A lesson plan produced for the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation
and St. George Tanaq Corporation

The Seal Islands: Fur Seal Rookeries National Historic Landmark,
the Pribilof Islands

Focus: St. George Island

by Patricia H. Partnow, Ph.D.

Table of Contents


It is early summer in 1796. This is the 55th year of the Russians’ presence in the "Northeast Ocean" (now called the Bering Sea), the Aleutian Islands, and the land that has come to be called "Alyaska" after the Native word Alaxsxi{. Wave-tossed and surrounded by thick fog, a single-masted ship heads north-northwest from Ounalashka settlement toward the Fur Seal Islands, first found by the Russians only ten years ago. On board are 40 Unangan (Aleut) and 15 Russian men destined to spend a summer harvesting the pelts of fur seals for a Russian trading company. Some of the men are no doubt intrigued by the adventure of travel –– Unangan are master boatsmen and seasoned travelers who regularly journey hundreds of miles in their skin ulu{tan (kayaks). Others are probably excited about seeing the legendary land that the chief’s son I}adaagi{ was said to have visited in the long-distant past. But most are likely onboard against their will, forced to travel far from home by the Russian traders who had captured their sons as hostages to ensure cooperation.

As the ship nears its destination, thousands of murres, kittiwakes, puffins, and cormorants swoop and screech above it. The waters are dotted with the bobbing heads of sea otters, sea lions, and fur seals. As the ship approaches the southernmost of the islands, a din far louder than the pounding of the surf greets the travelers’ ears. This is the roar of the thousands of fur seals that have hauled up on the coastal rocks to give birth and breed. The island of George, later to be renamed St. George, is at hand.

The island itself is a triangular 27 square miles in area. Most of the shoreline is taken up with steep cliffs –– this is where the birds nest –– while only a few stretches of low rocks or gravely beach provide landing places for the ship. The vessel stops at the rocky beach called Zapadni Bay –– which means "western" in Russian –– on the southwestern shore. As the boat anchors, the Unangan aboard breathe a sigh of relief, for the land and vegetation are like those at home. There are no trees, but lush grasses, dwarf willows, and the early shoots of puchkii (cow parsnip) and many other kinds of flowers are visible. Dark volcanic rock outcroppings contrast with the rich green grass and pale yellow lichen of the hillsides. Driftwood punctuates the beach and a stream of fresh water runs into the sea. An old whale carcass has washed ashore, its exposed ribs jutting into the foggy air. This island will be home for the next few months.

The men paddle their ulu{tan to shore as the Russian baidarshchik (hunting boss) is rowed in the wooden skiff by one of his countrymen. The first task is to build houses that will last the summer harvesting season and, with luck, be habitable next summer when the men return. Someone tests the ground near the stream and chooses several sites for construction. The houses will look like the ulasun (also called barabaras) the men left at home in the Aleutians: the floors will be sunk into the ground several feet, driftwood and whale ribs will be pounded into the ground along the perimeter of the houses to form supports for the walls and roofs, and thick blocks of sod, cut from the ground, will be stacked upon them. The entryway will follow the new style adopted after the Russians came to the islands, a doorway cut into the side of the structure. A hole will be left open in the roof to allow smoke to escape.

The men’s wives and mothers have supplied them with dried salmon and seal oil, fur bedding and clothing, and the indispensable chigdan (called kamleiki or raincoats by the Russians) made of seal gut. The travelers have brought their own personal tools, hunting and fishing gear, and stone lamps for heat and light. Each man also has transported his ulu{ta{, and no one has forgotten his gambling sticks for the exciting, and sometimes costly, games of kaadaka{ they will play at night and over tea. Metal tea pots and supplies of salt, sugar, flour, tea, and tobacco, some paid to the men in compensation for previous work for the Russians, others supplied by the trading company itself, have been unloaded from the ship onto the wooden skiff.

As soon as the houses are complete, a small party will head back out to sea to fish, hunt sea otters for meat and pelts, and harpoon small seals for food. Meanwhile, the rest of the men will begin the work of killing, skinning, and butchering as many of the huge fur seals as they can manage. They know that for four months they will work, almost without stop, on this island far from home. The next ship they see will come in the fall to take them back to Ounalashka.

Although the details of their arrival are imaginary, the general outlines of the coming of the earliest groups of Unangan fur seal harvesters to the Pribilof Islands in the late 1780s and 1790s are as reported above. From the first summer harvesting season of 1786 until 1985, Unangan men –– and later women –– worked on the islands, taken there for a single purpose: to harvest the rich pelts of the fur seal which would then be exported throughout Asia and Europe where they would be made into luxuriant coats and fashionable hats. By the 1820s, permanent villages had been established on St. George and St. Paul Islands, and Unangan people worked and lived on the island year-round. Today St. George is home to about 170 descendants of those early settlers. Now that the fur seal harvest has been closed by federal law, residents are researching new ways to make a living on the island they identify with and have come to love.

Objectives for Students
This teaching unit is designed to introduce middle-school and high school students in both Alaska and the Lower 48 to the Island of St. George National Historic Landmark, its history, and people. It is also designed to provide students on St. George Island with in-depth information and strategies for learning about their past using original sources. The readings have been excerpted from a variety of sources, including oral tradition, original historic documents, visitors’ and government reports, and scholarly studies. Reading levels vary from 6th to 12th grade.

The unit is designed to aid students in

Teaching Activities

Setting the Stage
Read the boxed notes following the Introduction and within each of the Student Readings. Provide students with an overview of the precontact (before 1741), Russian (1741 - 1867), and American (after 1867) periods on St. George Island and in the Aleutians, based on those notes.

  1. Gather maps of Alaska and North America. Have students compute distances
  1. Study the map of St. George Island (Map 1 in this packet) and correlate it with locations noted in the readings (Zapadni Bay, Staraya Artil, Garden Cove, village of St. George). Have students make a rough computation of the percentage of the shoreline taken up by cliffs; beach. Note the sources of fresh water. Locate sources of various food resources.

Determining the facts:
Student readings about the St. George National Historic Site are organized around three themes:

Readings/illustrations/photographs include the following:

Skim through the readings and look at the illustrations and photographs before assigning them to students. Because some are excerpted from government reports or scholarly papers and were not written for students, reading levels vary. Plan to assign more difficult readings to students of higher ability.

Divide the class into three groups, one for each theme. Subdivide those groups into small groups of three or four students and assign approximately the same amount of reading, within the respective themes, to each. In some cases the "readings" will consist of illustrations or photographs rather than print. Talk about what students can learn from these visual materials. By way of example, look at the photograph of the baseball players (#9). What does it tell about ethnic identity of St. George Islanders? What does Photograph 6 (egg gathering) tell about both the ethnic identity and the industry of St. George Islanders during the 1930s?

2. An alternative way to organize work groups is by historic period rather than theme. Note that there are readings about each of the three historic periods (precontact, Russian, and American) for each topic.

3. Each group’s task is to learn about its topic or period and report back to the group as a whole. Reports may take the form of murals, artwork, oral presentations, charts, or role playing. Encourage students to be creative. The following questions might help students organize their reports.

Putting it all together

  1. When all reports have been given, stage a class debate in which students are assigned one of three positions, following:
Note that there are student readings on each topic for each of the three periods in St. George’s history (precontact, Russian, and American Period). Therefore, each team –– i.e., the fur seal team, the trading companies team, and the Unangan hunters team –– is responsible for reading all the pertinent material from all periods. Model an argument for one of the positions before sending students into groups. For instance, the fur seal position might be supported by reference to the many efforts at limiting the fur seal hunt during the Russian Period (refer to the Russian-American Company Correspondence, Reading #10, for examples).

2. After the debate, relate the information on St. George Island to issues in your own locale, having to do with either:

3. A unique feature of the Pribilof Islands story is the fact that private industry (first through the Russian-American Company, and then, during the American period, through the Alaska Commercial and the North American Commercial Companies) also served as the government on the islands. Discuss how this might have affected the rights of the inhabitants of the islands. Relate it to the common practice of "company stores" in mining towns in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

4. Relate the fur seal industry to the national policy of "laissez-faire" economics that held sway during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Discuss: Should there be government controls on industry? Using information from the Pribilofs, to what extent should market considerations determine public policy?

5. Discuss the cultures represented in your own class. To what extent are they amalgamations of other cultures? Are there occurrences in local history that are comparable to the experiences of the St. George Islanders.

6. The Student Readings, Illustrations, and Photographs have been excerpted from a variety of sources, including maps, oral tradition, archaeological reports, travelers’ notes, priests’ observations, company records, artists’ sketches, photographs, and correspondence. Discuss the reliability of the different types of evidence. What biases may be present in each? What types of information are missing from each, and why? What other types of testimony would students like to see for a more complete picture of the effects of the fur seal industry on life on St. George Island? You might use this discussion to extend the lesson, assigning additional research as derived from student suggestions.

7. Refer to the map of St. George Island. Have students draw a map of your locale with similar information, noting, for instance, historic sites, resource locations, and settlement areas. Compare this map with the St. George map. If students are from St. George, have them add to the map with information about important events in their own or their parents’ lives. Ask elders to help spell and translate Unangan names.

Most of the following terms come from Russian or the Unangan language. Note the letter in many Unangan words. When it comes at the end of a noun, it indicates the singular. It is pronounced something like the German "ch" sound.


Ami{: The Unangan term for the Pribilof Islands

Fox Islands: A groups of islands within the Aleutians; consists of Samalga, Umnak, Unalaska, Unimak, and the Krenitzin Islands

Novo-Arkhangelsk: The name for the capital of Russian America, today called Sitka; it means "New Archangel" in Russian

Ounalashka, Unalashka: Two archaic spellings for the island and town of Unalaska, on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians

Pribylovs, Pribilofs: Archaic (Pribylovs) and modern (Pribilofs) spelling for the Pribilof Islands

Russian America, Alyaska: Common names for Russia’s colonies in Alaska during the Russian Period (1741-1867)

Staraya Artil: An abandoned settlement on St. George Island; the name means "old settlement" in Russian. The Aleut place name is Tana{taqan.

Zapadni: A bay on St. George Island; the word means "western" in Russian. St. George Islanders refer to it a Numaadaa.


baidarshchik: Literally, the boss of a baidar (ni{ala{ in Unangan); in Russian America, the baidarshchik was the leader of a settlement of fur hunters or the hunting boss, and was usually a Russian

Creole: A class of people in Russian America whose fathers were Russians and mothers were Natives

toion, tuyuuna{: From a Russian word, a leader

Unanga{, Unangan, Unangam, Aleut: Terms for the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands. The first (Unanga{) is the singular for the people’s name for themselves, the second is the plural, the third is the possessive, and the last is the term applied by Russians and most often used today


asxu{, asxun: The singular and plural terms for throwing board, used in hunting on the open sea from the kayak

baidara, baidar, ni{ala{, or i{ala{: An open skin-covered boat that carried a number of people

barabara: The commonly used term for a sod-covered house

chigda{, chigdan: The singular and plural forms of the Unangan word for gut raincoat, called by the Russians "kamleika"

kaadaka{: A traditional gambling game played with sticks; players sat opposite each other hiding sticks, and tried to guess which hand of the opponent held the marked stick

kamleika, kamleiki, kamlei, chigda{, chigdan: The first three are variations of the Russian term for gut raincoat; the fourth is the Unangan singular, and the last is the Unangan plural term

lavtak, i}luqa{: The Russian and Unangan terms for sea lion skins used to cover baidarkas and baidars

puchkii: Cow parsnip, a member of the umbellifer family; in the spring, it is picked and eaten as a delicious green; from a Russian word

ulasu{, ulasun: The singular and plural forms of the Unangan word for sod-covered house; the Russians called it a "barabara"

ulu{ta{, ulu{tan, baidarka, bidarki: Terms for a skin boat, called "kayak" in modern English; the first term is the singular form in Unangan; the second is the plural; the third and fourth are variations on the Russian term for kayak

Visiting the Site

St. George Island can only be reached by boat or airplane. There is no regularly scheduled ferry service, but a commercial airline flies there from Anchorage, Alaska three times a week. The flight takes about 3 1/2 hours and, as of 1996, costs about $700. Once in St. George, visitors can stay at the Aikow Inn, owned and operated by the local village corporation.

Readings - Illustrations - Photographs - Map

[Alaskool Home [Table of Contents]