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 Bering Island
The Aleuts on Bering Island
by Kim MacQuarrie

Until 1825, there was no permanent settlement on the Commander Islands. The Russian-American Company (RAC) posted parties of Russian hunters on Bering and Copper Islands to procure the fur of sea lions and sea otters. The first workshop was established on Copper Island in 1805, with 13 people. This group of maritime hunters remained on the islands for a long time. Other working groups were posted there; some of the men in these groups were married to Aleut women. Documents dating from 1819 state that at that time, 15 people were residing (temporarily) on the south of Copper Island, and another 30 on the north of Bering Island. At that time, both islands were in the jurisdiction of the Atta division of the RAC. The head of this division, Mershenin, at a decision of the headquarters of the Russian colonies in America, organized the first transfer of Aleut families from Atta Island to Bering Island in 1825. In 1826, another group of Aleuts and Creoles (the descendants of marriages of Russian to Aleuts, Eskimos, and Indians) was transferred from Attu and Atta Islands. Together with the first Russian workers, these resettled Aleuts and Creoles became the first permanent inhabitants of what is now the Aleutian region of the Kamchatskaya Oblast.

In 1827, 110 people lived on Bering Island: 17 Russians, 24 Aleuts, 13 Creoles, along with 21 Aleut and 35 Creol wives. Over the course of the following years, the islands received more settlers: retired Russian workers (having fulfilled their contracts with the RAC) and migrant workers from Kamchatka, Lisy ("Bald") and Andreyanov Islands, Kodiak Island, Sitka, and California. Among the new arrivals were Eskimos, a few Indians, and occasional representatives of various peoples of Kamchatka-Ainu and Kamchadals (Itelmen).

After the sale of the Russian America (Alaska) and the Aleutian Islands, the Commander Islands came under the jurisdiction of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Life on the islands was characterized by isolation from the outside world and by the islands' isolation from each other. In 1879, 168 Aleuts lived on the Islands (of which 100 were on Copper); along with 332 Creoles; the remaining 10% being Russians or other nationalities. Taking into account that the Creoles spoke Aleut and maintained the traditions of their mothers, the majority of the population can be broadly considered to have been Aleut.

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the population of the islands embraced Christianity. The ethnonym Aleut originated with the Russians. The inhabitants of the islands called themselves by different names: sasignan or saksinan (Bering Island), Unangan (Copper Island), etc. Having become mixed with Creoles and other people, the inhabitants adopted the name Aleut. After a while, dialect differences emerged between the two islands.

An orthography for Aleut, devised by the highly accomplished Innokenty Veniaminov -- scholar, ethnographer, and linguist of Kamchatka and the Aleutian and Commander Islands of the Russian Orthodox Church -- failed to gain currency on the islands. Neither was an orthography implemented on the Commanders in the Soviet era, although the foundation had been laid; an alphabet has been approved and an Aleut-Russian-Aleut dictionary published. The reason for this was primarily the insignificant Aleut population remaining on Bering Island: 370 persons (the village of Preobrazhenskoye on Copper Island was closed in the 1960s). In spite of the strong tendency towards assimilation, Aleuts have retained their genetic structure and science recognized them as Aleuts. The situation is worse with their culture. With the death of the language (there are fewer and fewer speakers), national customs and traditions are being lost and the people's oral ouevre -- their folklore -- is vanishing. The Aleut intelligencia, the elder-bearers of the culture-are doing everything possible to maintain and revive their national culture. To this end, in the village of Nikolskoye, on Bering Island, the remaining Aleutians have established two dance and folklore collectives: Unangan and Chiyan.

Today in Nikolskoye, some 600 to 800 people live there, roughly 300 of which call themselves "Aleuts." Only about a dozen older Aleuts still speak the Aleutian language, with varying degrees of proficiency. In 1990, the first meeting between Aleuts living in Alaska and those on Bering Island was held in Petropavlovsk, the capital of Kamchatka. After a separation of nearly 170 years, the planeload of Aleuts from Bering Island arrived and the group was taken to the meeting place. Several of the old Aleuts from Bering Island saw amidst the group of Americans people who looked like themselves. Before any official introductions, they wandered over to them, wondering if they could even speak to one another again. The two groups exchanged greetings in Aleutian and were gladdened and surprised that they could still communicate, after so many years. Although some words were different, they could understand one another, and recognized the similarity of some of their last names. The following is a message from the Bering Island Aleuts, given to the producer of this film, in order for it to be placed on this web page, in Aleutian and in English:

Tuluuma Agitaadamis Unangas!
Wan Akitax ugunulakagimis txichii hagasal 1990 slugan-ila Petopavlovsk-Kamchatskov.
Hachagil, mangiyugilix, timas hakasal atagan hiisix imchii ukutachxil talegmis unangam,
Angaasimis tutachxil. Kanuugimis ilanis txichii suxtakus.

Tangikuchax Bering.
Atuung kyum tugidaa 1998

Alugi: 684500
Tanadgusix hikolskov
Taugikuchax Bering
Clubax unangam angaginangii


Hello Our Aleutian Friends!

We still remember our first meeting in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatksky in 1990.
We are waiting and we believe that we will meet and show you our dances and sing our songs. Our hearts are always with you.

Your friends from the Commander Islands

November 6, 1998-Bering Island

Our address:

The Club of Old Aleutian Inhabitants
Nikolskoe Village
Bering Island
Kamchatka Region
Kamchatka, Russia

(For those wishing more information on the Aleuts on Bering Island and in Alaska, contact:

Vladimir Nikoaivich Dobrinin
Association of Northern Peoples of the Aleut Region
Gagarina Street #7
Apartment #9
Bering Island, Russia


Dmitry Philimonev
Aleut-Pribilof Association
Anchorage, Alaska


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