Alaska's Heritage


Origin of the Aleuts is controversial

Most anthropologists believe that early Aleutian Islands' inhabitants came across from coastal Asia with the early Eskimos. There is proof that Aleuts lived in the eastern Aleutian Islands for at least 6,000 years, and the village at Anangula suggests a history 2,500 years older. The term Aleut was first applied to the inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands by the Russians in the mid-eighteenth century.

Aleuts densely populate the Aleutian Islands

By 1700 as many as 15,000 Aleuts lived on the islands in the Aleutian chain. Every major island with fresh water was inhabited.

The Aleuts of the central and western islands spoke Atkan and Attuan. Those of the eastern islands spoke Fox or Unalaskan.

Food from the sea is plentiful

Interiors of the rough, mountainous Aleutian Islands did not offer much to support human life. The people could meet only a few needs, such as stones for knives or lamps and grass for woven baskets from the land. For everything else, they turned to the sea.

Aleut territory.
The Aleuts particularly relied on seals, sea lions, and fish. From seals they ate the meat and burned the fat in stone lamps for heat and light. They used seal intestines to make waterproof clothing and used bristles of the seal's beard for ornaments. The Aleuts also hunted sea otters, porpoises, and whales.

The Aleuts hunted the smaller sea mammals with barbed darts thrown from boards. Throwing boards gave direction and extra distance to the weapons. At sea they harpooned larger sea mammals with throwing boards. On land they used spears with a point attached. The weapon's tip had a line attached to it. Hunters eventually pulled struck animals near their boats and clubbed them to death.

Aleuts usually hunted sea otters in groups. After an otter was spotted, the hunters formed a circle around the site where the animal dove under the water. When the animal surfaced for air, the hunters threw their spears. The spear closest to the head determined the owner.

For whales, which Aleuts from only a few villages hunted, the Aleut hunter smeared the harpoon with aconite poison obtained from monkshood root. After striking a whale, the hunter did not try to stay with the animal. Some dead whales drifted ashore. Marks on the spear point identified the hunter. Eskimos on the Southcentral Alaska coast and Native people in Asia hunted whales in a similar manner.

The Aleuts also used many kinds of fish, shellfish, and seaweed from the surrounding waters. They gathered sea urchins, mussels, whelks, and clams. To catch fish, they used nets, hooks, and lines. Cod and halibut were important, along with smaller fish. Salmon were also taken although their numbers were far less in the small Aleutian creeks than in the Alutiiq and Yupik Eskimo areas.

Aleuts supplemented their diet with birds and their eggs, herbs, roots, and berries. In summer numerous cormorants, gulls, murres, and puffins could be found. The Aleuts killed such birds with barbed darts that they threw or with arrows shot from a bow. They also caught birds in snare nets placed between poles at well-known flight paths over narrow strips of land. The Aleuts ate the birds, used the bones to fashion sewing needles, used their skins for parkas, and used the bright feathers to decorate their clothes.

The Aleuts ate most of their food raw. Although difficult in their damp environment, they dried some of their food. They rarely wasted any part of the animals, birds, or fish that they hunted.

Aleuts live in villages

Usually the Aleuts settled on points of land between two bays or on narrow sandspits. They required fresh water nearby. In the eastern Aleutians they sometimes built large houses, partially underground, called barabaras. Some were said to be 240 by 40 feet and to be occupied by 40 families. Most lived in houses one-fourth that size. Only small houses are known in sites more than 1,000 years old. Because the islands were treeless, the people built houses with driftwood, whalebone, and sod. The roof had openings for smoke to escape, light to enter, and people to enter. A person entering a barabara climbed down a notched log. Stone lamps were used for light and heat. Several related families usually lived in a large barabara. Each had a sleeping area separated from the others by mats.

Large villages might have as many as seven barabaras. Most villages, however, numbered 50 to 150 people. At their hunting and fishing sites Aleuts also built dwellings, but usually smaller ones than at their permanent villages. Unlike their neighbors to the north, the Aleuts did not have community houses in their villages.

Aleuts wore long, hoodless coats made from sea mammal or bird skins. Women often wore clothing made from sea otter skins. To go sea mammal hunting, a hunter had a kamleika, a waterproof parka with a hood made of sea mammal intestines. They lashed the kamleika to the hatch of a baidarka melding the occupant and boat together.

Aleuts are expert seafarers

To hunt sea mammals and to travel between islands the Aleuts became expert sailors and navigators. For hunting they used skin covered boats, that the Russians later called baidarkas. The boats were maneuverable and sturdy. To make the ribbed frame of a baidarka the Aleuts lashed driftwood together with heavy thongs. They covered the frame with sea lion or seal skins. Frequently, the hunter's wife sewed the skins for the boat together. A baidarka had one or two round openings in the top for the hunter, or the hunter and a paddler. One-person baidarkas measured about 16 feet long, while two-person boats measured about 20 feet long. Slightly wider than a one-person boat, two-person baidarkas measured about two feet wide. The Aleuts, in general, made longer, more slender boats than their Eskimo neighbors. Baidarka travelers sat in their boats with legs extended in front, using double-bladed wood paddles. On baidarka decks, hunters set darts, throwing boards, harpoons, floats, and ropes.

Families traveled in large open skin-covered boats that the Russians later named baidaras. They used these boats to travel to other islands. A baidara could carry up to 40 people. Some Aleuts traveled as far as the Gulf of Alaska in these boats to trade and to raid. When hunting and traveling, several boats usually went together. Aleuts covered the driftwood frames of their baidaras with walrus skins.

Aleut loyalties are to their villages

Eastern Aleut society included honorables, commoners, and slaves. The status of slave was not hereditary. An individual's most important social group was his or her village. Residents of a village usually were related by blood or marriage. The Aleuts had war chiefs and peace chiefs who were selected from the social group known as honorables. The duties of the chief included watching over the common good and protecting the borders of the village and its hunting and fishing grounds.

Aleut villagers frequently raided another village. They raided to obtain slaves who became their laborers, to obtain new hunting and fishing territories, to loot, or for revenge. In times of war several villages on an island might cooperate. Each village sent representatives to a council. A village selected its representatives on the basis of bravery, wisdom, and hunting skill. Villages also got together for certain celebrations.

Celebrations and ceremonies are prominent in Aleut culture

Aleuts held large celebrations in winter although certain eastern villages had ceremonies when a hunter caught the first whale in the spring. At their celebrations, residents of several villages gathered to feast, sing, dance, tell stories, and play games. They sometimes used masks during ceremonial dances. Both men and women had roles in the dances. After some celebrations participants destroyed their drums and masks. Each villages had stories and songs that told about their ancestors. Men and boys enjoyed wrestling. They also played games with rings and sticks. Women and children's games often involved balancing.

Aleuts had elaborate funeral rites. In one method they mummified the body of a honored person. The people placed the wrapped body in a box along with his or her personal belongings. Occasionally the principal survivor had slaves killed to show his or her grief.

The Aleuts decorated many of their utensils and tools. Aleut women made intricate baskets from rye grass and decorated them with dyes from berry juices. The women also made containers from strips of seal intestine, scraped until light would show through them. To decorate them, the women added feathers along the seams.

Aleut men took particular pride in their hunting hats. The hats had long visors to protect the wearer's eyes from the glare of the sun. A hunter personally made his hunting hat. They made the hats from a single piece of wood, bent to form the curved shape. The men often painted the hats bright colors and decorated them with bones and sea lion whiskers.

The Aleuts made realistic dance masks complete with beards and mustaches. They made entirely different burial masks. These masks had enormous noses, high foreheads, prominent chins, wide mouths, and incised circles or slits for eyes. They added a circle, spiral, or rectangular design painted in red or green on the forehead between the eyebrows.