Thank you.

Dear Friends and Colleagues in Aleutian Research,

Thank you for contributing to and reading the Aleutian Islands Working Group research notes over the past three years.

 Since February 2014, we published 31 posts, which were viewed 10,556 times by 5,943 visitors to the website from at least 76 countries on every continent and in many of the oceans of the world. We are so pleased that our work to share information about research and management in the Aleutian Islands region has proved useful for so many.

Debra Corbett and I will end the website with this post. Thank you for writing, reading, and thinking about research in the Aleutians.

Best wishes to all.

Caroline Funk and Debra Corbett


Journeys to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, the Sky Worlds

Author: Debra G. Corbett | Nanutset Heritage

One question I hear as an archaeologist working in the Aleutian Islands is “what was their religion like?” or “What did they believe”?  Everyone familiar with ancient Aleutian people quickly moves past the obvious fact they were hunters and fishermen to deeper questions about what gave their lives meaning.  Archaeology is a poor tool for this deeper understanding, so I began researching traditional religion (Marsh 1954).

It seems to me that the basic structure of the Aleut belief system is similar to those of the Yupik, Inuit, and Inupiaq people of Alaska, Canada and Greenland.  In my readings, it became obvious that spiritual beliefs permeate traditional folktales. Folktales from the Aleutians can help to explain what gave peoples’ lives meaning.

There is too much to cover here, but one tiny element of Aleut spirituality involved travels to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, a paradise-like sky world, warm, with light, food and lots of leisure time. The souls of the dead have a path to the Hakaadan Kuyuudax^ where they become birds and await their rebirth. Living humans can enter the sky world through a hole reached by climbing a bridge, or mountain or some other path.  Two Aleut stories explicitly describe a visit to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^.

Moon Man and his sister, Sun, share a house in Hakaadan Kuyuudax^{.  In The Moon’s Sister (story 15 in Bergsland and Dirks) Sun, has a human son who wants to visit his Uncle Moon.  She tells him to walk until he finds “daylight coming from above”.  Days later he finds the light, grabs it tightly, stops breathing (dying), and is pulled to the sky.  In the Sky, he encounters several Star Beings before arriving at his Uncle’s House.  He finds a rough grass mat and unrolls it releasing heat, the Sun, which burns his face. Moon arrives home in evening and the nephew becomes the Moon in his place.

Aleutian sunset

And he followed a path of light to the west.

A shaman’s journey is told in Tanang Awaa Alix^ Anĝaĝitaĝin (story 3, Bergsland and Dirks).  A boy wants to find a wife in a land from which no one returns.  His parents give him magic protectors.  He travels, ascending to the sky on a pathway of light: “up there he is walking along the daylight that is going west”. In Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, which is called Unimga or Unimax in this story, he faces a series of challenges. The first is a village of his dead relatives who help his quest.  Passing them he enters another house and fights a series of monsters, using his magic protectors and cunning.  He alone, of all those who had traveled to Hakaadan Kuyuudax^, manages to return. This story matches more closely Shaman journeys in Eskimo tales.

Other stories provide more clues about Hakaadan Kuyuudax^.  The sky world has multiple levels, at least two, probably three or more.  The first is occupied by the Moon, Sun, and constellations.  This level also has at least one village occupied by the souls of dead humans.  The second level is occupied by several species of monster, including Giants, “demons”, people of incredible appearance, frightful animals, and small girls and boys.  If there is a 3rd level it too is occupied by giants.

sky from Mound 14

View of the sky from KIS-051 Mound site, Kiska Island: Google Earth. Accessed 7/19/2016.

As the Tiglax steams through the Aleutian waters, the researchers and crew on board sail through ancient land- and seascape imbued with sentient entities. When the rare sunset shines in the summer evenings, it is easy to imagine taking a journey upward and westward…


Further Reading

Jochelson, Waldemar. 1990. Unangan Ungiikangin Kayuk Tunusangin: Unangam Uniikangis Ama Tunuzangis:Aleut Tales and Narratives. Collected 1909-1910 by Waldemar Jochelson: Alaska Native Language Center.

Marsh, Gordon H. 1954. A Comparative Survey of Eskimo-Aleut Religion. Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska 3(1):21-36.

Seward Line Oceanography: Summer on the Tiglax Series

Compiled from online sources by: Debra Corbett | Nanutset Heritage

The first scientific expedition of the year for the USFWS M/V Tiglax supports the Seward Line Oceanography project, a long-term observation program begun in 1998-2004 by GLOBEC.  The project continued from 2005-2009 by the North Pacific Research Board (NPRB), and is now funded by NPRB, Alaska Ocean Observation System and Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, and managed through UAF’s Institute of Marine Science.  Cruises are conducted twice a year in spring (May) and late summer (early September).

The Gulf of Alaska (GOA) supports a diverse ecosystem that includes several commercially important fishes, as well as culturally and economically important mammals and plants.  Historic observations suggest a connection between the GOA ecosystems and climate variations that range from interannual to interdecadal; the specific mechanisms by which climate variation causes ecosystem changes, however, are poorly understood.  Sampling along the Seward line, from Resurrection Bay south to the outer continental shelf, is producing a multi-year data set that will lead to a better understanding of the seasonal cycle and the variability that occurs from year to year in environmental conditions and biological productivity in the Gulf of Alaska.

Seward Line

During seasonal sampling projects, data about the Seward line are collected about a variety of environmental and biological conditions from salinity and temperature to plankton. The physical environment is assessed using electronic device that measures Conductivity, Temperature and Depth (CTD) at high resolution in real-time. Additional sensors measure water clarity, plant pigment in the water, light is available for plant growth, and/or how much oxygen is dissolved in the water (DO).  The biological environment is sampled by capturing zooplankton for analysis.  Krill and other larger and faster zooplankton are captured at night using a sophisticated “Multinet” system which allows separation of the upper 100m of the ocean into 5 layers, each 20m thick.

The Seward Line is the most detailed multi-disciplinary long-term oceanographic sampling program in the northern Gulf of Alaska. The Seward Line work coordinates with other projects that focus on Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay, the Alaska Coastal Current, Prince William Sound, and still more broadly across the Gulf of Alaska. The Seward Line monitoring shows that the GOA shelf undergoes alternating periods of warm and cold springs, each of which lasts for multiple years.

For more information about the Seward Line Oceanography project and results visit:


M/V Tiglax Sails for Science

Authors: Lisa Spitler and Jeff Williams | Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge

Tiglax SketchThe M/V Tiglax (TEKH-lah – Aleut for eagle) is essential to managing the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The boat is 120 feet long and operates with a crew of 6. Fourteen scientists can live and work aboard. She has wet and dry labs and freezers for storing samples. Tiglax can deploy midwater and bottom trawls for sampling fish and plankton, and hosts bioacoustic transducers and data processors for sampling fish/plankton densities; and a SBE-21 thermosalinograph for diving seabird studies.

In a season, the Tiglax may sail to Forrester and St. Lazaria Islands in Southeast Alaska, or into Bering Sea as far as St. Matthew Island. Her main operations area is, however, the Aleutian Chain. Tiglax typically spends 120-160 days at sea covering as many as 20,000 nautical miles (at a top speed of 10 knots) traveling from the home port of Homer, Alaska out to Attu Island at the extreme west end of the Aleutian chain and back, several times a season.

The main role of the Tiglax is to transport service personnel, equipment, and supplies between work sites throughout the refuge. This year Tiglax departs Homer on May 17 to deploy FWS biologists and biological technicians at field camps in the Semidi Islands, on Aiktak, Buldir, Kiska, and Attu. These scientists focus on studying seabird colonies, but also work on reestablishing endangered habitats, they identify and monitor archaeological and historic sites, they monitor bird populations and human impacts on habitats, they maintain remote field facilities, and they patrol refuge waters.

 Tiglax also serves as a seagoing research platform and living quarters for scientists from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or other federal or state agencies and universities. This year’s FWS projects include removal of invasive foxes from islands to restore native bird populations, collecting background information on contaminants left over from World War II, and monitoring other contaminant cleanup efforts on Attu and Amchitka, studying Kasatochi Island as she recovers from an eruption in 2008, lichen research on Adak, and visiting remote bird nesting colonies.

Non FWS partners include the National Marine Fisheries Service for sea lion studies, the University of Alaska, Institute of Marine Sciences and School of Fisheries, The Alaska Volcano Observatory, and the US Navy.

Stay with us for the “Summer of the Tiglax” as we report in on monitoring and research activities supported and facilitated by the Tiglax and crew!


World War Two-period Defensive Fortifications at Eareckson Air Station, Shemya Island

Jason Rogers | PhD: Northern Land Use Research Alaska, LLC, Senior Project Archaeologist

The landscape of Shemya Island in the western Aleutian chain is dominated by military structures, many of which date from the Second World War. The western Aleutians were of considerable strategic importance to the United States during this period due to their proximity to Japan. In June, 1942, Dutch Harbor on the island of Unalaska was attacked by bombers and fighter aircraft of the Japanese Imperial Navy. Just days later, the islands of Kiska and Attu were occupied by Japanese forces. In the spring of 1943, military commanders decided to establish an air base in the western Aleutians to provide fighter protection for troops attempting to reoccupy the islands.  Shemya Island was chosen for its relatively flat geography, and for its proximity to Attu. In May 1943, during the U.S. campaign to retake Attu Island the U.S. Army began work on a secret air base at Shemya. Between June and August 1943, runways for fighters and bombers, with hangars and other support facilities, were constructed. Between 1943 and 1945 the airfield was used to launch bombing raids on Japanese military targets in the northern Kurile Islands. During this period, Shemya also played a role in the WWII Lend-Lease program as a refueling stop for planes en route from North America to Siberia.

While many of the large structures such as aircraft hangars were recorded and documented for historic preservation purposes in the 1990s, the extensive remains of defensive fortifications remained uninvestigated. In May 2015, historical background and field investigations of WWII-period defensive fortifications on Shemya Island were undertaken at the request of the U.S. Air Force.

The WWII-period sites documented for this project were classified into two general categories: Pillbox Bunkers (20) and Gun Emplacement and Fire Control Complexes (7). Bunkers were further classified as machine-gun pillboxes (Figure 1) or 37 mm artillery bunkers (Figure 2). Gun emplacements consist of large anti-aircraft complexes (Figure 3), and 155 mm coastal defense complexes.

Figure 1Figure 1. Machine-gun pillbox.

Figure 2Figure 2. 37 mm artillery bunker.

Figure 3Figure 3. 90 mm fixed mount gun emplacement, part of a large anti-aircraft complex.

The military constructed Shemya’s defensive fortifications with three main objectives: 1) to defend the island from waterborne invasion; 2) to defend the island from marine bombardment; and 3) to defend the island’s facilities from aerial bombing or strafing.  The types of defense systems and their spatial arrangement on the island correspond to these objectives. Pillbox bunkers were primarily directed against the possibility of invasion via landing craft and personnel. The 155 mm coastal defense batteries were primarily directed against battleships and other foreign marine fleet elements. Anti-aircraft complexes were intended to protect the island – especially the runway – from aerial bombardment and strafing.

Individual elements of defensive fortifications were designed, built, and integrated as components of a larger system. Understanding how each feature was situated on the landscape, and how each was meant to coordinate with the others, is important to gaining an understanding of the whole system. Patterns in the location and positioning of the various defensive fortification types correlate topographically to the landscape of Shemya Island (Figure 4). The flat-topped seamount presents an inclined planar geography, generally sloping gently upward from south to north. Bluffs on the island’s southern side average 6 to 8 m in elevation, while the high cliffs on the northern side reach 75 m. Machine gun and 37 mm artillery pillbox bunkers are concentrated on the more accessible south and west coasts, with concentrated coverage of shallow coves and beaches, as well as the island’s only harbor. Anti-aircraft and fire control positions are located at higher elevations at regular intervals along the length of the island, paralleling the main runway. The 90 mm guns situated in the anti-aircraft emplacements could also be used against ground targets if required. The two large 155 mm coastal defense positions are set on the northern cliffs – the island’s highest points. A single machine gun pillbox controls the only road leading from the sea level strand flats to the cliff tops on the north side of the island.

Figure 4Figure 4. Spatial patterning of Shemya Island’s WWII defensive fortification systems.


Cohen, Stan

1988    The Forgotten War. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Missoula, MT.

Rogers, Jason S., Morgan Blanchard, and Roberta Gordaoff

2015    Survey and Documentation of World War II Defensive Fortifications at Eareckson Air Station, Shemya Island, Alaska. Report prepared for Baer Engineering and U.S. Air Force 611 CES. Northern Land Use Research Alaska LLC, Anchorage.

Ross, James L.

1969    Construction and Operation of a World War II Army Air Force Forward Base: Shemya, Alaska, May 1943 – December 1945. Office of History, Alaskan Air Command, Anchorage.

Header image: Agattu Island from Shemya, with anti-aircraft gun emplacement in the foreground.

Aleutian Islands Social Sciences White Paper on Aleutian Research

Aleutian Islands Social Sciences White Paper on Aleutian Research


The Aleutian Islands Working Group (AIWG) took form in 2013 after a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded workshop in Seattle, WA. in the fall of 2012. That workshop, “Comparative Ecodynamics in the Aleutian and Kuril Islands”, brought together a wide range of scholars working on cultural and ecological questions in the Aleutian and Kuril Islands.  The organizers and participants in this workshop outlined a general Big Science wish list for continued research in these two island groups.  Tentative plans were made for developing a “white paper” to submit to the National Science Foundation to guide NSF in making priority funding decisions for research projects.

What is a white paper? Essentially it is a persuasive essay that uses facts and logic to promote a certain viewpoint.  The contents are intended to provide information for people, in our case a funding entity, seeking to understand issues, or make decisions.

One of the first goals set by the AIWG at our first meeting in January 2013, was to develop a White Paper for Aleutian research to ensure our regional priorities were communicated to funding agencies. The goal of the white paper is not to mandate research foci, but to identify topics of broad general interest to the people living and working in the region. A wide cross section of people weighed in on the discussion.  The effort to draft an Aleutian white paper limped along for a couple of years but recently took on some urgency.

NSF’s Arctic Social Sciences Program (ASSP) recently announced an initiative, Arctic Horizons, to “bring together members of the Arctic social science research and indigenous communities to reassess the goals, potentials, and needs of these diverse communities and Arctic Social Sciences Program (ASSP) within the context of a rapidly changing circumpolar North.” Arctic Horizons is holding six workshops nationwide to solicit advice and opinions.  For more information check the web page at

To make sure our Aleutian voices were heard, AIWG solicited comments and suggestions, drafted and redrafted the text, and finally submitted the Aleutian Islands Social Sciences White Paper to Dr. Anna Kertulla de Echave, Program Director for Arctic Social Sciences at NSF, on February 27. We are now posting it here, and it is on the Arctic Horizons blog at  Thank you to everyone who weighed in at our meetings or through e-mail!

Aleutian Islands Social Science Research White Paper


Written in February 2016 by Debra Corbett, Diane Hanson, and Douglas Veltre

for the

Aleutian Islands Working Group (AIWG), an informal gathering of people who love the people and environment of the Aleutian Islands.


The Aleutian Islands, a unique habitat for human beings, comprise a curving, subarctic archipelago linked to a continental landmass at their eastern end. The islands straddle one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world although many resources (e.g. migrating mammals and birds, plants) are seasonal. Prehistoric humans developed the most comprehensive maritime adaptation on the planet– as profoundly specialized as Pleistocene big game hunters, the bison dependent cultures of the Great Plains, or high altitude herding people.

As a long narrow archipelago between two oceans and two continents, the islands are a complex mosaic of physical and biological micro-environments that required constant human adaptation. Environmental variability resulted in cultural variability, including economic, technical, and craft specializations, and social, political, and religious complexity manifesting differences over 1100 miles.  The Aleutian Islands directly link to the mainland of Alaska through a relatively narrow point at the eastern end; this geographic constraint resulted in limited mainland influences and subsequent filtering their adoption from the east to the most remote western islands.

Beginning in the 1980s, a surge of research greatly expanded our understanding of Aleutian precontact history and culture. These projects include NSF funded archaeology by: 1)  Veltre, Black, McCartney, and Aigner, at a historic site in Reese Bay on Unalaska; 2) Corbett, Lefevre, and West, in the western Aleutian Islands; 3) West, Lefevre, Hatfield, and Wilmerding on Adak Island; 4) Funk on Rat and Kiska Islands; 5) Hanson, on Adak Island; 6) West, Hatfield, Nicolaysen, and MacInnes in the Islands of Four Mountains; 7) Johnson in the Shumagin Islands; and 8) Hoffman on Unimak Island. Berge has received three grants for linguistics research.  Coltrain, O’Rourke and Crawford have received seven grants for paleoanthropological studies, and Reedy-Maschner received funding for studying the sociology of modern fishing communities.  Regional surveys conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1980s for land claims resulted in extensive data on the distribution and nature of archaeological sites throughout the archipelago.  Other important work was funded by the Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska Bay (Knecht), and mitigating construction projects in Unalaska Bay and Akun/Akutan Islands (Yarborough, Knecht).  These projects all trained young researchers and Aleut community members as archaeologists, researchers, and teachers.  Many of these young scholars are now beginning their own research careers.

To identify priorities for future research in the Aleutians, we examined 1) seven articles on the history of Aleutian archaeology, 2) notes from two sessions of the AIWG focused on research priorities, and 3) comments from the 2013 Aleutian/Kuril Islands workshop in Seattle.


Culture History

The Aleutian archipelago’s rich history spans nearly 10,000 years. Yet, despite over 130 years of archaeological exploration, the cultural history is still poorly known. Long considered remarkable for 6000 years of cultural continuity and stability, recent research has revealed a rich mosaic of cultural development, interactions, and regional florescence.  Regional chronologies and artifact typologies, fundamental building blocks of archaeological interpretation, are almost completely lacking.  Events and processes leading to the historically complex cultures found at contact in 1741 are virtually unknown in most areas.  Critical work is needed to understand settlement patterning, household archaeology, political and social changes, and population histories.  Funding basic field research is time critical. Rising sea levels, and increased intensity of storms in the North Pacific Ocean, have accelerated the loss of coastal sites to erosion, putting the vast majority of Aleutian Islands archaeological sites at imminent risk of destruction.

Recent work on Unalaska Island and the Alaska Peninsula clearly shows the Aleutian Islands have never been isolated from cultural trends moving across the north. Several projects over the last 20 years have found evidence of interactions with the mainland and two-way transmission of at least technological information (artifacts).  More work needs to be done on relationships and influences among the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak, the Northwest Coast, Bristol Bay and southwest Alaska, as well as with older paleo-Eskimo cultures, and Athabascans.  The question of whether or not the Unangax (Aleuts) were in contact with Asia is far from resolved.  With one access point in the east, and a linear configuration, the Aleutian Islands are a natural laboratory for study of how and why people migrate.


Work focused on existing collections, especially unanalyzed collections of wooden artifacts and textiles from cave excavations and burials, could yield major insights into origins and development of complex Unangax social, political, ideological, and ceremonial patterns.

Environmental research has always been inextricably linked to Aleutian archaeology. Relationships between people and the environment remain of broad, general interest.  Important questions include human subsistence changes over time and across the archipelago, and understanding the long term sustainability of both wildlife and humans.  Linked to this is a desire to document, preserve, and teach traditional Unangax environmental knowledge.  A renaissance of linguistic research and education could be strengthened and enhanced by linking language revitalization to environmental knowledge and historical/archaeological research. Human responses to climate changes over ten thousand years and the resultant effects on economic patterns and human impacts on local environments have been staples of Aleutian archaeological research.  These questions are far from exhaustively treated and the very different Aleut adaptation visible in the eastern Aleutian Islands during the Neoglacial period has raised more questions than answers. Also of interest, is cultural response to catastrophic events such as volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.   Modern climate change threats to archaeological sites makes documenting the prehistoric baseline critical before sites are irretrievably lost.


Continuity of Unangax culture over thousands of years, relative isolation from mainland Alaska, and a single biological population are fundamental to traditional archaeological interpretations of prehistory.  While they have often been presented as overly simplistic generalizations, the themes themselves are valid theoretical questions.  Questions about the origins of the Aleut people and their relationships to other Alaskans, addressed through modern DNA research, have implications for the peopling of the Arctic extending far beyond southwest Alaska.

Continuity, the links between the prehistoric cultures and modern people is a strong theme for modern Aleuts. This meshes with the need for culture-historical archaeology, linguistics, and studies of museum collections. Research being done in these fields should be more closely linked with heritage education and the  culture camps in the region.

Historic Archaeology

The effects of Russian and later American contact on unangax culture cannot be overstated. Although a solid foundation in the archaeology of the Russian period exists through work at Korovinski on Atka Island, and Reese Bay, on Unalaska Island, the field is hardly exhausted.  Research on the earliest period of contact, prior to the chartering of the Russian America Company, is heavily reliant on translations of historic records.  Only targeted archaeological work, hinted at by finds on Rat, Kiska, Carlisle, and Adak Islands, will reveal the varied responses and accommodations made by the Unangax people to this intrusion.

Researchers have barely begun to examine the legacy of American rule in the Aleutian Islands. Early 20th century commercial fox trapping supported a poorly understood or appreciated cultural renaissance with long abandoned islands being reoccupied and economic prosperity promoting regional interactions, education, and political growth.  Aleut culture experienced a tidal wave of cultural shock and change 1) with the outbreak of World War II and the transformation of an isolated region into a modern theater of war and, 2) into the front lines of the Cold War.  With these world events as backdrop, traumatized and diminished communities interned during the war, attempted to resettle their villages and recreate their lives.

Battlefield archaeology and historic research on World War II itself are also virtually untouched research fields with immense potential.


Aleutian archaeology, in a beautiful but challenging environment, is expensive. At a very fundamental level, increasing logistical collaboration among all researchers would dramatically reduce the costs associated with multiple individual projects. For example, archaeologists, biologists, geologists, and others with contemporaneous projects should share logistics costs and resources. Furthermore, coordination with government entities (e.g. USFWS, AVO) working in the region could also reduce costs.

To maximize the potential of new research, a systematic attempt should be made to collate information on known data gaps, including several large, rich and unanalyzed or incompletely analyzed collections. Key to this is increasing access to existing collections and encouraging their use and re-analysis. Funding and permitting processes need to establish firm guidelines for reporting results and making data sets available to other researchers, the Unangax people, and the public.  Making data and results widely available will increase wider participation and collaboration with local people, researchers, educators, and others. One example of an effort to collate data is a bibliography project by AIWG in cooperation with the Aleutian Islands/Bering Sea Islands Landscape Conservation Cooperative.

The richness of Aleutian sites means that even small excavations often result in a huge quantity of material to be analyzed. Archaeologists should systematically sample all data sets, including vertebrate and invertebrate faunas and soil chemistry.  The development of consistent and standard methods for collecting and analyzing adequate samples should be encouraged and expanded.  Sampling methods should be clearly defined by all researchers in proposals and reports.  Traditional and emerging technologies should be fully integrated into research proposals.  These include GIS, remote sensing, soil chemistry, isotope and DNA analyses among others.

Finally, new excavations should focus on house and household archaeology, larger excavation units, and attention to under-reported site types, such as non-midden settlements, isolated features, ephemeral artifact scatters, and caves.

Selected references

Bank, Theodore P. and Richard Williams

1975    Urgently Needed Research on Aleut Culture.  Research Bulletin 1 Vienna, Austria: International Committee on Urgent Anthropological and Ethnological Research. 1975


Veltre, Douglas

2012    One Hundred Forty Years of Archaeology in the Central Aleutian Islands, Alaska. In The People Before: The Geology, Paleoecology and Archaeology of Adak Island, Alaska. D. West, Virginia Hatfield, Elizabeth Wilmerding, Christine Lefevre, and Lyn Gualtieri, ed. Pp. 35-45. British Archaeological Reports International Series. Oxford: Archaeopress

Spaulding, Albert C.

1953    The Current Status of Aleutian Archaeology. Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology 9:29-31.


Gardening in the Aleutian Islands during the Russian Period

Author: Douglas Veltre | Professor Emeritus, Department of Anthropology, University of Alaska Anchorage |

(This material is largely based on “Gardening in Colonial Russian America: Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Perspectives from the Aleut Region, Alaska,” by Douglas Veltre, published in 2011 in Ethnoarchaeology 3(2):119-138.)

Russian fur hunters entered the Aleutian Islands region shortly after the 1741 voyages of Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikof.  Over the decades that followed, Russians extended their activities ever farther eastward and southward, so that by the early 1800s their presence extended to southeastern Alaska.  The early fur-hunting voyages were often of several years’ duration, with ships remaining in Aleutian waters until they had amassed a profitable number of sea otter, fur seal, and other furs.

Though the number of Russians in Alaska never exceeded about 800 at any one time, the Russian colonial period was a devastating time for many Alaska Native people, including Unangax^ (Aleuts).  As much as 90 percent of their population was lost through hostilities, introduced diseases, and accidental deaths.  In addition, traditional patterns of kinship, leadership, subsistence, technology, and religion were profoundly altered.

In 1974, I began three seasons of field research on the effects of the eighteenth century Russian arrival on the Unangax^ of Atka Island, in the central Aleutian Islands (Figure 1).  My primary focus was to investigate the archaeological visibility of contact: the changes in material culture, settlement use, food remains, etc. that could be taken as signs of the arrival of Russians in the region.  To supplement the archaeological findings and gain further insights on the contact period, I also researched Russian period documents and conducted oral history interviews with Unangax^ in Atka.

Veltre Fig 1

Figure 1: Korovinski and the village of Atka.  (Detail of a USGS map.)

Initial examination of several sites on the eastern portion of the island led to more intensive mapping, testing, and excavation at the site of Korovinski, on the Bering Sea coast, some 16 km (10 miles) from today’s village of Atka. Well known to today’s residents of Atka village through oral history, personal travel to the area, and written historical documentation, Korovinski was one of the ancestral villages to today’s village of Atka, which was formed around 1870.  Interestingly, it is one of the few old settlements in the state to be identified on modern USGS maps as a “site.”

Veltre Fig 2

Figure 2: The Korovinski site area, looking east-northeast.  Korovin Lagoon is to the left, Korovin Bay to the right.

As my archaeological investigation was to show, Korovinski was the locale of a large pre-Russian Unangax^ village from about 2,000 to 500 years ago, at which time a major volcanic eruption sent its occupants elsewhere.  It was not until the middle of the Russian period, around 1820, that Korovinski was again occupied, this time by both Russians and Unangax^.  The settlement served as the westernmost office of the Russian-American Company, having jurisdiction from the central Aleutians to Kamchatka.  Remains of well over 80 structures (including houses, a barn, warehouses, and a church) are dispersed over both the western and eastern low-lying spits at the mouth of Korovin Lagoon (Figure 3).  In the years after Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, Korovinski residents moved to today’s village of Atka.

Of particular interest at Korovinski are extensive garden plots (Figures 4-6) defined by sod walls about 1 m (3.3 feet) high.  Inside these walls, individual plots are often clearly furrowed.  Probably built to keep out domestic animals, such as the cattle and goats that Russians brought to the Aleutians, the walls could also have served to mark the ownership of the crops: those belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Russian-American Company, and so on.  Altogether, the various garden plots on both the Korovinski spit and the eastern spit cover an area of just over 19,000 m2 (1.9 hectares or 4.7 acres).

Veltre Fig 3

Figure 3: The locations of cultural remains at Korovinski.


Veltre Fig 4

Figure 4: Garden plots at the end of the main (western) Korovinski spit. Low altitude oblique photograph, looking west.

Veltre Fig 5

Figure 5: Detail of Korovinski spit gardens, with furrows visible in several of the plots. Low altitude photograph, looking down.

Veltre Fig 6

Figure 6: Gardens and surface depressions on the eastern spit at Korovinski. (Aerial photograph by AERO-METRIC, Inc., Alaska Division, Roll 26B, Frame 22, May 12, 1986.)

While it is not possible to say with certainty that all of the garden plots on both spits were planted at the same time, I think it is likely that most were.  Estimates of the gardens’ productivity are difficult to state with precision; nevertheless, contemporary yield figures for Alaskan potatoes suggests that the Korovinski gardens might have produced from about 11,700 to 85,800 kilograms (25,800 to 190,000 pounds) annually.  As the Korovinski gardens were the largest in the Aleutian Islands region, it is likely that the Russian-American Company shipped some of the Korovinski potatoes elsewhere in the region to help support its fur-hunting endeavors.

During the Russian period, potatoes were fairly widely cultivated in the Aleutian Islands region and elsewhere in Alaska, but usually in relatively small plots that have been lost to time.  The Korovinski gardens are unusual because of their size as well as the fact that they have not been destroyed by subsequent development of the area.  Another example of surviving gardens plots is in Unalaska, on the property of the Russian Orthodox Church.  A view from 1840s by the artist Voznesenskii clearly shows gardens adjacent to the church (Figure 7).  The low furrows from this plot remain today as faint reminders of the Russian era (Figure 8).

Veltre Fig 7

Figure 7: Gardens in Unalaska in 1843 by Voznesenskii (from Pavel Golovin, The End of Russian America, Oregon Historical Society, 1979, p. 125).


Veltre Fig 8

Figure 8: Gardens furrows in the church yard in Unalaska today.