Cultural Heritage of the Aleuts

This page was written by Jeanette Wolak and Erin Klauk as part of the DLESE Community Services Project: Integrating Research in Education.

Aleut dancers in traditional ceremonial dress. Details

The Aleuts of Alaska are part of an ancient race of maritime peoples who settled in the Aleutians approximately 7,000 years ago (Langdon, 1978). Prior to European contact, the Aleuts inhabited all of the major Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, and the Shumagin Islands south of the Alaska Peninsula (Langdon, 1978). Historians and archaeologists have estimated that the Aleut population was between 15,000-18,000 in the early 1700s. However, warfare, starvation, and epidemics caused by contact with Russian and European sailors decimated the Aleut population. The estimated number of Aleuts dropped to a few thousand by the end of the 18th century (Langdon, 1978).

Aleut hunters were taken from their homes in the Aleutians and brought to the Pribilof Islands by Russian fur traders in the 1700s. Permanent communities were established on St. Paul Island and St. George Island by the 1820s (Corbett and Swibold, 2000). The Aleuts in the Pribilofs were forced to hunt northern fur seals and sea otters for Siberian trading companies and later for the Russian American Company, which established a licensed fur-seal monopoly (Corbett and Swibold, 2000).

With the purchase of Alaska by the United State in 1867, Aleuts found themselves classified as 'Indians' and lost many of the rights they had enjoyed under Russian rule. The U.S. government's mistreatment of Aleuts continued into the 20th century. Many Aleuts were evacuated into internment camps during World War II and treated worse than Japanese and German prisoners of war (Corbett and Swibold, 2000).

The biggest challenge to Aleut communities today is a lack of economic opportunity in the Pribilofs and Aleutian Islands. Fishing has become the dominant industry, but smaller communities like St. Paul and St. George struggle to compete with commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea (Corbett and Swibold, 2000). Years of intensive fishing, combined with an overall climate change in the region threaten the wildlife and environment of the islands, home of the Aleuts.

To further investigate the culture of the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands, check out the links below:

Culture of the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands

Resources containing information about the culture of the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.

  • Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska. This resource is an overview of the history and culture of the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands. Information is provided on subsistence strategies, social and political organization of Aleut villages, and Aleut religious beliefs. Environmental and economic challenges that face Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands today are also discussed.
  • Aleut Information. This web site is hosted by the Arctic Studies Center and provides a general overview of Aleut culture and history.
  • Alaska Native Communities on Harriman's Route. This PBS website provides a brief article on Aleut history and culture. The article is an excerpt from the 128 page book 'The Native People of Alaska' by Steve J. Langdon.
  • The Aleuts. This resource contains information about the location and population of native Aleut communities. Users can explore aspects of Aleut culture including language, history, and writings.
  • The Aleut Foundation. This website contains links to information about the Aleut language, Aleut art and history of Aleut culture.
  • A Century of Servitude: Pribilof Aleuts Under U.S. Rule. This resource is an online text that provides a very detailed account of Aleut history from the early 1800s to present. This text describes the enslavement of Aleut seal-hunters by Russian fur traders in the 18th century and the control exerted by the American government on Aleuts following the purchase of Alaska in 1867.
  • When the Wind Was a River: Aleut Evacuation in World War II. [Kohlkoff, 1995] This 234 page book provides an in-depth look at the evacuation of thousands of Aleuts during World War II by the U.S. government.
  • Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge. [Laughlin, 1980] This 151 page book by W.S. Laughlin describes the prehistory and history of Aleuts in Alaska, with specific information about the migration of early peoples across the Bering Land Bridge.
  • History, Ethnology and Anthropology of the Aleut. [Jochelson, 1968] This 91 page book provides a detailed description of Aleut prehistory, history, and culture. Many pictures accompany the text, including historical photographs of Aleut villages on St. Paul Island, St. George Island, and Atka Island in the Aleutians.

For ideas on how to use these webpages in a classroom, a Study Guide is provided.