The Aleut people originally occupied the western parts of the Alaskan Peninsula, situated in the northwestern region of North America. The people of the Aleut tribe referred to themselves as Unangans and Sugpiaq. The name Unangan means “coastal people.” The tribe survived by hunting and gathering food. The males hunted for animals while the females collected mollusks and berries.
Russian fur traders later invaded the tribe and exploited their hunting skills. They also influenced the coastal people with orthodox practices and beliefs. The name “Aleut” was given to this native tribe by the Russians. The Sugpiaq that lived on Kodiak Island modified the Russian-given name to ‘Alutiiq’ and still identify with it today.
History of the Aleut Tribe
The origin of the Aleut people isn’t known, but they settled permanently in the Aleutian archipelago about 8,000 years ago. Their first encounter with the Russians was in 1741 when Vitus Bering and his expedition group arrived on the Aleutian Islands.
The Russians established a colony and used the natives as serfs or slave laborers for fur production. Aleutian men were transported to various locations to work on a seasonal basis. The exploitation grew worse with the discovery of gold in Alaska, resulting in centuries of slavery and a massive decline in the native population.
When Alaska was still a part of Russia in the early years, the Aleut tribe fared relatively well. However, things turned for the worse when Alaska was sold to America. Many native Aleut people were captured as prisoners of war during World War II, and several died in internment camps.
After years of injustice and exploitation, the Aleuts became American citizens in the 1960s. Congress adopted The Aleut Restitution Act in 1988, attempting to compensate the Aleuts that had survived the brutal internment camps.
Nowadays, Traditional Unangans have a subsistence lifestyle. They still hunt, fish and gather their own food. During the summer, members of the tribe divide their time between harvesting, gathering and preserving food, always in preparation for the harsh winters.
Aleut Tribe Population
The population of the Aleut tribe has suffered wide fluctuations due to various external factors. About 20,000 people lived on the Aleut islands when the Russians first came around. At the end of the 19th century, the population had drastically reduced to 2,000 due to exposure to European diseases and violence. The Unangans have been able to bounce back and have a recent estimated population of 17,000 to 18,000.
Aleut Tribe Culture
In the early years of Russian contact, the native Aleutians were exploited and influenced in various ways. By the end of the 20th century, only 2,000 Aleutians remained in the tribe. Despite their dwindling population, the Russian Orthodox Church’s efforts helped preserve the culture, language and lifestyles of the native people.
Ancient Unangax̂ (Aleut) people lived near the seashore. With villages located near the sea, they could get good landings for boats while maintaining a safe distance from potential attacks.
The houses built by the Aleut tribe were known as barabaras.
Constructed partially underground, they offered protection from the territory’s unforgiving weather conditions. The roof frame was made of wood or whalebone and covered with layers of sod. The entry access was located on the roof to prevent cold wind, rain, or snow from blowing into the house’s main room. A small hole in the ceiling allowed the smoke from the fires to escape.
The tribe lived in a very harsh and cold region and wore special clothing known as “parkas.” Also referred to as “kamleika”, the parkas differed based on gender. Female clothing was made from seal or sea otter skin, while the males wore parkas made from bird skins, usually stuffed with feathers. The unique clothing protected from harsh weather conditions while waterproof clothes were worn for fishing.
Beyond offering protection, the Aleut people also used clothing to display their creativity. Bird feathers, sea beard bristles, and sea parrot beaks were often used to embellish the garments. Parkas were well-processed, heavily decorated, and could take up to a full year to complete.
The guts of different animals were also used to create parka threads. The threads were colored with dyes made from vermillion paint, grassroots, hematite, and octopus ink bags. Aleuts also wore jewellery, created by using ivory and needles. The people wore necklaces and had piercings on their lips, nostrils, and ears.
The Unangax̂ villages were made up of extended families. They considered kinship from the mother’s side of the family of utmost importance. Aleutian villages were typically ruled by a single chief responsible for several villages simultaneously or even the whole island. In most cases, the chief was a skilled hunter with great wisdom and experience, which granted him leadership and respect.
Before the Russian invasion, the Aleut communities were grouped into three classes: the nobles, commoners, and enslaved people. The classes lived in respective houses and were given different burial rites. The noblemen lived in longhouses in the eastern parts of the island, believed to be their god Agugux’s home.
Aleut Tribe Religion
Members of the native Aleut tribe worshipped several gods; Agugux (the creator god), Aningaaq (ruler of the sun), Sea Woman (ruler of sea animals), and Sila (god of the air). They also worshipped animals because they believed them to have souls. The Aleuts had great regard for sea creatures, honoring them by using their body parts to decorate their hunting clothes. Wooden masks representing animals were also carved out and used during ritual dances to further honour them.
To celebrate past tribe members, newborn children often carried the names of their predecessors. The Aleut people believed that the souls of the dead went to a particular strange land in the sea or sky.
The Aleut people had shamans, which served as the link between the physical and spiritual world. The Aleuts were convinced they could receive messages from the spiritual realm and use them for successful hunting and healing. Shamans were also believed to be able to cast evil spells against others.
Due to the influence of Russians, many Aleuts eventually became Christians and joined the Orthodox Church.
The Aleut tribe’s native language is grouped in the Eskimo-Aleut family due to its similarity to the Inuit and Yupik languages. In some places, the native language had both western and eastern dialects. A writing system was introduced for the language in 1824 by Ivan Veniaminov and continues to be refined by several scholars and linguists.
As expected, the coastal people’s main occupation before the arrival of the Russians was fishing and hunting. Successful fishing could yield salmon, seals, walruses, whales, crabs, cod, and shellfish, while the land provided animals such as deer and moose. The Aleutian people developed intricate techniques to dry, smoke, roast, and preserve their food.
Today, fishing remains a dominant industry in the Aleutian islands. However, fishermen in the small Aleutian communities have difficulty competing with commercial fishing companies in the Bering Sea. Additionally, years of intensive fishing and climate change threaten the environments of their islands.
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- New World Encyclopedia, Available here: https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Aleut
- Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Aleut
- Integrating Research and Education, Available here: https://serc.carleton.edu/research_education/nativelands/pribilofs/culture.html