Voices from Russia

Monday, 17 August 2015

Alaska’s Unangax Work to Preserve Culture Quashed by World War II Internment

00 alaska native 170815


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”.

Dark Years

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

Ryan Schuessler

al-Jazeera America



Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Mother Cathedral

00 St Michael Cathedral. Sitka AK. 19.08.14


St Michael Cathedral is a great example of Old Russian church architecture. The greatest Orthodox Missionary in Alaska, Bishop Innokenty Veniaminov, designed it. He came to Sitka in 1834, returned to Russia in 1838, and became a bishop in 1840. He was the first Bishop of Alaska, and upon his return to Sitka in 1841, he began planning the construction of the cathedral. Bishop Innokenty laid the cornerstone in 1844 and hired carpenters and craftsmen to build it. The building used spruce logs with an outer layer of clapboard, and sailcloth covered the ceilings and walls for insulation and acoustics. The history of St Michael Cathedral began when a ship carrying the St Michael icon sank, along with all its valuable cargo, 30 miles short of its destination. Thirty days after the Neva sank, the undamaged crate carrying the icon washed ashore at Sitka and local residents found it On 20 November 1848, Bishop Innokenty consecrated St Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The building is laid out in the form of a cross, with three altars dedicated from left to right to the Mother of God “of Sitka”, St Michael the Archangel, and St Innokenty.

Bishop Innokenty learned how to speak the Tlingit language, and the Tlingits loved him, as he went all-out to understand their way of life and spiritual needs. He provided them with medicine and vaccines. Today, 90 percent of the cathedral congregation is Tlingit, as well as other native groups. The music in the liturgy is sung a capella (unaccompanied voice) in English, Slavonic, Tlingit, Aleut, and Yupik. Bishop Innokenty eventually returned to Russia and became the Metropolitan of Moscow and all the Russias. The Church canonised him a saint in 1977.

On 2 January 1966, tragedy struck the cathedral. A fire in Sitka’s business district in the middle of the night eventually spread to the church. Scores of local people rushed to the cathedral, where they formed human chains to remove most of the treasures… original artworks, icons, and religious objects, at the risk of their own lives. Unfortunately, the fire destroyed the structure, the clock built by Bishop Innokenty, Bishop Innokenty’s library, and bells. The Icon of the Last Supper above the Royal Doors in the main altar also perished in the blaze. Immediately after this tragedy, concerned citizens made plans to rebuild the cathedral in its original form, beauty, size, and style. They formed the Sitka Historical Restoration Committee, including many prominent citizens. It took 10 years to rebuild due to the difficult conditions peculiar to Alaska. The original plans were extant and they used them in the reconstruction. The replacement was completed and consecrated on 21 November 1976. The generous support of thousands of people in Sitka, throughout Alaska, and Lower 48 states made all of it possible.

The National Parks Service designated St Michael Cathedral a National Historical Monument and the OCA Holy Synod of Bishops named it an architectural and historical monument. To this day, its clergy serve a full cycle of liturgical services to accommodate the needs of Orthodox believers in Sitka, and it’s the “Mother Cathedral” of the Orthodox Church in America.

20 August 2014

Junjun Ablaza

Manila Bulletin


Thursday, 5 June 2014

Memorial to the Forgotten

00 aleut alaska 01. 05.06.14

Martin Stepetin, an Aleut, digs a hole for a memorial post at the Killisnoo Island Aleut cemetery on 31 May. 


David Mahaffey, the Orthodox bishop of Alaska, stood in a forest as a young man from St Paul Island quietly wept. On the last day of May, more than 90 people gathered in this quiet forest to pay their respects to 17 of World War II’s forgotten victims. In a solemn ceremony, the Friends of Admiralty Island dedicated a memorial plaque to the Atka Island villagers who died here after their evacuation from their homes by the US government. The evacuation was to preserve their lives from the advancing armies of the Empire of Japan, but instead death claimed almost 1 in 10 of the 881 people evacuated from nine villages in the Aleutian and Pribilof islands. Thirty-two people died at the Funter Bay internment camp, 17 here at Killisnoo, 20 at Ward Lake (near Ketchikan), and five at Burnett Inlet (near Wrangell). At the end of a ceremony sanctifying the cemetery, Bishop David said, “We don’t forget who has died. Please, remember these people in your prayers… that’s the way our memory is eternal”.

Little is left of the camp that housed 83 Atka residents for three years from 25 June 1942 to December 1945. Only corroded overgrown machinery indicates that anything existed here before the building of Whaler’s Cove Lodge on this fish-shaped island south of Angoon. Even the cemetery is hidden… marble tombstones, covered in moss, lean beneath towering trees that hide the sun. The longest-lasting markers are those left by whalers and herring plant workers who left the island after a devastating fire in 1928. Time has all but obscured the graves of the Aleuts, their wooden crosses rotted and collapsed.

When the Empire of Japan invaded Attu and Kiska on 7-8 June 1942, it caught Alaska almost defenceless. While the US Navy’s admirals knew what was coming, they deliberately let the Japanese attack fall on Alaska to trap the Japanese fleet at Midway Island, thousands of miles to the south. The Navy sent seaplanes to Atka Island, using the Native village there as a base to bomb the Japanese on Attu and Kiska. When the Japanese found the source of the bombardment, they strafed and bombed the village. On 12 June, General Simon Buckner ordered the village evacuated. Most of the villagers were at fish camps and had little time to gather their things. Daniel Johnson Jr, who guided the Friends of Admiralty Island trip, explained, “Imagine that happening to you, being told you had just minutes to leave your home”. To deny the village to the Japanese, American soldiers burned buildings, homes, and the village church, then, shipped the villagers to southeast Alaska.

They similarly packed up eight other villages and shipped them east… St George and St Paul in the Pribilofs, Nikolski, Akutan, Kashega, Biorka, Makushin, and Unalaska. Villagers from St George and St Paul went to Funter Bay, on the northwest coast of Admiralty Island. Those from Unalaska went to Burnett Inlet cannery, about 40 miles southwest of Wrangell. Those from the smaller villages went to Ward Lake camp north of Ketchikan. Some stayed for a time at the Wrangell Institute… a primarily Native school… before going to their final destinations. It was a culture shock for all… from the wide open islands of the Aleutians and Pribilofs, they went without boats, without guns, without traditional tools, to a place where trees blotted out the sun.

K J Metcalf, president of the Friends of Admiralty Island, said, “These people weren’t provided anything at all”. Many suffered from tuberculosis and other diseases, and the camps lacked plumbing, electricity, and… in some cases… adequate shelter. The old and young, particularly vulnerable to disease, died, their graves thousands of miles from their homes. The surviving villagers worked in Southeast Alaska until the end of the war, when the US government returned them home. While the story of tens of thousands of Japanese-American internees is well-known, that of the Aleuts went all but unnoticed until the 1980s. In that decade, the US government acted to compensate the villages. In 1988, Congress approved the Aleut Restitution Act, which paid each evacuee 12,000 USD (about 25,000 USD in current dollars) and created a trust fund to better Aleut life in affected villages.

Martin Stepetin grew up on St Paul Island and now lives in Juneau with his wife, Ann. He travelled to Killisnoo with the Friends of Admiralty Island, and… without prompting… grabbed a shovel and began to dig a hole for the memorial plaque. After finishing, he stopped and wept. He said after the ceremony, “It’s just really emotional, you know. I’ve dug a lot of graves in my home town of St Paul, and it feels the same. … I’ve heard about this all my life. Coming here is the closest thing… it’s the ultimate way to get closure”. Metcalf said that Friends of Admiralty Island dedicates itself to preserving the wilderness and historic mission of Admiralty Island National Monument. Last year, the Friends organised a similar trip to Funter Bay to dedicate a plaque at the campsite there. The ceremony under the trees here on Killisnoo included remarks from Johnson and Joe Zuboff, who offered a Tlingit perspective. Metcalf said, “I thought it was beautiful, a blending of the cultures”.

4 June 2014

James Brooks

Capital City Weekly (Juneau AK)


Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

21 February 2012. Gleanings From My Mailbag…


Editor’s Foreword:

I’m in plain type; my interlocutors are in italics.



I wasn’t “approving”… I found it “interesting”… quite another thing, wot? I’m old enough to have NO “enthusiasms” for anyone or anything. So are you… we’re not the ELDERS, but we’re “on deck”… we’re next. We need to be level-headed for the young’uns (who WILL get carried away… but that’s normal… we did, didn’t we?).


My conclusion is that some of these WASP converts (usually from well-moneyed backgrounds in Episcopalianism) just want the Church for themselves, for their ego-trip, without any nasty foreigners.


Have you seen this? Oliver Herbel, the OCA convert priest and “historian”, who’s the darling of the OCA ex-Protestant crowd, says that St Peter the Aleut didn’t exist, and that he was a myth! How completely and totally offensive… these people are out of control and they need to be stopped. Funny, though, his Frontier Orthodoxy blog is password protected, you have to be a “member” to read his rancid crap. 

It’s time for the Alaska Native Orthodox to contact the Russians… the Anglos won’t help them… they’re thieving liars and grasping rapers of nature. Herbel’s blog being “private” doesn’t surprise me… we’re not “good enough” for his wisdom. Then again, oca.org won’t tell us about Velencia’s suspension or the whereabouts of Dickie Wood. We’re not supposed to know! It’s time for the Alaska Native elders to quietly confer, go off to Vladivostok, and ask for canonical protection from the Mother Church. Otherwise, there’ll be no Church in 20 years time.


Barbara-Marie Drezhlo

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Albany NY

Blog at WordPress.com.