Alaska Native Collections – Sharing Knowledge


Unangan, Unangas, Aliguutas, Aleuts

Patricia Petrivelli

Among Alaska Natives, the Unangax^/Aleut people have experienced the longest and most direct contact with Western cultures. Yet while modern day Aleut identity is shaded by Russian and American influences, the Unangax^/Aleut culture is fundamentally a continuation of the practices of ancestors who occupied the Aleutian Islands for more than seven thousand years before foreigners arrived.

In Unangam Tunuu, the language of the Aleutian Islands, people refer to themselves by the name Unangan or Unangas (in the Eastern or Western dialects respectively) and Aliguutas (Western dialect only). Russian fur traders who came in the early 18th century, making contact in the western islands first, called the people Aleuts, a version of the word Aliguutas, and in the course of history both names have survived.

The Aleut region contains the Aleutian, Commander, Pribilof, and Shumagin island groups as well as the western end of the mainland Alaska Peninsula, including slightly over 300 individual islands and islets. Sixteen of these islands are substantial in size. The earliest census, conducted by the Russians in 1790, counted 66 villages on 18 islands and the mainland. However, not all areas were included in this survey and it is likely that some settlements were overlooked. The 1890 United States census counted 22 villages on 12 islands and the Alaska Peninsula. In 1990, ten villages remained.

Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory makes a visor at Unalaska, 2001.

Photo © Roy Corral.

The loss of villages and reduction of the population resulted in a decrease in the number of dialects of the Aleut language. The language is in the family linguists call “Eskimo-Aleut.” Linguists estimate that the Aleut language became distinct from the Eskimo branches about four thousand years ago. While there is one Aleut language, the speakers of this language and residents of this region were not part of one “nation.” Nine different dialects were associated with distinct geographic territories. These territories represented the boundaries of kinship-based villages that, when necessary, acted together against neighbors, near or far, to defend their own resources or to gain access to other resources.

The importance of kinship is noticeable in the values listed by the first Russian Orthodox priest to reside in the Aleutians (1825-1834), Father Ioann Veniaminov, who was later canonized St. Innocent, Enlightener of Alaska and Siberia. In his description of Aleut life, he identified the maintenance of chastity and bodily purity as ideals that guided Aleut society before the introduction of Christianity. These encompassed:

  1. Respect and care for parents
  2. Strict observance of family structure
  3. Respect and care for all Elders
  4. Assisting the poor
  5. Modesty, humility, and mercy toward those less fortunate
  6. Hospitality to strangers
  7. Hospitality to settlers
  8. Listening rather than speaking
  9. Being brave and fearless in attacking the enemy, disdaining death, and striving to perform a glorious deed during one’s lifetime. “Avenging—with interest—the death of one’s kin was considered such a deed.”
  10. Believing that “immoral” behavior and actions to persons and to the environment have consequences

Each of these values promotes community solidarity, modeling the ideal that the good of all is above the good of the individual. The villages were, and today still are, largely based on kinship. A village is made up those you are related to and those you are not; “family values” are important in Aleut life.

Following passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, Aleuts formed a single, region-wide Native corporation, the Aleut Corporation, as well as a regional non-profit corporation. In the long history before this event we had only acted within our smaller territories, at different times fighting each other, the Russians, and other Alaska Natives. On some occasions, Aleuts also fought alongside the Russians in their colonizing activities across Alaska and in California.

The Russians introduced Christianity to the Aleut region, and with the Russian Orthodox faith came an end to raids upon neighboring villages. The priests who brought formal religious institutions into the communities also acted as advocates for Aleuts against the fur merchants. As educators they practiced an early version of “informed consent” after criticism that Aleuts were being baptized too hurriedly. Veniaminov worked with Aleut chiefs to develop a writing system for their language. Church services and hymns were incorporated into the rituals of village life. Today, the church building is the focal point of each community, both physically and socially.

Each of the villages in the region has its own unique story associated with the differing groups of Aleuts that came to reside there, the history of the local church, and differing effects of the Russian and American periods. The Japanese invasion of the western islands during World War II and the subsequent American evacuation of villages along the whole island chain and the Pribilofs was a highly stressful period in recent Aleut history. Evacuees who spent the war years (1942-1945) in desolate relocation camps on the Alaska mainland returned to find that their homes had been damaged and possessions stolen by American soldiers.

Until World War II, travel was at a slower pace than today, mainly by boat between the islands. Boat travel allowed people to visit and interact with each other during stops at each village along the way, as in the old days. Now our villages are mainly connected by plane, with the result that distant Anchorage is the hub of travel activities.

The changing methods of transportation, and the fact that today more Aleuts live outside the region than at home, call for new methods of teaching cultural traditions. Many Aleuts are working together to define the foundations of traditional practices and to enable the transmission of Aleut culture. In this period of rapid change and modernity, these efforts focus on the youth through language programs, the teaching of arts and crafts, and the revitalization of Aleut songs and dances. Collections from the Smithsonian and other museums help these efforts.


Patricia Petrivelli is Niigugim Aleut. She is an anthropologist who works for the Subsistence Branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Anchorage.

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