I’d been lured to St. Paul Island by the promise of adventure and world-class wildlife viewing. Birders come to Alaska’s Pribilof Archipelago on the chance that they will spot rare Asian “vagrants” seldom seen elsewhere in North America. The draw is big enough that people pay thousands of dollars to spend a few raw, wet, and windy days on this tiny volcanic landmass in the Bering Sea. They are hosted by Aleut residents whose Native ancestors were in their own way vagrants, carried here by forces beyond their control.
Hardly typical visitors, my three companions and I came bearing mountain bikes. We pedaled our way around the St. Paul’s rusty gravel roads, determined to explore the landscape and discover its natural wonders on our own.
We knew that the Aleuts’ local history is inextricably linked to the northern fur seals that breed on Pribilof beaches each summer. But that was about it. And because we wanted to learn more, we happily surrendered our independence one cold and drizzly morning and joined a bus-load of other soggy visitors on a tour.
Our guide was a young Aleut woman named Margaret Kauffman. She enthusiastically shared her knowledge of the island’s wildflowers, weather, geology, and especially its wildlife. But in between stories of seals and seabirds, she shared the survival tale of St. Paul’s people. Her people.
Margaret explained that Aleuts were forcibly hauled to the Pribilofs in the 1780s to work as seal harvesters for their Russian captors, then added that not much changed after the U.S. bought Alaska in 1867. For nearly a century, the Aleuts remained wards of the state, subject to strict rules, travel restrictions, and the constant threat of punishment.
One of the most devastating chapters under American rule occurred during World War II, after the Japanese invaded Alaska’s Aleutian Chain. With little forewarning, nearly 900 Aleuts were evacuated from their Pribilof and Aleutian Islands homes and relocated to Southeast Alaska internment camps, 1,500 miles away. They were crowded into filthy buildings that once served as cannery dormitories. One survivor later recalled an uncle having to beg for meat bones to make soup. About ten percent died.
After stopping at a seal haulout, Margaret told us about Oct. 28, 1983, Aleut Independence Day, when the U.S. government finally turned management of the Pribilof Islands over to their Native residents. Not that things got easier. The end of federal subsidies meant that prices and unemployment sky-rocketed. Making things worse, the government abruptly terminated St. Paul’s commercial harvest of seals in 1985, largely in response to animal-rights group protests. With that harvest went the community’s primary industry– and much of its identity. Despair and violence followed.
And then, healing.
Some of that recovery has been tied to an economic revival brought by commercial fishing and tourists like us. Even more importantly, Margaret noted, there’s been a cultural revival. The Aleuts have been strengthened as stories from their past are retold and new local programs celebrate their cultural heritage. School-age children in St. Paul’s Aleut Dance Troupe are taught traditional dances and perform locally and around the state.
From the seal haulout we drove past the harbor and canneries, then headed up to St. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church, in the process of being restored, and finally back to the historic, white-clapboard hotel.
On releasing us back to our self-guided touring, Margaret smiled and reflected, “A lot of people still don’t realize what we Aleuts have had to do to survive. Heck, there was a lot I didn’t know until I started doing the tours.”
The Aleutian Pribilof Heritage Group is contributing to the cultural revival by producing a documentary, to eventually be aired on public television nationwide, about the Aleuts’ WWII internment. Besides educating the larger public, says executive director Jake Lestenkof, the documentary is intended to be “a healing thing, a restoration of sorts” for the Aleut people, “because there’s a need to restore the people’s souls, as well as their churches.”
Margaret would agree. The more St. Paul’s residents discover about their past, she said, “the more people are getting into their culture. They’re more proud of it now.”