Reading #6

Theme 1: Ethnic Identity

Period: Russian (1741-1867)

Ivan Veniaminov reported on the inhabitants of the Pribilof Islands in the mid-1800s in Notes on the Islands of the Unalashka District, 1984 (originally 1840). These are his words:

The local residents here are the aboriginal Unalashkan Aleuts, brought here at various times by the company. Although they may be relieved after a few years, this happens rarely, for the shortage of people in the villages on Unalashka does not always allow the dispatch of hunters from there to relieve those living on the Pribylovs. Moreover, there are few volunteers willing to resettle on the islands, especially among the more substantial Aleuts, in spite of the fact that living conditions are better there.

However, many of the Aleuts living on the Pribylovs, having become accustomed to the local life and climate, do not want to leave, especially as the earnings of the workers and opportunities to obtain money are infinitely better here than in comparison even with the very best hunters in Unalashka. The ordinary Aleut fur hunter receives here in a year, apart from items of economy, that is, lavtaks (hides of sea lion or seal, used as covers for skin boats), guts and esophagi, etc., for clothing, from 180 to 200 rubles –– according to the quantity of hunting catch.

The supply of food here is abundant, even luxuriant, especially on St. Paul Island. Though at times the work is hard, it is temporary, and the residents have much time for themselves. Most of them use their leisure time well, educating themselves and teaching their children to read and write in Russian and Aleut.

The following information about education during the Russian period is taken from Dorothy Knee Jones’s book, A Century of Servitude: Pribilof Aleuts Under U.S. Rule (1980, p. 27):

In the 1830s Father Veniaminov started schools for both boys and girls in the Pribilofs, teaching the Russian language to aid his conversion goals and also teaching the Aleut language. . . . Veniaminov admired the rapidity with which Aleuts became literate and bilingual. They were quick learners in many areas. Some became noted as chess players, and some, educated in Russia, became doctors and navigators. Aleuts placed high value on the Russian Orthodox church, to which they converted en masse, and Russian education, both of which came to be vital symbols of their cultural identity.

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