Southwest Alaska


Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives

Southwest Alaska has two geographic subregions, insular Southwest Alaska and riverine Southwest Alaska. Insular means having to do with islands. Thus insular Southwest Alaska includes the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, and Kodiak Island. Riverine means having to do with rivers. Thus riverine Southwest Alaska is that part of the region that is on the Alaska mainland and includes the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Nushagak rivers and their tributaries.

In insular Southwest Alaska, the Aleutian Islands chain is more than 1,100 miles long. The mountainous, treeless islands begin at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula on the southwest corner of the Alaska mainland. From there the islands extend almost to the Siberia coast. The two major Pribilof Islands, St. Paul and St. George, lie in the Bering Sea about 500 miles northwest of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. St. Paul and St. George islands are themselves separated by over 50 miles of the Bering Sea. Kodiak Island, the largest island in Alaska at almost 6,000 square miles, is closer to mainland Alaska than it is to the Aleutian Islands. Kodiak is about 700 miles east of the first major Aleutian Island, Umnak, but only about 50 miles south of the Alaska Peninsula.

The Alaska Peninsula reaches out from mainland Alaska toward the Aleutian Islands and separates Kodiak Island from riverine Southwest Alaska. This area fronts on the Bering Sea north of the Aleutian Islands. Rivers sprawling on that front in broad deltas gradually narrow as they reach inland to their beginnings. Two such major rivers are the Nushagak and the Kuskokwim. The Yukon, riverine Southwest Alaska's other major river, begins in Canada. It is one of the longest rivers on the North American continent.

The geographic differences between insular and riverine Southwest Alaska are responsible, to some extent, for the ways in which the histories of the subregions have differed.

The focus on that history in this unit is contact, the coming together of Euroamerican and Native cultures. In Southwest Alaska this has often been more violent than contact" sports such as hockey or football. As you find out more about this region's history, you will be able to tie the ruthless exploitation of the resources and people of the Aleutian Islands to historical thought about the use of colonies and colonial people. You will also be able to compare activity in the Aleutian and Pribilof islands with activity in riverine Southwest Alaska. This will help to understand the reasons the areas terrible devastation war can bring to peaceful people, including damage associated with attempts to protect them.

The people of Southwest Alaska have historically been dependent upon the Bering Sea and the rivers draining into it. The marine life of the sea and rivers has supported humans in the area for at least 8,000 years. They have included the Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands, the Koniag Eskimos of Kodiak Island, and the Yupik Eskimos of riverine Southwest Alaska.

The Sea, A Common Bond
1743-1867 Era of Russian Violence
1867-1912 The Era of American Exploitation
1912 1924 Lessons From The Land
1924-1959 The Recent Years
1959-1980 Joining Old And New
Suggested Readings