Aleutian people

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The Aleutians or Alëuts (regional self-name of the eastern Aleutians Unangan or Atka Unangas , Singular Unanga , Dual Unangax̂ , 'coastal people') are the indigenous people of the Aleutian archipelago of the same name, which encompasses around 150 islands and is off the north-west of America. The name of the island chain was first proposed in 1827 by Johann von Krusenstern based on the native inhabitants. The present-day Aleutians are genetically a mixed population of native and Russian ancestors. Their total number is estimated at around 10,000 to 20,000. Together with the Eskimo peoples, they form the “Arctic” cultural area .

Unangan (illustration, around 1820)


The origin of the name Aleut is unclear: Either it comes from an ethnic group on the Olutorsk River in Kamchatka and was used by Russian fur traders for hunters from the Aleutian Islands, or it was derived from the Chukchi word for "island" (aliat) . A derivation from the Western aleutic word allíthuh for community is also possible.


The first people in the Aleutian Islands were Asian immigrants who originally came from the Kamchatka Peninsula , an origin that is also underpinned by their equipment repertoire. The oldest stone tools found by people of the Epi gravettien culture type date from around 6,000 BC. BC (Paleo-Aleut culture). These people came straight from Asia. A second settlement of the archipelago with the very harsh living conditions for humans can be found from 2,000 BC. From the west by people of former Asian descent. They had seaworthy boats and Stone Age hunting weapons, including a type of rod harpoon with long, narrow bone points and barbs, such as those found in Kamchatka, Kodiak Island and northern Japan. The settlement was in the middle of the 1st millennium BC. Completed.

According to their own statements, however, the Unangan have been living on the islands for 9,000 years and came from three maritime peoples who were divided into different tribes. This mythical tradition is supported by isolated 14 C-dated skeleton finds on Anagula Island , so that a further, earlier wave of immigration is assumed, which, however , has apparently not been anthropologically reflected in the recent representatives. Around 1000 AD there seems to have been a third wave of migration, which could have come from Asia or was triggered by East-West migration by Eskimo groups , so that three mythical tribes can be derived from these three immigration cycles . The last wave of immigration is documented above all by a new inventory of equipment, especially polished slate tools , as were typical of the Thule culture of the Arctic coastal areas of North America between the Labrador Peninsula and Alaska to the Northeast Asian Chukchi Sea .

As an increasingly maritime form of culture, the Aleutians isolated themselves from the other arctic cultures of the mainland very early on. Between 2500 and 1900 BC During the transition from Arctic stage II to III , they broke away completely from the development of the mainland eskimos, whose microlith technology with complex, multi-part devices was one of the earliest to appear. They kept since the settlement phase around 2000 BC. They had a stable way of life and had a rich technology of processing stone chips and bones, which lasted until the arrival of the first Europeans in the 18th century.

After the drastic decimation of the Aleutians by the Russians, the surviving indigenous population mixed with the Russian conquerors in the course of the 18th and early 19th centuries.


The Eskimo-Aleut languages ​​and their distribution

The name Unangan - as mentioned above, a self-designation in the eastern Aleutians - which is not applicable to the entire Aleutian people, means "man" in the language of the islanders there. The Aleutians speak their own language, the Unangam Tunuu with three dialects , one of which, the Attuan, was almost extinct by the end of the 20th century. The main dialect groups are Ostaleutic, Atkan and Attuan. Within the Eastern Group there are in turn the sub-dialects on the islands of Unalaska , Belkofski , Akutan , the Pribilof Islands , Kashega and Nikolski . The Pribilof dialect currently has more speakers alone than all other Aleut dialects combined. The now extinct Attuan was a separate dialect that had both Atkan and Ostaleutic influences. All dialects have vocabulary influences from Russian . The dialect of Cooper Island has also adopted many Russian inflections. The large number of dialects is due to the isolation of the islands, between which travel was difficult.

The Aleutian language is closely related to the Eskimo languages ​​and was therefore combined with them by the American linguist Joseph Greenberg in 1987 to form one of the three great American language groups, Eskimo-Aleut (the other two are Na-Dené and Amerind ).

At the beginning of the 21st century there are around 16,000 to 20,000 Aleutians. Around 4,000 of them temporarily live elsewhere.

Traditional way of life and society

Fishermen and their kayaks on Unalaska , 1896


Since the Unangan live on mountainous, forest-free islands with tundra-like vegetation , their food has always come primarily from the sea with its fish and marine mammals. For this they developed multi-seat kayaks ( baidarkas ). Among the marine mammals, bear seals , sea ​​lions and especially sea ​​otters as well as all whale species found there were captured. For the winter they collected bird eggs from the large seabird colonies. Larger land mammals ( caribou , bears) only occur on the Alaska Peninsula and on Unimak, so they were only hunted there. In addition to furs made of grass, woven mats, bags and baskets were available as household items. The often conical headgear was typical. Fat, jukola (dried fish) were kept in bladders made from the stomachs of sea lions. Sea otter skins and bird skins were mainly used for clothing .


Aleut hunter in festive clothing (1818)
Typical Aleutian hunter's hat

Several families lived together in large semi-underground buildings ( barabaras ). A barabara was usually rectangular, up to 20 m long, windowless and reached over a meter deep into the earth. The frame was made of driftwood, covered with a layer of fur or grass, over which there was plenty of sod. Two large holes in the roof were used for lighting, as a smoke outlet and as an entrance via a ladder. The houses were so big that several families (40 to a maximum of 150 people) could live in them. The residents slept on the walls in padded pits. These rooms could be separated from the rest of the room with curtains. The villages were originally on the seashore in places where boats were easy to land, and in the vicinity of fresh water sources. Defensive capabilities were also important, as there was always the risk of attacks by neighboring tribes. With the arrival of the Russians in the 18th and 19th centuries, internal wars stopped and the villages were now built on estuaries where salmon could be caught during the annual salmon migrations.

The social structure was based on the extended family: mostly an elderly man, his brothers and sons, their wives and unmarried children. Various indications of a matrilineal lineage are not proven. The status of the individual in the Aleut society was primarily linked to personal success in whale hunting. The villages were usually made up of related families . A chief (Tukux) could rule several villages with 200 to 2,000 inhabitants on one island; but there was never a chief who ruled all of the Aleutian Islands, or even some of them. The Tukux had only limited power: he was primarily responsible for protecting his clan and its rights on the hunting grounds against other clans and led his group in times of war. In the past, these leaders were chosen for their special abilities, but always relied on the benevolence of the elders and other chiefs during their tenure. It was only the Russians who installed a system of chieftainship, hereditary above the male line, made up of first, second and third-tier leaders with clearly defined tasks.

The quite belligerent Aleutians kept their prisoners as slaves. However , there were no men's houses, so-called kashims , such as the coastal eskimos of Alaska or Kodiak Island . Because of the early destruction of their social structure, there is relatively little information about it. It is known, however, that monogyny and polygyny coexisted, based on a man's economic ability. But there was also, as is often the case under economically critical environmental conditions, polyandry . Women and men enjoyed largely equal rights.


The Russian conquest had an early influence on the Aleutian culture, so that relatively little is known about the ethnic religion .

The belief was animistic : all living beings were considered animated and there were good and bad spirits , especially animal spirits. Above it was probably a deity associated with the sun who was responsible for souls and everything that had to do with hunting. These ideas influenced people's entire lives. Adult men sacrificed to the spirits in holy places and possessed a number of different amulets and talismans for protection from evil. There were also spiritual dances for the men, although the focus was more on the norms of behavior for women and children. Souls were seen as wanderers between three worlds - the earth, an upper and a lower sphere. Shamans - who were called by the spirit world - were the mediators between this world and the hereafter. They were responsible for hunting, weather and healing. In winter, great mask dances and ceremonies were held to appease the spirits. Perhaps the most important ceremony was the 40-day ancestor cult , as death played an important role in the Aleutian faith. Some groups mummified corpses in order to preserve their spiritual powers. Famous whalers were allowed to carry a piece of it with them for luck in the hunt.

Christianization began at the end of the 18th century , initially by Orthodox missionaries. Since 1820 the Church has been concerned about the establishment of schools and hospitals. The traditional religion only exists in a syncretistic hybrid form , which mainly contains Christian elements. Most of the Aleutians still belong to the Orthodox Church today. Nevertheless, according to the ongoing surveys by the evangelical-fundamentalist conversion network Joshua Project , 20% of the Aleutians still profess the old religion.

Modern history

Original Aleutian settlements before being destroyed by foreign invaders. Here: The port of Unalaska painted by Ludwig Choris during the Rurik expedition in the summer of 1816

The islands and their inhabitants were discovered for Europe in 1741 by the German Georg Wilhelm Steller on an expedition with the Dane Vitus Bering and Alexei Tschirikow .

The sea otter and fur seal skins brought with them by the expedition triggered a boom with the "Promyshlenniki" (Russian fur hunters and traders), many of whom were unemployed after the drastic depletion of the fur population of Siberia, with drastic consequences for the Unangan: The Promyshlenniki tried to sea ​​otters in large numbers on the western islands. In the first few years they murdered over 85 percent of the indigenous population. It was only when they discovered that the Aleutians were far more skilled sea otter hunters that the killing stopped and turned into slavery . The sea otters were almost extinct in the entire Aleutian Islands by the beginning of the 19th century. In addition, the Russians released arctic foxes on the islands, which drastically reduced the seabirds that are enormously important for subsistence (especially for making clothing from bird hides). Only the release of red foxes improved this development somewhat. In the course of time, the rest of the indigenous population mixed with the conquerors. This can still be recognized today by the Russian family names that most of the Aleutians carry.

Even the early American settlers, including hunters, showed little consideration and killed many Aleutians. When Russia sold the Aleutian island chain together with Alaska to the United States in 1867 ( Alaska Purchase ), the situation improved somewhat, as almost all fur animals were largely exterminated and therefore no more hunters were able to reach the Aleutians. The number of the Aleutians decreased from around 25,000 to only 2,500 in the second half of the 20th century.

The Aleutian population did not have full citizenship in the USA, formally all Aleutians were under the tutelage of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which in Alaska assumed the role that the Bureau of Indian Affairs performed for the Indians in Lower 48 .

Aleutin from Attu Island with Baby (1941)

When Japan attacked the USA in World War II, the battle for the Aleutians , which was costly for both sides, began , during which the islands of Attu and Kiska were occupied. The inhabitants of all islands were then forcibly relocated by the US Army and interned in the southern parts of Alaska . As a result, the Americans recaptured the islands. Partly during the resettlement, partly under military administration, villages and property of the Aleutians were destroyed. The first internees were allowed to return to their homeland in the spring of 1944 and the other internees in April 1945. Their old culture and their social structures had suffered from the resettlement. Many children were forcibly sent to boarding schools and in particular lost access to their traditional language. The internees often came into contact with alcohol for the first time in southern Alaska.

The legal status of the Aleutians was similar to that of the Indians for a long time of inferior rank, because until 1966 they were considered to be the ward of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service . Congress only granted them substantial civil rights from this year on.

Current situation

Aleut village on the island of Atka

Today's Aleutian villages, which mostly consist of wooden houses, are run differently; modern and traditional forms mix here. Many villages today have partnerships with the fishing industry, which, along with the military industry, provides the most jobs. Many people work seasonally outside of their place of residence. In addition, on some islands there is also a material sideline through traditional subsistence farming . The importance of self-sufficiency, however, must also be seen in families who do not pursue a market economy, in view of the so-called "Permanent Fund" of the state of Alaska: Since 1976 every citizen has received a dividend from the state income from the oil industry, usually in the fall averaged $ 1,370 per year from 1998 to 2013.

Many Aleuts still marry mixed. The traditional tribes sometimes compete with the villages; mixed marriages complicate this situation.


  • MD Coe (eds.), D. Snow, Elizabeth Benson: World Atlas of Ancient Cultures: America Before Columbus. History, art, forms of life. 2nd Edition. Christian Verlag, Munich 1985, ISBN 3-88472-091-0 , p. 46f.
  • W. Haberland: American archeology. History, theory, cultural development. WBG, Darmstadt 1991, ISBN 3-534-07839-X , p. 163.
  • H. Läng: Cultural history of the Indians of North America. Walter Verlag, Olten 1989, ISBN 3-8112-1056-4 , p. 38ff.
  • A. Sherratt (Ed.): The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Archeology. Christina Verlag, Munich 1980, ISBN 3-88472-035-X , p. 362ff.

Web links

Commons : Unangan  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  3. Aleutian Islands in the Geographic Names Information System of the United States Geological Survey
  4. a b c d e Douglas Veltre: Aleut. In: Encyclopedia of World Cultures. 1996., accessed November 16, 2015.
  5. a b c d Handbook of the North Pacific ., 2003, accessed on: November 14, 2015, pp. 34, 44–45.
  6. a b c d e f Peoples and Cultures of the Circumpolar World I - Module 3: People of the Coast . University of the Arctic, Retrieved July 21, 2015.
  7. a b c d Barry M. Pritzker: A Native American Encyclopedia. History, Culture and Peoples. Oxford University Press, New York 2000, ISBN 0-19-513877-5 , pp. 548-551.
  8. Handbook of the Arctic ., accessed on: November 16, 2015, p. 13.
  9. Joshua Project: Aleut, Eastern in United States ( February 19, 2016 memento in the Internet Archive ), accessed November 16, 2015.
  10. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica. Volume 1, pp. 238f; H. Läng: Cultural history of the Indians of North America. 1989, p. 41ff.
  11. ^ Eva Holland: The Forgotten Internment. In: Maisonneuve. July 16, 2014.
  12. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica. Volume 9, p. 691.
  13. Handbook of the North Pacific ., 2003, accessed on: November 14, 2015, p. 56.