St. Paul Island residents celebrate “Aleut Independence Day”

Dear Editor

Beginning August 28th, 2008, the 450 residents of St. Paul Island (part of the Pribilof Islands group in the Bering Sea and the largest predominantly-Aleut community in the world) will conduct a week-long celebration of "Aleut Independence Day", celebrating the U.S. government's complete and sudden withdrawal from the Pribilof Islands on October 28, 1983. Until 1966, the federal government held the Pribilof Aleuts as a captive labor force in a state of servitude to the U.S. government. After 1966, the Pribilof Islands were essentially government run company towns.

Russian fur traders (backed by the Czarist government) brought the Aleut people from the Aleutian Chain to the Pribilofs in 1786 and 1787 as slave labor to kill northern fur seals for their pelts. At the time, these small islands in the middle of the Bering Sea were the summer breeding grounds for an estimated 4 million northern fur seals. Like the Jews, the Aleuts experienced holocaust where they lost 80 percent of their population in less than a hundred years at the hands of the Russians beginning in 1741. Like Japanese-Americans, the Aleuts were interned in an abandoned cannery in southeast Alaska during World War II by the U.S. government. And, like African-Americans they were enslaved and held as a captive labor force, but it was to kill northern fur seals for the U.S. government until they achieved their political freedom in 1966. Despite this difficult history the Pribilof Aleuts survived, and thrive to this day.

The people of St. Paul Island will commemorate Aleut Independence Day and honor their peoples' valiant spirit in a weeklong celebration that includes historical film and document presentations, guided tours of historic island sites, commemorative speeches, community gatherings and games, and a commemorative community walk to the location where Pribilof Aleuts were abruptly taken off the island and shipped on a military transport vessel to an internment camp during WWII. Dignitaries instrumental in helping the islanders achieve their political and economic freedoms have been invited to participate.

For further information contact:

Aquilina Lestenkof

907-546-3229 or email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Phyllis Swetzof

907-546-3152 or email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Larry Merculieff

907-336-0678or email at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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The U.S. government took over direct control and administration of the Pribilof Islands in 1910, after having contracted with two private companies to oversee the islands since their acquisition, with the rest of Alaska, in 1867. Aleuts were treated as virtual slaves by both private companies and the government, with necessities like food, clothing and housing carefully rationed. This and all other facts in this press release were affirmed by the Indian Claims Commission. In the 1950’s the U.S. government began paying the Pribilovians at wages far below the civil service wages given to all federal government employees of that era. Full civil service wages were initiated in 1961. Until the mid-1960s the on-island government agent was judge, jury, and law enforcement. The people were not allowed to vote in state and federal elections, travel to and from the Pribilofs was restricted, letters were censored, and protest was dealt with harshly, resulting in demerits that meant lost pay, jail time, job loss, eviction and deportation to the Aleutian Chain. When Fredricka Martin (a government nurse) attempted to bring attention to the Aleuts' plight she was persecuted as a communist during the McCarthy era and fled to Mexico where she remained for the rest of her life. Local opposition was treated more harshly.

In 1942, because the U.S. military feared a Japanese invasion of the Pribilofs, the Pribilof Aleuts were evacuated to and interned at an abandoned cannery in Funter Bay, Southeast Alaska. The people were dropped at the dilapidated and unheated cannery without adequate food and medical supplies, no running water, and only two small wood stoves to cook for almost four hundred people. The Aleuts lost 10 percent of their population to malnutrition and disease before being repatriated at the end of the war.

During this forced exile some Pribilof men volunteered to enlist in the war effort and were taken to Juneau, where they encountered the Alaska Native Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was at the forefront of Alaska Native rights efforts in this era. They allowed their attorney, Felix Cohen, to advise the Pribilof Aleuts in securing their rights. When the men returned to the Pribilof Islands after the war they overturned the government's prohibition on right of assembly, creating a tribal organization under the Indian Reorganization Act. The first act of this organization was to file a claim with the Indian Claims Commission against the U.S. government for failure to treat the Pribilof Aleuts fairly and honorably. They also claimed right and title to the lands and waters used and occupied by the Aleuts . This case was finally settled out of court in 1978 after dragging on for 28 years. The Indian Claims commission refused to review the land and water claims, stating that the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act had already addressed this issue.

It was not until 1961, when St. Paul Island leaders smuggled letters to Howard Rock, editor of the only Alaska Native owned newspaper, the Tundra Times, that public and official attention was secured. The Alaska Human Rights Commission, led by Willard Bowman, conducted an investigation on the Pribilofs as a direct result of the publication of the smuggled letters. This led to a Congressional investigation led by Alaska's Congressional Delegation in 1964. The delegation conducted hearings on St. Paul Island in 1964 and found the allegations of Aleut servitude to be with merit. They created the "Aleut Civil Rights Bill", ironically called the Fur Seal Act, which passed Congress in 1966. The Fur Seal Act gave Pribilof Aleuts the right to create a city under State law and the right to vote in state and federal elections. A city was finally created in 1971 with the assistance of two Pribilof Aleut college students and Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens.

The U.S. government continued its presence in the Pribilof Islands for the purposes of killing northern fur seals and sharing the pelts with Japan, Russia and Canada as required by an international treaty until their complete and precipitous pullout in 1983. The Pribilof Aleuts were required to kill thousands of seals each summer in a process that required up to 15 hours of back-breaking labor each day. Aleut men became debilitated at an early age due to the harsh labor and inadequate nourishment. As proved by the Pribilovians in the Indian Claims Commission proceedings, the government provided an average of 1700 calories of food a day to each man while requiring them to perform heavy physical labor. In contrast, German prisoners of war were allocated 1900 calories a day and not required to labor. At one point in the early 1900’s the federal government considered selecting strong men and women from the Aleutians and taking them to the Pribilof Islands to provide a more “hardy” stock of Aleut workers.

Beginning in 1969 animal rights groups began targeting campaigns at the killing of northern fur seals until, in the late 1970’s, Congress received almost a hundred thousand letters every day from people protesting the take of seals. The public outcry stemmed from full page ads in national newspapers that depicted Aleuts as brutal, bloodthirsty, greedy killers of animals. Pribilof Aleuts received hate mail from U.S. citizens, some calling for removal of the people en masse to the mainland. One memorable letter-writer wished that all Pribilof Aleuts would die. In 1981 President Reagan eliminated the fur seal program and initiated the process that led to the government withdrawal from the islands with little concern for what this sudden departure would do to the Aleuts. In a single day the Pribilof Aleuts lost 80 percent of their wage base. Government withdrawal also meant an end to operation of the electric power plants, no more purchase and sale of home heating fuel, and no more marine transportation. No accommodation was made to ensure the economic survival of the Pribilofs until the islanders acted to bring the U.S. government to their negotiating table and bought negotiating time that involved the issue of changing the name of Mt. McKinley to Mt. Denali.

1982 and 1983 were tumultuous years that resulted in a great sense of hopelessness for the Pribilof Aleut people, resulting in lives lost and social upheaval. Undaunted, local leaders created inter-organizational councils on both St. George and St. Paul, bringing the village corporations, tribes, and cities together to pool their resources, negotiate the federal government’s withdrawal, and plan for a new economy based on private enterprise. It is because of their hard work and success, and the indomitable spirit of the Pribilof Aleut people, that we celebrate the 25th anniversary of Aleut Independence Day.

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