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Dorothy M Jones

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Contemporary Aleuts
by Dorothy M Jones   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Posted: Friday, February 11, 2011

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This article summarizes the Aleut's culture, economy,institutions, and race relations in the late 1970s.

Contemporary Aleuts, Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, 1978.


The traditional round of subsistence hunting and fishing is no longer the basic source of livelihood. Aleuts have  become accustomed to  and dependent on a cash economy. Even subsistence production now requires considerable cash, for the necessary equipment is expensive and has to be transported.

Aleut villages can be divided into two economic categories: those with a local cash economy and those without one. Members of the latter tend to engage in subsistence activities to a greater extent than those in commercially developed villages,  but still they usually spend part of each year in other villages for cash employment.  Thus, Aleuts are very much involved in a mdoern cash economy.

Most job opportunities are related to marine industries, primarilyfur seal, shellfish, and  finfish industries.  Other sources for cash employment are fur trapping, Aleut village and regional corporations, tourism, and retial trade and community services.  Handicrafts, state government jobs, and transfer payments are relativelyinsignificant sources of income.

While some Aleuts are independent fishermen who own their boats,  most Aleuts  work at unskilled or semi-skilled labor--harvesting sealsand processing fish at canneries in the Aleutian area. According to a recent survey, ony 25 percent of Aleuts in the labor force work full-time and year-round; 64 percent lwork less than full-time year-round; and 11 percent are unemployed.  Annual household incomes vary considerably according to the availabilityof local jobs, but overall, it averages $14,430 higher than most native regions in Alaska.

Befofre western contact, Aleut society was essentially egalitarian and cooperative.  Hunters share their products with the entire village,and by a system of mutual obligations, they assured the welfare of every village member.  In the contemporary period, Aleuts still tend to share products from subsistence activities, not necessarily with the entire village but with relatives, friends, and neighbors.  Fragments of the system of mutual aid also appear in Aleuts' tendency to feed the hungry and provide homes for the homeless.

Political Authority

There was a formal system of social controls in pre-contact Aleut society based on rule by chief and elders. the chief was resopnsible for arbitrating disputes, and along with other village notables, for judging cases involving serious crime.  Crime and violence,however, were infrequent and formal authority was not  commonly invoked.  For the most part, Aleutsavoided conflict and maintained village harmony by a system of internalized controls. They used highly developed means of indirect communication and third party intervention.

Fragments of the old system of social control can still be found in the more traditional villages.  The formal chief system has disappeared in all but one of the villages, but informal leaders perform some functions of a chief, such as arbitrating disputes.  the subtle,  indirect modes of communication still  appear, especially among older Aleuts. But for the most part, the old system of controls has broken down, particularly in the more modern villages that have a white population and an educated Aleut population. These villages show signs of demoralization expressed  through family problems and excessive use of alcohol.

Formal leadership  in the more modern villages takes three forms. The councils in villagges incorporated under state law often have a mixed Aleut-white leadership and regional organizations tend to be led by the more sophisticated, educated Aleuts. Only the Russian orthodox church leadership remains in the hands of tradition-oriented Aleuts.


Ancient Aleuts had no special religious institutions. Aleuts' religious beliefs were inseparable from their total philosophies.  They believed in a creator and in good and evil spirits and they worshippped all they considered more powerful than themselves.  they believed inmagic to drivde away evil spirits, protect life, and assist in the capture of large sea mammals.  Shamans, both male and female, were endowed with powers to call on the spirits of ancestors and foretell the future as well as to cure  the sick.

In the late  eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, Russian missionaries introduced tgeh Russian orthodox religion to Aleuts and Aleuts converted en  masse.  In the contemporary period, Aleuts consider Russian Orthodoxy an integral part of their culture and identity.


Russian missionaries introduced Aleuts to formal education. Before that education had been a concern of the entire villaged.  Women raised infants and girls,  under the supervision of maternal uncles.  Maternal uncles trained boys in the rigors of the sea and introduced them to ceremonial life.  Elders transmitted tghe heritage of the people through myths and stories.

Father Ioann Veniaminov, one of the early missionaris and most important single source on Aleut ethnography, codified the language andtranslated primers, church books, and other material into the Aleut language. Aleuts  soon became literate as well as bilingual, and later, some Aleuts were trilingual.

Beginning in 1890 with the introduction of the first American school in the Aleutians at Unalaska, Aleuts were introduced to American schools. In the present period, all Aleut villages savde one has an elementary school,and three of the villagesnow have high scools of two or more grades.

Aleut Culture

The Aleut language is  more widely spoken in traditional than modern villages.  In Atka, a traditional village, Aleut is spoken in nerly every home, while in Sand Point, a modern village, Aleut is spoken in only a few homes. l However,  recent interest by educators and native organizations has promoted the introduction of bilingual programs so for the first time in many decades, Aleut children now receive school instruction in  their own language.

Aleuts are noted for exquisite basket work--intricately designed,  tightly woven baskets spun from dried grass. They also carved tools,  toys, and other implements from wood and ivory. In addition, they were  fond of music and dance; during ceremonies, men and women danced to the  beat of drums. Aleuts responded with alacrity to modern instruments and  dances. Some villages developed their own bands. And those villages with  Scandinavian influence took readily to dances from those countries.

Community Services and Facilities

The material culture of Aleut villages is quite modern. Nearly all the villages have an aircraft landing field (air travel is the main form   of transportation as there are no roads in the Aleutian area) a post  office, electricity for heating, lighting and power for refrigerators, washing machines, and freezers, indoor plumbing and running water,  citizen band radios, and in some villages, television by satellite or  cassette tapes. In addition, all the villages have a retail grocery store.

The Indian Health Service provides emergency care in Anchorage, 500  to 1,000 miles away from the villages, and itinerant medical care in the   villages. Day-to-day health care is provided by village health aides,  trained by the Indian Health Service.


Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Regional Study and Five Year Health Plan.  Anchorage: Alaska Health and Social Service Consultants, Inc. 1977.

Berreman, Gerald D. "Aleut Reference Group Alienation, Mobility, and Acculturation."  American   Anthropologist 66 April 1964 :231-50.

Hrdlicka, Ales. The Aleutian and Commander Islands and Their Inhabitants. Philadelphia: Wistar Institute, 1945.

Jochelson, Waldemar. History, Ethnology and Anthropology of the Aleut. Carnegie Institute of Washington Publication 432, 1933.

Jones, Dorothy M. A Study of Social and Economic Problems in Unalaska, An Aleut Village, Ann Arbor, Michigan: University  Microfilms, 1969.

_____."Changes in Population Structure in the Aleutian Islands," Institute  of Social, Economic and Government Research, University of Alaska Research Note A-2, 1970.

_____."Patterns of Village Growth and Decline in the  Aleutians," Occasional Paper, Institute of Social, Economic and Government Research, University of Alaska, December, 1973. 

_____."Race Relations in an  Alaska Native Village," Anthropologica 15,2. Decem ber, 1973, pp. 167-190 . Aleuts in Transition: A Comparison of Two Villages, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976.

Lantis, Margaret, "The Aleut Social System from 1740 to  1810, from Early Historical Souces.  In  Ethnohistory in  Southwestern Alaska and the Southern  Yukon.  Edited bvy Margaret Lantis, pp. 139-2725. Lexington:  Un iversity of Kentucy Press, 1970.  

Veniaminov, Ivan, Notes on the Islands of the Unalaska District. St. Petersburg: Russian  A,erocam  Company, 1840.  



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