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.



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