The AleutSouth of Chukotka, in the Bering Sea, beneath where the American and Asiatic continents almost meet, an arc of volcanic islands extends from Alaska nearly all the way to Kamchatka in Russia – this is the Aleut Archipelago, which is part of the United States. However, on two small islands - the Bering and Medniy islands – located between the Aleutian chain on the east and the Kamchatkan peninsula on the west – lies the Commander Islands Archipelago – which belongs to Russia.
There are practically no trees on the islands, but the ground is covered with grasses and flowering plants. There are low mountains and valleys with rivers and streams and waterfalls. The climate is surprisingly temperate, and average temperatures on Commander Islands are minus 5.4˚ C in January and 10.4˚ C in July. Air humidity is very high and it is frequently foggy. The sea is stormy from November to March. Thanks to warm ocean currents and several active underwater volcanoes it never freezes.
The indigenous people of the Aleut Archipelago are the Aleut, or Unangan, as they call themselves. It is believed that ancestors of Eskimo-Aleut peoples crossed the Bering Straits eastwards between 8-10,000 years ago. As they spread across the northern far east the Eskimo-Aleut evolved into distinct language groups. At the time of European contact in 1741 Aleuts lived on all of the major Aleutian Islands, but the Commander Islands were as yet uninhabited.
The Russian-American Company
From 1799 the Aleut islands were administrated by the Russian-American company (RAC). The name "Aleut" was given by the Russians and is of Chukchi origin, meaning ‘islanders’. The population of Aleuts in 1741 was probably around 12-15,000, and decreased drastically following contact with the Russians due to the arrival of new diseases, exploitation by the RAC and alcoholism, so that by 1800 it was estimated at 1,200. By the mid 1800s most Aleuts had been converted to Russian Orthodox Christianity.
The RAC relocated a group of Aleuts from the Aleut Archipelago to the then uninhabited Commander Islands in 1826. They worked for the RAC preparing furs.
In 1867 Russia sold the Aleut islands together with Alaska to the USA for a price of US$7.2 million. The Commander Islands remained part of Russia.
The Journal of the naturalist and physician Georg Steller, who took part in the Second Bering Expedition, which set out to Kamchatka in 1734 from St. Petersburg, contains a description of the first meeting between the Europeans and Aleutian peoples. Late in the afternoon of September 4, 1741, off what is today called Bird Island in the Shumagin Islands, the St. Peter dropped anchor. "Here," says Steller, "unexpectedly and without searching, we got to see Americans." Steller recounts that one man from the group of "Americans" paddled toward them and continued his welcome with an elaborate ceremony described by Steller: "before he approached us altogether, he stuck his hand into his bosom, took some iron- or lead-colored shiny earth and painted himself with it from the wings of his nose across the cheeks in the shape of two pears, and stuffed his nostrils full of grass; the wings of his nose on both sides were pierced by fine pieces of bone. Then he took a stick of spruce wood lying behind him on top of the skin boat, painted red like a billiard cue and three arshins long. On this he stuck two falcon wings and bound them fast with baleen, showed it to us, and then, laughing, threw it toward our ship into the water."
Father Veniaminov, a Russian Orthodox priest, and later Metropolitan of Moscow, spent several years among the Aleut at the beginning of the 19th century and wrote about their fascinating culture, their ancient customs and beliefs. Veniaminov writes that the men would stand on the roof of their house at sunrise, facing eastwards and “swallowing” the light and air whilst speaking with the sun and the dawn. By watching the change in colour of the first light, they would forecast the weather for the coming day. On their sea voyages, the hunters were guided by the relative positions of islands they knew and the conditions of sea waves and currents. They would leave behind beacons made of blown seal bladder with stones as anchors to help find their way back. They observed the movements of the sun and moon and knew about connections between the moon's phases and tides in the ocean. Veniaminov was impressed with the hunters’ strength - they could paddle or row for 14-20 hours without rest, travelling 150 kilometers out to sea. He also remarked on their unusually sharp eyesight, which they explained with their practice of not using salt at all.
The Aleut calendar included twelve months and each month received its name from the hunting of different kinds of animals and their availability. Fishing began at the end of April and continued till autumn. They hunted the sea otter, hair seal, sea lion, and migrating fur seals and whales. The whale hunters attacked their prey from the baidarkas and usually killed them with a poisoned stone bladed lance. These formidable feats required the assistance of magic, and hunters would carry amulets to protect them and call upon spirits to assist them. Other sea mammals were harpooned, and salmon and halibut was caught with a line and hook or nets.
The baidarka, made out of a frame of driftwood covered with seal and sea lion skin, was made watertight with boiled seal oil, so that the skin turned translucent as paper. It took a year or more to make a baidarka. It was both strong and supple, bending over the waves, and became an extension of the hunter, whose fate it shared. The sea around the islands is turbulent and the mixture of arctic and southern waters produces an almost permanent fog, making hunting a treacherous business. The Aleuts were expert navigators and had detailed knowledge of the currents.
The hunters wore colourful hunting hats made of wood with visors and decorated with sea lion whiskers, knee long parkas called kamleikas, made of waterproof gut and highly decorated on the outside, and , when it was cold, knee high boots made of hide covered with a waterproof material. The number of whiskers and length of the visor on the hat indicated how experienced a hunter was – junior hunters wore shorter visors.
The diet was supplemented with birds and their eggs, and hunters captured birds on the ground in nets or with snares or caught them in flight with bolas. A bola was made of strings about one meter long, tied together at one end and with stones attached to the free ends. The hunter twirled the bola and threw it at a flock of flying birds. The strings wrapped around the birds and brought them down. Women and children collected shellfish, kelp and other seaweed, berries and roots.
In the summer each family would live in a separate hut, whilst in winter, they lived in partially underground longhouses with their extended families. These permanent houses were built by digging a rectangle in the ground and building over it a roof supported by a frame made of whalebone and driftwood and covered with moss and grass. A house could be 60 meters long and hold upwards of 40 families. The entrance was through an aperture in the roof and down a notched pole to a central room. Individual rooms for each of the families were portioned off with poles and woven grass mats, and alcoves for storage, sleeping quarters and hiding places were dug out of the walls, which were insulated with dry grass and turf.
A village might consist of 2-4 longhouses and was usually located on the coast, on a bay or near the mouth of a river or other freshwater source, with a beach suitable for landing skincovered baidarkas (a craft similar to kayaks). It was also important to be near a high and open place from where one could watch whales and the approach of enemies.
During winter more time was spent indoors, making clothes, weaving baskets, and working with other handicrafts. One of the major holidays, the winter solstice, was celebrated with dance, dramatic representations of hunting and mythological scenes, and distribution of gifts.
Aleuts wore clothing made out of bird skin and the furs of otters, sea lions and fur-seals. The women stitched the clothing with the fur side in and the smooth side out. Dyes collected from the soil and plants were applied to the smooth side of the pelt. Boots were made from sea lion flippers and fur-seal hide. They made skis by drying hairseal skins over wooden frames, so that the hair would dig into the snow on an uphill walk and lie flat to provide speed on a downhill walk. Necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and piercings worn in the lips, nose and ears were made of bone, stone or wood, feathers, and sea lion whiskers. Like the Yupiks, the Aleut also wore face and body tattoos.
There was plenty of grass in the summer, and Aleut women became skilful at basketry – Aleut basketry is in fact considered among the finest in the world. The traditional technique produces a texture as fine as linen. The baskets were so closely woven that they could hold water.
Traditional Aleut medical knowledge was extensive. Aleuts were aware of the similarities of human anatomy to that of sea mammals, and they sometimes autopsied their dead to determine the cause of death. Sickness was treated in various spiritual and practical ways, including forms of acupuncture and bloodletting.
Society was ranked and divided into three hereditary classes: high nobles, common people, and slaves (usually prisoners of war). The ranking was reflected in the allocation of living space within the longhouse and in burials.
The Aleut buried their dead in a sitting position (curiously, this is also common among Andean people). Ancestral burial places were located in small caves. The bodies of nobles were embalmed by removing organs and stuffing the body cavity with grass, and then placing the body in a cold stream of water which removed fat and left skin and muscle. The body was then wrapped in layers of waterproof skins. Tools, weapons, crockery, ritual masks and personal amulets were placed next to the dead. Sometimes noblemen were buried together with their slaves.
After the end of the Russian civil war in the Far East, Commander Islands were subject to the policies of collectivisation of the Soviet government, and in 1925 a sovkhoz was founded on Bering Island. Communication with the other Aleut islands and Alaska became more difficult with the arrival of the Soviet regime, and ceased completely by the Stalinist era.
Nowadays around 400 people identifying themselves as Aleut (although there are no ‘pure’ Aleuts left on Commander Islands) live in the village of Nikolskoye on Bering Island.