The Pribilof Aleuts: A Century of Servitude

Century of Servitude


By accident really, I discovered a scandalous federal government abuse that began in the nineteenth century and continued until very recently. We purchased Alaska shortly after the Civil War, fought partly on the issue of slavery. Yet, within three years of the purchase, the federal government established a slave-like relationship with the Aleuts on Alaska's remote Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea. The government promoted and sponsored a system of hidden, internal colonialism that flourished decade after decade despite dramatic and progressive reforms in the rest of the country. How did such a condition arise? What forces sustained it, and what signalled its end? These questions prompted this book.

The Pribilof Islands have been inhabited by a small group of Aleuts - 200 at the beginning of this story in 1867 and about 650 at the time of telling it in 1978. The human tragedy these Aleuts experienced was stark and pervasive. But why, the reader may ask, is it important to read about a tragedy that affected so few people when contemporary problems affect millions? The story is significant not because of the number of people involved but because it shows the extremes to which even an enlightened democratic government can and did go, the totalitarian condition it established and continued until recently. Moreover, as an extreme case, the Pribilof story highlights some of the processes of deprivation and oppression that operate less visibly in other parts of the United States - in urban ghettos l and rural backwashes where people are held in fixed economic and social traps.

The reader may also wonder why we need yet another story of government mistreatment of American Indians; after all, that is an old, familiar, and oft-told tale. In broad strokes, the government's historical relations with Pribilof Aleuts did resemble those it had with other American Indians. But there was a critical difference. The government did not want the Aleuts' land as it did with other Indian groups; it wanted and coerced their labor. And to this end, the government came to control virtually every aspect of the Aleuts' lives - social, political, economic - even to the choice of marriage mates and freedom of movement.

The Pribilof story is significant, then, because it is an extreme case in United States' Indian history, it focuses general processes of oppression, and it shows the mechanisms of a democratic government at its worst.

The government needed the Aleuts' labor to harvest fur seals. About four-fifths of Pacific fur seals make an annual migration to the Pribilofs to breed. The Russians had developed a profitable seal industry on the islands. Eager to protect this profitable industry and to prevent the unregulated slaughter of the seals, the United States in 1869 declared the Pribilof Islands a federal reservation. In essence, the Pribilofs were the country's first national wildlife refuge. The United States sent Treasury Department agents to the islands to manage both the seals and the Aleut people on whose labor the seal industry depended. What happened to the Aleuts was integrally intertwined with the conditions of the seals as well as with the characteristics of the institutions that administered the islands. The interplay between these three main actors - seals, people, and institutions - provided the structure for this story.

Heretofore, the Pribiolof story constituted an unwritten chapter in Alaskan and American history. Until World War II, the government surrounded its Pribilof operation with a wall of secrecy. However, during the war and the evacuation of the Pribilof Aleuts to southeastern Alaska, parts of the story leaked out, and a demand for change emerged. Since then, only bits and pieces of this history have been related, never the full story.

Then in 1975 I was presented with an opportunity to investigate and write the entire history of the United States government's relations with the Pribilof Aleut people. This is how the opportunity arose. In 1963 when I married the manager of the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge (not connected with the Pribilof Islands refuge), my seven-year-old son and I moved to the Aleutian area, to Cold Bay, which is on the western end of the Alaska Peninsula and encompasses in its glorious view several Aleutian Islands. I was forty years old and thoroughly urban, having lived until then in Chicago and Los Angeles. Politically, I was an activist, primarily involved in minority group causes. Professionally, I was a psychiatric social worker, especially interested in the research aspects of my job. I loved the Aleutians from a sensory, aesthetic, and life-style perspective, but I suffered keenly from the loss of my professional and political identities and activities. What to do in a town of 150 people, nearly all transients (Cold Bay's raison d'etre is to maintain an international airport).

After my first visit to an Aleutian fishing village, I knew what I wanted to do. Intrigued by the Aleuts I met - their gentleness and humor - and fascinated by their adjustment to rapid culture change, I wanted to understand and write about these people. Believing I needed more credibility and training than a master's degree afforded to conduct research on Aleut culture, I returned to school for a doctor 's degree. For six years after receiving it, I studied Aleut villages, becoming familiar with eight of the twelve remaining. The Pribilof villages - St. Paul and St. George - were not included in my research itinerary, I but I maintained an intense curiosity about them, having heard about their i history of oppression and about the persisting traces of this oppression. For i example, until 1962 the government still paid part of Aleuts' wages in kind. As late as 1964 the government still required permission to visit the islands an Aleut legislative candidate was refused permission that year. And alcohol prohibition prevailed in the Pribilofs until 1963.

The chance to slake my curiosity about the Pribilofs came in 1975. The Pribilof Aleuts were involved in a suit against the United States for damages, charging seventy-six years of servitude. Technically, the suit was called violation of the Fair and Honorable Dealings clause of the Indian Claims Commission Act.1'he Justice Department, defending the government, asked me through one of its attorneys to write a social and economic history of the Pribilofs. I was selected because I was one of the few sociological-anthropological investigators publishing about contemporary Aleuts. I faced a dilemma. I felt a deep compassion for the Aleut people and wrote about the wrongs that had been perpetrated against them. I was committed to their cause and felt uncomfortable at the prospect of working for the "other side." I confided my bias and discomfort to the Justice Department attorney responsible for the case. After his assurances (by which he stood) that I was free to write the truth as I saw it, that there would be no censorship of my work, and that I would have propriety rights to it, I decided to take the assignment.

Precisely because they have been a government reserve for over one hundred years, a voluminous amount of data exists on the Pribilof Islands -- Congressional hearings, specialized reports, censuses, an enormous correspondence file, records of the Aleuts' grievances, agents' annual reports - a gold mine for a research investigator.

From these records, I and my colleague, economist George Rogers, ably assisted in library research by Mariana Foliart, prepared the report for the Justice Department. The report was largely descriptive and covered the years 1870 to 1946. George and I were vitally interested in updating the report and converting it into an analytical work. We applied to the National Endowment fore the Humanities for a grant to write this book and received a favorable response.

Because of pressing time commitments, George did not co-author this book, but the material he contributed to the Justice Department report as well as his consultation on the subsequent work form a vital part of this book. George is considered by many to be the father of Alaska economics and has done considerable work in fisheries economics. In addition to George, Thomas Morehouse, political scientist at the Institute for which George and I work - University of Alaska's Institute of Social and Economic Research - consulted on the project. Thomas is widely published in the areas of Alaska and federal political institutions, including fishery organizations. He made an invaluable contribution not only in advice and ideas but in a lengthy analytical memorandum which has since been woven into the book. Mariana Foliart, who continued working on the book, also made an important contribution. An incredibly capable library researcher, she delighted us with the discovery of significant obscure sources. She also did some of the fieldwork and reviewed the manuscript.

In addition to the above project staff, I was assisted by many others. First are the Pribilof Aleuts who during fieldwork shared their experiences and confidences as well as their historical records. Fredericka Martin, former resident of the islands and publisher of two books about them, made a unique contribution. She generously shared her abundant files including correspondence with Aleuts and government officials. Her material afforded an intimate view of life on the Pribilofs that otherwise would not have been available. My husband, Bob Jones, gave consistent moral support throughout the preparation of the book and uncomplainingly reviewed each draft. Other reviewers who made valuable contributions were Richard Pierce, Professor of History at Queen 's University in Kingston, Ontario, and publisher of the Limestone Press; Howard Baltzo, Program Director, Pribilof Islands, during the 1960s; Lillian Rubin, a dear friend and author of three major sociological books in recent years; Julie Cruikshank, also a close friend and a Canadian anthropologist; Scott Goldsmith, economist at the Institute of Social and Economic Research; and Agafon Krukoff and Larry Merculieff, Pribilof Aleut leaders.

Ron Crowe, editor; Kandy Crowe, editorial assistant; and Teresa Dignan, research assistant, all of the Institute of Social and Economic Research, greatly facilitated the preparation of the manuscript.

Finally, I want to express special thanks to William and Regina Browne for use of their photographic collection of the Pribilof Islands. The Brownes lived and taught at St. Paul for nine years.

Chapter 1 - From Russian to American Administration

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