The Aleuts coastal people are the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, United States and Kamchatka Krai, Russia. The homeland of the Aleuts includes the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, the Shumagin Islands, and the far western part of the Alaska Peninsula. During the 19th century, the Aleuts were deported from the Aleutian Islands to the Commander Islands (now part of Kamchatka Krai) by the Russian-American Company. After the arrival of missionaries in the late 18th century, many Aleuts became Christian by joining the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the earliest Christian martyrs in North America was Saint Peter the Aleut. In 18th century, Russian furriers Promyshlenniki established settlements on the islands and exploited the people.
There was a recorded revolt against Russian workers in Amchitka in 1784. It started from the exhaustion of necessities that the Russians provided to local people in return for furs they had made. In 1811, Aleuts went to San Nicolas to hunt seal. There was argument over paying the Nicoleño for being allowed to hunt on their island, a battle began, and almost all of the native men were killed. By 1853, only one native was left.
Prior to major influence from outside, there were approximately 25,000 Aleuts on the archipelago. Barbarities by outside corporations and foreign diseases soon reduced the population to less than one-tenth this number, The 1910 Census count showed 1,491 Aleuts. In the 2000 Census, 11,941 people reported they were of Aleut ancestry; nearly 17,000 said Aleuts were among their ancestors. Alaskans generally recognize the Russian occupation left no full-blooded Aleuts. When Alaska Natives enrolled in their regional corporations under the terms of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, the Aleut Corporation attracted only about 2,000 enrolees who could prove a blood quantum of 1/4 or more Alaska Native.
In 1942, during World War II, Japanese forces occupied Attu and Kiska Islands in the western Aleutians, and later transported captive Attu Islanders to Hokkaidō, where they were held as prisoners of war. Hundreds more Aleuts from the western chain and the Pribilofs were evacuated by the United States government during WW2 and placed in internment camps in southeast Alaska, where many died. The Aleut Restitution Act of 1988 was an attempt by Congress to compensate the survivors.
The World War II campaign to retake Attu and Kiska was a significant component of the operations of the Pacific theater. Aleuts constructed partially underground houses called Barabara. According to Lillie McGarvey, a 20th-century Aleut leader, barabaras keep "occupants dry from the frequent rains, warm at all times, and snugly sheltered from the high winds common to the area". First a rectangular pit was dug. Then it was covered with logs and poles and then sealed by earth and moss. Inside there would be benches along the side with the hearth in the middle. The bedrooms were at the back of the lodge.
Traditional arts of the Aleuts include hunting, weapon-making, building of baidarkas, and weaving. 19th century craftsmen were famed for their ornate wooden hunting hats, which feature elaborate and colorful designs and may be trimmed with sea lion whiskers, feathers, and ivory. Andrew Gronholdt of the Shumagin Islands played a vital role in reviving the ancient art of building the chaguda-x or traditional bentwood hats. Aleut seamstresses created finely stitched waterproof parkas from seal gut, and some women still master the skill of weaving fine baskets from dune wildrye grass or Elymus mollis.
Aleut basketry is some of the finest in the world, and the tradition began in prehistoric times. Early Aleut women created baskets and woven mats of exceptional technical quality using only an elongated and sharpened thumbnail as a tool. Today, Aleut weavers continue to produce woven pieces of a remarkable cloth-like texture, works of modern art with roots in ancient tradition. The Aleut term for grass basket is qiigam aygaaxsii. One Aleut leader recognized by the State of Alaska for her work in teaching and reviving Aleut basketry was Anfesia Shapsnikoff whose life and accomplishments are portrayed in "Moments Rightly Placed."
Fishing, hunting and gathering were the only way Aleuts could find food. Salmon, seal, walrus, crabs, shellfish, cod were all caught and dried, smoked or roasted. Caribou, musk oxen, deer, moose, whale and other types of game were eaten roasted or preserved. Berries were often whipped into alutiqqutigaq, which was a mixture of berries, fat and fish, or dried. The skin and blubber from a whale which was boiled was a delicacy and so was walrus. These days Aleuts eat their traditional food but also with the new processed foods the outside world brought in.
Traditional Aleut clothing for the men was a seal skin kamleika often embroidered with wool and beach rye for aristocrats. The kamleika often had a hood and boots made of caribou hide were worn as foot wear. The famous Aleut visor was only worn outside in cold weather or in dances. When going outside to hunt, fish or kayak the men would wear an extra waterproof seal, walrus or fish skin robe; and bentwood hunting visors. Andrew Gronholdt of Sand Point helped revive this ancient art of carving and bending hunting hats in the 1980s. Men kept their hair short while the women kept theirs long or in a styled braid, they often wore a long buckskin robe like the men but with pointed ends and baggy trousers under them. They also wore boots and donned shell necklaces which the Europeans and Russian explorers marvelled at.
Harpoons, spears, bows and arrows, paddle clubs were all made by the Aleuts. Harpoons were made by sticking a thinner piece of wood in a hollow pole and connecting it sinew. This was often used in whaling but also in hunting the same way spears were used. Bows were curved, which in a way, looked like the Mongol bow. It was painted black and strung with sinew. Paddle clubs were kayak paddles which could be folded and made into a simple but deadly club much like the northwestern Indians like the Haida and Tsimshian.