Reading #5

Theme 3: Conservation

Period: Precontact

Like the information in Reading #3, the following material is based on accounts by 18th and 19th century European visitors to the Aleutian Islands, as well as from testimony by Unangan people living today. Since the people who settled on St. George Island had originally come from the Aleutians, in particular the Fox Island group, their precontact culture can be determined from records relating to the island chain.

Precontact Unangan knew that people, animals, plants, the sea, even volcanoes, were connected with each other, both as natural systems and as spiritual beings. In other words, the people understood that some animals were predators while others were prey, and that the health of all depended on maintaining a clean environment. And they also believed that everything in the natural world had a spirit that knew what humans were doing and could choose to help or hinder them. Because of this belief, the ancient inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands differed from modern Americans in their understanding of the idea of "cleanliness." To them, cleanliness had as much to do with good attitude, proper respect, and good manners –– expressed through ceremonies in honor of the animals and their spirits –– as with clear streams and unpolluted beaches.

The connection was this: humans were only able to catch fish and hunt animals because those animals were willing to give themselves up to the humans. After all, creatures could swim deeper, fly, and run faster than people, and so had a natural advantage in any contest. The only reason they allowed themselves to be caught was that the animals’ spirits wanted to be caught. This was because it was only when humans ate the meat and used the skins, then performed the proper ceremonies in thanksgiving, that the animals’ spirits could be reborn in another body. Therefore, animal species could only survive if humans hunted the animals, then performed the proper rituals over them.

From a modern scientific standpoint, the precontact Unangan rarely damaged the natural balance. Although there were up to 20,000 people living in the Aleutians before the coming of the Russians –– many times the present number –– they lived in small settlements scattered among the more than 100 islands in the 1100-mile-long chain. Furthermore, the most important resources were in the sea rather than on the land, and to obtain those resources, men had to paddle their ulu{tan many miles from their home villages. In addition, people moved from winter villages to summer fish camps and back again at least twice a year. This meant that no single area was subject to overuse; instead, the effect on the environment was spread out over a large area.

Finally, the Unangan used the animals resources wisely. There was a strong prohibition against wasting food. This meant that people did not catch more than they could eat or store, and so did not overhunt particular animals. Finally, animals were seen not just as sources of food, but their skins were sewn into clothing, their sinew twisted into thread, the internal organs made into bags, drums, window coverings, or clothing, their teeth and bones transformed into tools and implements, and their claws and beaks attached to masks and clothing for decoration. Each animal had skins, bones, intestines, and teeth that were suitable for specific objects, so the Unangan needed a wide variety of animals to satisfy all their needs. This ensured that no single species was overhunted.

This all changed with the coming of the Russians, who were interested primarily in two species: sea otters and fur seals. The balance of nature began to change when people changed their hunting habits from traditional methods.

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