Aleut Sealing Gang, St. George Island, circa 1952. Photo courtesy Father Paul and Matushka Elizabeth Merculief collection
Tough, Resilient & Adaptable For 275 Years
Aleut Sealing Gang "We were Sealers" Father Mike reminded me in 1985 on St. Paul, returning from a trip to St. George with my family. Knowing that harvesting fur seals would come to an end, he reminded me from where we came as Pribilof Island Unangan-Aleuts. We both knew that we were more than sealers. Men, women and children endured with power and empathy. From the Sasixnan of Attu to the Qawaqngin of the Shumagins a beautiful culture thrived.
At 13 years of age in 1952, I was not quite old enough for sealing. Phillip Swetzof second from left is 16 and Elizar Philemonof to his right is 17, prime young ages to be members of the sealing gang. Father Mike is next to Phillip on his left. In 2012 we dedicated the Tanaq 2011 annual report to our forebears, the children of Tanaq. In earlier decades with no education beyond the 6th grade or age 15, young men became sealers; their future was determined for them. At 62 the respected elder of this handsome sealing gang is John Merculief.
We were sealers, yes and more than that. In 1984 I visited with Larry Merculieff on St. Paul to discuss business as another swarm of tourists were busy packing into vehicles, leaving the village with cameras and their tour guide. We had a laugh as Larry commented, "they come to see the seals and not the people".
Yes we were sealers We were sealers and more, much more. We were artists, musicians, songwriters, choir members, dancers, humorists, storytellers, carvers, fishermen, tradesmen-carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, and electricians. Unangan did it and we did it well. From back breaking work to finite skills we did it. Our forebears were surgeons. From the early years we embraced orthodoxy, we built churches. Later ordained, Father Mike and immediately behind him Father Deacon Andronik began a lifetime commitment to orthodoxy. We became advocates, ambassadors and lobbyists for civil rights and human rights. Since 1962 I followed in the footsteps of advocacy.
Thankfully the photographer Paul Merculief later Father Paul, captured the eyes and faces of these sealers. Standing tall in the right rear is Alvin Lestenkof one of the best musicians in the village. I grew up with all these men, knew their families, the house where they lived-in my minds eye as they say. While growing up, I spoke with all of these strong Unangan men except for maybe one, I can hear their voices. Not shown here are the Aleut men who made up the day crew who took care of village affairs. Lead by day shift foreman Benjamin Merculief, they too had names, faces and stories. We are committed to bring more attention to the roles, power and skills of Unangan women. I invite Unangan women to write those stories and please share them. From the memoirs of Leo Merculief
Some Indigenous History Unangan especially those of The Pribilof Islands lived in a small geography yet continued to be globally significant. From events in Russia leading to continual war and an insatiable desire for treasure and furs coupled with political instability, famine and little empathy for human suffering, the seed was planted for Russia to reach out from Siberia into the pacific. Russia's push to The Bering Sea for global conquest was too widespread with too little power and no desire to sustain expansion beyond 1867. In the meantime the damage was done and Unangan were merely handed off to America in the Treaty of Cession with no rights as American citizens.
The Aleut Elder will not go into depth about atrocities that in research leaves you wanting to cry, suppress anger and brings a feeling in the gut that doesn't easily go away. On a Facebook feed I was reminded about the purge of Unimak Island Unangan. My feeling is that when we travel through the history of North American Native Tribes we must reluctantly proceed with an element of forgiveness. Otherwise you can make yourself crazy.
Global exploration, the industrial revolution, the Civil War, manifest destiny, opening up the American west, the Indian Eradication Program (actually called that), destruction of grasslands, wantonly wiping out 30 to 40 million buffalo to starve indigenous people (and for pure sport), two world wars, the proliferation of guns, the disregard for major species, attitude of the privileged including The Gilded Age just to name a few events put indigenous peoples on the path to destruction. In June 1876 the Battle of Little Big Horn would do little to slow down Manifest Destiny. Don Henley of The Eagles' "Last Resort" lyrics are analyzed as referring to Manifest Destiny beginning "She came from Providence". Play it when you get a chance.
In discussions about treatment, opportunities, and living conditions in the Aleut region over the years I heard "In the Pribilofs you had the government taking care of you, it wasn't like in the Aleutian chain". My up coming book will take a closer look at what taking care really means. Examining the fur trade economy and following the numbers are eye opening when you see the gross margins and net profits from killing seals and how a few shareholders and officers ultimately got rich from killing fur seals all while living comfortably in San Francisco and points south. Readers need only remember two white advocates for saving the Northern Fur Seal from extinction; William Hornaday and Henry Elliott. However they were not alone.
It is interesting to note that throughout all the greed and wanton destruction of seal herds through pelagic sealing and other government policies, quiet voices in the background, Unangan voices knew how to count herds, assess herd health, numbers of bulls, cows and pups and apply traditional herd management practices. Unangan were scientists and biologists in their own right. In the slaughter of fur seal cows I heard quiet conversations, sad comments in our language among sealers about how the milk that would normally be suckled by pups would splash onto their clothing. What could they do?
Significant Events Following the money through federal budgets and values of pelts through brokers in London is interesting with some missing pieces. With few exceptions the well connected did not want to stay in the Pribilofs for long or educate their children there. The pall of Unangax weather gets to them. They too want to head south and educate their children in Stanford and prestigious schools. Stanford by the way was founded by Leland Stanford one of the big 4 developers and financiers of the Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad that linked up with The Union Pacific in 7 short years 1863-1869 following railroad fever and visions of America "from sea to shining sea". Mr. Stanford and partners were connected to congressional lobbyists, presidents, bogus loans, and highly leveraged bonds. Big money brings corruption (Nothing Like It In The World, Steven Ambrose-Simon & Schuster). Much of this taxpayer money was not paid back. In some cases there was little or no accounting--cooked books.
Was Leland Stanford a 'magnanimous' Philanthropist or a 'Thief, Liar, and Bigot?' By Roland DeWolk October 17, 2019. This 5 page investigative report, is a must read, and eye opener. DeWolk writes: Leland's real first name was Amasa, after a troublesome Old Testament figure who joined a failed rebellion against his own uncle, the duplicitous warrior king, David. Leland dropped Amasa in favor of his benign name---which means meadow, although Stanford was hardly so open and agreeable. Mr.Stanford did not stand alone. There were a lot of characters keeping him company. He along with Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker became known as The Big Four. They started up The Central Pacific Railroad. LM
The Transcontinental Railroad would be built at what President Lincoln described as "heart stopping cost" and pretty much rubber stamped by following President Johnson. The United States experienced emancipation on one hand and a path to destruction on the other. President Lincoln previously a railroad lawyer would not stand in the way. The railroad would be built on the backs and lives of Chinese in the west and many Italians and Irish in the midwest. The buffalo would not and in some places could not cross railroad tracks, effectively splitting the herd and interrupting normal migration and feeding. Herds were diminishing fast. Grassland was being lost. By 1865 the Springfield Rifle arrived and the great buffalo shoot was on. In 1886 the Winchester Autoloader hit the streets. It was time to ramp up.
In 1872 game law enforcement is nonexistent and there is virtually no protection of timber and minerals. Steven Bechtel writes in his book,Mr. Hornaday's War about Richard Dodge's writing of Hunting Grounds of the GreatWest. Dodge's hunting party of 5 shot 127 buffalo, 2 deer, 11 antelope, 154 wild turkeys, 223 teal, 84 field- plover, 7 raccoons, 2 badgers, 9 hawks, 3 owls, 5 geese, 45 mallards, 49 shovel bills, 57 widgeons, 38 butter-ducks, 3 shell ducks, 17 herons. They also shot 187 quail; 32 grouse; 6 cranes; 12 jack snipes; 33 yellow leg snipes; a pigeon; a few doves and robins; a bluebird "for his sweethearts's hat"; and 11 rattlesnakes. Oh and 143 meadowlarks whose only crime was to warble. This totaled 1262 carcasses followed in 1874 and a similar kill by basically the same British party of 4. I highly recommend this book
And speaking of birds, fellow Unangan and Ornithologists can relate to more from Bechtel. The Gilded Age in 1886 brought on the millinery industry in full force with demand for bird feathers and skins extending to Europe and beyond. Ornithologist Frank Chapman observed in Manhattan, 700 extravagant hats from 40 different bird species riding atop women's heads. Beautiful exotic species including the Snowy Egret were being wiped out, some became extinct with no outrage. Protection finally came in 1913 after a fight for years by William Hornaday but not without heated debate in congress and opposition by the well connected. Sound familiar?
Further Bechtel writes about a sanctimonious rationale for locking, loading, and blasting away at anything that moved without remorse or restraint. Later he talks about all the guns in possession of Americans in 1931 equal to 7500 regiments, more than all the standing armies in the world. Also from Bechtel; Strangely the civilization of the "Indian" and the slaughter of buffalo were seen to go hand in hand. Following The Indian Wars and the buffalo slaughter that began in the mid 1800's, in 10 short years 1872-1882, plains tribes are reduced to paupers without food, clothing, shelter or necessities.
My grandfather Nicolai Sowestian Merculief was born in 1880. In The Last Buffalo Hunt, William Hornaday is the renowned taxidermist at Smithsonian. In 1886 his party killed about 44 buffalo including 2 magnificent bulls, perversely because if all buffalo are wiped out and no one can appreciate them he will make his contribution to America so the public can appreciate them in stuffed form. William Hornaday from the Smithsonian and with help from Washington DC was championing the cause for conservation and fur seals about 1894.
War I was with my family in the Funter Bay internment camp. I am amazed to see old photos where my mother obtained cake ingredients for my fourth birthday. I know first hand how Unangan had to fend for themselves, I see their names forever etched in granite, I see the names on rosters of elders and infants that died, I know those families, I can identify some individuals as belonging to a given surname by their photos and distinct facial features. I close my eyes, I know who they are. These days I see genealogical dead ends, I know most of my paternal family came from Unalaska. The surname connections from Russia/Siberia to Sitka, Belkofski and Unalaska are still a mystery I am attempting to uncover. LM
After contact, there were countless times when Unangan had to fend for themselves to keep from being wiped out. World War II was a time when Alaska security was treated casually or not taken seriously. By 1938 President Franklin Roosevelt rolled the dice and stripped all of Alaska's significant Navy and Coast Guard assets to wall off the Atlantic from Canada to South America. My research will demonstrate how this unfolded, how Unangan were used as potential cannon fodder. The Japanese were interested in more than furs as they gathered intelligence in Alaska.
Unangan signed up to serve in the war effort, signed up as patriots and not just to get away from the camps. Pre-war, some were dissatisfied with village conditions or wanted something more than boarding school options. Aside from the millions that the government would realize from killing fur seals, the annual harvest was a way of life for Pribilof Unangan. Money was not our highest priority. Unangan were happy to be home from the SE Alaska camps to villages we loved. Unangan from the Aleutian chain were returned in 1945, one year after the Pribilovians because there was no place to house, feed and accommodate them. Their infrastructure was occupied by the military that took too long to leave especially in the case of Unalaska. The surviving population of Attu were never allowed to return home to their village and native way of life. Vandalized churches needed repair and later a new church was built on Atka to replace the one burned to the ground by the U.S. Navy.
Funter Bay Alaska March 27, 2020 post updated The evacuation, relocation and internment of Unangan to occupied and deteriorating fish camps, processing camps and mining camps in Southeast Alaska during WWII is a sad chapter in our Aleutian/Pribilof history. In 1944, after 2 years, I returned home to St. George Island with my family at the age of 5 in the ship's hospital. I remained on board the Delarof for 2 days as there was not a physician on shore to monitor my recovery from pneumonia. Memories and stories from the evacuation grabbed us all for our lifetimes. Search for history and you will see how the lives of a unique race of Unangan (Aleuts) can be affected seemingly with a flip of a switch. A decision was made and Unangan were given 24 hours notice to board ships not suited for hundreds of passengers. We traveled in cargo holds, cold, filthy, damp conditions that would foster sickness and pneumonia. This tragedy shows how government can strip its own citizens of rights all in the interest of war and riches from seal pelts. Research shows that troops and other personnel occupied our homes, villages, native lands, hunting and fishing grounds, Unangan were simply in the way. With no forethought or empathy, all of Unangan homes and villages became the infrastructure for a war that never really came. This was especially true in Unalaska where the government held a couple thousand or more troops with basically nothing to do after the battles of Attu and Kiska. There was no war to fight. Apologies and money were four decades late. When you study personal testimony, you will find very little anger from our people. Instead able bodied Unangan men throughout the war period eagerly joined the military services. Expert Unangan sealers, under duress and threat in 1943 were transported into a war zone to harvest fur seals. (see above photo) Many of the above sealers who were old enough at the time went back to St. George. Recommended reading about the relocation camps: Funter Bay mine, Funter Bay Cannery, Wrangell Institute, Burnett Inlet & Ward Lake. (1)
Unangan women played a major role helping the sick, helping the men, assisting other families and insulating children from the reality of camp life, including a shortage of food. Women were networking; they were the glue that kept us together. Men were hard at work with our practical needs, building, maintaining, repairing, getting supplies and traveling for work. We were often times cold. I asked my good friend Alice Petrivelli from Atka about school for children and life in the Killisnoo camp. Alice replied: "We couldn't think about school, we were hungry and cold. Without the proper boats and gear we could not hunt and fish to support ourselves. Unangan were sick, many died".
Few complained, few questioned decisions made by authorities who said in so many words "this is for your safety and benefit". Most accepted their plight, some found jobs away from camp, some left the camp to live in Juneau, some found a way to get to towns like Ketchikan for work and go to the movies where Unangan faced racism--ReadAleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse.
Post War Some did not want to come back home, instead seeking freedom from the government. Lawrence Merculief left for Chemawa Indian School and kept on going. In spite of our love for island living, their village and family, from that time forward Unangan realized there was another world out there. We were curious and needed freedom. We wanted education, wanted jobs and migrated to cities. By 1970 the native population in Anchorage, Alaska grew dramatically to 10,000 residents and is in reality the largest urban village in Alaska. Shortly thereafter about a third of most native regional corporation's shareholders were living outside Alaska.
Unangax (Aleut) Chronology in a Capsule
North America's oldest civilization about sixteen to twenty thousand Unangan live mostly peaceably over time since the land bridge or before. There are few territorial conflicts and food is generally bountiful.
Unangan experience internal strife and wars.
The brutal Promyshlenniki fur trade bring war and disease. Unangan are on the way to becoming the vanquished.
Totally and inexplicably Unangan embrace Russian Orthodoxy.
Submitting to Russian rule, forced labor leads to decimation of most fur bearing animals in the Aleutians Islands.
Father Ioann Veniaminov brings literacy to Unangam Tunuu (Aleut language) for Unangan and Russians
Most of our Unangax population begin living above ground. Moved to The Pribilof Islands to harvest tens of thousands of fur seals annually.
Ruled by The Russian America Company, by 1867 total Unangax population is decimated to 6,000.
Pribilofs are controlled by commercial companies and federal government departments, Aleutian Chain is under Indian Affairs rule. By 1890, Pribilof Islands fur seal herd is headed for extinction
WWII brings change to Aleutians and Pribilofs with evacuation and internment. 10% of Unangax population is lost. Attu villagers are taken to POW camp in Japan. Attu is never repopulated. Hazardous materials are scattered throughout a sensitive beautiful and bountiful environment.
Please read World War II, Aleut Relocation Camps in Southeast Alaska by Charles M. Mobley. Published by Alaska Park Service Alaska region.
Post WWII, the English language takes over, Unangan lose some identity and become more Americanized. More emphasis is placed on education. Later equal rights and civil rights gain a foothold. Western Aleuts are on a path to becoming more commercialized like the Eastern Aleuts.
Passage of The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971 changes everything we thought we knew about community. Many Unangan are overwhelmed with money and other responsibilities having no business education and experience to back it up. Unangan become more and more political, serving on many boards; some serve simultaneous terms on Traditional Council, Village Corporation, Regional Corporation, School Boards and City Councils. Unangan experience more divided loyalties and divided families. Serving on several boards at the same time creates incestuous management. Information from entities is co-mingled. In some cases this is unethical. Accountants bankers and lawyers take over. Jokingly the settlement act is called The Accountants, Bankers and Lawyers Settlement Act. The rush is on to Alaska with 12 regional corporations and over 200 village corporations needing advice. Many arrive and don't leave. Some regional corporations get and pay for services needed or not. LM June, 2017