Reading #3

Theme 1: Ethnic Identity

Period: Precontact
Type of Evidence: Reports from Early European Travelers

The first Russian known to have seen the Pribilof Islands was the navigator Gavriil Pribylov, who was seeking the summer breeding grounds of the huge fur seal herds when he spotted St. George in 1786. He and other Russian traders took Unangan hunters from the Aleutian Islands to the Fur Seal Islands (as they were often called) to harvest the pelts of the fur seals. The language and culture on St. George therefore came from the Aleutian Islands, in particular the Fox Island group, where the largest Russian settlement, Iliuliuk (today called Unalaska) was located. Many European travelers visited the Aleutian Islands in the years between Vitus Beringís 1741 voyage to Alaska and the permanent settling of St. George. From these people, an incomplete, but informative, picture of Unangan life emerges:

Growing Up
Unangan children were wanted and loved. Because they inherited their family names and property from their mothers, it was from their mothers, aunts, uncles, or grandmothers that they received most of their early training. Babies stayed close to their mothers until they were toddlers. Then their older brothers and sisters were given the job of watching them while they played.

When boys were old enough to leave their mothers, they would begin tough physical and mental training for manhood with their uncles. It was the uncle, their motherís brother, rather than the father, who was the trainer because the uncle was from the same family as the children. If their mother did not have a brother, then another male from her side of the family would educate the boys. Young boys learned to hunt, handle the ulu{ta{, make tools, and read the sea and skies so they could predict the weather. They learned the history of their families and the customs they must follow before going on a hunt. They learned to repair tools and make new ones. They learned how to become respected citizens of the village.

Young girls began to learn to sew and prepare food by watching their older relatives. If they were daughters or nieces of a chief, they might never have to do those tasks, but might have servants who did the work for them. However, most girls needed to be able to sew waterproof seams in the gut rain parkas the Unangan called chigdan, and which the Russians called kamleiki. They had to know how to make warm parkas from bird skins and sea otter furs. They had to know hot to cut fish for drying and prepare sea mammal meat for winter. They had to learn which plants were edible and which ones were good for curing illnesses. They had to learn how to gather beach foods such as mussels, sea urchins, and chitons. Finally, they had to learn how to choose, dry, split, and weave beach grass into fine baskets and mats.

Both boys and girls were sometimes betrothed when they were between 10 and 14 years old, but did not marry until they were adults.

Households
There were different styles of Unangan ulasun (also called barabaras) or sod houses in precontact days. Some were fairly small, with just enough room for two or three couples and their children. Others were very large, big enough for 10 or 12 couples and their children. All sod houses were sunk into the ground so that the constant wind had no chance to creep into the house. Ulasun were covered with thick sod, which provided excellent insulation. The sod was placed all in one direction so that the grass slanted downward. In this way the frequent rains drained off the house. The entrance to the ulasu{ was through a hole in the roof, which also served as a smoke hole. A thick driftwood log was notched with steps and leaned against the side of the entrance. When not in use, the hole was covered with a piece of translucent seal gut. The house was heated and lit with several stone lamps in which seal or whale oil was burned. The dirt floor was covered with fresh, clean grass or woven grass mats.

Both the ulasun themselves and the household items used within them were owned by women, but the head of the household was usually a man. He was often very strong and a good hunter. He was intelligent and a good planner. He was considerate of other people. Most important, he was responsible, ensuring that everyone in his household had enough to eat and was safe from enemy attack.

A large ulasu{ might be home to the head man, his wife and young children, his brother and his family, a nephew or two and their families, and a few married grandchildren. A family of this size would require a large building, perhaps 150í long and 25í wide. Both small and large ulasun were divided into compartments that were separated by beautifully woven grass mats. Many ulasun had little secret rooms dug into the side and lined with soft grass or furs. These were hiding places for children in case of enemy attack. Grass mats and furs lined the other walls of the sod house as well.

The kitchen was in the center of the house, and it was here that the stone lamps were placed. A human-like ivory figure which represented the Unangan god was hung from one of the ceiling beams. Hunters spoke to it as they entered and left the house and before and after each hunt.

Religion
Many of the customs and beliefs of the Unangan religion have been lost over time. Still, it is known that the people believed in a single god who created the world. Each house contained a small carved figurine representing this being. The people also believed that all creatures, and other objects such as volcanoes, had spirits. They believed in the harmony of the world and that all parts of the world should live together and work together. For instance, the creatures of the sea should feed the Unangan, but the Unangan must in turn respect and thank the creatures of the sea.

Every Unanga{ had his or her own personal amulet, or charm. The amulet had a special power to help the person speak directly to a certain spirit. One manís amulet might be a birdís foot which helped him run swiftly. Another might be a piece of carved ivory which brought a hunter luck.

Some Unangan were shamans who could speak more directly to a number of spirits than could other people. They were asked for advice, to foretell the future, heal sickness, give advice on matters of strategy, and bring about a good fishing and hunting season. These men and women were excellent performers, and were also skilled in medicine and psychiatry.

The Unangan believed in an after-life. This is indicated by the fact that they removed the intestines from the bodies of some of the most important people, wrapped the bodies in mats, and placed them carefully in dry caves were they became mummified by natural gases seeping out of the ground. This procedure suggests that people felt they needed their bodies in the afterworld.

Readings - Illustrations - Photographs - Map


[Alaskool Home] [Table of Contents]