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    The Aleuts

    Encyclopedia Arctica 8: Anthropology and Archeology

    The Aleuts

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    (Henry B. Collins, Jr.)


            Geographical Setting . The Aleutian Islands, beginning with Unimak off

    the western end of the Alaska Peninsula, stretch westward in a long curving

    arc for over 1,000 miles to Attu, the outermost of the islands, 450 miles from

    the Kamchatkan coast. The treeless, rocky islands, some 70 in number, which

    comprise the Aleutian chain are to outward appearances bleak and barren. They

    are of volcanic origin, their rugged shores rising abruptly from the sea often

    to great heights. On many of the larger islands there are active or extinct

    volcanoes, some of them over 9,000 feet high.

            The Aleutians are divided into five main groups, from west to east, as

    follows: Near Islands (Attu, Agattu, and the Semichis), so named by the Russians

    because they were the nearest to the Commander Islands and Kamchatka; Rat Islands

    (Amchitka, Semisopochnoi, Kiska, Little Sitkin, Rat, Chugul, Davidof, Khwostof);

    the Andreaanof group (Atka, Amlia, Great Sitkin, Adak, Kanaga, Tanaga, and numer–

    ous smaller islands), named for Andrean Tolstykh, who explored the group in 1760–

    64; Islands of the Four Mountains (Chuginadak, Berbert, Carlisle, Kagamil, and

    Uliaga); and the easternmost of Fox Islands (Unimak, Unalaska, and Umnak, to–

    gether with the six smaller islands of the Krenetzin group — Ugamak, Tigalda,

    Avatanak, Rootok, Akun, and Akutan.

            The climate of the Aleutians is oceanic — wet and cool, with moderate

    temperatures ranging from around 33° F. in winter to 50° F. in summer. Despite

    the moderate temperature, however, the weather is stormy and unpleasant. High

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    winds, dense fog, rain and snow are prevalent, caused by the cold winds and ocean

    currents coming down from Siberia and Bering Sea and meeting with the warm winds

    and currents moving eastward across the Pacific just to the south of the islands.

            Though superficially the Aleutians may seem barren and desolate, they are

    anything but that if one takes into account the quantity and variety of plant

    and animal life present. Though devoid of trees, the islands have a rich and

    varied flora including some 480 species of seed plants and ferns, in addition

    to many kinds of lichens, mosses, liverworts, and algae. Only the higher moun–

    tain slopes are barren. The lowlands and valleys have a dense and luxuriant

    cover of grasses, sedges, ground willows, and many kinds of flowering plants.

    The lower slopes of the mountains are covered with heath vegetation — low–

    growing, woody-stemmed shrubs such as the crowberry, blueberry, bearberry,

    growing in a tangled mass in deep thick beds of mosses and lichens.

            The waters around the Aleutians are amazingly rich in animal life. There

    are tremendous numbers of marine invertebrates — mussels, oysters, periwinkles,

    sea urchins, sea cucumbers, starfish, octopus, shrimps, crabs, and many other

    kinds of mollusks, worms, crustaceans, and echinoderms. Fishes include five

    kinds of salmon, the Pacific cod, halibut, the Atka mackerel, herring, capelin,

    sculpin, and many smaller varieties.

            Sea mammals were formerly particularly abundant — seals, sea lions, sea

    otters, whales, porpoises, dolphins — though excessive hunting has greatly re–

    duced their numbers. Land mammals, on the other hand, have never been an im–

    portant part of the Aleutian fauna. Animals such as caribou, the brown bear,

    the Alaska Peninsula hare, mink, and weasel are found only on Unimak, the east–

    ernmost of the islands, which is barely separated from the mainland by the narrow

    Isanotski Strait. On the other islands the only land mammals are foxes, and

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    several kinds of field mice, lemmings, and shrews.

            Bird life in the Aleutians is richer and more varied than in probably

    any other part of the world. Incredible numbers of sea birds nest in the

    rocky cliffs — murres, murrelets, puffins, auklets, guillemots, cormorants,

    and Kittiwakes. There are also many kinds and tremendous numbers of gulls,

    terns, jaegers, ducks, geese, loons, grebes, albatrosses, shearwaters, ful–

    mars, and petrels, and some 20 different varieties of sandpipers, plovers,

    and other shore birds. Land birds that breed in the islands include ptarmigans,

    ravens, hawks, owls, eagles, cranes, and various smaller birds such as finches,

    sparrows, wrens, snow buntings, and longspurs.

            Population . To the Eskimoid people who chose the Aleutians as their habi–

    tat, the fact that the surrounding weaters teemed with animal life was of more

    importance than that the islands were treeless, stormy, foggy, and wet. It is

    not surprising, therefore, that the Aleutian Islands, one of the world's richest

    hunting grounds, were in pre-Columbian times one of the most densely populated

    areas in North America. Russian estimates of the Aleut population in the 1740s

    range from 15,000 to 25,000, more than the aboriginal Indian population of all of

    New England, or of Florida, or the entire Ohio Valley. Figuring the Aleut pop–

    ulation at near the minimum estimate, 16,000, there was a population density of

    64.70 per square kilometer. This is much higher than for any Eskimo group,where

    there are usually less than two inhabitants to a square kilometer except for a

    few small but densely populated areas in the Bering Sea such as Nunivak and St.

    Lawrence islands. Aleut population density was, however, comparable to that of

    some of the Northwest Coast and lower Columbia tribes whose food economy, like

    that of the Aleuts, was based on an abundant supply of marine animal life.

            The Aleuts speak a language remotely related to Eskimo, and hence are

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    classed among the Eskimoid peoples. But while their language belongs to the

    Eskimo stock, it is so different from the mainland dialects that an Aleut him–

    self would not be aware of the relationship.

            The Aleuts were divided into two main groups speaking slightly different

    dialects — the Unalaskans, of the western end of the Alaska Peninsula, the

    Shumagin and Fox islands; and the Atkans, who inhabited the Andreanof, Rat,

    and Near islands. At the time of Russian discovery in the 1740's practically

    every island was inhabited. Agattu was reported to have had 31 villages, Un–

    alaska had 24, and there were numerous settlements on the other large islands.

    In 1831 there were 10 villages on Unalaska, only 15 of the other islands were

    inhabited at all, and the total population had dwindled to less than 2,000.

    In recent years only Akun, Akutan, Sedanka, Unalaska, Umnak, Atka, and Attu

    in the Aleutian Islands proper, have had permanent native settlements. Four

    other Aleut villages are located on Sanak and Unga, and at Belkofski and Morz–

    hovoi Bays near the end of the Alaska Peninsula. The Pribilof and Commander

    islands, which uninhabited when discovered, were later colonized with Aleuts.

            Physical Type . Most of the present day Aleuts are mixed bloods, which is

    not surprising in view of their two centuries of contact with Russians and Amer–

    icans. Many of them, nevertheless, retain something of the old type. It is

    possible, therefore, on the basis of the present population, the description

    left by the early explorers, and the many skeletons and mummies found at the

    old village sites, to obtain a reasonably accurate picture of the Aleut Physical

    type. They were short in stature, the males probably less than 5 feet 3 inches

    tall. They were of swarthy complexion, with dark brown eyes and black straight

    hair, broad, very low heads, and wide faces. The skull form of the modern Aleut

    is very different from that of the typical or specialized Eskimo, which was long,

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    narrow, and high. It resembled more that of the Kodiak Eskimos and the Indians

    of south Alaska. More difficult to explain is the fact that the Aleuts were

    even closer in physical type to some of the Tungus of eastern Asia. Hrdlicka's

    excavations showed that the physical type of the prehistoric population in the

    Aleutian Islands differed from that of the modern Aleuts. The earlier people,

    whom he calls "pre-Aleuts," were taller and heavier, with longer and higher

    heads and higher faces than the later Aleuts. The "pre-Aleuts" predominated

    in the western islands, beginning with Umnak, and persisted as a type into the

    historic period.

            History . The Aleutian Islands were discovered by Vitus Bering and Alexei

    Chirikof, on Bering's second expedition, 1741. Setting out from Avacha Bay,

    Kamchatka, on June 4, the two vessels St. Peter and St. Paul became separated

    9 days later. They continued their separate courses eastward, reaching the

    Alaskan coast at different places. Chirikof, in the St. Paul , discovered land —

    a small island near Prince of Wales Island on July 15, while Bering in the St.

    Peter sighted a high mountain which he named Mt. St. Elias, on the Alaska main–

    land, on July 17. On the return voyage Chirikof sighted the Kensi Peninsula,

    Afognak, Umnak, and the Islands of the Four Mountains. On September 9, the

    St. Paul anchored off the south side of Adak Island and was met by seven Aleuts

    who came out to trade. The next land sighted was Agattu, on September 21. The

    Semichis and Attu were also sighted, and on October 10 the St. Paul reached

    Avacha Bay. Every man on the ship was ill with scurvy and seven had already


            After skirting Prince William Sound and Kodiak Island, Bering, in the St.

    Peter , continued westward and on August 30, anchored between two of the Shumagin

    Islands, where the Aleuts were met for the first time. Later, Great Sitkin,

    Adak, and Atka were sighted. For the next two weeks the ship was battered by

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    terrific storms. So many men were sick with scurvy that it was difficult to

    manage the vessel. Passing through the western islands late in October, Kiska,

    Buldir, and the easternmost of the Semichis were seen. On November 4, land

    was sighted which was thought to be Kamchatka. With the greatest difficulty

    a landing was made and sick men taken ashore. Two weeks later the St. Peter was

    wrecked on the beach. The shore where they had landed was not Kamchatka but the

    larger of the two Commander Islands, later named Bering Island. Here the ship–

    wrecked crew spent the winter and Bering and 14 others died of scurvy. A small–

    er vessel was constructed from the timbers of the St. Peter and late in the

    summer of 1742 the survivors of the Bering Expedition reached Kamchatka.

            Bering Island was swarming with foxes, fur seals, and sea otter, and large

    numbers of pelts were taken back by Bering's men. The 900 sea otter skins alone,

    each worth from 30 to 40 rubles, represented a value of $30,000. It was this

    fur cargo, and the news of uninhabited islands where such wealth could be had

    for the taking, that was responsible for the further discovery and exploration

    of the Aleutians. The first of the fur hunters, or promvshlenniki , set out for

    Bering Island in 1743, soon to be joined by many others who risked the dangerous

    voyage in their small and poorly constructed vessels. For those who made the

    trip safely, it was not unusual to return with cargoes of furs valued at 100,000

    rubles or more.

            From the Commander Islands the Russians pushed on to the Aleutians. In

    1745, Attu was discovered by Emilian Bassof, and during the next eight years

    Nevodchikof, Chuprof, Trapesnikof, and other Russian [ ?]

    fur merchants made frequent voyages to Attu and the other Near Islands. In 1757,

    Nikiforof extended the Russian discoveries as far east as Umnak. In 1759, Trapes–

    nikof and Simon Krasilinikof reached Goreloi, and winter, in different parties,

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    on the islands of Amlia, Atka, and Great Sitkin. These islands, in what was

    later named the Andreanof Group, were explored more thoroughly by Andrean

    Tolstykh in 1763.

            The early unofficial explorations of the Russian fur hunters brought

    devastation and misery to the Aleuts. Greedy for wealth, and with no law to

    restrain them, the crude and barbaric promyshlenniki murdered the Aleuts, robbed

    them, and in the end reduced them to virtual slavery. The Aleuts resisted as

    best they could with their inferior weapons. In the beginning they fought

    bravely and even destroyed some of the Russian ships, but these successes only

    led to more drastic punitive measures in which many Aleut villages were destroy–

    ed and thousands of the people killed. The Russian government attempted to pre–

    vent the depredations of the promyshlenniki but with little success.

            In 1768, an official expedition under Capt.-Lieut. Peter Kronitzin and

    Lieut. Michael Levashef, sent out by the Tsarina of Russia, explored the eastern

    Aleutians and left a valuable account of the islands and the native inhabitants.

    Permanent Russian settlement in Alaska began in 1784 when Shelikof, director

    of the Russian-American Company, established a colony at Three Saints Bay, Kodiak

    Island. Many of the Aleuts were taken to Kodiak to hunt sea otters, and in later

    years when Baranof was head of the Company, they participated in the Russian

    advance to Prince William Sound, Yakutat, and Sitka, serving mainly as hunters

    but on occasion also as military allies against the Prince William Sound Eskimos

    and the Tlingit.

            Villages and Houses . Aleut villages were always on the seacoasts; the

    interior of the islands was completely unoccupied and seldom visited. No people

    were ever more dependent on the sea than the Aleuts. The land provided only a

    few of their needs — stones for knives and other implements, grass for weaving,

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    heath for fuel, and a few plants for food. Everything else came from the sea.

    For most of their food they depended on sea mammals, fish, sea birds, sea

    urchins, and mollusks; their clothing was made from skins of sea mammals and

    birds and their boats from driftwood and skins; implements, weapons, and house–

    hold utensils were made of bone or driftwood, and the material for their houses

    was driftwood and whale bones.

            Three factors governed the choice of a village site — a nearby supply

    of fresh water, a beach where boats could be landed in rough weather, and a

    situation offering safety against surprise attack. Villages, therefore, were

    not usually located in protected coves or at the mouths of large streams but

    in such exposed places as sand spits, isthmuses or narrow necks of land ac–

    cessible to two bodies of water, so that the boats could be carried from one

    to the other in case of attack. After the arrival of the Russians, when in–

    ternal warfare had ceased, villages were located at river mouths where salmon

    could be caught in the spawning season.

            The sites of the old Aleut villages appear today as elevated ridges or

    mounds, the accumulation of years of occupancy. They are usually covered with

    a dense growth of grass and other vegetation and the partly filled-in pits of

    the old underground houses can still be seen. The larger sites may reach a depth

    of 20 feet or more, and are composed for the most part of shells, animal bones,

    ashes, and other village refuse.

            The original Aleutian house was a large communal structure up to 240 feet

    long and 40 feet wide. From 10 to 40 families, sometimes as many as 150 people,

    lived in one house. Sunk to a considerable depth in the ground and covered over

    with earth, the houses appeared to be wholly underground; the early Russians,

    in fact, usually referred to them as "caves," Walls and roof supports consisted

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    of upright driftwood timbers and sometimes whale bones. The roof was made of

    poles or planks covered with a layer of dry grass and over that a layer of sod.

    The houses were entered through small openings in the roof by means of notched

    logs used as ladders. The smaller houses had two or three entrances of this

    kind, the larger ones five or six. Each family had its separate living quarters,

    partitioned off by stakes and grass mats. There were no fireplaces in the

    house; heat and light were provided by oil-burning stone lamps. The modern

    Aleutian house, or barabara, is very different from the original form. It is

    a single family dwelling, much smaller than the old communal house, and the

    entrance is at the side instead of through the roof. Like the old type of

    house, it is partly underground and covered with sod.

            Clothing and Adornment . Men and women wore a long shirtlike garment re–

    sembling the Eskimo parka, but without a hood. Those of the men were made from

    the skins of puffins, cormorants, guillemots, or murres; the women's were made

    of sea otter or seal skins. Little children's parkas were sometimes made of

    downy young eagle skins.

            When hunting at sea or walking in rainy weather a light waterproof garment

    called a kamleika was worn over the parka. It was made of thin, translucent

    strips of sea lion or seal intestines, decorated with little tufts of brightly

    colored feathers sewed in at the seams. It had a hood which was tied close

    around the face with a drawstring and the sleeves were similarly tied at the


            The men wore a peculiar kind of hunting helmet, made from a flat piece of

    wood which had been scraped very thin, steamed, and bent over and sewed together

    at the back. It was conical in shape with the front elongated to project over

    the eyes. A variant form was a wooden visor, open at the top. These hunting

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    hats and visors were elaborately decorated with painted designs, bone and

    ivory carvings, and sea lion whiskers strung with glass beads.

            The Andreanof Aleuts and perhaps those on the more westerly islands went

    barefooted the year around. In the Fox Islands fur stockings and waterproof

    leather boots were sometimes worn.

            The men cut their hair short on the top of the head; the women cut theirs

    in front so as to hang over the forehead, tying the rest into a knot at the top.

    The women's faces were tattooed, and both sexes wore stone or ivory labrets in

    the lower lip and a variety of other ornaments — bone pins, heads, small stones,

    feathers — in the nose and ears,

            Food and Food Gathering . The Aleuts subsisted on sea mammals, fish, shell–

    fish, birds, and plants. The principal food mammals were seals, sea lions, sea

    otters, and whales; walrus were also obtained occasionally, and on Unimak Island

    caribou and bears were hunted.

            Codfish and halibut were caught with hook and line from boats. The hooks

    were of bone, consisting of a slightly curved shank to which was fastened a

    curved barbed point. The lines were made of dried and braided strips from the

    long stalks of the giant kelp. They are described by Tolstykh as "about 150

    fathoms long, made of sea-weeds, and thick as an ordinary iron wire and twice

    more enduring than a hemp cord." Notched stones were used as sinkers. For

    catching smaller fish such as sculpin and flounders they used a small rounded

    hook made from a single piece of bone or shell.

            Salmon and salmon trout were caught in nets, or speared, in streams and

    lakes; herring were also caught in nets. Fish spears, with long handles and

    barbed bone points, were also used to catch the Atka mackerel and various other

    kinds of fish, as well as octopus.

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            Smelt (capelin) were scooped up in dip nets or pails, or simply picked

    up on the beach, as they came to spawn in the surf.

            Birds and eggs formed an important part of the Aleuts' summer diet. Cor–

    morants, murres, ducks, geese, loons, gulls, and ptarmigans were among the many

    kinds of birds that were eaten. Some of them were caught in nets and snares

    made of baleen or sinew. Birds in flight were caught with the bolas, a kind of

    sling consisting of from 4 to 6 cords about 30 inches long tied together at one

    end, and each with a small stone at the free end. When the bolas was thrown

    into the air, the cords spread out like the spokes on a wheel and when one of

    them touched a bird the others would immediately wrap around its wings and body,

    bringing it to the ground. Another device for catching birds was a light spear

    with a single barbed point at the end and a cluster of three other points pro–

    jecting at an angle from near the center of the shaft. These bird darts, like

    most of the harpoons and darts used by the Aleuts, were cast by means of a

    throwing board. This was a narrow wooden board about 20 inches long with a

    slightly concave upper surface, with hole and notches at the lower end for

    finger grips, and a spur or hook at the upper end for engaging the butt of the

    dart. In effect the throwing board increases the length of the arm, making

    possible a longer and more accurate cast.

            Numerous varieties of clams and other mollusks were eaten by the Aleuts.

    The extent to which such food was consumed can be judged by the great piles of

    shells found around their old village sites. The most important food mollusk

    was the common black or purplish mussel ( Mytillus edulis ). South of the Aleut–

    ians this mussel is sometimes poisonous at certain times of the year. Peril

    Strait, north of Sitka, was so named because over a hundred Aleuts, accompanying

    Baranof's colonizing expedition in 1799, died there from eating black mussels.

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            One of the most important of all food animals was the green spiny sea

    urchin, enormous quantities of which were consumed by the Aleuts. They were

    gathered among the rocks and in shallow water at low tide. The spines were

    rubbed off and the shell broken between two stones to obtain the masses of

    bright yellow eggs, the only part that was edible. One sea urchin provides

    as much as a tablespoonful of eggs.

            Vegetable foods were used somewhat more extensively in the Aleutians than

    in other parts of Alaska. Among the plants eaten were salmonberries, blue–

    berries, crowberries, the roots of the anemone and lupine, the bulbs of the

    Kamchatka lily, the stalks of the wild parsnip and cowparsnip, and various kinds

    of kelp and other seaweeds.

            Fish and meat were sun-dried and stored for future use. Food of all kinds

    was usually eaten raw. The Aleuts had no cooking pots of stone or clay such

    as were used by the Eskimos, and food boiling was not generally practiced until

    iron and copper pots were introduced by the Russians. Meat was cooked on flat

    stone "frying pans" or roasted between two hollow stones cemented with clay.

    One early account describes meat and fish being boiled in springs of hot water

    on Kanaga Island in the Andreanof Group.

            Fuel and Fire Making . The limited supply of driftwood was too essential

    for other purposes to be extensively used for fuel. The houses were lighted

    and heated with bowl-shaped lamps of stone or bone; seal, sea lion, or whale

    blubber was used as fuel, and the wicks were made of moss or grass. In cold

    weather the Aleuts warmed themselves by standing or squatting over a lamp or

    a small fire made of grass or moss, the heated air rising and being held in by

    their parkas. The fuel most commonly used for cooking was the heath plant,

    crowberry ( Empetrum ), or the roots of the ground willow. Grass and the dry dead

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    stalks of the wild parsnip were also used.

            Fire was made in two ways, with the wooden fire drill and by striking

    two stones together. The stones were rubbed with sulfur and the sparks were

    caught in a tinder of bird down or finely shredded grass sprinkled with sulfur.

            Handicrafts . When the Russians arrived the Aleuts already had some know–

    ledge of metal. Steller and others state that a few of the men had iron knives,

    their most precious possessions, and irong knives and hatchets were the only

    Russian trade goods that they seemed eager to receive. The few pieces of metal

    they possessed might have come from wrecked Japanese or European ships or might

    have reached them through trade with the mainland tribes. It is known from

    archaeological excavations on St. Lawrence Island and at Bering Strait that small

    quantities of iron from some Asiatic source reached the Eskimos of that section

    probably a thousand years ago. From there it might have been passed on in trade

    to the Eskimos of southwest Alaska and finally to the Aleuts.

            Essentially, however, the 18th century Aleuts were living in the Stone Age.

    T he blades of knives, scrapers, adzes, harpoons, and sometimes darts were made

    of chipped or rubbed stone, usually andesite. Wood was split with bone wedges

    and mauls, the objects were hewed into shape with stone adzes, and the final

    cutting and smoothing was done with knives and scrapers. A high degree of skill

    was shown in the carving of their wooden boat frames, wooden dishes, and their

    many weapons and other objects of wood, bone and ivory.

            The women were no less skillful artisans in their own sphere, particularly

    in sewing and weaving. Theirs was the laborious and difficult task of making

    the skin garments, from the cleaning and preparing of the skins to the final

    sewing. The skins for parkas — bird skins for men and seal and sea otter for

    women — were soaked in a wooden tub containing urine, which the Aleuts also

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    used instead of soap for washing their hands. The skins were cut with a broad–

    bladed stone knife with the handle above, the implement known to the Eskimos as

    the ulu, or woman's knife. The skins were then scraped to remove adhering par–

    ticles of fat, washed in water, carefully dried, and sewed together, Fine strips

    of seal or whale sinew, split with the fingernails, and thin strips of twisted

    gut were used for thread. The needles were made from the small wing bones of

    gulls or other birds, with a notch at the end instead of an eye.


    Henry B. Collins, Jr.

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