Harriet Hope’s family was last together in one place at the dawn of World War II, when she was five-years-old. In 1942, Hope was one of nearly 900 indigenous Unangax that were given only hours of notice to pack one suitcase and leave their homes in Alaska’s Aleutian and Pribilof islands. Without any choice or sign of where they were going, American soldiers put them onto crowded ships, who sent them to squalid internment camps in the then-territory’s southeastern rainforests. Hope, now in her late 70s, said, “Our whole lives were just a total upside down wreck. It was a huge tragedy that the US government pushed on us”. In 1945, the USA resettled the last interned Unangax. According to the National Parks Service, at least 74 people died in the camps, many from the unsanitary conditions. Many elders, who would’ve passed on traditions and customs to younger generations, succumbed to disease in the camps, along with the very young. Seven decades later, the cultural damage of the internment is still clear and many of the remaining survivors are hesitant to talk about the experience. However, even as the number of survivors dwindles, Unangax communities peppered along hundreds of miles of volcanic islands are working to preserve and restore their culture through educational programmes geared towards their youngest members.
Restoring a Culture
Sharon Svarny-Livingston’s mother, Harriet Hope’s older sister, was 12 when the family had to leave Unalaska. She went to a boarding school with other school-aged Unangax kids. She said, “The boarding school was the first place they learned that they would be beaten for speaking their language. So, a whole generation of these kids never taught their kids to speak their language. Our mother never taught us. When you lose those languages, you lose so much”. In the 1990s, for a short time, the school in Unalaska was able to hire a teacher who was fluent in the native language. As a result, they passed on the language, Unungam Tunuu, to a few young people, including the man who is now the Russian Orthodox priest in Unalaska. Svarny-Livingston noted, “To be able to keep that language in the church and be able to have the kids hear it is so important”. Svarny-Livingston also mentioned how important it is to teach subsistence to the next generation, the traditional way of living off the land and sea still practised by many Alaska Native communities, “It’s not necessary to survive, it’s necessary to sustain spirit”. Harriet Hope recalled, “None of the men were able to bring any kind of subsistence gear when they were interned. We couldn’t go out on our own and subsist. It’s sad. They just disconnected us from our whole culture”.
In the decades following the internment, Alaska’s Unangax community mobilised to preserve its cultural traditions; it’s created programs to pass them onto the next generation. Crystal Dushkin of Atka, who is involved in one of several Alaska summer camps that promote Unangax culture, said, “I’ve always wanted us to keep everything we’ve had and make sure that future generations know about it and learn about it, because it’s who we are, we aren’t the immigrants that make up the rest of this country. We actually originated here. This is where we belong”. The camps focus on traditional foods and other activities, such as basket weaving and carpentry. Dushkin observed, “So much has been lost as a result of World War II, and just all the changes that have come around since then”.
Rachel Mason, senior anthropologist with the National Park Service’s Alaska Regional Office, said, “The internment really hastened the erosion of some of the old customs. The deaths of many elders and the forgetting the language, and being outside of their ordinary environment, hastened the loss of the traditional way of life”. Mason was part of an effort that facilitated a trip to several Unangax villages never resettled after the internment. In 2010, a handful of former residents and their families visited three such settlements. She added, “It’s painful thing, and the trauma continues”.
The Japanese invaded Alaska in 1942, capturing the 44 inhabitants of the Unangax village on Attu in the Aleutian Islands. They eventually took them to Japan as POWs, where many would die, including Brenda Maly’s great-grandfather. Maly, 39, whose grandfather Nick Golodoff was six when the Japanese captured Attu, said, “They were strong at the time. My grandfather’s mother, I think she was the strongest of them all, because she remained strong after her husband disappeared in Japan”. Eventually released, the US government didn’t allow the surviving people of Attu to return to their village, as the battle to take back the islands destroyed its remnants. Maly, who has never been to Attu, said, “The war robbed them and future generations of their island and their sense of place. It’s history. If there’s no history, there’s no today”.
The Japanese also bombed the port of Dutch Harbor near Unalaska, prompting the quick evacuation of the Unangax to camps near Juneau in 1942. The government only forced the native people of the Aleutians to leave their homes and villages… they allowed the region’s white residents to stay, sometimes, breaking up mixed families like Hope’s. Even though they were still in Alaska, the camps were in a different world. They dropped the Unangax in the damp forested panhandle in southeastern Alaska, more than a thousand miles across the Gulf of Alaska, far from the treeless, wind-swept islands in the North Pacific and Bering Sea they’d called home for thousands of years. Hope said, “It just broke up the whole family, and it broke up other families. When it came time to come home, a lot of them couldn’t come home for whatever reason, and a lot of them got back home and their homes were just wrecked by the military. It’s just sad”. 88-year-old Nicholai Lekanoff said of Unalaska’s historic Russian Orthodox church, recalling when he first saw it after the war, “They’d thrown rocks and everything at it. [They’d] broken the windows”.
There were as many as 20,000 Unangax living in the Aleutian Islands when Russian explorers arrived in the late 1700s. There were less than 1,000 in the islands by the time of the internment after waves of violence, disease, and famine took its toll on the population over the centuries. Near Juneau, the government put the Unangax in inadequate living quarters, sometimes, dozens of people in one structure, with a few days’ clothes. There was no electricity or running water. Tuberculosis and other diseases persisted with little or no medical services available in most of the camps. Survivors reported facing discrimination in nearby towns where many sought work. Hope recalled, “As I grew into the age that my mother was at the time [of the internment], I thought, ‘My gosh, how did they manage this?’ I started getting angrier and angrier because of what they’d done not to me, but to my parents and family”. Congress passed the Aleut Restitution Act in 1988, giving a one-time payment to the surviving Unangax evacuees, months after granting Japanese-American internment survivors similar compensation. The act also provided funds to restore damaged Russian Orthodox churches in Unangax villages. Hope remembered getting her restitution check, reportedly about half the amount given to Japanese-Americans, in the mail, and thinking it was too little too late, “This shouldn’t ever happen to another group of people again. How they got away with it last time is beyond me”.
16 August 2015