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The Aleut People

The seal hunters of the Pribilof and Commander islands are descendants of a 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, 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 subterranean house, 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 hunters away from their 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. Today, there are about 2,000 Aleuts, of whom only 340 people still speak the Aleut language.

Documents

The Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska
Helen D. Corbett and Susanne M. Swibold, AMIQ Institute

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