The AMIQ Institute


The Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.

Helen D. Corbett and Susanne M. Swibold

Reproduced with permission from "Endangered people of the Arctic. Struggle to Survive".
First published 2000.
Edited and Copyright by Milton M.R. Freeman.
ISBN 0-313-30649-4
The Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut - London
"Endangered Peoples of the World" series,
Barbara Rose Johnston, Series Editor.


The cultural survival of the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, is one of the most unusual case studies in the Arctic. Taken from their homes on the Aleutian chain to two uninhabited and isolated islands in the central Bering Sea, the Pribilof Aleuts were forced into service to kill sea mammals for two colonial regimes, first Russia and later the United States. The Aleuts were one cog in a wheel of a massive fur industry that lasted 199 years, from which a complex history and unique culture developed.

The People

The seal hunters of the Pribilofs are descendants of the great maritime race of Aleuts who settled along the Aleutian archipelago, a 1,300-km chain of islands extending southwest of the Alaskan mainland. Russians called them Aleut (al'-ee-oot), but their own name is Unangan, meaning "the coast" or "seashore." They are believed to have migrated across the Bering land bridge from Asia between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago. An early Eskimo-Aleut culture began to develop about 8,000 years ago in the Bering Sea and North Pacific region, later branching into the distinctive maritime culture and language of the Unangan along the Aleutian Islands. Living in semisubterranean houses, the Aleuts developed a sophisticated marine technology to cope with the limitations imposed by their environment and rigorous climate. They possessed special skills for hunting marine mammals from skin-covered kayaks, skills that were later exploited by the Russian fur traders who came to the islands after 1750 in search of sea otters and fur seals. In the first fifty years of Russian control, Aleuts died from introduced diseases, wars resisting colonizers, malnutrition, and privation caused by the transport of able-bodied hunters away from their families and villages to hunt sea mammals for the Russians. At the time of contact, the Aleut population is estimated to have been between 12,000 and 15,000. (1) Today, there are about 2,000 Aleuts, of whom only 340 people still speak the Aleut language.(2)

In 1786 Russian navigator Gavriil Pribilof discovered the first of two islands that came to bear his name after a three-year search by some sixty Siberian trading companies for the breeding site of the valuable fur seals. St. Paul and St. George Islands, collectively known as the Pribilof Islands, are the summer hauling grounds for the greatest concentration of Northern Pacific fur seals in the world. Since the animals breed on land, it is relatively simple to round up and harvest them in a convenient location. The islands were uninhabited at the time of their discovery by Pribilof, although Aleutoral history knew them as Aamix, a rich hunting ground once visited by an Aleut chief lost in a storm. At the time of the discovery, Russian traders had nearly eliminated sea otters and were seeking the next most valuable source of furs-the fur seals. The discovery of the Pribilofs extended the Russian fur trade in America for almost another century.

Aleut hunters were taken to the islands, often without choice, on a seasonal basis, and by the 1820s permanent settlements had been established on both islands. Seals were killed ruthlessly until then, when the Russian American Company established a licensed fur-seal monopoly and adopted conservation methods in harvesting seals, taking only three- to five-year old nonbreeding males and prohibiting the killing of female seals. By the time of the sale of the Russian-American territories to the United States in 1867, the Pribilof Aleuts had attained an enviable status, enjoying full rights as citizens of Russia, literate in two languages, paid fairly for their labor, and retaining their traditional systems of governance.

The second great shock to the Aleut culture came with the American purchase of Alaska in 1867. The Pribilofs were the unpublicized "jewel in the crown" of the Alaska Purchase, and the seal industry generated large revenues for the U.S. Treasury. At first, the Aleuts were paid competitive wages by a series of private monopolies, at a rate comparable to other industrial workers in America. After forty years of private control, however, the fur seal populations had been severely depleted, and the Aleuts experienced privation and malnutrition. The U.S. government took over the industry in 1910, and the Aleuts discovered that the government's agenda for the Pribilofs was seals, profits, and people-in that order. The Aleuts lost the rights they had held as Russian subjects and were now treated as wards of the U.S. government. Every aspect of their lives was interfered with: language, political structures, wages, religion, freedom of movement, and even their choice of marriage partners. This state of servitude to the U.S. government reached its apex in 1942 when the Pribilof Aleuts were evacuated and interned in dilapidated fish canneries in southeastern Alaska until the end of World War II. Many Aleuts died in the substandard conditions, lacking adequate food, water, sanitation, medical treatment, and shelter.

The Americans were also remiss in the first forty years of managing the seal harvest. By the late 1800s, sealskin coats had become so popular that sealers from several countries had launched a spree of uncontrolled highseas, or pelagic, killing. By 1910 the combination of pelagic sealing, corrupt government agents, who were supposed to oversee the harvest but did not, and greedy monopolies had reduced the northern fur seal from its population of over one million animals to only 300,000 animals. In 1911 the North Pacific Sealing Convention was signed by Russia, Japan, Great Britain (for Canada), and the United States in return for a ban on high-seas killing. To compensate Canada and Japan for the loss of pelagic furs, Russia and the United States agreed to share a portion of their controlled, land-based harvests of nonbreeding, three- to five-year-old seals. Scientists from the signatory countries would determine how many seals could be harvested each year and thus maintain a maximum sustainable yield. The commercial harvest was tightly controlled and the killing technique (stunning and bleeding) was assessed as more humane than any other alternative methods. The international treaty, unique in the history of wildlife conservation, brought the seal back to a sustainable population while providing the Aleuts with employment and subsistence food.

The Pribilof Aleuts gained full rights as American citizens, as well as government-level wages and benefits, in the mid-1960s, but their newfound freedom came at a cost. News about this secret federal reserve was beginning to reach the public, and the environmental movement of the 1970s was questioning the wisdom of hunting animals for their skins.

The Setting

The Aleutian climate is so notorious that early Russian missionaries called the area "the place that God forgot."(3) High winds, rain that blows sideways, and thick fog are commonplace. The islands are volcanic, treeless, and covered with thick grasses, sedges, and beautiful wildflowers. Environmental conditions were even harsher on the Pribilofs where there were no natural harbors for protection, no freshwater streams or salmon populations, and fewer varieties of berries. The Aleuts developed respiratory problems associated with the climate, malnutrition, and living in government houses that let in the wind.

Traditional Subsistence Strategies

The Aleuts lost their maritime navigation and sea-hunting skills on the Pribilofs when they were forced into a land-based industry that interfered with many traditional subsistence activities. In particular, the men did not have the freedom to fish or hunt during the sealing months. They worked intensively through the summer harvest season, sometimes killing over 100,000 seals in a precise, methodical assembly line of designated tasks.

Women and children helped on the killing grounds, gathering seal meat to salt for winter use. During the winter months, the sealing crews were idle, waiting for the next killing season. During this time, the men hunted Steller sea lions from shore, an activity that required a strict code of hunting ethics, respect for elders, and apportionment of meat along extended family lines. Women picked and preserved berries in the summer months and, in early times, gathered crustaceans in the intertidal zone. The rest of the subsistence diet was supplemented by ducks, reindeer (an introduced species), cod, halibut, and seabird eggs. An extensive trade network developed between the Pribilof Aleuts and their relatives on the Aleutian chain, with whom they exchanged fur seal meat for dried salmon and berries.

Social and Political Organization

Unangan villages were traditionally ruled by a chief (toyuq), a second chief (sukaskiq), and after the coming of the Russians, a chief who was lay reader in the local Orthodox church (staristaq). The Russians honored this political system, but the American government interfered with the Aleuts' selection of chief and the distribution of harvest monies. The Pribilof Aleuts formed a tribal council after World War II, but their political structures were consistently undermined by the U.S. Treasury agents who managed the islands. The Aleuts gained more political and economic control over their islands with the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971. The local land and financial resources now came under the control of native corporations. By the 1980s, a proliferation of modern institutions vied for power in the villages of St. Paul and St. George: tribal council, city council, corporation, and school. This became a source of constant conflict.

The primary social unit on the Pribilofs is the Aleut extended family. Entire families were involved in the fur-seal harvest, and to this day, elders will not eat seal meat that has not been butchered, preserved, and prepared by a family member. Family units are now engaging in the successor to the fur-seal industry, namely, the new day-boat fishery.

Religion and World View

Little is known about Aleut beliefs prior to their contact with Europeans, although early Russian priests reported that Aleuts followed the instructions of local shamans (indigenous priests or ritual specialist) regarding hunting taboos, weather, and predictions for the future. The dimensions of "east" and "above" were associated with the sacred and a universal creator. Sunlight and seawater were regarded as sacred sources of life. This world view meshed with Russian Orthodox Christianity, and the conversion of the Aleuts to this faith was bolstered by the respect shown by missionary priests for local customs and language. Indeed the priests often interceded on behalf of the Aleuts with the Russian imperial government, protecting the Aleut culture from the worst practices of the fur companies. This respectful alliance between the missionaries and the native population and the overlap of world views account for the importance of the Orthodox church in Alaska today. It is regarded as a native institution, the major symbol of Aleut identity, and the guardian of social mores in Aleut villages. On the Pribilofs, the Orthodox churches provided a continuum of ritual and tradition during periods of upheaval. Old melodies are sung in the churches in Aleut, Slavonic, and English. Seasonal subsistence activities of hunting, sealing, fishing, and berry picking receive the priest's blessing, and all the houses in the village are ritually blessed at least once a year.


One thing that kept us together was we had a common goal, and that was to survive.
Maxim Malvansky, mayor of St. George, 1988(4)

Challenges - Then and Now

Today, the villages of St. Paul and St. George are the largest Aleut communities left in the world, with a population of 768 people in St. Paul and 184 in St. George. The Pribilof Aleut culture has survived and adapted to many challenges over the last two centuries: forcible relocation, the influence and culture of two colonial nations, substitution of their traditional economy with a wagebased economy, and suppression of their language, religion, political structures, and human rights. From 1975 to 1985, the Aleuts faced a new, more insidious challenge: the wrath of a Western, urban culture living thousands of miles away. The environmental movement had spawned a new generation of animal rights' activists, who, bolstered by the success of the harp-seal pup campaigns in the Canadian Atlantic, began to pressure the U.S. government to withdraw from the fur-seal industry on the Pribilofs. Despite the differences between the harpseal hunt and the fur-seal harvest, animal protection groups launched intense, emotional campaigns that treated all seal killing as one. The Aleuts were subjected to hate mail, threats and harassment, legal challenges by humane societies, and negative media coverage.

"The seal harvest is presently a key element of our survival," wrote Aleut leader Larry Merculieff in a 1984 letter. "Thus any attempts to stop it through misdirected emotionalism of people who do not live with nature as closely as we do can only be viewed as violence against us-and the seals."(5) International campaigns devalued seal pelts, making the U.S. government's stake in the harvest increasingly unprofitable. The Reagan administration, seeking ways to cut the budget, decided that abandoning the commercial seal harvest could assuage negative public opinion and save tax dollars. In 1983 the U.S. government announced its withdrawal of its $6.2 million annual allocation to the Pribilofs, the sole economic mainstay of the islands. At the same time, the United States withdrew from the international fur-seal treaty, leaving the northern fur seal without international migratory protection, open to pelagic killing, and without international scientific monitoring and research.

There was little time to prepare a comprehensive community and economic mobilization plan. The government offered no compensation in the announcement of its withdrawal from the seal industry. An intensive lobbying effort by Pribilof Aleuts in Washington, D.C., resulted in a $20 million trust fund to the islanders to assist them to diversify their economy. Both St. Paul and St. George began to prepare to move into fisheries, which by the mid-1980s were booming in the Bering Sea as the result of a change from being a foreign-owned to being an American-owned fishery. Harbors were constructed on both islands to provide safe moorage to the U.S. small-boat catcher fleet. By 1990 St. Paul's harbor was deepened and expanded to accommodate large floating processors and factory trawlers. The Aleuts quickly adapted to a day-boat fishery, and today over 100 local fishers operate thirty locally owned vessels in a million-dollar halibut fishery. The Pribilofs offer the only sheltered harbors in 50,000 square kilometers of rough ocean waters. The crab industry sustains St. Paul today. During crab season, the harbor serves over 230 transient vessels, two floating processor plants permanently moored in the harbor, and over forty floating processors, freighters, and crab vessels within five kilometers of the islands.

Environmental Crisis

This new economy may do more to destroy our habitat and disrupt the wildlife than anything in the island's history, and it has the capacity to accomplish this destruction within a single generation.
Larry Merculieff, 1997(6)

Once protected by its physical isolation and the secret nature of the federal fur-seal industry, today's Pribilof environment is more vulnerable to catastrophe because of the community's recent entry into the global market place. The Pribilofs are located in the middle of the richest bottom fishery in the world, and during the winter crab season the marine horizon is filled with as many as 300 trawlers, tramp steamers, supply ships, freighters, and fish processors, their lights illuminating the night skies. Fuel barges filled with from three to six million gallons of marine diesel fuel weave their way through the flotilla of vessels, en route to the harbor. Scientists fear that this concentration of vessels around the largest, most sensitive wildlife area in the southern Bering Sea may have catastrophic consequences for marine birds and animals. The introduction of rats through a ship berthed in harbor or a grounded freighter could quickly destroy the Northern Hemisphere's greatest concentration of seabirds and introduce disease to the seal rookeries.

Ten vessels have run aground in as many years on the Pribilofs. The worst was the wreck of a floating processor in March 1989, spilling more than 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel. If the spill had occurred two months later, thousands of nesting seabirds would have been affected. In 1996 a vessel dumped contaminated fuel within five kilometers of the Pribilofs, resulting in the death of about 1,000 King Eider ducks, part of the winter subsistence diet of Aleuts. When the oiled ducks began to wash up on St. Paul's shores, the community was divided between publicizing the negative effects of the fishery and keeping quiet about it to protect their economic interests. "It took a spill to wake people up to focus on preventive action" said Larry Merculieff, who for a decade was the lone Aleut voice addressing the deteriorating health of the Bering Sea ecosystem. "The deterioration is the result of wanton waste of millions of pounds of fish thrown overboard by fishing vessels, discharge of huge levels of contaminants by land and by sea over decades, and the use of the Bering Sea as a convenient dumping ground for non-biodegradable garbage" (personal communication, February 21, 1996).

In 1992 northern fur-seal pups began to die mysteriously in two breeding rookeries on St. Paul. Researchers found the cause of the 20 percent mortality increase to be "white muscle disease," perhaps the result of a toxic substance reaching the pups through mother's milk or their flippers. This was the first documented case of the disease appearing in a marine mammal, having been found only in domestic cattle before. Scientists suspected that contaminant discharges from an offshore fishing vessel caused the seal deaths.

Decades of intensive fishing in the Bering Sea, combined with climatic changes, have led to population declines in over seventeen species of marine mammals, fish, and seabirds. Scientists believe that food stress is responsible for most of the declines. Prospects of a broad ecosystem failure, similar to the crash of the northwestern Atlantic cod fishery, have mobilized a host of committees, working groups, and government panels to focus on the plight of the Bering Sea. They are still grappling to understand the problem, much less knowing how to reverse it. Pribilof organizations have now joined this process. The city council of St. Paul has raised environmental issues to the top of its agenda and it has added an environmental department to its operations. The tribal government decided to sue the vessel responsible for the death of oiled King Eider ducks, resulting in an out-of-court settlement.

Sociocultural Crisis

Aren't we still serving someone else's existence? It's basically taking the same tool that was used before, only it's chiseling a living from the Bering Sea.
Aquilina Bourdukofsky, 1995(7)

The loss of the commercial harvest was socially and economically catastrophic to the community of St. Paul, the focus of fourteen years of research. Without government subsidies, the cost of home heating, marine transportation, and maintenance of the airport, roads, and buildings skyrocketed. Eighty percent of the wage base in the community disappeared. The insecure future, increasing loss of cultural identity associated with the seal, and lack of respect from urban populations evidenced by attacks on the traditional Aleut sealing practices all led to rapid social disintegration. In the first years after the government pullout, there were unprecedented numbers of suicides and murders, and an increase in drug and alcohol abuse and violent behavior. Politically, three local institutions (municipal government, tribal council, and native corporation) filled the void left by the government, but they all fought with each other. Divisions were intensified by a heritage of oppression and the fact that two institutions were patterned after the dominant society (a municipal government and a for profit corporation) and the third represented tribal functions. Factionalism, corruption, competition, and constant legal challenges thrived in this environment. The Orthodox church began to lose its position of authority in the community. Changing values influenced by television, materialism, travel, and the disintegration of community sharing contributed to the erosion of social institutions and cultural beliefs and practices formerly of great importance.

The last commercial seal harvest took place in 1985. Since the U.S. Congress failed to ratify the international fur-seal treaty in 1985, sealing on the Pribilofs occurs now only on a subsistence basis. The harvest of as many as 1,600 animals, which is conducted on a voluntary basis by the tribal council, is monitored and supervised by federal officials and a voluntary humane observer. In the first years of the subsistence harvest, the Aleuts countered constant legal challenges by animal protection groups claiming that the seal meat was being wasted. Representatives of these groups would appear on the harvest field each summer, watching while the Aleuts butchered the seals and had their meat weighed by a federal official. After years of legal skirmishes, the Aleuts have won the right to take seal meat without harassment. They also fought for and won the right to take seal pelts for a handicraft program, the first time in two centuries that they have had control over the destination of the seal pelts.

Fifteen years after the government withdrawal, the Pribilofs have entered a new era of economic and social stability. In St. Paul, there is a blossoming of self-governance as the more moderate elements of the community take political leadership roles. The community no longer relies on outside expertise to run the village. The political bickering has subsided, and the local institutions concentrate on doing their jobs. Alcoholism and drug use decreased when the island's employers began to enforce sobriety policies and random drug testing. Employees with substance addictions are sent off the island for treatment, and they participate in a mentorship program when they return. Violence, felonies, suicides, and murders, have all decreased. There is a new pride in the halibut day-boat fishery, and people have adapted successfully to a fishing livelihood. Fishing, like the commercial seal harvest before it, absorbs the entire community, involving entire families in its operation. There is a new affluence in St. Paul, where the median household income is $42,000, among the highest in rural Alaska, and there is no shortage of jobs for those who wish to work.

The boom has, however, brought a new set of problems previously unimaginable on these isolated, pristine islands. Each crab season brings 2,000 transients to work in the processing plants or waiting for a ship. "We've become the gas station of the Bering Sea," says the Aleut priest, George Pletnikoff.(8) The close-knit small-town atmosphere has been strained by daily jet service, strange faces in the village stores, and an invasion of urban values into an island setting. Streets are filled with taxis, forklifts, and semitrucks conveying crab pots. Boat crews buy groceries, find spare parts, hire drivers, drop off the injured, or pick up fishermen flying into town.

Island leaders realize their economy is riding the peak of a Bering Sea fisheries boom. Their economy, like the seal fishery before it, is too dependent on a single resource, and it is completely vulnerable to collapse in global markets, resource fluctuations, overefficient fishing technology, and the rapacious appetites of the corporations that drive this market. Crab quotas have been declining, and St. Paul's $14 million budget immediately registers the effects in reduced taxes, fuel sales, services, and storage fees. "Have we moved from one endangered species to another?" asks city clerk Phyllis Swetzof. "If the fishery went away, we would definitely go into a slump" (personal communication, July 24, 1998). The day-boat fishery is also vulnerable to quotas set by regional fishery councils far from the islands. The 1998 halibut quota was increased, with a corresponding rise in the amount of time devoted by the community to fishing. This resulted in an oversupply of halibut in the processing plant, causing the price to drop by half. Caught in a falling price market, Aleut fisherman continued to bring in more halibut in the hope of making enough money to pay the loans on their boats.

The extended halibut season has interfered with the subsistence seal harvest that normally follows the fishing season. In 1999, 980 seals were taken, compared to 1,34S in 1998. This follows a trend of higher community value being placed on the commercial fishery than the subsistence seal harvest. The Aleuts are asking the federal government to extend the harvest period from one to three months, thereby enabling people to eat smaller amounts of fresh meat rather than freezing large quantities of seal in a short time frame. Frozen seal is now distributed to Aleuts in Seattle, Anchorage, and the Aleutian Chain. Seal meat is no longer the dietary staple on the Pribilofs. In 1881, the average annual consumption of seal meat on the Pribilofs was 600 pounds per person (9). By 1981 this amount had dropped to approximately 284 pounds per Aleut. Today the figure has fallen to about 40 pounds per person (l0). The decline can be traced to the greater variety of choices in the store and the availability of other subsistence foods (halibut and reindeer), changes in nutritional awareness (less salted meat is consumed), the influence of Western, urban values via television and travel, contaminants in the meat from pollution in the food chain, affluence, and less time to prepare the meat. If the woman in a household dislikes seal meat, her avoidance is generally passed through subsequent generations.

The new fishing economy has reinforced assimilation into global economic markets by merging local fishing councils with multinational fishing corporations. The Pribilofs, like other Alaskan Bering Sea communities, participate in a Community Development Quota (CDQ) program, which attempts to balance inequities between local fishing communities and corporate fish processors. The St. Paul CDQ association receives a 4 percent allocation of the Bering Sea pollock quota and sells this quota to processing companies for about $2 million in annual revenues to be reinvested in fishery development programs. The community receives development funds (reducing pressure on government budgets), and large-scale processors have a competitive advantage to fish in a region. One outcome of this new alliance is a reluctance by the directors of the local fishing council to offend their industrial partners by discussing the environment or the future. By becoming partners in large-scale resource extraction in the Pribilof region, local people are effectively removed from direct, meaningful control and involvement in decisions affecting their region's resources. Indigenous systems of knowledge and prudent use of natural resources are increasingly forgotten in the pressure to increase fishery quotas for multinational fishing corporations.


Taking Control

Two broad patterns can be traced in the fifteen years since the federal government announced its withdrawal from the commercial seal harvest. The first was the work by a generation of Aleut leaders to respond to the crisis and to consolidate and administer the land, equipment, and financial structures under municipal, tribal, and corporate structures. These leaders had the difficult task of balancing traditional Aleut values with elements of Western culture they needed in order to move from being passive wards of the federal government to managing and planning their own destiny. That they have largely succeeded in this task in a short period of time is nothing short of miraculous.

The second trend emerged over the past five years: a cultural revival movement seeking to celebrate the traditional Aleut strengths and the sealing, hunting, and fishing skills that enabled them to survive many difficult challenges over the centuries. This work was begun by one Aleut woman, Aquilina Bourdukofsky, in a quiet, unassuming way. Today, her work, which is flowering in all sorts of offshoots, is manifested primarily in the desire of local people to stop fighting and get to work governing their island and in a renewed sense of their role as stewards of their islands. Bourdukofsky spent a year recording the Aleut language and stories of her father, the Russian Orthodox priest Michael Lestenkof. She thought about the Pribilof history and the sense the Aleuts have of being victims and slaves to an outside authority. "I began to focus on our strengths," she said. "We know our people came here under hard conditions. We took seals in mass amounts for the fur trade. We had to be the ones to do it-we knew when to stop, how many to take. We have to take more ownership, responsibility, and respect for our history instead of dwelling on ourselves as slaves, a skinny evacuated people huddled in corners" (personal communication, August 27, 1998).

The Pribilof Islands Stewardship Program thus began with the goal of reconnecting young Aleuts with their islands and sea. Funded by the island organizations, federal and state governments, volunteers, and environmental organizations, the summer program combines traditional knowledge with Western science, providing young people with the opportunity to work with international scientists researching fur seals, fish, and seabirds. The students gather data, count populations, take tissue samples, and assist in lab work. They participate in the subsistence seal harvest, apprenticing with experienced sealers to learn how to kill, skin, and butcher the seals. They haul meat for the villagers, flesh pelts for a handicraft program, and shear pups for a population census. A skilled "disentanglement team" of young people now roam the fur-seal rookeries, removing the fish nets from the necks of seals that would otherwise die from strangulation. In winter, the young people clean debris from the beaches and seal rookeries. Students have learned traditional Aleut songs, dancing, and drumming, and then how to make their own dance regalia. The program has also spawned a revival of Aleut kayak (bidarka) construction in the local school.

Only a decade before, many Pribilovians thought these symbols of Aleut identity had vanished forever. The stewardship camp sparked a resurgence of cultural pride and strengthened ethnic identity in other areas of community life: in the success of the halibut day-boat fishery, in the incipient sobriety movement, in the resurgence of skills among the voluntary subsistence seal harvest crew, and in the blossoming of self-governance. Bourdukofsky is now working on a Marine Messengers Program, in which students from the stewardship program visit other harbor villages and the Alaska mainland to speak about their role in caring for the Bering Sea. "We are now getting outside funding agencies to not just think about investing in the environment, but investing in the indigenous people who grow up in this environment," she says. "That's how we'll make sure we continue to live here" (personal communication, August 27, 1998).

Sadly, the Aleut language is now endangered, and linguists predict it may be extinct by the year 2055. Only the elders still speak it in the Pribilof villages. Attempts to teach it to younger generations through the school have not been successful. The Aleut language is tied to an intimate knowledge of the land and sea, rules of conduct, and a unique way of knowing. The processes of modernization and assimilation into a Western mainstream culture have displaced the language from its context, rendering it a cultural artifact.


I believe we exist generationally. Would we be as strong as we are if we didn't go through the hardships, the slavery? It's powerful to hear the strength of our people-that's what held them together in the past and today.
Aquilina Bourdukofsky (personal communication, August 27, 1998)

The story of the Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, is a unique case of cultural survival in the Arctic, a story of resilience and adaptation to an onslaught of assimilative processes over the course of two centuries. The Aleut culture and population flourished on the Aleutian archipelago prior to the arrival of Russian fur hunters in the eighteenth century. Soon thereafter, the Russian American Company enslaved and relocated Aleuts from the Aleutian Islands to the Pribilofs to hunt fur seals. The Aleuts were settled in villages on St. Paul and St. George Islands, where they labored in a land-based seal industry, losing many of their aboriginal subsistence and marine skills. The purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867 ushered in the second wave of assimilation, and the Aleuts became wards of the American government.

Pressure from the animal rights movement and a declining fur market prompted the U.S. government to abandon the commercial seal harvest in 1983. The government pullout led to catastrophic social and economic effects in the Pribilof communities. The insecure future, increasing loss of identity with the seal, and lack of respect from urban populations led to rapid social disintegration. Local institutions, hobbled by a mentality of dependence and inexperience in self-governance, were divided by factionalism, power struggles, and legal disputes.

The Pribilof communities entered the flourishing Bering Sea bottom fishery, developing harbors, processing facilities, and vessel supply operations. Aleuts achieved a rapid, successful transition to a day-boat halibut fishery, which has brought a new prosperity to the Pribilof communities. However, the marine fishing economy has resulted in several unintended, disruptive socioeconomic consequences: village roads are clogged with harbor traffic, the island water aquifer is strained by the freshwater requirements of the processing plants, and transients have transformed the small village atmosphere in St. Paul. The community's livelihood is now tied to a global market economy and decisions made by fishery councils far from the shores of the Pribilofs.

Efforts by animal rights groups to save fur seals may, in the long term, have led to a reduction in the fur-seal population. An overefficient, mechanized fishery has posed far greater threats to the Bering Sea ecosystem than the seal harvest.

Aleuts have become their own agents of assimilation and modernization through their participation in the fishing industry. This third major wave of acculturation has resulted in the most profound and rapid changes to the Pribilof cultures. A local, cultural, and environmental movement has grown up to counteract the loss of Aleut identity, community cohesiveness, subsistence skills, and connection to the land and sea. In the process of cultural recovery, self-governance, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency are emerging in the community. Finally, the Aleut connection to the fur seal, severed by the collapse of the seal harvest and the disapproval of a Western, urban culture, is now being recovered by a young generation of Pribilof Aleuts.


1. Margaret Lantis, "Aleut," in Handbook of North American Indians (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1984), 163.

2. Valerie Chaussonnet, ed., Crossroads Alaska: Native Cultures of Alaska and
(Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 109.

3. Michael J. Oleksa, Alaskan Missionary Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 3.

4. Quoted in Tundra Times, June 27, 1988, vol. xxvi, 1.

5. Letter to Animal Protection Institute of America, April 26, 1984.

6. Ilarion (Larry) Meraulief, "Western Society's Linear Systems and Aboriginal Cultures: The Need for Two-Way Exchanges for the Sake of Survival," in E. S. Burch, Jr., and L. J. Ellanna (eds.), Key Issues in Hunter-Gatherer Research (Providence, R.I.: Berg, 1994), 411.

7. Quoted in Doug O'Harra, "A Boom in the Bering," We Alaskans Magazine; Anchorage Daily News, March 5, 1995, H-11.

8. Quoted in Miro Cernetig, "The Endangered Hunters of the Pribilofs," Toronto Globe and Mail, July 20, 1991.

9. D. W. Veltre and M. J. Veltre, "The Northern Fur Seal: A Subsistence and Commercial Resource for Aleuts of the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands, Alaska," Inuit Studies 11 (2): 51-52.

10. Helen Corbett and Susanne Swibold, "Furs, Food and Factions: The Fur Seal and the Pribilof Aleuts," Wildlife and Local Cultures, Fourth International Whaling Symposium (Tokyo: Institute of Cetacean Research, 1994), 105.


Published Literature

Bonner, W. N. Seals and Man: A Study of Interactions. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.

Jones, Dorothy Knee. A Century of Servitude: Pribilof Aleuts under U.S. Rule. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1980.

Laughlin, William S. Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980.

MacLeish, Sumner. Seven Words for Wind: Essays and Field Notes from Alaska's Pribilof Islands. Fairbanks: Epicenter Press, 1997.

Torrey, Barbara Boyle. Slaves of the Harvest: The Story of the Pribilof Aleuts. St. Paul Island, Alaska Tanadgusix Corporation, 1978.

Films and Videos

Amiq: The Aleut People o f the Pribilo f Islands, a Culture in Transition, 1981-1983, 1985. 58 minutes. Flying Tomato Productions, 276 Three Sisters Drive, Canmore, Alberta T1W 2M7, Canada.

Laaqux: The Northern Fur Seal of the Pribilof Islands, 1988. 57 minutes. Flying Tomato Productions, 276 Three Sisters Drive, Canmore, Alberta T1W 2M7, Canada.

Peter Picked a Seal Stick: The Fur Seal Harvest of the Pribilof Islands, 1981. 28 minutes. Flying Tomato Productions, 276 Three Sisters Drive, Canmore, Alberta T1W 2M7, Canada.

San: The Birds of the Pribilof Islands, 1990. 58 minutes. Flying Tomato Productions, 276 Three Sisters Drive, Canmore, Alberta TlW, 2M7, Canada.

Internet and World Wide Web Sites


Amiq Institute
276 Three Sisters Drive
Canmore, Alberta T1W 2M7
Telephone: (403) 678-2879

Bering Sea Coalition
22541 Deer Park Drive
Chugiak, Alaska 99567
Telephone: (907) 688-2226
Fax: (907) 688-2285