Ryan Schuessler

Amid US-Russia chill, Natives struggle to connect across Maritime border

The 'Ice Curtain' fell in 1989, but Natives say renewed political tensions stymie efforts to preserve shared culture

UNALASKA, Alaska — Patricia Lekanoff-Gregory remembers when a delegation of American Unangax flew to Russia’s Komandorski Islands to meet their kin in the early 1990s.

Lekanoff-Gregory’s father made the journey to Russia as the global euphoria at the end of the Cold War reached far north, into the Bering Sea. She said her father, who is elderly and asked her to speak for him, said the Russian and American Unangax were sitting on either side of a room, staring at each other in silence, told to wait for the official interpreters to arrive. But they couldn’t wait. Soon enough, the two groups were shouting words in their native language to each other. “Seal.” “Table.” Hugs. Tears. The two communities had not met in decades.

Lekanoff-Gregory has traveled to the Komandorski Islands five times since her father’s journey. She’s hoping to go again in the coming months to help teach Russian Unangax traditional hat making.

“They’re just finding out they’re Native again,” she said of the Russian Unangax, citing the cultural damage from the oppression they faced during the Soviet era. “But money is harder to get, and it’s getting more expensive [to go there] now.”

While some other Native communities that straddle the Russia-U.S. border have protections that allow for direct visa-free travel between the countries, no such arrangement exists for the Unangax. The efforts to reconnect Unangax communities across the border in the remote North Pacific remain at the mercy of deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington, and locals say it’s getting harder to keep the cultural exchanges going.                     

“Bringing a couple of people [from Russia to Alaska] is an expensive proposition,” said Jim Gamble, the executive director of the Aleut International Association. “And one that we can only do once in a while when we gather enough funding together. And it’s similar going the other way.”

A community divided

Signpost on Komandorski Island showing distances and directions to (among others): San Francisco, Nome, Sitka, Honolulu, Dutch Harbor and Pitcairn Island.
Alexander Petrov / Corbis

Russian fur traders first arrived in the Aleutians in the 1700s, effectively enslaving the Unangax — whom they called Aleuts — and forcing some to settle in the Pribilof and Komandorski islands. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Komandorski Islands were kept as part of Russia, while the Aleutians and Pribilofs went to the United States.

While the Iron Curtain divided Europe during the Cold War, the so-called Ice Curtain split indigenous communities straddling the U.S.-Russia border. During the Cold War, Russia’s Unangax in the Komandorskis were among the indigenous groups cut off from their kin in Alaska.

“There was a real effort at certain points to give up the Aleut language and incorporate them into Russian society,” Gamble said. “So they got a lot less support for cultural elements.”

That all changed in 1989. The Iron Curtain fell, and the Ice Curtain melted. Alaskan and Russian Natives started traveling back and forth to each other’s communities.

“They have lost almost all of [their cultural elements],” Gamble said of the Russian Unangax. “And they are very hungry to bring them back.”

About 17,000 people in the U.S. are Aleut. According to a 2010 census, there are only about 500 Aleuts in Russia.

“They really live close to poverty, and it was hard to see that,” Lekanoff-Gregory recalled of her visits to the Komandorskis. “And they come over here and think we’re millionaires.”

Bringing Russian Unangax to cultural camps held each summer in the Aleutians is “a primary focus for us,” Gamble said, “because it’s a way for the folks in Russia to experience these camps and take what they learned back to Russia.”

Tensions flare

Big Diomede Island in Russia, right background, as seen from Little Diomede Island in Alaska, left foreground.
George A. Kalli / US Army Corps of Engineers / AP

But now, Unangax leaders say, escalating tensions between Russia and the United States have hampered their efforts to reconnect across the border. Visas are taking longer to process, taking four to five weeks rather than two to three, and Gamble said he has heard reports that Russian Unangax doing work funded by his Anchorage-based association are facing government scrutiny and even harassment. Efforts to reach out to Unangax leaders in Russia were unsuccessful.

Russian visas for American citizens cost at least $160, and to visit the Russian Unangax, Lekanoff-Gregory will have to fly from her home in Unalaska to Anchorage before heading south to Los Angeles, then across the Pacific and north to Russia, where she will catch a flight to the Komandorskis, which are only 500 miles west of her home.

Another effort to reach across the border hampered by deteriorating relations between Russia and the U.S. is the Shared Beringian Heritage Program, which promotes cultural exchanges between Alaskan and Russian Natives in the Bering Strait region and, director Janis Kozlowski said, is at the whim of any changes in visa processing or travel restrictions.

The program also aims to create an internationally protected conservation area between the two countries.

“We were very close to having an agreement between the two countries before the Ukraine conflict began a year and a half ago,” she said. “Right now the whole idea is in the back drawer, gathering dust, and it won’t be until relations between the two countries are on a little bit more favorable grounds for that to pick back up and start again.”

The National Park Service has recently granted more than $80,000 to Iñupiat residents of the Alaskan village of Little Diomede — a tiny island in the Bering Sea separated by just 3 miles from Big Diomede, which is part of Russia — who are looking to reconnect with their relatives in Russia.

The Iñupiat residents of Big Diomede, who are related to those in Little Diomede, were moved to the Soviet mainland in 1948.

Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, told The Associated Press that it would have been easier to bring the Diomede residents together several years ago, before relations between Russia and the U.S. soured. It takes time to navigate the now rocky relations between the two countries, and time is something in short supply for the Diomedes’ Iñupiat.

“The youngest person who may remember life on Big Diomede is now 75 years of age,” he said. “And there are very few elders of that age in [Russia].”

However, there has been some progress on other fronts in the last frontier. Earlier this summer the U.S. State Department updated the 1989 agreement that allows Native Yup’ik in parts of Alaska to visit relatives in Russia’s Chukchi Peninsula without a visa. While Russian Yup’ik have been going to Alaska since 1989, America Yup’ik were allowed the same privilege for the past three years because of administrative issues.

That news left Alaska’s Unangax asking when they would be allowed such access.

“Something that we’ve been talking about for a period of time on the U.S. side is expanding the program to include Aleut folks between Russia and Alaska as well,” Gamble said. “It’s a very similar situation. There’s about 400 air miles separating them. It would be really easy if we had a similar program in place to charter planes back and forth, at a lot less expense and a lot less time involved.”

“Maybe in the future, we can start thinking about including other locations in the agreement,” Alaska Native leader Vera Metcalf, who was involved in securing the visa-free travel agreement, told The Washington Post. “But there would have to be other negotiations to include other areas.”

Gamble said, “If we were able to eliminate the visa part, that would change things a lot. It would be a game changer for us.”

Delores Gregory, Lekanoff-Gregory’s daughter, is active in traditional dance and has always wanted to visit the Russian Unangax.

“Since there are people who are of my culture who are there, I want to learn what their experience has been,” Gregory said. “It’s just hard to get to. But I think the visa-free travel would help.”

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