this pursuit, the
men were required to leave their home islands to accompany the fur-men;
even as far as lower California. During the absence of the men, the women,
the very old and the young died of starvation , exposure and disease. From
a population of perhaps 40,000 natives in the beginning, a rapid decline to
the present has taken place. There are no pure blood Aleuts to be found
in the Islands now; only a few hundred mixed blood individuals remain who
have been assimilated under the flag of the United States into the few back–
ward communities on Unalaska, Umnak, Atka and Attu. These people are excel–
lent sailors and hunters but they have discarded most of their traditional
native crafts and techniques. It is safe to say that without the aid of
modern technology in boats, firearms, and foods, they would be quite unable
to return to their ancient mode of life and cope with the environment.
Climate : The U. S. Coast Pilot states that "the weather of the
Aleutians is characterized by persistently overcast skies, high winds, and
violent storms. No other area in the world is recognized as having worse
weather in general than that which the Aleutian Islands experience. The
weather is extremely local, conditions of fog, low ceiling, and clear weather
often being encountered in a distance of 20 miles. Clear weather over large
areas is seldom encountered. It is an important characteristic of the weather
of the Aleutians that the northern shores of the islands have far better
weather generally and much less fog than the southern shores." It is for
this last stated reason that the sailing directions prefer to route shipping
through Unimak Pass into the Bering Sea for passage along the Aleutians
rather than to recommend approaching the Islands from the Pacific side.
Mitigating circumstances in Aleutian navigation are that the harbors are
ice free; that the mean temperature of the sea is about 42°F, ranging be–
tween 37°F and 50°F during the year, and that, in spite of the somber m ei ie n of the weather, the annual precipitation in the form of rain and snow ,
in no place , exceeds 50 inches of water a year. The temperature of the
air seldom, if ever, has been recorded as low as 0°F although the high
wind and the dampness contribute severe wind chill to the atmosphere through–
out the year.
The climate varies in different parts of the chain dependent
upon position. This is the result of the differing application of marine
and continental climatic influences. The Near Islands are influenced by
the close proximity of the continent of Asia; the Fox Islands are influenced
by the land mass of Alaska; the middle Islands of the Aleutians possess a
true marine climate. The maritime characteristics are absorbed by the air
masses e a ffecting the middle islands, during the long fetch of the winds as
they pass over the open oceans in their transport to these islands. These
maritime controls and continental controls alter the climate in the islands
from point to point during the same period of the year. The Near Islands
in May , are usually in the grip of winter, with snow cover to tide level,
while, at the same time, the Rat Islands, only two or three hundred miles
to the east, have become green with wild ry e and other grasses at sea level,
while the sedges and mosses have become exposed by the melting snows up to
500 feet of elevation or more. A generalization of the climate can be made
as follows: the climate is colder and more rigorous at the two ends of
the chain than it is in the middle of the chain. Higher latitude at the
two ends as well as the greater magnitude of continental influences is re–
sponsible for this. The center of the chain has a pure marine climate be–
cause of the preponderant maritime control which serves to contract the
annual range of temperature. On the other hand, the Pacific storms aris–
ing on the polar front usually existing south of the chain in winter are
of maximum intensity of nature development when they strike the middle
islands. This fact accounts for the high incidence of full gales in the
Andreanofs, the Delerofs, and the Islands of Four Mountains, making this
region one of the stormiest places in the world.
The mechanism of climate control in the Aleutians is most
easily comprehended from study of the behavior of the Pacific Anticyclone.
This great center of action fills the whole Pacific Basin during summer.
Its clockwise circulation of winds brings a relatively warm and humid
maritime air mass to high latitudes. This stream of air is cooled from
below as it passes over the cool ocean waters of the north Pacific and
takes on a stable stratification without marked vertical convection cur–
rents in its structure. As the cooling from below progresses with time,
the moisture brought from the tropics and additional moisture evaporated
from the sea surface in transit condenses into advection fog which hugs
the surface of the sea as it moves in the air stream. As the season of
summer advances, this fog gradually envelopes the Aleutians by streaming
through the passes between the islands and creeping ever higher over the
elevated shoulders of the islands. It enters the Bering Sea and is trans–
ported to the Arctic Ocean where it meets the Arctic Front forming a
bridge across the Bering Strait s .
The Pacific Anticyclone contracts in winter and the major axis
of its field of pressure moves southward and the active zone of the Pacific
Polar Front disposes itself in a mean position immediately south of the
Aleutian Islands. Wave disturbances on the Pacific Polar Front in the
form of deep cyclonic depressions move eastward along the Aleutian chain.
Between these depressions, which appear as mature storms, there are
frequent outbreaks southward of masses of pure Arctic A a ir; very cold and
very dry. These masses are much colder than the underlying waters of Bering
Sea or the Pacific. This atmosphere absorbs heat and moisture from below
and develops unstable lapse rates of temperature in its vertical structure.
It has been asserted by the Norwegian School of meteorologists that the
surface layers of the Arctic Air Mass which plunges off the ice cap of
Greenland into the Straits of Denmark, during winter, adjusts itself to
within 1°C of the temperature of the surface of the underlying ocean within
twenty-four hours. It can be realized readily that convection activity
of large magnitude is essential to accomplish such a modification of tem–
perature; when the original temperature of the Arctic air as it arrives over open water, can conceivably be thirty to forty centigrade degrees lower
than the temperature of the sea. Much the same situation exists north and west
of the Aleutians; in that Siberia is a source region of Arctic air of similar
magnitude to Greenland. Manifestations of an air mass undergoing such rapid
modification are: unstable lapse rates of temperature, turbulence and gustiness.
These characteristics create the "williwaw" phenomena in the local weather of
western Alaska and the Aleutians. The winter regime in the Aleutians, in
consequence of migrating cyclonic depressions on the Pacific Polar Front
followed by cold outbreaks from behind the Arctic Front, becomes a sequence
of shifting gales, fluctuating barometers and thermometers temperatures. The cold out- or barometric pressures and temperatures
breaks are characterized by short periods of clearing interrupted by the rapid
blanking out of horizontal and vertical visibility by snow squalls, carried
along on the gusty unstable currents out of the north or west.
The two transition periods between the winter and summer regimes
occur in May and in late September to early October. During these two periods
of the year, Aleutian weather can be mild and free of fog or storm. There is
no assurance that this will be the case but the highest probability for extended
Insert p 7
The Williwaw or Woollie : As near as can be determined, the williwaw or
woollie is a phenomenon described in meteorology as the Katabatic or "fall"
wind. The fisherman, whalers, and inhabitants of Alaska generally, refer to
this wind as "the Woollies" when writing or conversing. The term "williwaw"
has crept into the scientific literature produced by recent writers and will
be continued in use here. The phenomenon is not unique
harbors of the Aleutian Islands as well as the iniets and embayments of the
Peninsula of Alaska. The lee sides of conical or rugged high islands and the
feet of precipitous slopes are also e a ffected. The williwaw occurs usually with-
in a cold unstable air mass such as the true Arctic Air mass following an out–
break from behind the Arctic Front. Any unstable air mass flowing with high
velocity across the chain is a potential source of williwaws in places where
"funnel" action of the air through a valley gorge or harbor can serve to rein–
force the natural flow of the gradient wind. over open water, can conceivably be thirty to forty centigrade degrees lower
than the temperature of the sea. Much the same situation exists north and west
of the Aleutians; in that Siberia is a source region of Arctic air of similar
magnitude to Greenland. Manifestations of an air mass undergoing such rapid
modification are: unstable lapse rates of temperature, turbulence and gustiness.
These characteristics create the "williwaw" phenomena in the local weather of
western Alaska and the Aleutians. The winter regime in the Aleutians, in
consequence of migrating cyclonic depressions on the Pacific Polar Front
followed by cold outbreaks from behind the Arctic Front, becomes a sequence
of shifting gales, fluctuating barometers and thermometers temperatures. The cold out- or barometric pressures and temperatures
breaks are characterized by short periods of clearing interrupted by the rapid
blanking out of horizontal and vertical visibility by snow squalls, carried
along on the gusty unstable currents out of the north or west.
The two transition periods between the winter and summer regimes
occur in May and in late September to early October. During these two periods
of the year, Aleutian weather can be mild and free of fog or storm. There is
no assurance that this will be the case but the highest probability for extended
periods of good weather in the islands exists during these transition periods.
The Williwaw: As near as can be determined, the williwaw is a phenomenon See Insert
described in meteorology as the katabatic wind or "fall" wind. It is not unique
to Alaska or the Aleutians, since it is described as occurring in the glacial
valleys of the Alps, in the Himalayas and in the s S trait of Magellan. The willi-
waw, however, can be particularly violent and destructive in the fiord-like
harbors of the Aleutian Islands as well as the inlets and embayments of the
Peninsula of Alaska. The lee sides of conical or rugged high islands and the
feet of precipitous slopes are also e a ffected. The williwaw occurs usually with-
in a cold unstable air mass such as the true Arctic Air mass following an out–
break from behind the Arctic Front. Any unstable air mass flowing with high
velocity across the chain is a potential source of williwaws in places where
"funnel" action of the air through a valley gorge or harbor can serve to rein–
force the natural flow of the gradient wind.
The nature of the williwaw can be described as an intermittent
blast of air sweeping through the atmosphere with hurricane force which in–
volves the underlying surface of the ground or sea with destructive violence. The ultimate result of the mechanism of formation of the williwaw,
as described in the following paragraph, It is horizontal turbulence on a grand scale. The williwaw has been observed
to reverse its direction within a few seconds and blow with equal violence in
the opposite direction. Such winds cause ships at their moorings to break out
their anchors and drag. Winds of this nature are dangerous to aircraft while
taking off or landing, because flying speed is near the critical point of
stall at these times. Unquestionably many of the aircraft operational losses
during the Aleutian campaign of the war were attributable to the confused
velocity vectors of the atmosphere in situations which produced williwaws.
Many of the shipping losses at the advanced bases were ascribed to these vio–
lent winds.
The mechanism of the intermittency or reversal of the winds can be
visualized, if the air is considered to spill over the lip of a deep trough
from a series of different points, at different periods of time. The first
stream of air will descend to the bottom of the trough, strike the bottom,
whether it be a water surface or a valley bottom, and from this point of im–
pact, flow out at high velocity in all directions. The next stream of falling
air will descend from the lip of the trough at another point and time. It,
therefore, will have another point of impact at the bottom of the trough. At
a place midway between the two points of impact, the wind will reverse its
direction in a few seconds of time. If an airplane should become involved in
these descending jets of air, it can be realized that the wings may lose a
great part of their dynamic lift for short intervals as the vertical ac–
celerations on them change. At such an instant the plane may stall and spin.
Ships anchored to short scopes of chain to avoid yawing may very easily break
out their anchors, while those moored to piers may part their lines as they
surge against them.
The force of the wind at certain places in the Aleutians favorable
for the development of williwaws can be truly of hurricane strength. The
late Captain Anderson NELSON of the motorship " Eunice " described such situations as,
"She was yust a'shmokin'!." The wind literally rips off the top layers of portions of the water area, depending upon where the individual gust strikes,
into a white sheet of driving spray which races through the area, blinds the
navigator as it swirls upward over the masthead, and adds to the confusion
attendant upon getting a vessel underway with the mooring tackle out and the
anchor foul. Harbors which are visited by these phenomena are Dutch Harbor,
Kuluk Bay, and Chichigof Chicagof. Many anchorages which can be used under some situa- ck sp
tions become untenable during others. The Bay of Islands , Adak , is one of
these. Glory of Russia Bay at the west end of Tanaga becomes particularly
bad during northeasterly weather.
Soils: The natural soils of the Aleutian Islands are a function of the under–
lying solid geology, the scouring of these rocks during quaternary time by
glacial ice, the leeched sour top soil in many places produced by partially
decayed vegetable matter, and the extensive horizons of volcanic debris.
There has been little surface erosion of the islands since the ice disap–
peared. Evidence of frost action reigns supreme in the character of the soil
beginning at an elevation of 500 feet above the sea and extending upward.
The surfaces of the ridges and exposed shoulders of the higher elevations
consist of frost worked soils sometimes supporting islands of vegetation
but frequently carrying a polygonal grid or design. Between tide level and
this elevation, the soils merge from gravelly and sandy strands, through
peat-like accumulations of dark brown and black humus in depressions, to the
lighter soils composed of mixtures of humus and volcanic sands and fragments,
where the exposures are better drained. There is much true peat in the
Aleutians; particularly where shallow poorly drained ponds have been en-
croached upon by the water-tolerant plants of the region.
A commentary upon the character of the Aleutian soils is that no
trees, except those planted by the hands of man, nor erect bushes are to be
found. There are two planted but underdeveloped stands of Sitka spruce on
islands in Unalaska harbor. It is assumed that the ice caps of the glacial
period denuded the islands of top soil and the trees have not yet become re–
established. Sitka spruce is indigenous to the northern end of Kodiak Island,
in the Gulf of Alaska, a [: ] this time. It is migrating toward the Aleutians at the rate of a mile per century. The Aleutian soils on the other hand, do
maintain a most prolific and lush population of mat-weaving woody and herbaceous
vegetation within the favorable zone between tide level and the active frost sone.
Biology : The flora and fauna of the Aleutians have been beautifully and adequately
described by those few scientists who have displayed the intrepidity to visit them.
Prior to the thirties of this century, a journey to the islands under conditions
of creature comfort was extremely expensive and difficult to arrange. Eric Hultén,
the great Swedish botanist, was a visitor in 1932. He was transported to Unalaska
by the U.S. Coast Guard but owing to one of his honors, that of being an Honorary
Count of the Japanese Empire, accorded him for work done in Kamchatka many years
before, further government aid was denied him. He then was delayed for weeks while
he accumulated funds to finance his own voyage down the chain. The result of this
voyage, however, was a monograph on Aleutian flora which is a classic in the
scientific literature in this field. Isobel Hutchi n son, the British botanist,
also visited in 1936. She was more fortunate in her dealings with the Coast Guard
and was transported in one of the comfortable cutters to several of the islands in
the chain. Her work has been published by Blackie and Son, Ltd. Collins, Clark
and Walker collaborated for the Smithsonian Institution, in 1945, in producing War
Background Study Number Twenty-One. This fine little volume on the people and
natural history of the Aleutians is without doubt the best presentation for the
layman to read. It contains keys for the identification of the birds and plants
as well as describing the land and sea invertebrates, the mammals and the fishes.
The book also contains a valuable bibliography.
No attempt will be made here to describe the biology as a whole
although mention will be made of those few individuals which have been observed
by the writer.
The presence of kelp in the waters surrounding the Aleutian Islands
is most characteristic and noticeable during the summer months. The kelp disap–
pears entirely in winter. At its maximum development the kelp is very heavy.
Individual kelp stems can attain lengths between 30 and 60 feet. It can be of
great aid to navigators as an indication of shoaling waters but cannot be relied
upon implicitely to mark shoals. If the current over the kelp bed exceeds two
or three knots at some stage of the tide, the kelp will be towed under the surface and will not show. Then again some shoals, consisting of loose boulders and
stones, probably are unstable and do not furnish suitable anchorage for the
individual stems of kelp , with the result that beds do not form to mark them.
Storms tear great masses of kelp from their anchorages at times but these masses
can be distinguished from anchored kelp. The drifting masses are made up of
tangled stems and fronds while anchored kelp, composing a bed, presents a
regular appearance of parallel stems laid out in the direction toward which
the current sets. Kelp beds are the habitat of many varieties of marine life
and are particularly favored now by the sea otter which are again becoming
numerous in several localities.
The fauna of the Aleutians has been studiously described but remains
a most fruitful field for the biologist. This writer can only say that the
marine life surrounding these islands is abundant beyond compare. This situa–
tion undoubtedly arises because of the convergence of ocean currents conducive
to the growth of vegetable and animal plankton in the sea. Brief studies of the
marine biology have been conducted by Thompson of the University of Washington
and certain of his group. The " Oglala " expedition of 1935 provided support for
some of these during which the radiolaria were investigated and the bathymetric
data at some fifty stations were obtained. Unquestionably these waters supply
unlimited sustenance for many marine species. During the summer season of 1932,
at Kiska, schooling fish were observed in the waters surrounding this island
which literally filled the sea. The reported name of this fish was "Atka Macker e l"
yet it was not a species of macker e l. In regularity of size and in shape it re–
sembled a herring. Cod and H h alibut were caught in large quantity from the
" Gannet " whenever she anchored offshore. Whale and killer whale were present
in numbers in many areas. The wave-washed offshore rocks were invariably covered
with herds of Steller sealions. Seals of several species, though not the fur
seal, were observed in Chichigof at Attu, Kiska Harbor, Nazan Bay and Unalaska.
The existence of sea otter in the waters surrounding Amchitka was officially
established by this writer in the " Oglala " expedition in 1935. This animal was
the principal cause of the Russian exploitation of the Aleutians and Alaska during the 18th and 19th centuries. A rough estimate based on various sources, in–
cluding Bancroft, indicates that 3.000,000 sea otter skins were processed by
the Russian-American Company during its history. Many more skins were obtained
directly from the native hunters by illicit British and Yankee trading. There
is evidence that Barono f v (q.v.) traded illicitly with foreigners, in spite of his
charter which forb id ade this practice.
The principal food of the sea otter is the sea urchin. This animal
has a general distribution in the submerged littoral of the Aleutians. Tidal
pools and the bottoms of protected coves are solidly paved with these greenish
colored creatures. During times of need the Aleut natives depended upon the sea
urchin for food also; as is indicated by the heavy horizons of crumbled sea
urchin spines in their kitchen middens.
The Alaskan Brown Bear is found in only one island of the chain, that
being Unimak. It is believed that the Kodiak variety of the brown bear reached
Kodiak on the ice at the end of the Pleistocene. If such was the case, one
would expect to find bears in the Aleutians. The absence of these animals pro–
bably hinges on the lack of its principal food, the red salmon. Most of the
streams of the Aleutians are so short that the red salmon has not been able to
establish itself. A small run of these fish is known to occur nevertheless in
a stream draining into Chichigof Harbor, at Attu.
Foxes seem to be the one land mammal indigenous to the islands as a
whole. The species present is a mutation of the Arctic Fox known as the Blue
Fox. The Red Fox and its mutation, the Silver or Black Fox, have been intro–
duced by fur farmers. Invariably these latter animals destroy the blue fox popu–
lation of the same locality. They require artificial winter feeding as well.
The blue fox, on the other hand, can subsist himself in balance with his environ–
ment. The population level of blue foxes on any island may be raised by arti–
ficial feeding. For this reason, some fur farmers remain on their leases for
several winters in succession to husband their animals prior to a trapping
season. Fox fur is prime in December and is also much improved by artificial
feeding.
The method of feeding is quite simple , requiring only that the farmer
catch the bottom fish of the littoral and strew this along the beaches. As the
trapping season approaches, the farmer localizes the feeding place to the trap
pens. The foxes learn to frequent the trap pens at feeding time and it becomes
simple to take the desired number of pelts for the season. The blue fox is
naturally quite tame when he becomes familiar with kindly disposed people. He
can become a pest around a camp on shore because of the heavy acrid odor of his
eliminations and his natural curiosity concerning all phases of human activity.
The Aborigines . The inhabitants of the Aleutians, when discovered by the Russian
adventurers, were a numerous full-valued people living in complete adjustment to
their rugged environment. They have been described through the years by the
literate observers of their exploitation, their decline and ultimate near-extinc–
tion. The words of Steller (1741), Tolstykh (1761), Korovin (1763), Solvief
(1764), Levashef (1768), can be found in English as written by Coxe (1780),
Bancroft (1886), Golder (1922), and Jochelson (1933). Many other full descrip–
tions are to be found, covering later time, in the works of Cook, Sarichef, Sauer,
Davidof, Lisianski, Langsdorf, Veniaminof, Dall, and Petroff. Dall, Jochelson
and Hardlicka have described the village life and the village architecture.
This writer will not attempt to transcribe the work of any early ob–
server. The few mixed-blood remnants of these aboriginal people presumably
are to be found now in several small villages in the eastern and central islands.
They were evacuated during the war; except those in the village at Chicagof, on
Attu. These people became prisoners of war.
The modern Aleut is an excellent sailor, hunter, and fisherman. The
women excel at needlecraft. The art of their delicate and exquisite basketry,
for which they were famed, is probably now lost since the young woman resist
learning the intricacies of the weave. The native bidarka, similar to the
Esquimo Eskimo K k ayak, does not survive. The large skin boat, similar to the umiak,
is gone also. These have been replaced by dories, with outboard engines, sup–
plied by the traders; at great personal profit to themselves in terms of fox
skins. The old sod houses or barabaras, built partially underground, have given way to modern construction frame houses; stuffy and odorous, thanks to stove
oil heaters, drying raiment and the tin bucket for the collection of urine.
Urine remains the universal chemical for tanning hides, medicament for burns,
wounds and colds, and the curing solution for the flexible fibers used in
basket weaving. The modern Aleut prefers canned salmon to fresh because of
the salt content of the former. He will go to reduced rations in the presence
of 10,000 reindeer at Atka rather than venture inland to hunt them, preferring
to require the U. S. Coast Guard to provide sea lion meat from distant Bogoslof
Island. These anom o a lies and others serve to show that the infiltration of mus–
covite blood into the Aleut veins has served to bewilder and confuse a primitive
issue. This merger of genes seems to indicate the imminent extinction of a de–
cadent minority. This people is unwilling to compete on terms of parity with
the West, yet this people once was supremely competent to battle an environment
which has not been met adequately by the civilized invader.
HomeThe Aleutian Islands : Encyclopedia Arctica 12: Alaska, Geography and General
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