KUCB / John Ryan

Alaska’s Unangax work to preserve culture quashed by WWII internment

Almost 900 Alaska Natives were interned after Japan invaded their islands; decades later, they are still recovering

UNALASKA, Alaska — Harriet Hope’s family was last together in one place at the dawn of World War Two, when she was five years old.

In 1942, Hope was one of nearly 900 indigenous Unangax that were given only hours of notice to pack one suitcase and leave their homes in Alaska’s Aleutian and Pribilof islands. Without any choice or indication of where they were going, they were put onto crowded ships by the United States military and sent to squalid internment camps in the then-territory’s southeastern rainforests.

“Our whole lives were just a total upside down wreck,” said Hope, now in her late 70s. “It was a huge tragedy that the United States government pushed on us.”

In 1945 the U.S. resettled the last interned Unangax. At least 74 people died in the camps, according to the National Parks Service, many from the unsanitary conditions. Many elders, who would have passed on traditions and customs to younger generations, succumbed to disease in the camps, along with the very young.

Seven decades later, the cultural damage of the internment is still evident and many of the remaining survivors are hesitant to talk about the experience. But even as the number of survivors dwindles, Unangax communities peppered along hundreds of miles of volcanic islands are working to preserve and restore their culture through educational programs geared towards their youngest members.

Restoring a culture

Many indigenous Unangax were relocated to Unalaska, in the Aleutian islands.
Ryan Schuessler

Sharon Svarny-Livingston’s mother — Harriet Hope’s older sister — was 12 when the family was forced to leave Unalaska. She was sent to a boarding school with other school-aged Unangax kids.

“The boarding school was the first place they learned that they would be beaten for speaking their language,” Svarny-Livingston said. “So the whole generation of these kids never taught their kids to speak their language. Our mother never taught us. When you lose those languages, you lose so much.”

In the 1990s, the school in Unalaska was able to hire a teacher who was fluent in the native language for a short time, Svarny-Livingtson said. As a result, the language — Unungam Tunuu — was passed on to a few young people, including the man who is now the Russian Orthodox priest in Unalaska.

“To be able to keep that language in the church and be able to have the kids hear it is so important,” Svarny-Livingston said.

In the decades following the internment, Alaska’s Unangax community has mobilized to preserve its cultural traditions and has created programs to pass them onto the next generation.

“I have always wanted us to retain everything we’ve had and make sure that future generations know about it and learn about it,” said Crystal Dushkin of Atka, who is involved in one of several summer camps in the state that promote Unangax culture. “Because it’s who we are, and we aren’t the immigrants that make up the rest of this country. We actually originated here. This is where we belong.”

The camps focus on traditional foods and other activities, such as basket weaving and carpentry.

“So much has been lost as a result of World War II, and just all of the changes that have come around since then,” Dushkin said.

“The internment really hastened the erosion of some of the old customs,” said Rachel Mason, senior anthropologist with the National Park Service’s Alaska Regional Office. “The deaths of many elders and the forgetting the language, and being outside of their ordinary environment, hastened the loss of the traditional way of life.”

Mason was part of an effort that facilitated a trip to several Unangax villages that were never resettled after the internment. In 2010, a handful of former residents and their families visited three such settlements. 

“It’s painful thing, and the trauma continues,” she added.

Svarny-Livingston also mentioned the importance of teaching subsistence to the next generation — the traditional way of living off the land and sea still practiced by many Alaska Native communities.

“It’s not necessary to survive,” she said, “it’s necessary to sustain spirit.”

“None of the men were able to bring any kind of subsistence gear,” when they were interned, Harriet Hope recalled. “We couldn’t go out on our own and subsist. It’s sad. They just disconnected us from our whole culture.”

Dark years

St. Paul residents being taken to internment camps in southeast Alaska in 1942.
National Archives

The Japanese invaded Alaska in 1942, capturing the 44 inhabitants of the Unangax village on Attu in the Aleutian islands. They were eventually taken to Japan as prisoners of war where many would die, including Brenda Maly’s great-grandfather.

“They were strong at the time,” said Maly, 39, whose grandfather Nick Golodoff was six when Attu was captured. “My grandfather’s mother, I think she was the strongest of them all,” because she remained strong after her husband disappeared in Japan, Maly said.

Eventually released, the surviving people of Attu were never allowed to return to their village, the remnants of which had been destroyed during the battle to take back the islands. The war robbed them and future generations of their island — their sense of place — said Maly, who herself has never been to Attu.

“It’s history. If there’s no history, there’s no today,” Maly said.

The Japanese also bombed the Port of Dutch Harbor near Unalaska, prompting the quick evacuation of the Unangax to camps near Juneau in 1942. But only the native people of the Aleutians were forced to leave their homes and villages — the region’s white residents were allowed to stay, in some cases breaking up mixed families like Hope’s.

Even though they were still in Alaska, the camps were in a different world. The Unangax were dropped in the damp, forested panhandle in southeastern Alaska — more than a thousand miles across the Gulf of Alaska, far from the treeless, wind-swept islands in the North Pacific and Bering Sea they had called home for thousands of years.

“It just broke up the whole family, and it broke up other families,” Hope said. “When it came time to come home, a lot of them couldn’t come home for whatever reason, and a lot of them got back home and their homes were just wrecked by the military. It’s just sad.”

“They had thrown rocks and everything at it,” said 88-Year old Nicholai Lekanoff of Unalaska’s historic Russian Orthodox church, recalling when he first saw it after the war. “[They] had broken the windows.”

There were as many as 20,000 Unangax living in the Aleutian Islands when Russian conquerors arrived in the late 1700s. There were less than 1,000 in the islands by the time of the internment after waves of violence, disease, and famine had taken its toll on the population over the centuries.

Near Juneau, the Unangax were dropped into inadequate living quarters — sometimes dozens of people in one structure — with a few days’ clothes. There was no electricity or running water. Tuberculosis and other diseases persisted with little or no medical services available in most of the camps. Survivors reported facing discrimination in nearby towns where many sought work.

As I grew into the age that my mother was at the time [of the internment,]” Hope recalled thinking, “’my gosh how did they manage this?’ And I started getting angrier and angrier because of what they had done not to me, but to my parents and family.”

Congress passed the Aleut Restitution Act in 1988, giving a one-time payment to the surviving Unangax evacuees, months after granting Japanese-American internment survivors similar compensation. The act also provided funds to restore damaged Russian Orthodox churches in Unangax villages.

Hope recalled getting her restitution check — reportedly about half the amount given to Japanese-Americans — in the mail, and thinking it was too little too late.

“This should not ever happen to another group of people again,” Hope said. “How they got away with it last time is beyond me.”

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